Today, there is not much hope of transforming Syria, we only have a choice between bad and worse.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken interviewed by Thomas Wallerberger, Krytyka Polityczna, 25.12.2015
Thomas Wallerberger: Why is it that ISIL and the Mullah-Regime in Iran, which plays a big role in Syria and Iraq, are still rarely criticized as fascist? Do they not fulfill all the classical criteria of fascist movements one can think of?
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken:I think it’s important to separate between Iran and the Islamic State. Recently, the Islamic State was singled out as the evil actor. People who were always defending Hamas, or even the Iranian regime, suddenly started calling the Islamic state fascist, but not because they have understood the nature of political Islam or political Islamist movements, but in order to protect other such movements. What I mean is that at the moment, the Islamic State is seen as the one great evil and everyone who is fighting the Islamic State is either regarded as a lesser evil or an ally. That creates a crazy situation in which the international coalition with dozens of members is in fact an ally of Iran, of Shia militias who are under the guidance of Iran, like Hezbollah, of Iraqi Shia militias fighting in Iraq and Syria, or even of the Assad regime. They are all pretending to fight terrorism while they are a terrorist organization themselves.
Should one be careful with that label?
This refugee crisis didn’t just fall from the sky. Germany was trying to close its eyes while this huge catastrophe was building up during the last three or four years.No, not really. There are several aspects of this problem. One is that a lot of people still try to consider political Islamist movements as in a way anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. They try to identify someone who is fighting colonialism or imperialism. There is also the fear that criticizing political Islam might bring accusations of racism. So people are very cautious to use that means of analysis. And of course on a political, governmental level, a lot of states are still very closely cooperating with various regimes in the Middle East. Iran is now a preferred partner for Germany and other European governments. So they are very mild in their critique. I do completely agree that the different forms of political Islamism at the moment could and should be compared with fascist movements and fascist ideology in Europe. Although I don’t think fascism is really the right term. The Iranian regime is much closer to National Socialism. If you use the word fascism, one thinks of Mussolini or Franco. They were much less dangerous than the NS-Regime: fascists usually accepted the boundaries of nation states and the population they found in their countries. Fascist parties are always trying to become the state party. On the other hand, National Socialism was a movement whose dynamics consisted of a) movement, b) an anti-national agenda, c) the non-acceptance of the population it ruled, and e) eliminatory anti-Semitism as its main ideological engine. If we talk about fascism, it’s much more enlightening to compare regimes like the one in Iran or even the Sunni Islamist extremist movements like Al Kaida, IS, or even Hamas, with National Socialism in order not to minimize the threat we are facing.
In the chain of events of the European refugee crisis, where do you place Merkel’s “Ja, wir schaffen das!” [Yes, we’ll manage it!]? Does Europe still see the crisis as an internal problem and not as a call for involvement?
What happened this summer is the reaction to a chain of failures. This refugee crisis didn’t just fall from the sky. Germany was trying to close its eyes while this huge catastrophe was building up during the last three or four years.
This refugee crisis didn’t just fall from the sky. Germany was trying to close its eyes while this huge catastrophe was building up during the last three or four years.
They were one of the leading voices opposing any form of military intervention. In the last ten years, Germany was basically opposing any violent form of regime change or intervention in the Middle East – now we are all facing the consequences. While France and Great Britain changed their positions in 2013 after the Assad Regime used poison gas against its own population, Germany was still completely opposed even to punishing the Assad Regime back then.
How would you comment on the attitude of states that are refusing to accept responsibilities, and at times even basic humanitarian obligations, in the current crisis; for example the Visegrád Group of Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic?
