TONY JONES, PRESENTER: On Monday this week, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave his third speech since the start of the uprising, a speech which our guest tonight has described as ridiculous, sad nonsense.
Robert Fisk is the Middle East editor for The Independent newspaper and he joined me earlier from Beirut.
Robert Fisk, thanks for being here.
ROBERT FISK, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT, THE INDEPENDENT: You're welcome.
TONY JONES: Now president Assad's repression of the uprising in Syria has been far more brutal than in Egypt or Tunisia or even Yemen. I mean, do you expect that using these tactics he will succeed where dictators like Hosni Mubarak failed?
ROBERT FISK: No, I don't think so. It'll take a long time to get the Assad regime down. You see, there are two things here. First of all, the Ba'athist regime which Assad runs and which his father ran for decades, Hafez al-Assad, it's a nationalist regime originally based on a kind of socialism, Arab nationalism/socialism, which really decided it would be the resistance centre against Israel, against Zionism, etc, etc. And this was how it claimed it had integrity. In fact it was just another rotten, torturous and torturing dictatorship. The problem you see is that in Yemen, to some extent, and certainly in Egypt and Tunisia, the army saw its duty to protect the people. Not all of them, not those close to the president of Yemen of course, but other army units in Yemen, and certainly all army units in Egypt and Tunisia believed that they were there for the people. And so when the dictator had to go, the aeroplane was ready for him.
In the case of Syria, the army is not there to protect the people, it is to protect the regime. And most of the army officers, senior officer class – not all, but most – are members of the Alawite ethnic group, to which of course the president and his vicious brother, Maher, who commands the special forces and the fourth brigade in Syria which has done a lot of the killing of – I think it's 1,000 – more than 1,400 is today's figure for the number of dead over the past three months in Syria. So this Alawite – which is in fact Shia Muslim; it's an offshoot of Shia Islam and is a minority in Syria, effectively governs the Sunni majority. And in the various stories which I've been hearing from refugees as they cross the border into Lebanon. I mean, the Syrian border is so close when you get to it you can talk to Syrians on the other side across a little stream which marks the border which the French originally made when they were here for the French mandate after the First World War, and their stories are pretty horrific.
TONY JONES: We know that Assad's father and uncle killed an estimated 20,000 people in 1980 to quell an armed uprising in the city of Hama. Now, as you've just said, there are 1,400 civilians dead now. I mean, do you think – we've got this really strange kind of repeating of history with another Assad and a brutal brother, as you say, running the special forces. Would they be prepared to kill as many people as the father and uncle did?
ROBERT FISK: You know, I think the brother Maher might be prepared to. Actually, by the way, the Hama uprising was in 1982 and killed at least 10,000, perhaps 20,000 civilians. This was a Sunni uprising against the Alawite regime. Of course, Hafez al-Assad is dead and Rifaat who is in charge of the special forces there. He is living comfortably, you'll be pleased to know, in central London. No war crimes charges against him, it seems.
There is a certain repetition, and interestingly enough in his latest – third – rather baffling speech – all Bashar al-Assad's speeches are a bit baffling – he actually said that there was a kind of throwback to 1982. He made the connection that you've just done between the Hama uprising, which was suppressed with great ruthlessness and bloodshed, and what is happening today.
But today there's also an enormous amount of torture going on. Villagers, for example, from Halak, which is just across the border, 20 miles only from Homs in Syria, just across the border from Lebanon, they were telling me that when the black uniformed Shabiha – Alawite militia – entered with the army into their village, men with beards had their beards burned off, men had their fingernails taken out. I saw a man without fingernails. I mean, it's clearly true, and others were shot down, including one of the relatives of the town's imam who was taken away to prison. This is just one small example. And when in fact the militia came into this village, they separated the Alawi villagers, because they lived together with the Sunni Muslims – the Alawi Shia Muslims were told to go home and then they started firing – the militia started firing into the Sunni Muslims. It would be difficult to find a better way of starting a civil war. And it seems that Maher is the man behind this. And if necessary, there will be a civil war for that regime to go on trying to survive.
