An exclusive interview with Dr. Amr al-Azm and his views on the Syrian Uprising
Although many in the United States have turned their focus elsewhere, the Arab Spring is still alive and well and unrest still continues in many Middle Eastern states. Recently (November 10th, 2011) I sat down with Dr. Amr al-Azm for a one-on-one interview asking him his opinions about the Arab Spring and the events that are taking place in his native Syria. Dr. Amr Al-Azm is very qualified to speak on this issue; he has appeared multiple times on the BBC as well as many other major news outlets and was recently in an episode of PBS’s Frontline. A link to that video is listed at the end of this article and I recommend all those wanting to know more about the unrest in Syria to watch the video.
To give you a little bit of background on whom Dr. Amr Al-Azm is; he is an Assistant Professor of History here at Shawnee State University. Dr. Amr Al Azm was educated in the UK, reading Archaeology of Western Asiatics at the University of London, Institute of Archaeology and graduated with a doctoral degree in 1991. He has excavated a number of sites including Tell Hamoukar in Syria and one possibly associated with Ghengis Khan's final resting place in Mongolia. He was the Director of Scientific and Conservation Laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums (1999-2004) and Head of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the University of Damascus (2003-2006). He has taught at the University of Damascus (1999-2006) and served Dean of University Requirements at the Arab European University (2005-2006). He is also a keen observer of Middle East events, in particular Syria and its neighbors. He was a visiting Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University (2006-2009) teaching courses in political science and anthropology (2006-2009.)
In the following article all questions in bold where asked by me, William R. Balzer and the answers that followed were from Dr. Amr Al-Azm:
What is the Arab Spring? Is that name appropriate for what is going on right now in the Middle East?
Well in a sense it’s a misnomer in that it started in winter; it started in December it didn’t start in the spring. The reason we call it a spring is because spring is a time of rebirth of something new and after decades of repression, authoritarianism, and a lack of democracy we are starting to see a positive change. It seemed that everybody around the Arab world and outside it had assumed that the Arab’s were destined to live or continue living in these pretty miserable conditions in terms of their civil liberties and their rights to free speech. When this Arab Spring happened it came out of the blue.
This was a call for basic human rights that we take for granted here in the West. It seemed that the Arab people and the youth in particular were finally tired of the situation. The Arab world is a very young population; it is not an aging population. There have been huge population booms in Syria, Egypt, and in the rest of North Africa and all these young people just turned around and said hey, you know what we’re not taking this anymore. That is why it is called a spring in that sense because it is a rebirth of a movement or an expression, or a rejection of the decades of authoritarianism and lack of democracy.
So the suppression of human rights throughout the Arab world is what caused the Arab spring or where there other factors?
Well it’s not just human rights it’s everything; it’s the whole combination. I mean remember it’s the lack of opportunities; if you look at it this way there is a lack of opportunities for employment, opportunities to better yourself, improving your standing in the world around you and providing for your family. It is hard to just sit back and watch while this kind of injustice is happening.
So since we are trying to relate this to the average American, do you think this is going to effect the United States at all and if so how?
Absolutely, it is going to affect the United States for sure. Anything that happens in the Middle East can have an effect on U.S interests in the region. The Arab Spring is going to have an effect on the United States and its policies in the region; this is why we have seen sometimes contradictory messages coming out of Washington or even delays in terms of responses by the Obama administration to what is clearly a need. This happens in part because they (Washington) are sitting there calculating and factoring in, saying how is that going to affect our strategic interests in the region and don’t forget this is a region that produces a significant amount of oil and also this is where Israel is. These are all factors that when the United States makes policy it has to take into account.
So do you think the United States has a “hands off” policy right now? Is the United States just waiting for the dust to clear before they pick sides?
No, I think initially they were caught with their pants down like everybody else but nobody was expecting this and I think that is why their initial responses were so hesitant. I think now it is quite different and they are engaging on Syria, and in Libya but staying out of others. It’s kind of interesting to see for instance with Bahrain the United States did not intervene, they let the Bahraini regime put down the uprising and I think it’s because of the fear of a Shia take over and we also have a massive naval station in Bahrain as well. With all those things we were happy to let the Saudi’s role the tanks in and crush the uprising. In Yemen we don’t seem to be really engaging President Ali Abdullah Saleh or demanding him to step down or freezing assets and that’s because one of the United States strongest partners in the region Saudi Arabia doesn’t really want us to do that whereas on Libya we were ready to go all the way and lead NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) on the bombing in Libya and taking Gadhafi out of power.
With your background you have a very keen ability to see both sides of the coin. In your opinion did the Obama administration handle Libya correctly?
Libya is a bone of contention in this country for a variety of reasons but I think Libya turned out well. With hindsight being what it is the administration can say here, this was the way to go and we made the right call. Now had the whole thing went badly there would have been a different response to that but personally I think yes, I think it was handled right. Once the people on the ground had made the decision to take up arms against Gadhafi then they needed the support and got it; it wasn’t very easy and mistakes were made but the end result was a good one for everybody with Gadhafi dead. Also don’t forget that it was a NATO strike that finally basically stopped Gadhafi as he was trying to escape from Sirte and had him scurrying into a drain pipe where they finally found him. What would have been wrong would have been to have a military intervention, NATO or not and the people not want it.
I can tell you in Syria for example a lot of people on the ground, not everybody obviously but a lot of people on the ground, particularly the protestors who are facing the bullets, manning the barricades, the ones who are getting mowed down every day are calling for protection. What they mean when they say protection which is interesting is a “no-fly zone.” A no-fly zone when you look at it initially, you may say what the point is; the regime isn’t using any fixed wing or helicopters apart from occasionally moving troops around with them for logistics so why would anyone want a no-fly zone?
