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Syria Will Have A Long, Bloody War


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: To discuss the situation in Syria I was joined just a short time ago from Beirut by the Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper, Robert Fisk. 

Robert Fisk, thanks for being there.

ROBERT FISK, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT, THE INDEPENDENT: You're welcome.

TONY JONES: Now after the massacre in Houla, you speculated on whether this would be a tipping point of horror in Syria. What's your conclusion as to what will happen?

ROBERT FISK: Well I used the word tipping point a little bit cynically because it's a word that journalists and academics like to use. 

I'm not sure, given the claws and the depth of the claws that the Baath Party of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafiz al-Assad, have in the soil of Syria, whether we're going to see the toppling of this regime as quickly as Mr Obama and Madame Clinton and Mr Cameron would wish. 

I rather think this will go on for a long time. There are a lot of supporters of the Baath Party regime. Not just members of the Shiite Alawite community and the Christians and the Druze, but others too, particularly among the Syrian bourgeoisie, the middle classes who support the regime. 

I think this will be a very bloody and terrible war before it is concluded. And I think the idea that, you know, Mrs Clinton suddenly says this is terrible and Obama says it's awful, that's not going to end the war, unfortunately.

TONY JONES: In fact you've written the Middle East is littered with 100 Houlas, maybe more, and that there are some pretty grim historical precedents here for repressive regimes getting away not just with killing tens of thousands, but with hundreds of thousands of people. Is that what you think will happen in Syria?

ROBERT FISK: Yes, yes, yes. Well, you know, I covered the Algerian War from 1991 to 1998 when there were genuine free elections in Algeria. Muslim parties were clearly going to win the second round of elections. Those elections were stopped by the "government" with the support of the West. 

And there started a terrible civil war of villages being destroyed, women and children having their throats cut, men being shot dead, government troops besieging towns – very much like what's happening today in Syria. And at the end of the day the West was very happy that the Algerian government stopped the "Islamists" from taking over the government and today we don't even think about it. 

It's a pretty terrible precedent, but one which I think Bashar al-Assad will think about because his father, Hafiz al-Assad, he destroyed up to 20,000 lives, liquidated the people of Hama in 1982. 

And after that battle, when the Algerians were trying to find out how to win their own war against the Islamists, the Algerians sent a military delegation to Damascus to find out how the Syrians fought their war against the Islamists, and then they applied these lessons to their own enemies within Algeria. 

So there are a lot of consequences there and a lot of precedents, unfortunately, and I fear that this war in Syria will not end now, that Bashar al-Assad will not go now and that it will continue much longer with many more people dead.

TONY JONES: In the Algerian precedent, both sides, the military and the Islamists, militias, started massacring very large numbers of civilians in terrible ways. Do you have a similar fear that the same kind of thing could happen in Syria because we know very little about the rebel forces and the rebel militias that are now emerging?

ROBERT FISK: Well it already is happening in Syria. I went to a suburb of Algiers called Bentalha where there was an Islamist attack on villagers who were themselves "Islamists". Hundreds of people were killed, including babies who had their throats cut. 

I was in the village where this happened and saw the corpses of these babies and I saw the parents. And from the roof of their home, I saw the Algerian flag flying from the nearest Algerian Army barracks. From which, apparently, the Algerian Army could not come to the rescue of the villagers. 

Of course they could, but they didn't. This is the sort of situation we're now seeing in places like Houla and Hama and I suppose perhaps, horribly speaking, in Aleppo too. We're seeing the same sort of pattern emerge, unfortunately.

TONY JONES: What do we know about the Free Syrian Army whose commander, Colonel Riad al-Assad, is actually now threatening to resume attacks?

ROBERT FISK: I wouldn't take too seriously anything he says, simply because whenever I've gone to the border and tried to see the Army, I've seen three or four different versions of it. 

The fact of the matter is that the Syrian opposition, the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad is so divided that it cannot be regarded as being a single united faction. What we've got to realise – and this is one of the reasons why Obama and Madame Clinton and all the other mountebanks and liars are saying what they're saying is that we don't know who the opposition is. 

And since we don't know who the opposition is, all we can do – "we" being the West – is express our outrage against Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime. But we can't give too much support for the opposition, who may indeed include members of Al Qaeda, and whose members may indeed perhaps be involved in the Houla massacre. We don't know yet. I'm not saying that Bashar al-Assad is a good guy. He's not, he's a bad guy. 

But you …

TONY JONES: But Robert, I mean, the Sunni Gulf states have been arming the anti-Government rebels and will continue to do so presumably. 

ROBERT FISK: Oh, sure, yes, yes.