There is a huge failure on a European level too. Everyone knew that the Dublin Treaty is going to fail somehow. It delegated the problem of global instability to three countries: Spain, Italy, and Greece. The Central European countries were overwhelmed, as suddenly the Balkan route opened up via Greece. Before, the main route to the European Union was to get to Italy via Libya. What we hear from all these countries, starting with Bulgaria and Hungary, is that the way they are treating refugees and the way they are behaving, does not seem – if we put it euphemistically – very humanitarian. Although some Eastern European countries behaved quite properly as long as they knew that they were simply transit countries. Of course, there is a strong shift to the political right at the moment. If I just look at the pictures from the anti-Islam demonstration on Poland’s national holiday it’s actually a little scary. Not to talk about the developments in Hungary.
Do you see any connections between the rise of right-wing movements in Europe and the actual reactions on a governmental level? Is there an alliance between those who make the people in Syria and Iraq stateless and those right-wingers who want to keep them stateless in Europe?
Well, of course, there is this Putin-policy. Let’s return to Syria, where I think that the situation is understood only by a few people. The war in Syria is multi-layered. And one layer of this war is a conflict between the Sunni majority of the population and the Alawi-Shia minority. This war has a huge influence on the change of demographic reality in Syria. The Syrian regime and its backers, mainly Iran and Russia, have every interest in Sunnis leaving the country. They are doing everything to create these masses of refugees. On the same level, Putin is seen, with his Eurasian ideology, his anti-Americanism, his efforts to build a strong Central European I-don´t-know-what, as a partner by many of these right-wing movements. Starting with the FPÖ in Austria, the Front National in France, and of course also some Eastern European movements. On the other hand this complete inability of the EU to act in concert, acting instead as a body falling into nation states that are basically struggling with each other – this is of course strengthening all these nationalist anti-European movements. But they profit also a lot from the weakness being shown by the leading European countries, such as France and especially Germany.
When was the last opportunity to prevent Syria and Iraq from falling apart and what options are still on the table?
Well, it’s never too late. But when I signed a petition in which the Henry Jackson Society was asking for a No-Fly-Zone and protection of Syrians in February 2012, eight months after the Syrian uprising started, maybe this was the point when the international community should have acted. I think the main lines were already very clear at the end of 2011. In Iraq, it’s less a question of intervention, it’s more a question of leaving. The US left Iraq way too early and when they left in 2011 – I mean I really know Iraq very well – the Americans had in fact won the war. Most violent conflicts were settled. This whole struggle started and culminated in the takeover of big parts of western Iraq by the IS after the departure of the Americans and basically after the Iranians took over the country.
Are you suggesting a military intervention in the region?
The situation is getting worse every day, this conflict will not be solved in a peaceful way, that’s for sure. It will continue and continue and continue. The same demands that would have led to a probably positive outcome in 2012 – declaring a no-fly-zone in the north and the south of the country, supporting non-Islamist rebel elements, and clearly stating that there will be no future for the Assad Regime – were right back then and 250, 000 dead people later, 4 million refugees later, they are is still right. But today, they would not have a very positive impact. Today they would probably help to stop the worst bloodbath. But today, there is not much hope of transforming Syria, we only have a choice between bad and worse.Assad wouldn’t survive a week without massive support from Iran and Russia. What we see is that if Russia intervenes, Iran intervenes, Hizbollah intervenes, this is not considered an intervention. An intervention only starts with the US, the UK, or any Western country.
Regarding a military intervention, the credo of the Left has been non-interventionism for decades. Should the Left side with governments and policies that it in fact rejects when faced with new forms of violent imperialism?
The Left is always talking only about Western interventions. There is a whole intervention going on in Syria. People from dozens of countries are fighting in Syria today. Assad wouldn’t survive a week without this massive support from Iran and Russia. What we do see is that if Russia intervenes, Iran intervenes, Hizbollah intervenes, this is not considered an intervention. An intervention only starts with the US, the UK, or any Western country. So I think this whole interventionist debate is a complete joke, because for this kind of Left the problem is not the question of interventions or militarism, the problem is the West.
So what you are saying is that imperialism is still reserved for the US and is not available as a term to describe what Iran and Russia are doing at the moment?