TONY JONES: Yeah, that is an interesting question, isn't it? Bashar al-Assad, educated in Britain, an ophthalmologist, people thought he might actually be more progressive than his father, a genuine reformer. Who really holds power at the centre: is it the brutal brother or the more brutal brother or him?
ROBERT FISK: Right. Here we go. I was talking to the ruler of a Gulf country two weeks ago at lunch and he told me, because he knows Bashar al-Assad personally, that Bashar is actually in charge. But I was also told by someone who was present who's a good Syrian friend of mine who was present at a meeting in which Bashar al-Assad was trying to work out what to do because of the original violence in Daraa after 13 children had been arrested for writing anti-Assad graffiti on the wall and had been tortured. And Maher walked into the room and said to Bashar, according to my source, ‘Just give me 10 days, 10 days, I can stop this.’ Well it's now three months later, 1,400 dead – he failed.
You know, I think you have to realise that when Bashar al-Assad took over from his dad when his dad died in 2000, he said we're going to have reforms, we're going to have a new Syria, freedom of speech, and he's been saying this ever since. We've always been told and we were told again in his speech to the Syrian Parliament a couple of days ago, or three days ago, there's going to be an amnesty. All these amnesties are phantom amnesties, they don't happen. There's a few drug-takers released from prison, and that's it. In the meantime, they go on scooping up more and more prisoners. The real question that I ask myself is why is Bashar al-Assad's wife Asma, an extremely educated lady from the north of Syria where many of these punitive actions, these brutal actions are taking place – she has left with her three children to London and has not returned to Damascus. There are various versions of why she went. Firstly because she was – and I've met both her and her husband. They're actually very bright people. And she is very strong on the issue of human rights. She must have been deeply upset at what was happening, especially in her own home area in Syria. One word is that she was constantly telling her husband this could not be allowed to continue, that this must stop, this violence by the state must stop, and in the end he said it's better you go to London and take the children. Another version: she's staying with her father in London, she's not at the home that she owns there and which Bashar al-Assad owns. Another version has it that she was so sick and she had to leave.
But clearly, you know, this is having a tremendous effect on the Assad family itself. The other day we had an extraordinary image. I watched it on television here, on Syrian state TV of the uncle of Makhluf, the uncle of Bashar, who's a well known multi-billionaire businessman, constantly accused of corruption, his funds have been frozen by the EU and the Americans, who went on television and said, ‘In future I'm not going to be a businessman, I'm gonna be in charge of a charity.’ A charity in Syria! This is remarkable. Extraordinary things are happening. But no-one believes what they see on the television. And it's not surprising, because it's not true. You know, we had Assad on – in his parliamentary speech broadcast throughout Syria saying, ‘Oh, you know, the demonstrators are good people, but they're being used as a shroud,’ a rather horrible expression he used, ‘by gunmen who are shooting from behind them.’ This is the same excuse that the Israelis make when they kill civilians. It's what the British army used to say in Northern Ireland: crowds were being used as human shields. It's what NATO says in Afghanistan and Iraq when it kills innocent people. And now Assad is using the same excuse as the Israelis, British and NATO. Absolutely incredible.
TONY JONES: It was a mixture of reform, promises and sinister threats, but there is a limit to the tolerance …
ROBERT FISK: Yes.
TONY JONES: There's a limit to the tolerance of people who are oppressed in this way.
ROBERT FISK: Yes.
TONY JONES: We saw it in Daraa after the torture and death of the 13-year-old boy – in particular him. But the consensus of analysts still is that a critical mass has not yet been reached to overthrow the regime. Will it reach a critical mass?