A no-fly zone is a code word for something else; it’s a code word for we want the army to stay in its barracks. We want NATO, the United States, whomever to actually conduct aggressive action against the Syrian army that is not sitting in its barracks. I think that would be the ideal way to look at it. They could hit Syrian troop movements while on the road, whilst they are moving from city to city, to go in and force them to stay in their barracks. As long as they stay in their barracks their safe and as soon as they come out of their barracks they are going to be targeted. That would be a very powerful message to the regime saying the rest of the world is very serious about the terrible abuses the regime has committed and at the same time it would protect the civilians. The civilians are asking for this now like the civilians of Libya did earlier. There is a big difference from when people are calling for this and when they are not. Right now the vast majority of people, both inside and outside Syria are calling for some sort of action that would prevent the Syrian army or somehow restrict the ability of the Syrian regime to go out and kill its people.
Now I am sure that you would like to see something like a No-Fly Zone enacted in Syria but do you think that will actually come to pass?
I don’t know it’s kind of difficult; so far all indications are that they have no intentions to do so but this can change and there are a number of events or acts that could change that. A very serious escalation in the causalities can be a possible trigger to intervention; another trigger could be with the Arab League. Once the Arab League suspended Libya’s member ship that opened the door for the U.N’s Security Council to make a resolution and from there NATO was able to act. There is a chain reaction, right now on Saturday the Arab League is having a special meeting which we hope and we suspect will suspend Syria’s membership. That would be a trigger that would hopefully trigger a Security Council resolution of some sort against the Syrian regime which may then trigger something with NATO. Without that though unless there is an imminent catastrophe like in Benghazi you won’t see any outside intervention. The regime is stupid but not that stupid; I don’t think they will ever take it to that level. Their doing right now piece by piece and street by street, house by house; small bit size chunks to avoid that escalation.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the Daily Show recently promoting her new book and when she was asked whether Operation Iraqi Freedom had any positive influence on the Arab Spring she said yes. Would you agree with that statement?
No, to the contrary actually; Operation Iraqi Freedom, and there is a couple of contradictory terms to put it together like that. Operation Iraqi Freedom held back those of us who were active at that time, it made it hard for us to make the case for democracy because the US invasion of Iraq became the by word for this is what happens when you call for democracy, you invite US or foreign invasions and occupations. The fact that the occupation was a terrible mess and it was very mismanaged by the Bush administration was clear for all to see. But most of all yes we did get rid of Saddam Hussein but is Iraq really a democracy now? No it is not; I’m not saying that the Iraqi people were better of under Saddam that is in no way what I am saying. But at the same time just because you got rid of Saddam does not mean that the mission was a success. There isn’t a despot in charge but it isn’t a democracy either. In Iraq there is a new form of autocracy in charge and it’s not working. Maliki is not a good example of democracy in addition that now you have Iran for the most part in charge of Iraq whereas before they were not even in the picture in the way of influence.
One of the major fears of Westerners is many of these Arab states breaking down and turning to chaos after the Arab Spring. Do you think any of these states in the Middle East will turn into a state like Somalia or Afghanistan?
The chances for any of these states to go into a Taliban style of extremism are very unlikely. I’ll give you a very simple answer for that one; you need a certain environment. Afghanistan and Somalia is a product of a complete breakdown of society and decades of civil war. A group like this would not be able to take hold in many of the Arab states like Syria or Egypt; I don’t think the people would tolerate it. The people would uproot it themselves; they wouldn’t need someone to do it for them. The Islamist party that won in Tunisia is very moderate and all the public statements they have made are very reassuring the seculars, to the women and the West. Everyone is looking to Turkey as a model to follow, in Syria it will be the same. You have to keep in mind that Middle Eastern society by and large is conservative by nature. They are socially conservative but liberal in terms of its politics, business, and management of its capital. I don’t see a threat in a Taliban Islamist extremist government taking hold in the region.
Do you think there is a way the Assad regime and the protestors can reach an agreement with Assad still in charge?
The demands of the uprising are very clear; there will be no dialogue with the regime till Assad agrees to step down and even then the dialogue will be only about how to transfer power. There will be no dialogue to extend the life of the regime.
So the opposition is willing to talk to him just under certain circumstances?
If we are going to talk to him he has to first free all political prisoners, withdraw the troops from the streets, and then he could talk to us on how to hand over power, and not extend his power. We’re not interested in any of these deals where he will hand over power hear in a couple of years. He has total power right now and we are interested in the talks so there isn’t a power vacuum in the country. The key demand of the uprising is that Bashar Assad step down as well as his family and bring an immediate end to the regime as it is now.
Do you think there is a relationship between the events we have seen happen in the Middle East and the Occupy protests here in America and the protests in Europe?
No, I don’t think there is much of a connection between the two or if at all. I think people power has always existed. The Arab Spring is not the first uprising to happen; we have seen it in Latin America, we saw it East Asia, we have even saw it in Eastern Europe back in the late 80’s early 90’s with the fall of communism. To make idiotic bogus argument that this is some kind of a plot by the Middle Eastern world to so discordant America is not just idiotic but moronic and absurd and these people should be ignored.
Do you think the message between both these movements is similar?
In a following up of what has happened in Syria since this interview the violence still continues as well as many other Arab states. The Arab League has given the Assad regime in Syria a three day ultimatum as of Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. Due to publishing times of this paper who knows what will happen in the Arab world between now and then but so far the events that Dr. Amr Al-Azm was speaking of to bring foreign intervention have started to move into place. Whatever your view on the Arab Spring is or Syria, may a peace soon be reached in the region and in the world as a whole.
William R. Balzer
The following is a link to a Frontline Special on PBS’s about the Syrian revolution and Dr. Amr Al-Azm is featured in this episode: