On Syria and way beyond

In a wide-ranging interview, Middle East expert Guenter Meyer explores the numerous dimensions of the Syrian civil war and its implications – economic and geostrategic – for other countries in the region. As the death tally mounts, the ultimate beneficiaries so far, he concludes, are the United States and Israel.

By Lars Schall

One of Europe’s most outstanding experts on the Middle East, Professor Guenter Meyer, addresses in this exclusive in-depth interview for Asia Times Online the Syrian civil war and its international dimensions.

The interview was originally published at ASIA TIMES ONLINE under:


Professor Dr Guenter Meyer has for almost 40 years carried out empirical research on the social, economic and political development in Arab countries and has published more than 150 books and articles, especially on Syria, Egypt, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He directs the Center for Research on the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, which is one of the world’s leading information centers for the dissemination of news and research on the Middle East. Professor Meyer is chairman of the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), and chairman of the International Advisory Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES).

Lars Schall: Professor Meyer, since our perceptions are framed by the media, how do you feel about the coverage of the conflict in Syria in the Western media?

Guenter Meyer: My perceptions are not only framed by the media, but also by my own experience in Syria and by contact with Syrians, other Arab experts and political activists of the Arab spring. The information I receive from these sources and also from Arab news media covers a much wider range of views and assessments than the rather one-sided reporting in the majority of the Western media.

LS: What kind of things do you have to criticize in particular?

GM: Until recently mainstream reporting in most Western media was clearly biased. It focused mainly on the distinction between the „bad“ Syrian regime, which has to be toppled, and the „good“ opposition, which has to be supported because it is fighting against a corrupt, authoritarian and brutal government. This perception has changed gradually during the past few months. More and more media are reporting about the conflicting interests of the highly fragmented oppositional groups as well as about the atrocities of the rebel groups and their crimes committed against the civilian population, especially against Alawites but also against Christians.

The influx of Salafis, jihadis and followers of al-Qaeda and the expectation that radical Sunni Islamists will control Syria after the fall of Bashar al-Assad are disturbing themes that are now also reported in Western media. After a long delay, the news coverage of the development in Syria does no longer focus only on spreading the political view of the „Friends of Syria“, but has started to provide a more comprehensive picture about the highly complex situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, there is still a bias when it comes to the reporting of massacres. The majority of Western media – and also Western governments – tend to take the information offered by oppositional sources for granted that government forces, in particular the Shabiha militia, are responsible for the cruel killings of civilians, many of them women and children. At the same time, evidences of a systematic „massacre marketing strategy“ [1] by the rebels are rejected as propaganda of the Assad regime. It is obvious that in many cases, especially in the massacres with the highest number of victims at Houla [2] and Daraya [3] oppositional forces committed brutal crimes against civilians in order just to blame the government for these massacres. Through this strategy they try to manipulate public opinion and influence political decision making against the Syrian regime.

LS: Would you say that those who want to explore the interests that collide in the conflict in Syria would do well to examine the geopolitical importance of Syria for the Eurasian energy chessboard? I mean, ultimately Syria is a main transport hub for future oil and gas pipelines, right?

GM: Whenever you try to analyze political conflicts in the Middle East and get to the bottom you are likely to find oil or gas. The present conflict has been linked to Syria’s role as transit country for Iranian gas export. Last year, a contract was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a natural gas pipeline by 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field to the Syrian Mediterranean coast in order to supply Lebanon and Europa with gas. As a result Turkey would loose her highly profitable and political important position as the dominant transit country for gas from Russia and the Caspian Basin. [4]

Could this expected competition have been a reason for the Turkish government to give up its good relations with the Syrian regime and support the opposition? This is rather unlikely. During the last few years, Iran has signed numerous Memoranda of Understanding and contracts with foreign governments and companies to exploit Iranian gas and oil fields and to build pipelines. None of these schemes has been executed, as a result of the US embargo against Iran. Therefore, it has to be supposed that the contract to build a pipeline to Syria was signed mainly for domestic political reasons of the Iranian government. One has also to question the economic viability of this project. Why should gas from Southern Iran be exported to Europe when the highest demand for Iranian gas comes from neighboring Pakistan and India?

There is another project that would make much more sense. In 2009, Qatar had proposed to build a pipeline from the emirate’s giant gas fields via Syria to Turkey to be connected with other pipelines to Europe. [5] Based on this scheme, Assad loyalists had claimed that the unrest in Syria is not an uprising but a Qatari-instigated aggression designed to dominate the country and ensure Qatari access to the Mediterranean Sea for its gas export. However, this argument can be regarded as a conspiracy theory. [6]

LS: Are the discovered energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine Basin also of interest here?