In Asia there is a movement towards a real new imperialism. Turkey under Erdogan is trying to become or to reinvent the Ottoman Empire. Iran declares openly that their mission is an Islamic Empire, the IS wants to creates a Caliphate, which is an empire, and Russia is dreaming of becoming an imperial power again, with its New Russia ideology in Crimea and Ukraine and fighting for ports in the Mediterranean. So at the moment, we actually have four powers in western Asia who are openly declaring their imperial character and yet when talk about imperialism, people still think about the US. Obama, on the other hand, has a very clear agenda of restoring isolationism, multilateralism, and in a way he stands for a tradition of criticizing American imperialism. I mean, it’s all completely nuts, it’s crazy, we are living in a crazy world. People don’t know what they are talking about, they don’t know what they are talking about when if it comes to refugees, the Middle East or world politics…
What ideas does the West have for settling the conflict? The Viennese peace-talks are taking place…
There are no ideas!
But in your view, what will the situation in Syria be in one or two years? Is there going to be an internationally recognized West Syrian State?
Listen, I don’t believe in all of that. We are not talking about the a zoo. In the zoo, if you have animals that fight each other in the same cage, you can separate them into two different cages. States do not function like that. The problem of all this talk of a New Kurdistan, a new Shia state and a new Sunni state is that all of them would face the reality of a completely broken region. I don’t think that anything that is necessary to build a functioning state exists in any of these places. On the other hand, the dominant powers in the region have an imperial thinking, they don’t think in terms of nation states. Iraq is a very good example. Iraq today is controlled by various actors. There is western Iraq, northern Iraq, southern Iraq, you don’t have a central state. The same goes for Somalia. But they will not fall into new states, they are becoming failed states. And a failed state is something where different groups are controlling territory while there is still someone representing the state in the UN, they still have a currency and they still have a flag and that’s all. If nothing positive happens, that will be the future. I don’t think Syria will be separated into different states, Syria will stay Syria, but the territory of Syria will be controlled by different criminal organisations.
With constantly shifting spheres of influence.
The dominant powers in the region have an imperial thinking, they don’t think in terms of nation states.Not necessarily, in Iraq it’s quite stable. Iraq was in a way stable before ISIL took over. There was the south centre and the north with Iraqi Kurdistan which is, on a lot of levels, like an independent state. But it’s still part of Iraq and I don’t think it’s going to declare independence. The different groups are profiting from the current unstable situation. If we talk about positive outcomes in the Middle East, I personally believe federalism and decentralization with a strong democratic element are a much, much better answer than creating more dysfunctional states.
How do you see the situation of the Kurds in the region? Peshmerga forces are liberating Shingal (Iraq) from ISIL occupation as we speak. Considering the situation in Syria, are the Kurds possibly the ground forces the US are looking for?
For the first time after 16 months, we do see a little progress on the military front in northern Iraq. It would be great if they succeeded in liberating Shinghal, it would be a great symbolic victory for the Yazidi who suffered so much after the Islamic State took over and killed and enslaved them. But I don’t think it’s a game changer. Kurdish forces in Iraq are very much geographically bound to their areas. The same is basically true in Syria. But if we talk about Kurds, it’s important to see that the Kurdish Democatic Party (KDP) in Iraq and the Kurdish parties in Syria are basically enemies. And Shingal is also a fight were both sides are involved. The real fear is that they will turn against each other because both want to dominate the region. This again reflects the craziness of the strategy against the Islamic State. The so called Allies all hate and fight each other. ISIL by itself is militarily not a problem. They have 30,000 soldiers without an air force, one could defeat them very quickly, but none of the actors have a real interest in defeating ISIL because everyone is in a way profiting from ISIL.
