Following Kenny Macfadyens excellent article on a potential doom-laden near-future, we return to the present catastrophe facing the Syrian people and potentially the whole Middle East. In my last article on the conflict I spoke with a humanitarian worker who had been working to help Syrian refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border. As the situation across Syria and in particular in the key city of Qusair continues to deteriorate for civilians, I bring you an interview with Franklin Lamb, an American academic and author who is out in Syria/Lebanon conducting research.
Jonathan: In your recent Counterpunch article you wrote about meeting with fighters from Jabhat al Nusra in Homs. What has been the reaction of Homs residents who have remained in the city to their presence? Is it a simple rejection or acceptance choice in regards to Jahbat Al Nusra from ordinary Syrian civilians?
Franklin: Jabhat Al Nursa appears to have both many supporter as well as detractors in the neighborhoods of Homs I have visited.
Supporters cite Al Nursra’s competence on the battle field as being what is necessary to topple the Assad regime and note that in comparison of many of the salafist and secular militias roaming Syria, they appear to have a semblance of a code of ethics while at the same time are ferocious fighters. One often hears that Jabhat al Nursa distributes badly needed relief aid, that they generally don’t engage in the crimes that some other militias do, that they tend not to inquire about a family’s religious or political affiliation, have set up an administrative structure including a court system in the areas they control, have performed acts of kindness and in conversation do not appear to be as fanatic as they are presented to be in the western media.
It is difficult to gage the percentage of the population in Homs who support them but it appears to be fairly substantial. Jabhat Al Nursa has many detractors as well because they represent salafism and to an extent takfiri (a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy) elements are in their ranks. Their vision of the Ummah (the people) and Islam is not appreciated my many Syria who tend to be among the most secular population in the Levant.
Perhaps if there is an open election the voters would demonstrate the support Al Nusra truly has among the population of Homs Province.
Jonathan: How have you seen Syrian civilians who have stayed in their homes try and deal with the civil war? What kind of resilience has been evident? Is there any kind of inter-sectarian co-operation left?
Franklin: With respect to the rise of poisonous sectarian, yes it has become a major factor influencing the Syrian population which formerly were not much affected by Sunni or Shia backgrounds. But as we have seen in Iraq and now in Lebanon, attitudes have dramatically changed such that sectarian animosities and even hatred is ascendant.
People are trying to survive and keep their families together as is the case everywhere during a crisis even remotely similar to what is unfolding in Syria. They try to deal with the major problems of inflation at the grocery store, shortages of certain goods, including some medicines, the loss of value of their currency, as well as the spreading negative effects of the US-led economic sanctions which are viewed by most Syrians it seems to me as being a political weapon that the Obama administration is using to pressure the civilian population to achieve regime change.
Despite all these travails, the Syrian people have a deep love and appreciation for their country and its 8,000 years of history and frequently explain to visitors that they and their cherished country will survive with or without the current regime. One often hears the anguished plea that “we want and need the killing to stop. Whoever wins this war we need the security that preceded this conflict.”
Jonathan: There has been much debate over the involvement of Hezbollah in the conflict, in particular in recent weeks in regards to the battle for al-Qusayr. Some commentators have suggested, for example Jim Muir of the BBC, that Hezbollah ultimately takes instruction from Iran, suggesting that is the main reason for their involvement in Syria. How do you read Hezbollah’s involvement?
Franklin: I agree with Jim Muir. Iran inspired, created, funded, armed, and has supported in countless ways Hezbollah and its now dominant role as effectively, the government of Lebanon.
Nonetheless, the western supported uprising in Syria has become a strategic threat to Iran and by extension to Hezbollah. The latter risks having vital support lanes cut if the Assad regime falls and also risks being weakened but the fighting in Qusayr, such that Israel may seek to take advantage of increased pressure on Hezbollah’s forces and perhaps re-invade South Lebanon to finish the project they had hoped to achieve in 2006. Which is the destruction of the National Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah and return of its influence in Lebanon.
Jonathan: What have been your interactions with the local and international NGO’S in Syria/Lebanon? How have you seen them trying to work with/help the Syrian refugees both internally and in Lebanon?
Franklin: Frankly, I commend every one of the NGO’s working to lessen the sufferings of Syrian and Palestinians refugees caused by this terrible carnage, now number close to 1.5 million force red to flee Syria with approximately 4 million internally displaced. I have visited several NGO aid centers in Syria and Lebanon, including those run by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as the inspiring work of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS). The latter being staffed by approximately 10,000 volunteers from Syria, more than 30 of whom has lost their lives.
I have visited in Baalbec in Lebanon the UNHCR reception and registration center and as one reads in the media, like the other NGO’s working on the Syrian humanitarian cirist they are quite simply overwhelmed but the immediate need and lack of aid resources caused by the size of the problem and the fact than 2/3 of the promised cash and goods aid has yet to arrive.
It is a fact that some NGO’s have been criticized for spending too much of their donor’s money on administrative cost including high salaries and that too many of them tend to study the problem incessantly and are slow to act but my experience convinces me that all and all they are doing wonderful humanitarian help. But they are overwhelmed and for how long they can continue is unclear, especially given that there is no end in sight to this crisis.
Jonathan: On a personal level, from your writing you seem to have been if not welcomed, accepted as a legitimate voice and presence in reporting in both Syria and Lebanon by the different actors involved in the conflict. Why do you think this has been the case?
Franklin: I believe that both sides of the conflict are open, even to foreigners, who appear genuinely interested in helping in some way with humanitarian aspects of the crisis. One tends to keep his political views to himself and in fact during often amazing learning experiences, one does not feel very judgmental and even his political views fluctuate. For me personally it is always an honor to be able to visit Syria as I have done frequently and the experience has deepened my respect and love for this ancient land and its noble people.
(This interview was conducted over e-mail in the last two weeks)
Jonathan Woodrow Martin