GM: The untapped natural gas finds are extremely important for Israel, which will no longer have to rely on the insecure supply of gas from Egypt. The discovered gas reserves are so huge that Israel can not only achieve energy independence but will also benefit from lucrative export deals. Further gas and even oil reserves are expected to be discovered in the offshore areas of Syria and Lebanon. [7] Nevertheless, the newly discovered resources have no direct impact on the present crisis in Syria.

LS: When it comes to the Western powers, are they especially intended to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis?

GM: There are numerous statements from the US government which stress the geostrategic importance of the ousting of the Syrian regime so that both Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon will loose their most important ally. The Iranian and Syrian supply of military equipment to Hezbollah will no longer be possible. The weakening of the military force of this Shiite organization means that its impact on the power structure of Lebanon and especially its ability to attack Israel will dramatically decline. [8] The fall of Bashar Al-Assad will also weaken the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East and strengthen the role of the US and Saudi Arabia in this region.

LS: Are we currently experiencing a „Balkanisation of Syria“ or a „Balkanisation of the Middle East“ in general?

GM: During the last decades Syria has been a secular state with a strong focus on pan-Arabism. Now the ethnic and religious frictions have become a dominant factor and threaten the unity of the Syrian state. The worst case scenario would indeed be a „Balkanization“ for Syria, which means that the country is split into a northeastern Kurdish state providing a safe haven for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers‘ Party] and a nightmare for Turkey, an Alawite state in the western mountains and the coastal area, a tiny Druze enclave in the south, and a Sunni state in central Syria. Only the last one would probably have sufficient economic potential to exist on the long run.

Other experts suggest a „Lebanonization“ scenario that pins down the Syrian army and weakens the central government in Damascus. [9] The model of an „Iraqization“ of Syria might also have chances to become reality, with several autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. Similar demands are also raised in the oil-rich east of Libya, where large parts of the population no longer want to be dominated by the center of the political power in Tripolitania, the western region of Libya.

LS: Do we see in Syria a similar situation as earlier in Libya or is it very different?

GM: The situation in Libya was completely different. Gaddafi’s military forces were far too weak to resist the combined military power of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] which was authorized by the UN Security Council to intervene in Libya. Large parts of the population and almost the entire east of Libya opposed the authoritarian regime so that foreign advisers were able to move freely in this part of the country, support the oppositional fighter groups with heavy weapons and train them how to use the sophisticated military equipment.

Bashar Al-Assad, on the other hand, can rely on the excellently trained and best-equipped Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division – elite troops who are almost entirely Alawites. The Syrian air force and in particular the air defense force are equipped with the latest Russian military technology. A recent analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to the conclusion that the Syrian air defense is five times more sophisticated than [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi’s. [10]

A military offensive by foreign troops to oust Bashar al-Assad would be an extremely risky and expensive operation. In addition, there is no chance that Russia and China will accept a UN resolution for a military intervention in Syria. Under these circumstances, the US, France and the UK have so far only resorted to training opposition fighters on Turkish territory close to the northwestern border of Syria and to supplying them with communication means and other non-lethal equipment. At the same time, Iran is using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to help Syria crush the uprising, according to a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters. The Iraqi government, however, denies that such flights are taking place.

LS: We know that forces of al-Qaeda are fighting on Syrian soil. Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about this:

By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized … Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now. [11]

That’s quite a statement after more than 10 years of the so called „War on Terror“, isn’t it?

GM: Indeed! There are many similar reports – among others from the Eastern Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border – where opposition fighters had for several months tried in vain to take over garrisons from the Syrian army. At last, they asked an al-Qaeda group for support. As a result of their attacks the army withdrew from this base within a few days.

The al-Qaeda fighters and jihadis are not only from Arab countries, especially from Iraq, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, but also from Pakistan and include even radical Islamists from European countries. Their number is rapidly growing. This is the major reason why the US government has been so reluctant to supply the opposition fighters with surface-to-air missiles, which might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It has only recently been reported that the Free Syrian Army acquired 14 Stinger missiles. So far, however, it has not been confirmed that these weapons were used to attack Syrian fighter planes and helicopter gunships [12].

LS: What kind of importance has it that al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization?

GM: About 70% of the Syrian population are Sunnis. Many of them regard the ruling Alawites not as real Muslims. The same applies to al-Qaeda, which demands that all Muslims should unite in order to eradicate the Alawite „infidels“. However, this does not mean that al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadis are supported by all Syrian Sunnis. Quite the contrary. The vast majority is rejecting both the extremist views and the intervention of radical foreign Islamists.