ROBERT FISK: You know, the problem is that tens of thousands of people with great courage go onto the street, they're shot down, then the mourners come along to the funeral and the mourners are shot down. Where they get courage from I don't know; these are tough, brave people. But tens of thousands is not enough. You need millions on the streets. And that's what brought down Mubarak: there was a million people just in Tahrir Square alone in Cairo, let alone Alexandria, Suez and the other Egyptian cities. Interestingly, the Egyptians who were behind the revolution, the young people, have actually sent to the local committees of the resistance inside Syria itself a list of advice – one, two, three, four, five – of how they should spread demonstrations. Do them in every city in Syria, not just in one village or two cities, but everywhere because that way it'll grind the authorities down, they'll begin to lose their morale that they can win. They had a number of other pieces of advice about how, under no circumstances, must you use weapons – which of course is what Bashar al-Assad referred to. I have to say though that all the evidence I have is that there are some armed groups, as the Syrians say, the Syrian government says, around. I've seen – every night now you see the bodies of Syrian soldiers who've been shot dead and sometimes mutilated being sent off to their graves. Somebody is killing them. And certainly some of the refugees in northern Syria are carrying weapons. I've actually seen them on the other side of the border carrying Kalashnikovs. These people just want to defend themselves. In some cases to defend their families from being humiliated or tortured. Any man would take a weapon in those cases. But that is what is happening. So there are armed men and that means we're moving towards – not in, but towards a civil conflict.
TONY JONES: Robert, when it comes to Western military intervention, we often hear the question: why do it in Libya, but not Syria? Is it simply a hard calculation that Syria is far too dangerous a prospect and if you destabilise Syria in this way, you destabilise the whole region?
ROBERT FISK: That's a good excuse. I think the real answer is that Libya has an awful lot of oil and Syria doesn't have very much oil, and businessmen are not interested in Syria. In fact, its economy is rock bottom already, whereas Libya is a golden palace to be seized by anyone who gets – who intervenes. I think at the end of the day, that's what it's about. There is no other reason. Syria is a tough nut to crack. Even the Israelis are deeply concerned – let us not use the word frightened – of the Syrians. They're very hard people. But now of course they're showing that toughness against the regime. It's the only Ba'athist regime left. There was another one in Iraq; and as we know, that disappeared in 2003, didn't it?
TONY JONES: Okay. Final question. The Turkish government have long been allies of Assad. How significant is it that they've now turned their backs on him and will it throw him much more into the camp of the Iranians?
ROBERT FISK: Well, Erdogan, and particularly the Turkish foreign minister were very angry and furious with Assad because when the Turkish foreign minister made a second trip to Damascus, he was told by Assad that Assad would make major reforms, not the phantom amnesties and talk of reforms and mechanisms for committees and the other rubbish he's been talking, but serious reforms and would be allowed – anyone could stand for election for the president. And the Turks were outraged when they believed that Assad lied to them; he did not make that offer, he made a promise to the Turks which he did not fulfil. As a result of that, the Turks were becoming increasingly worried about the large number of Syrian refugees, particularly Syrian Kurdish refugees. And remember, Turkey has its own Kurdish problems – or it does in the eyes of Turkey anyway. And, for this reason, the Turkish military – and I can assure you this is correct – have a plan if necessary to enter militarily Syria and carve out a cordon sanitaire, perhaps – certainly including the town of Qamishli, perhaps going halfway to Derazua, which is the first major town south of Qamishli inside Syria, with Turkish troops to protect Syrian refugees inside Syria and avoid those refugees crossing the border into Turkey. So the Turkish-Syrian relationship, or rather the breakdown of that relationship, is a very serious matter at the moment.
TONY JONES: And briefly, the Iranian situation – because we've even heard reports there are Farsi -speaking, possibly Iranians actually fighting to – alongside the Syrian Army.
ROBERT FISK: No. Yeah, look, I have investigated so far as I can and I'm in Beirut at the moment, but I can talk to Syria on the phone, I can go to Turkey. I don't have any evidence at all of any Iranian military or paramilitary support for the Syrians. Remember in Hama in 1982, they didn't need Iranian support, and Iran was an ally then. I think what's happening is that a lot of Syrian Arabs are hearing militia men speaking in Kurdish, which they wouldn't understand necessarily – Kurdish language being separate from Arabic. And I think they're therefore saying, ‘Oh, well they must be Iranians.’ I don't have any evidence the Iranians are involved. Certainly they support the Syrians. And while the Iranians are spending half their time congratulating the Egyptians on their revolution, the other half of their time they're saying, ‘We support Assad.’ Very odd, isn't it?
TONY JONES: Robert Fisk, as usual, so much more to talk about. It's a very complex world you live in. We thank you very much for taking the time to join us again.
ROBERT FISK: You're welcome.