TONY JONES: What would it take actually for them to become powerful enough to overthrow the regime?

ROBERT FISK: What you need would be the Syrian armoured forces, by which we mean tank forces and anti-aircraft forces to have sufficient military officers prepared to stand against the regime, and this we have not seen and I don't think we will see in the near future. 

The Syrian military regime has remained loyal to the presidency. And as long as that's the case and as long as Damascus as a central city and Aleppo, more or less as a central city, remains loyal to the regime, there will not be an overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, however much Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton and Mrs Cameron and indeed your own beloved Prime Minister may wish to think.

TONY JONES: Is there any prospect at all of the similar doctrine of responsibility to protect which was used to protect civilians in Libya being used in Syria? Obviously there's huge problems in the United Nations preventing that from happening at the moment.

ROBERT FISK: Well I'm sure there are many Libyans who would hope, you know, "Please, God, you don't use this on us or them." You know, the RtoP, the responsibility to protect, which is very, you know, cliche-ridden and so on for television, kills an awful lot of innocent people. 

And I think quite enough innocent people have already been murdered in Syria, particularly by the regime, without adding NATO's statistics of death to those figures. 

What we need to see is – the best way I can express it is an idea that a new Syria can come about which actually represents all the people of Syria – the Sunni, the Shiites, which means of course the Alawites of the presidency, Bashar al-Assad and the Christians and Druze and so on. But that's easier said on Australian television than it is done, unfortunately.

TONY JONES: Yes, I mean, do you see any prospect at all that it could be done? Because I know that some of the key people behind the Arab Spring uprising feel that they've actually been betrayed, their peaceful revolution's been betrayed by the arming of the opposition forces, and yet, when you see them murdered by the regime, it seems quite compelling to give them weapons.

ROBERT FISK: Yes, well, I mean, I live in Lebanon and I mean, in Lebanon – Beirut I'm speaking to you from now and you can see this argument very easily. 

My understanding – I've been to Syria dozens and dozens of times. Syria has a lot of weapons. Syrian families, tribes, organisations have a lot of weapons. They don't need more weapons. If they really needed to have what you and I would call a civil war, that civil war would have started and there are those who will tell us now that it already has started. 

But the one thing I can say, because so many Syrians live in Lebanon, are Lebanese, it was only the Western powers that decided that Syrians and Lebanese were different people back in – you know, almost 100 years ago. They are the same people. 

And my friends here who happen to be Syrian, you know, passport holders, but who could be Lebanese, their view is that they have one country and they want to be loyal to it, but they don't want to live under a dictatorship. 

And that is the problem: when the dictator claims that he and he alone can protect them from violence so they have to support him, you never have a revolution, and at the end of the day I think probably there will be a revolution in Syria. 

The question is: will it be of the kind that you and I and all us nice Western people would like it to be, ie a revolution of liberal instincts and ideas and thoughts? Or will it be a revolution tainted and I suppose terribly painted by – you know, by sectarianism and by religious differences.

TONY JONES: Robert, I can't help noticing a kind of sadness in your voice at the moment I haven't sort of noticed before and I'm wondering if it's because we've seen some other really rather grim signs that the war in Syria could be sliding across the border into Lebanon where you've pitched your tent. I mean, are you genuinely worried about that?

ROBERT FISK: Yes, I was worried about it a bit. Actually, I was on holiday in Ireland, a good place, you might say, to be when you're studying these things. But, no, I think you've got the right idea for the wrong reason. 

One of the things that happened here in Lebanon, which is where we now are and you can see behind me the Lebanese parliament building and the seat of the of the Lebanese presidency – one of the things happened here is that during the civil war between 1975 and 1990 in which 200 – 150,000 minimum people died, was that many of the Lebanese sent their children, their sons and their daughters, abroad to Europe, to Canada, Australia, America, to be educated and they came back and did not want to live in a state of sectarianism. 

And one of the reasons why the "civil war" has not spread across from Syria into Lebanon is because the young people of Lebanon did not want to live in a sectarian society and told their parents they did not want to live in this society. 

And as one says in Ireland, "Fair doos to them," you know, they were right. And I think that this is a more educated, more diplomatic – I use this in the nicest, non-Western sense of the word – society which has realised that you can't and you must not run your country according to the maximum, the major religion, the majority Shiite, Muslim, Alawite, Druze, whatever in the country, and I think that's one reason why Lebanon has not actually become part of the Syrian war. 

But the Syrian war as a sectarian war is something which I think the government in Damascus unfortunately and shamefully is prepared to project as a possible danger and one which I think it could use.

TONY JONES: Robert Fisk, as always, thank you very much for your insights. It was good of you to join us. We'll see you again. 

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