The idea that you can rely on local ground forces who have their own agenda and who are not really allied with each other is very short-sighted. You pump a lot of weapons into a region and later you have all these militias without any future plan. Shingal reflects the major problems of any place liberated from ISIL: what’s going to happen next? Who is going to control the region? What’s the agenda for rebuilding it? Who is safeguarding the return of the people who fled? And wherever something similar happened until now, for example in central Iraq where Shia militias took over, it’s been a disaster. People cannot return, Shia militias are killing Sunni inhabitants, there are ghost towns. No one in the US or in Europe has any idea or plan for the future of the Middle East. And that of course ties in very closely with the refugee crisis, because Syrian refugees understand very well that they don’t have a future in the region.
Your organization Wadi e. V. has been working in Iraq, Jordan, and Israel since 1992. What are, in your perspective, the main social tensions and also developments over the last years?
Iraqi-Kurdistan is our main focus. What people there are facing, apart from the actual crisis, is a huge transition of values. Traditions are not working any longer. People are being confronted with a political, social, cultural, and sexual revolution, more or less. Everything is changing. These changes are focused on a lot of different aspects, such as violence against woman, violence against children, political violence against opponents, questions of how you can participate in political processes, how in oil-exporting countries wealth can be distributed in a fairer and more productive way, how religion plays into daily life, and how to separate religion and society, etc. The people are facing all these questions at the same time.
What kinds of ideas have been driven out of the country over the last four years? What about those who consider themselves political exiles? Many people you used to work with must have fled.
Let’s put it like this: the Iraqi diaspora is different to the Syrian diaspora. The Syrian diaspora is very new and whenever you talk to Syrians one can learn that they really didn’t want to leave their country. They had a lot of hope and even now, when you go to any refugee camp in Vienna or Germany, every Syrian will tell you the same story: “We really waited very long in the region to return to our country. And only after these chemical attacks, the barrel bombings, we recognized that no one is going to help us. And then we lost hope and went to Europe”. Many Syrians that are here still have a very strong attachment to Syria and to what they experienced in Syria itself. It’s still undecided if these Syrians are going to integrate and assimilate into Europe – then of course Syria will have lost completely the people who would have been able to enact some changes. Then the really good people would be gone.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, until recently a lot of people returned back from Europe. So it’s very difficult to judge, but generally: the more these countries become destabilized, the less hope people have, the more they leave, and the less people that are able to make any of these very very necessary changes are staying. And, of course, dialectically that’s in the interest of the ruling classes there. Everyone is happy when these young motivated people are leaving: they are dangerous, they could demonstrate in front of the presidential palace, they could ask for changes. So they are really happy if they leave, that’s also something that people in Europe don’t understand.
In Europe there are two extreme perspectives on the people who are fleeing from the Middle East: there are those who see the end of the Occident coming, asking for fences and strict anti-migration laws, and then there are those, mostly identifying with the Left, who are welcoming the collapse of the current European political framework. They regard the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to say it with Arendt, as “the vanguard of their people”, as harbingers of a new age of post-nationalism.
That’s of course complete rubbish. I have no idea, but what I know is that the actors in the Middle East are really not “Mr Nice Guy”. And the conflicts are not nice, and these “Allahu Akbar”-shouting rebels are not nice, and there are no good movements one can really identify with. But the major conflicts throughout the Middle East are about universalism vs. particularism and fascism vs. freedom. Europe is not really fighting, it is trying to sit on the side-lines, and now these conflicts are brought over here. These masses of refugees – and Hannah Arendt was completely right in her chapter on stateless people in the Origins of Totalitarianism – will sooner or later destroy every nation-state. And this is a very existential threat. This “yeah great, Europe is collapsing” is completely self-destructive. Building fences is also self-destructive. The question should be how to change Europe, how to create a Europe that’s based on these universal values. Because we share these universal values with a lot of people who are coming, who were fighting the Assad Regime, and fighting for a better future. And what people don’t get here is that the border of Cyprus is only 60 km away from Syria. You cannot separate these two regions, if one falls it will bring the other one down too.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken is co-founder of the German Iraq relief organization Wadi e. V. and has been working in the Middle East for the past 25 years. He publishes articles in various newspapers and has co-edited several books about the region.