LS: It is said that Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, could use chemical weapons. What is your view on that?

GM: The regime has assured that it will never use chemical or biological weapons. This statement can be regarded as reliable because the use of weapons of mass destruction or even the movement of such weapons would mean „crossing the red line“, as President Obama threatened. A massive military intervention against the Syrian government would be the consequence [13]

However, there are detailed reports that NATO powers in coordination with Saudi Arabia are preparing a fake attack with chemical weapons in southern Syria for which the Assad regime will be blamed in order to justify a massive international invasion. [14]

LS: Do we observe in the Syrian conflict certain developments like under a microscope: the US can no longer afford financially some certain types of adventures and has reached the limits of its influence, while the Russians and the Chinese don’t want to be told what to do in the Middle East?

GM: The financial aspect is very important from the perspective of the US government, but there is also President Obama’s promise „to bring our boys back home“. A new American involvement in another war is extremely unpopular, especially during the present presidential election campaign. Concerning Russia and China, they have important geostrategic interests in Syria. There is no compelling reason why they should give up this comfortable and influential position.

LS: With regard to the external influences, it was written recently that European and Arab states pay high government officials, if they turn away from Assad. [15] Your thoughts on this?

GM: This applies not only to leading representatives of the Syrian regime, but especially to members of the Syrian army. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly announced that they will spend at least US$300 million to pay the salaries of the oppositional fighters and also financial incentives to motivate soldiers from all ranks to defect from the military forces and to join the oppositional troops. Under these circumstances, it is really astounding that only so few officers, generals and leading members of the regime have defected until now. This underlines how stable the power of the government, the military and the security services still is.

LS: How would a European attitude look like be considered worthy of support?

GM: Let me start by explaining why the present European attitude is not worthy of support. The leading governments of the EU have discarded a political solution of the Syrian conflict and opted instead for the – at least indirect – support for a military ousting of the Assad regime. They are co-operating in particular with the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and which consists mainly of Syrians who have lived for a long time in Western countries, especially in the US. These people want to rule post-Assad Syria, but they are by no means accepted by the majority of the population living in Syria.

In Berlin, for example, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in cooperation with the US Institute of Peace arranged the facilities for members of the Syrian opposition and international experts to meet in order to plan for „The Day After“. [16] The result is an agenda to create a new political system in Syria according to Western democratic standards and values after the fall of the present regime.

This plan was designed without any knowledge about the future distribution of power among the various forces that might be involved in the toppling of the government, and with only a little participation of the numerous oppositional groups inside Syria. It is not surprising that such a plan was rejected by members of the inner Syrian opposition as an „academic exercise“ with no relevance at a time when the outcome of the Syrian crisis is still completely open. The same applies to various government-sponsored committees planning the Syrian future in Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo.

The frequent demands that the extremely heterogeneous opposition should unite have turned out to be futile. This applies also to the latest attempt of the French President Francois Hollande, who also offered to recognize a new Syrian government-in-exile. The proposal was immediately rejected by the US government as untimely due to the lack of unity among the opposition groups.

Much more relevant for the present development of the crisis is the proposal to establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees. This was first demanded by the Turkish government and was recently supported by the French president. At present, more than 80,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps in Turkey; 100,000 have been declared by the Erdogan government as the maximum number of refugees to be accepted on Turkish territory. Additional refugees have to be accommodated in a safe buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The same has been proposed along the Jordanian border.

At first sight such a demand might appear to be rather harmless and unproblematic, involving only a limited military intervention. However, the establishment of a safe buffer zone in Syria can only be achieved by a full-scale war of NATO and allied troops from Arab countries against the strong Syrian armed forces. To protect the refugees in the safe haven, a no-fly zone has to be established, which can only be controlled after NATO has gained air superiority over the total Syrian territory.

This would involve the destruction of the Syrian air force with about 400 fighter planes and the huge arsenal of highly sophisticated anti-air craft missiles. The size, expenditure and duration of such an intervention would be tremendous as the MIT analysis showed. [10].

One has also to keep in mind that in legal terms such an attack could be carried out under the rather controversial international norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). But its application has to be approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council, where a veto from Russia and China can be taken for granted.

Coming back to the question about the position which should be supported: the most sensible position and the only one that would allow a peaceful solution is still the [Kofi] Annan plan [proposed by the former United Nations secretary general] involving not only the opposition and their supporters, but also the governments in Damascus and Teheran in the negotiation about the future development of Syria. However, there is no chance that this proposal will be accepted by the opposition in exile and its supporters in the US, the Arab League, Turkey and the EU.

LS: What do you think about the helping hand that the Bundesnachrichtendienst [BND – Germany’s foreign intelligence agency] is giving to the rebels?

