What is the situation in Syria?
— We all know about the tragic situation in Syria, and we all try to follow what is happening there, but Russian media propose only one-sided information. The state media are not trusted, and the Western media (which may also be very subjective) are not available to the majority of Russians. So, what is happening in Syria right now, how would you describe the situation, in brief. Why did this situation with the refugee flows become strained only recently.
— Briefly, the people are giving up after almost five years of the conflict, of the war. And waited for many years for all possible types of solutions and talks between the sides of the conflict. And now they don’t see any hope for peaceful solution of the conflict, that’s why they give up and try to escape the country. Now the economy is ruined, the inflation rate is extremely high, the prices are flying up drastically. The Syrian currency lost 84% of its value comparing to the beginning of the war. People can’t bear these problems. They can’t pay for electricity, for fuel, for food.
You can’t live in Syria literally if you are an employee or a civil servant who got wages from a normal institution
At the same time, people suffer from a great shortage of water, a shortage of electricity, which means that you have electricity maximum one or two hours per day, or it may be a break in electricity supply for several days. So people simply can’t live in those conditions.
At the same time the Syrian regime started to ask people to join the military service. If you are between 18 and 25, you are enlisted to the military service for two years. Nobody wants to go to the war. People used to pay money to escape the army, but now it doesn’t work.
— Do you have any figures about the number of those who already escaped Syria?
— According to UN statistics, which should be officially published soon, 10 to 11 million out of 21 million who used to live in Syria are now outside Syria. For example, 60% of Aleppo inhabitants left the city, 72% of doctors left Syria. One million houses are completely destroyed.
And the worst things, the real war, happened during the last year, that’s why the problem with refugees arose. People would like to be treated as human beings, as those who have rights, as those who are good. They go to a safer place, to Europe. And they know that if one family member gets an asylum in Europe, then he can bring the other family members later on. That’s why the first of the family who go to Europe in search for the refugee status is man, who can do the whole way for the first time alone. The recent “Refugees welcome” policy in some countries, especially in Germany, influenced the aspiration of people to go to Europe.
— Do the Syrian people, however, believe the country’s elites, do they support Bashar al-Assad?
— This should be stated in an absolutely clear way that not everybody who lives under the regime is supporting the regime. But even if they don’t support the regime, they mostly consider it as legitimate.
And this goes the same way for the other part of the Syria, which lives under the rule of the opposition, or under the extremists. Believe me, not everybody who lives in Raqqa supports ISIS**. They consider ISIS** as invaders. But they have no option, they can’t leave the city. They have their farms there, their private property, so they just live there and wait for the time someone will help to kick the ISIS* out of Raqqa.
What is ISIS*?
— What is ISIS* then? How would you explain this “phenomenon”?
— Briefly, ISIS* is an extension of “Al-Qaeda” from Afghanistan, and a direct extension of the “Islamic State of Iraq”*, which is the name of the group maned by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Most of the people who were creating this organization in Iraq are former generals ofSaddam Hussein’s army. Their names are known and published. The only leader who is not a military person is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who used to be in US prison in Iraq, but was discharge from imprisonment. He is the formal leader of the “Islamic State”*, but only for the reason that military leaders of the “Islamic state”*, the former generals of Hussein’s army, needed someone who can be considered as an Islamic scholar to represent them.
— Why the former secular people, the generals, turned to be radicals?
— This is a very good question. Well, that was a part of the game which Saddam Hussein played after the American invasion in Iraq. During the last years of his rule, he felt he is a target for American army, and he call all the Muslims to support him, converted to pretend to be the representative of real Islam and the Muslims, combatting the Western enemies. That’s why he started to talk about Jews, that we should free Palestine, that we are carrying a flag of Islam. These are just slogans. And his military leaders were with him, since they know, and he knows, that in our region the easiest way to gather people, Arabs, or Muslims, around you is to pretend that you are representing God.
In the Arab world the easiest way to call people for a war against the other country is to shout a slogan of the war, which is treated in our laws, Allahu Akbar
Saddam Hussein knew that the best way to fight against the US is to call jihadists using that slogan. This is how the “Islamic State of Iraq”* was created, and then they just move a branch to Syria, and it became “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”*, ISIS*.
What shout be also taking into consideration when we talk about our culture, is a tradition of revenge, a kind of tribal culture. The Syrian revolution started very peacefully, and during the first months it was a nonviolent protest. But the regime was afraid that the Egyptian or Tunisian scenario will be implemented also in Syria, and they start killing people. And the reaction from the citizens was two-fold. First, is to implement revenge. When thousand people, your father, your brothers, your relatives are killed, then it means the civil war began, and is impossible to stop it easily. Second, after people felt the international community would not help them, they started calling Islamists and jihadists. “Come save us, the Islamic State*,” was written on the flags people cared in Damascus when the violent part of the revolution started.
— So Syrians who fight in ISIS* are those who lost their relatives during the revolution?
— Not that easy. My estimation is that 60%, or even a bit more, of the ISIS* warriors fighting in Syria, are foreigners: Iraqis, Saudis, Tunisians, and Europeans and other nationalities. Other 40% are Syrians. Half of them are working for ISIS*. This is just because they lost their jobs during the revolution and the follow-up war. For example, in Raqqa, as well is the other areas controlled by ISIS*, there is no schools any more, no governmental or other institutions where people used to be employed. But they want to live, they have families. They do the same “civil” work which they did for the regime, maintaining the electricity networks etc. I would say more: communal services under ISIS* is now better that the same services under regime. And a part of them works for ISIS* as fighters in order to be paid. The other half fights in ISIS* just because they believe in a mission ISIS* pretends to implement.
Why is Russia in Syria?
— Let’s now talk about the recent developments. I mean a new stage of conflict which began when Russian army steped into the conflict to fight against ISIS*, or also with the opposition, as reported by Western media.
— I am sure that it was a mistake. As I said, radicals are coming because of their profession, because of people being killed. By bombing Syria, no matter which part, Russia paved the way for radicals to come. The only possible way to reconcile the conflict is to find a political solution between the regime and the opposition. It should be a peaceful solution, which will take into consideration the interests of all citizens, including those who support the regime. Nobody should feel that they lost the war and nobody should be afraid of their lives.
Syrians should have one united government, and that will mean that we have a common enemy to fight with, the radicals, the ISIS*
— Why did Russia start a military campaign in Syria?
— I believe that Russia has many reasons to start bombing in Syria. One of them is to divert the attention of the international community from Ukraine and from the Crimea case. The other reason might be to support the oil prices, since now the only way to assure the rise of oil prices is to shake the Middle East. The military reason is that Russia also needs some naval bases on the Mediterranean Sea. And of course they know that the opposition is now becoming stronger and that Assad regime will fall. And that is a challenge for Russian plans for having those bases. On the other hand, since all the analysts expect the falling of the regime, Russian are better to be in Syria when it will happen, and say “Look, we were fighting against the ISIS*”, and this is the way to keep some influence on the further processes in the country. Thus, Russia is trying to hit many birds in one stone.
— You said that Russia supports Assad in fighting against the opposition, not only ISIS*. Do you have any arguments for that, since this goes against the official Russian position?
— It is clear for Syrian people that Russia came to support Assad. What I can say for sure is that so far (mid-October 2015) the absolute majority of Russian airstrikes were against the opposition, and only few were against the ISIS*. And even in those few attacks against terrorists many civilians were killed. I say that because I know the area and I know where the opposition is situated, and where the ISIS* has its positions.
The problem for Russia is that both the moderate opposition and the ISIS* stated that now Russia is the enemy for us, since it is a clear supporter of our enemy — Assad
Now the radicals, especially Salafists, are saying that Russia is the enemy of Islam, and that the situation with war in Afghanistan is repeated. Let’s gather again, they say. I have the information that more jihadists are coming to Syria from Turkey after Russia started its military campaign there. I can’t predict the results of all these statements and this actions, but it is just a matter of fact.
And the worst thing that happened is that the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow made a statement after the beginning of the military campaign that it is a holy war. And it was like a golden mine for radical Islamists, they are now sharing this everywhere in Syria via social media and by other means saying, “Look, Orthodox Russia started a holy war against us,” you should join us to fight in this war.
Russian bombing campaign is considered as a war against Islam, not against Assad, or the opposition, of even the ISIS*
You have to know one interesting fact, which is directly related to the situation and which supports the positions of the radical Islamists. At school we all learned an Islamic saying, which told us that before the Doom Day there will be a great fight between the Islam and the infidels. This fight will be held near Aleppo, in a place called Dabek, or Dabiq. Now the Islamists have an online magazine also entitled "Dabiq" (magazine’s site is blocked in the Russian segment of the internet by the Federal authorities – ed.). It is a very professionally designed magazine, which is fully devoted to make readers believe that it is a holy war. For radical Islamists, if it is a holy war, then it doesn’t matter where you fight, in Syria, or in the USA, or in Russia.
* ISIS, “Islamic State”, “Islamic State of Iraq”, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” are, according to Russian legislation, prohibited extremist organizations