GM: The German newspaper Bild had revealed that members of the BND stationed on ships near the Syrian and Lebanese coast and at the NATO base near Adana collect intelligence on the movement of Syrian government troops and share this information with the forces of the Free Syrian Army. [17] The same applies to agents of the British intelligence service based in Cyprus and also to the activities of US intelligence agents and spy satellites.

It is obvious that the German government has learned its lesson from refraining to support the military intervention in Libya, which caused a serious setback in the political relations with its NATO partners and which has diminished the chances of German enterprises benefiting from the economic reconstruction of the North African country. This time, Germany plays not only a leading role in the context of the EU decisions for economic sanctions against Syria but also in the united support of the Western powers for the Syrian opposition, including the provision of intelligence.

LS: What’s your perception of the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

GM: Both countries are in the forefront of adversaries against the Syrian regime. They are the main financial supporters of the Syrian opposition, including financing of the weapons supply for the rebels. There are even reports from unrevealed sources in Arab media that Saudi Arabia would be prepared to pay the expenses for a full-scale military intervention in Syria by NATO.

Why is this conservative Sunni monarchy so keen on ousting Bashar al-Assad? There is first of all the religiously motivated objection against the Alawite ruler and against the political, economic and military alliance between Damascus and the Shiite government in Tehran, which is perceived as the major threat for the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The fall of the Syrian regime would be a tremendous blow for Iranian political influence in the Middle East. The government in Tehran is accused of supporting the Shi’ite opposition in the oil rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in northern Yemen and especially in Bahrain. Here, the uprising of the Shi’ite majority of the population against the ruling Sunni minority could only be suppressed by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Qatari ruler’s decision to support the Syrian opposition included not only the provision of financial means but also the use of Al Jazeera to spread propaganda news in favor of the rebels. In the past, the Doha-based TV channel had gained the reputation of the leading independent, objective and highly critical news channel in the Arab world. It had played an important role as the most reliable source of information about the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The positive image was shattered when the channel became a one-sided voice for the Qatari government’s policy against Bashar al-Assad and when even falsified news about the Syrian regime was produced. This became public in a video documentation that appeared on YouTube, showing how a film based on invented information about the alleged brutality of the Syrian regime was staged by a journalist of Al Jazeera. [18]

LS: And what about Turkey?

GM: Before the Syrian uprising, the relations between the two countries were very good. The major conflict of the past had been settled, ie Turkey guaranteed sufficient supply of Euphrates water and the Syrian government stopped support of the Kurdish Workers‘ Party. During the early phase of the Arab Spring, the Turkish government had supported the uprising in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and Erdogan’s moderate Islamic state was hailed as the ideal political model for the post-revolutionary Arab states.

Soon after the unrest in Syria started, the Turkish government joined the Arab Gulf states in their support of the opposition, provided shelter for the refugees and allowed other NATO states to train Syrian fighters on Turkish territory. [19] This position came more and more under attack by the secular Turkish opposition, which accused Erdogan of trying to install an Islamist Sunni government in Damascus and of sacrificing the lives of two Turkish pilots whose warplane was shot down when it crossed Syrian territory in order to test the efficiency of the anti-aircraft forces in Syria. The original support by the majority of the Turkish population for a democratic change in the neighboring country is dwindling while the apprehension is growing that Ankara´s involvement in the Syrian crisis will have a negative impact on the national security and economy.

LS: Given those influences, hasn’t the war in Syria ceased to be a civil war and has actually become a combined operation of outside forces?

GM: It is still a civil war but with increasing intervention from abroad. Many political analysts refer in this context to proxy wars between the US and Russia as well as Sunni versus Shi’ite states.

LS: What do you expect in the case that Assad is toppled?

GM: First of all, the regime is still in power and it is an open question whether it will be ousted at all. Some of my Arab colleagues point out that the support of the regime has even increased as a result of the recent atrocities committed by rebel groups.

The majority of the Assad loyalists are by no means happy about the authoritarian political system, but they are afraid that their situation will be much worse when the opposition comes to power in Syria. This applies not only to Alawites, who represent about 13% of the population and who fear massive revenge killings. The more than 2 million members of the various Christian dominations and also other religious minorities such as Druze and Ismailis are afraid of becoming discriminated second-class citizens under an Islamist Sunni government.

Other supporters of the regime are to be found among the people who are employed by the government, including positions in the military, in the security services, in the administration and various public services. The report about a postman who was murdered by Salafi rebels only because he had received his salary from the government [3] has been regarded by many public servants as a strong warning of what may happen to them when the opposition gains control in Syria.

From a regional perspective, the opponents of the regime originate mainly from the rural areas. The economic situation of the population working in agriculture has deteriorated significantly since 2006 due the liberalization policy adopted by the government, which included the abandoning of subsidies for agricultural inputs.

In addition, a long period of drought destroyed the economic basis of numerous farmers so that about 1.5 million people migrated into the cities. Numerous craftsmen belong also to the losers of the economic reforms because cheap industrial imports have flooded the Syrian market and led to a decline in demand for their handmade products. This may explain for example why Duma, a suburb of Damascus with numerous small workshops, turned into a center of resistance against the government. [20]

One the other hand, the urban middle classes, and here especially the merchants, benefited significantly from the liberalization of the economy. The majority of them living in Damascus and the economic metropolis of Aleppo are still loyal to the government. This became obvious when the rebels occupied some quarters in Aleppo. They received support only from the inhabitants of suburbs with a dominant population of rural migrants. In the other parts of the city the rebels were met with reservation and hostility, whereas the government troops were warmly welcomed as rescuer who had saved the inhabitants from the intruders.

The about 2 million Kurds in the northern part of the country represent another group that will play a vital role for the future development of Syria. At present, government troops have almost completely withdrawn from this area. There are strong demands from Kurdish representatives for a future autonomous or at least semi-autonomous Kurdish region, resulting even in fist-fighting between Kurdish and Arab representatives of the opposition during a meeting in Cairo. [21] However, the Kurdish population in Syria is by no means united, but split into about a dozen groups with different political orientations. It is also unlikely that the Turkish government would tolerate such a partly-independent Kurdish region, which could serve as a safe haven for PKK fighters.

Another problem is the „Arabic belt“ along the Turkish border in the northeastern oil-rich Kurdish area. Here, 43 villages were established in the 1970s for more than 20,000 Arab inhabitants of rural settlements that were flooded after the construction of the Euphrates dam. The land for these new villages had been expropriated from Kurdish landowners and was handed over the Arab settlers.

I am familiar with the situation of this Arab community because I carried out a survey about the social and economic conditions in all villages. [22] The number of the inhabitants has in the meantime increased to about 100,000 people, who are now confronted with Kurdish demands to return the land to the former owners and even to leave the area completely.

I have tried to explain that the above-mentioned religious, socio-economic and ethnic groups have quite different expectations for the future development of Syria. Differentiated according to the political orientation, there is a wide spectrum of groups ranging from supporters of a reformed Assad regime via promoters of a Western-style secular democracy, to fighters for a Sunni-dominated state based on Islamic law. The latter model has the probably the best chances to succeed due to the massive support from other Arab states and the fact that the vast majority of the Syrians are Sunnis.

LS: Patrick Seale wrote in a recent tour d’horizon:

The Middle East is facing an acute danger of war, with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences for the states and populations of the region. A „shadow war“ is already being waged – by Israel and the United States against Iran; by a coalition of countries against Syria; and by the great powers against each other. A mere spark could set this tinder alight. [21]

Is this true?

GM: Such an ignition setting the whole Middle East on fire could become true through an Israeli attack on Iran or a foreign military intervention in Syria. In the first case, Syria and Hezbollah and perhaps also Hamas are expected to attack Israel. In the second case, Iran will defend its Syrian ally, according to treaties of mutual assistance between Tehran and Damascus.

LS: Mr. Seale also wrote in the same article:

Instead of siding with the United States and Israel in the destruction of Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies should join with Iran in building a new security system for the region free from external meddling. If they act together, they can spare the region the devastation of war. But they must act soon because time is running out.

What is your take?

GM: That’s a very nice recommendation, but far away from political reality. The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is increasing dramatically – not mainly because of Arab monarchs siding with the US but first of all because of rising sectarian hostility between Sunnis and Shi’ites combined with the growing threat that the Arab Spring and the idea of an Islamic republic could also spread on the Arabia Peninsular and result in the toppling of the monarchies. Domestic opposition and resistance against the political system is very strong in Bahrain and is growing especially in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the confrontation with Iran as well as the intervention in Syria and other parts of the Arab world has also to be regarded as a fight for survival of the ruling families in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

LS: How could a war of the West against Iran be prevented?

GM: We are talking here about a unilateral Israeli strike against the nuclear facilities in Iran. Tehran has always declared that its nuclear program is peaceful. In the final communique of the recent summit the 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement confirmed their support for Iran’s claim that under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons it has the right to peaceful nuclear energy as well as the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment. [24]

The government in Tehran has called many times for the destruction of the Jewish state. Therefore, Israel regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence. Does this justify a preemptive military attack against Iran? According to a recent statement of Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Agencies, both governments in Jerusalem and Washington have come to the conclusion that it will require 18 months to two years for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon from the time it makes the political decision to build one. [25]

In order to prevent Iran from acquiring the necessary parts to start the assembling of a bomb, the Israeli military has finished all necessary preparations for an attack on Iran at any time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are the main promoters of the unilateral strike against the Iranian installations – in spite of massive public warnings from high-ranking members of the military and the intelligence services in Israel as well as growing political pressure from the US government. Nevertheless, Netanyahu continued his saber rattling and assured his followers that President Obama would provide military support once an Israeli attack has started.

That this expectation was not to be taken for granted became clear when the participation of US troops in the joint annual maneuver for the defense of Israel was drastically reduced and when US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey declared in an interview that he would not be „complicit“ with an Israeli attack. Such a strike could only delay Iran’s nuclear project and might unravel the strong international coalition that has applied stiff sanction on the Islamic Republic. [26]

As a consequence of this public rebuke and similar criticism from Paris and Berlin, Netanyahu changed his strategy and demanded that the US provides Tehran with unambiguous options to halt its nuclear activities or face war when the “red lines” are crossed. This demand was also immediately rejected by the US Defense Secretary. Netanyahu`s latest attempt to increase political pressure on the Obama government mounted in the assertion that Iran will be ready to produce nuclear arms within a period of only six to seven months. This contradicts the findings of all intelligence services and will not change the US opposition against being drawn into a new Gulf war. Under these circumstances there is no immediate danger that Israel is launching an attack against Iran – at least not before the next presidential election in the United States. [27]

LS: Is the conflict with Iran also a struggle related to energy issues and possible oil and gas pipelines?

GM: For almost 70 years the control of the oil-rich Gulf region has been a priority for US foreign policy. It started in 1943 when president [Franklin] Roosevelt established an oil-for-security-relation with King Abdel Aziz by declaring the defense of Saudi Arabia of vital interest to the US.

In 1953, the CIA played a leading role in toppling the democratically elected government of Mossadegh, who had nationalized the Iranian oil industry. With US help, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was reinstalled as ruler. He opened the door to the exploitation of the Iranian oil resources by US companies and became „the policemen of the US in the Gulf“ with the most powerful military force in the region, and which was equipped with US weapons bought for more than US$20 billion. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was a serious blow for the US dominance in this region and started the hostility between Tehran and Washington.

The occupation of Kuwait through Saddam Hussein’s army in 1990 offered a unique chance for the United States to expand its military presence in the region in order to protect the Arab Gulf states against the danger of the Iraqi aggression and to increase the size and number of American military bases in the Gulf region. The US-led invasion of Iraq under the pretext of countering the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003 was entirely based on lies prefabricated by the CIA. [28]

The invasion was mainly intended to serve the geostrategic interests of the neo-conservatives in the [George W] Bush government who aimed at the US control of the Iraqi oil resources. The execution of this plan turned out to be a failure. After tremendous expense and after about 4,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed, the United States had to give up its military presence in Iraq completely and the relations between the Shi’ite-dominated government in Bagdad and Washington are deteriorating while Iran’s influence has increased enormously.

Under these circumstances, the rising tension between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Gulf monarchies is a blessing for the geostrategic interests of the US. By protecting the GCC states against the Iranian threat, the Obama government can justify its military presence in the oil-rich region and the US arms manufacturer profit tremendously from the sale of weapons to the Gulf states. The latest contracts to sell F-15 fighter jets to the Royal Saudi Air Force is valued at $30 billion, the United Arab Emirates bought an anti-missile system and Chinook helicopters worth $4.5 billion, and Oman ordered fighter planes for $1.4 billion. [29]

LS: How do you assess the actions undertaken recently by the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, especially in connection to his visits to China and Iran? [30]

GM: It is highly significant that President Mohammed Morsi paid his first visit to a country outside the Middle East not to Washington but to Beijing. This demonstrates the attempt to distance Egypt’s foreign policy from its former dependency on the United States during the reign of president Mubarak. The ostentatious visit was applauded by the majority of the Egyptian population and especially by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members have not forgotten that the US government had supported Mubarak’s policy of persecution of the Islamic opposition by jailing and torturing the Muslim Brothers.

The strive for greater independence was also underlined by the decision of Morsi to attend the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Teheran in spite of criticism and political pressure from the United States and Israel, which want to isolate the Islamic Republic. Morsi used his opening of this conference to call for the creation of a regional group consisting of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in order to find a solution for the crisis in Syria. This proposal clearly contravenes the US-led initiative against the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. It has to be regarded as another attempt to regain Cairo’s political weight in the region.

LS: Do you see it as a major problem, as David P Goldman has pointed out, that the population of Egypt is economically helpless because they have little or no means of production in order to emancipate as clients of the US, Saudi Arabia, or whoever else? [31]

GM: Such a statement is completely missing the point that Egypt has to offer quite a lot both from the economic and from the geostrategic point of view. Egypt has the largest population in the Arab world, with 82 million inhabitants. This represents a huge consumer market, which is boosted by remittances from Egyptians working abroad. The incoming money from migrants reached last year an all-time record of $14.3 billion, which is used mainly for private consumption and which helped to counter the decline of foreign exchange reserves in 2011. [32]

The largest Arab country is also of tremendous geostrategic importance for the US and Israel by stabilizing the political situation in the region on the basis of the Camp David Accord. Egypt grants fly-over rights to the US Air Force and provides access to the Suez Canal, a key channel for oil shipments and American military transport to the Gulf region. In exchange for these advantages, Washington has been paying $1.56 billion annually as financial aid to its important ally, summing up to a total of $65 billion since 1979. The vast majority of this money has been used to buy weapons from American arms manufacturers. [33]

The political arena is changing now. Morsi is inviting new competitors which challenge the dominant American position in Egypt. His visit to Beijing served first of all the purpose of increasing economic cooperation. So far, China has invested about $500 million and additional contracts over large-scale investments in infrastructure schemes were signed during Morsi’s visit. In 2011, Chinese commodities exports to this Arab country reached $7.3 billion, surpassing US exports to Egypt at $6.2 billion. Some analysts ask already „Is China buying Egypt from the US?“ [34]

To secure its influence in Egypt, the United States has to increase its financial support for Egypt. The announcement by the White House to provide Cairo with an additional $1 billion in debt relief and economic aid, the backing for a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund and the arrival of a large US delegation, including six trade officials and representatives of dozens of multinational enterprises, show quite clearly the importance which the US government and the private economic actors are attaching to Egypt. [35]

At the same time, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also competing to increase their influence in Egypt. This started during the first free parliamentary election campaign after the Egyptian revolution, when Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia sponsored the Salafis. After the victory of the Muslim Brothers both in the parliamentary and the presidential election it is not a surprise that the Qatari ruler continues to be extremely generous in his support for Morsi’s government. This is underlined by the announcement that $18 billion will be invested in tourism and industry projects over the next five years. Saudi Arabia is following suit. [36]

Gulf enterprises and investment banks which are benefiting from high oil prices are also lining up to invest in Egypt. This applies especially to the banking sector in which European banks are selling their Egyptian shares to cope with the banking crisis at home. [37]

It is obvious that the decline of the post-revolution economy in Egypt has passed its turning point. The economic outlook is rapidly improving. Whether this positive development will continue and create a sufficient number of urgently needed new jobs depends on the political stability, the restoration of public security and the successful execution of structural reforms of the economy.

LS: What are the political implications of the violent protests against the anti-Islam film concerning the relations between Egypt and the USA?

GM: Following the attack on the US embassy in Cairo, the Egyptian president condemned only the offensive film and added a general statement that foreign diplomatic missions have to be protected. By avoiding a condemnation of the violent anti-American protests Morsi tried obviously not to put his domestic alliances with the ultraconservative Salafists at risk. However, this behavior caused a rather harsh reaction by President Obama who called Egypt neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States. Although a White House spokesman declared later on that the status of Egypt has not changed as regards the country’s special privileges in cooperation with the US, is it clear that the relationship between the two states has deteriorated. This is also underlined by stalling the negotiations about debt relief and financial aid from Washington.

The anti-American protests in many Arab countries and especially the death of the American ambassador in Libya might also seriously affect US support for the opposition in Syria. According to Arab media reports, there is a wide-spread fear among members of Syrian oppositional groups that the fatal attack of militant Islamists on the embassy in Benghazi will be regarded as a model for the development in Syria after the toppling of the Alawite regime. This could lead to a readjustment of US policy and a withdrawal of American support for the oppositional forces.

LS: Finally, the classic question: who is gaining the most benefits from what is happening in Syria and beyond?

GM: So far, Israel and the US have been the main winners. The government in Jerusalem has been able to rally significant support for its fight against Iran from Washington and the European capitals. This does not apply to the military intervention demanded by Netanyahu and Barak, but in respect to a significant increase in sanctions against Teheran which cause more and more serious problems for the economic development of Iran.

The US is profiting from the growing dependency of the GCC countries on military protection by US troops combined with record sales of weapons by arms manufacturers in the United States, where tens of thousands of new jobs are created and hundred thousands of old jobs are secured.

1. Jurgen Todenhofer: Mein Treffen mit Assad, Bild, 9 July 2012.
2. Viktor Reznov: ANNA News Journalist Marat Musin about Houla Massacre, Syria News, 31 May 2012; also Rainer Hermann: Syrien. Eine Ausloschung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 June 2012.
3. Robert Fisk: Syria’s Pipelineistan War, Al Jazeera, 6 August 2012.
5. Tamsin Carlisle, Thomas Seibert: Qatar Seeks Gas Pipeline to Turkey, The National, 26 August 2009.
6. Roula Khalaf, Abeer Allam: Assad Intensifies Cyberwar against Qatar, Financial Times, 24 April 2012.
7. Osama Habig: Lebanon’s offshore gas likely exceeds Cyprus, Syria, Daily Star, 7 September 2012.
8. Remarks by Senator John McCain on the situation in Syria on the floor of the US Senate, 5 March 2012.
9. Pepe Escobar: Realpolitik blurs US red line in Syria, Asia Times Onlline, 24 August 2012.
10. Brian T Haggerty: Safe havens in Syria: missions and requirements for an air campaign, SSP Working Paper, July 2012, also Daniel Trombly: The cost of a Syrian intervention, US Naval Institute, 22 August 2012.
11. Ed Husain: al-Qaeda’s specter in Syria, Council on Foreign Relations, 6 August 2012.
12. Alexander Marquardt: Syrian helicopter appears to be shot down by rebels, abc-News, 27 August 2012.
13. Obama warns Syria chemical weapons use may spark US action, BBC, 21 August 2012.
14. Paul Joseph Watson: NATO plot to use ambulances as cover for humanitarian invasion of-Syria, Infowars, 29 August 2012.
15. Ismail Salami: West Throttling Syria, Tightening Noose, Media Monitors Network, 20 August 2012.
16. The Day After: The day after project: supporting a democratic transition in Syria, August 2012.
17. German Spy Ship Aiding Syrian Rebels, Deutsche Wellte, 20 August 2012.
18. Unravelling media scandal: Al Jazeera exodus: Channel losing statt over bias, Global Research, 13 March 2012; also Al Jazeera proxy for war hungry forces fuelling Syrian conflict , Russia Today. 19. Murat Yetkin: The Syrian war becomes a Turkish political issue, Hurriyet, 28 August 2012.
20. Jurgen Wagner: Imperialer Neolliberalismus: Syrien und die Europaische Nachbarschaftspolitik, IMI-Studie 12, 13 August 2012.
21. Fights break out at Syria opposition meet; Kurds walk out in protest over nationality, Al Arabiyya News, 3 July 2012.
22. Gunter Meyer: The resettlement of the population from the reservoir area of Lake Assad, Erlanger Geographische Arbeiten, Sonderband 16, 1984, p. 25-86, 299-301.
23. Patrick Seale: The urgent need to prevent a Middle East war, agence global, 14 August 2012.
24. Dilip Hiro: Non-Aligned summit belies isolation of Iran, Yale Global, 4 September 2012.
25. IAEA Report: Iran doubled number of centrifuges between May and August, Media Line MidEast Daily, 2 September 2012.
26. Israel under international pressure not to attack Iran alone, Reuters, 31 August 2012.
27. Israel shift on Iran after US ’no‘, Gulf Times, 5 September 2012.
28. Jeremy R. Hammond: The lies that led to the Iraq War and the persistent myth of ‚intelligence failure‘, Foreign Policy Journal, 8 September 2012.
29. Mark Landler and Steven Lee Myers: With 30 billion arms deal, US bolsters Saudi ties, New York Times, 29 December 2011. 30. M. K. Bhadrakumar: Egypt thumbs the nose at US, Asia Times Online, 21 August 2012.
31. David P. Goldman: When will Egypt go broke?, Asia Times Online, 12 July 2011.
32. Jamie Collinson: Egyptian remittances peaked in 2011, microDinero, 18 August 2012.
33. Egyptian blase about US threat to cut aid, The Media Line, 23 August 2012.
34. Erin Cunningham: Is China ‚buying‘ Egypt from the US?, Global Post, 6 September 2012.
35. Borzou Daragahi: Egypt’s consumer and investor confidence on the rise, Washington Post, 6 September 2012.
36. Qatar to invest $ 18bn in Egypt, Gulf Times, 7 September 2012.
37. Brian Wingfield and Nicole Gaouette: Mariott joins Boeing seeking trade assurance on trip to Egypt, Bloomberg Businessweek, 6 September 2012.

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