Saturday 16 November 2019

Robert Fisk: As war rages outside, Syrian leaders look elsewhere for blame

The battle for Damascus could be heard inside the foreign minister's office yesterday, a vibration of mortars and tank fire from the suburbs of the capital that penetrated Walid Muallem's inner sanctum, a dangerous heartbeat to match the man's words.

America was behind Syria's violence, he said, which will not end even after the battle for Aleppo is over.

"I tell the Europeans 'I don't understand your slogan about the welfare of the Syrian people when you are supporting 17 resolutions against the welfare of the Syrian people'.

"And I tell the Americans 'You must read well what you did in Afghanistan and Somalia. I don't understand your slogan of fighting international terrorism when you are supporting this terrorism in Syria'."

Walid Muallem spoke in English and very slowly, either because of the disconcerting uproar outside or because this was his first interview with a Western journalist since the Syrian crisis began. At one point, the conflict between rebels and government troops in the suburbs of Douma, Jobar, Arbeen and Qaboun -- where a helicopter was shot down -- became so loud that even the most phlegmatic of foreign ministers in a region plagued by rhetoric glanced towards the window. How did he feel when he heard this, I asked him?

"Before I am a minister, I am a Syrian citizen, and I feel sad at seeing what's happening in Syria, compared with two years ago," he said. "There are many Syrians like me -- eager to see Syria return to the old days when we were proud of our security."

I have my doubts about how many Syrians want a return to "the old days" but Mr Muallem claims that perhaps 60pc of the country's violence comes from abroad, from Turkey, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with the United States exercising its influence over all others.

"When the Americans say, 'We are supplying the opposition with sophisticated tele-communications', isn't this part of a military effort, when they supply the opposition with $25m (€20m) -- and much more from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia?"

The Americans, he says, succeeded in frightening the Gulf countries about Iran's nuclear capabilities, persuaded them to buy arms from the US.

"We believe that the US is the major player against Syria and the rest are its instruments."

"But wasn't this all really about Iran?" I asked. A dodgy question since it suggested a secondary role for Syria in its own tragedy. And when Mr Muallem referred to the Brookings Institution, I groaned.

"You are laughing, but sometimes when you are foreign minister, you are obliged to read these things -- and there was a study by Brookings called 'The Road to Tehran', and the result of this study was: if you want to contain Iran, you must start with Damascus.

"We were told by some Western envoy at the beginning of this crisis that relations between Syria and Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas are the major elements behind this crisis. If we settle this issue, they (the US) will help end the crisis. But no one told us why it is forbidden for Syria to have relations with Iran when most if not all the Gulf countries have very important relations with Iran."

I asked about chemical weapons, of course.

If Syria had such weapons, they would never be used against its own people, he said.

"We are fighting armed groups inside Aleppo, in the Damascus suburbs, before that in Homs and Idlib and this means fighting within Syrian cities -- and our responsibility is to protect our people."

And the infamous Shabiha militia blamed for atrocities in the countryside? Mr Muallem doesn't believe in them. There might be local unarmed people defending their property from armed groups, he says. But pro-regime, paid militiamen? Never. No war crimes charges against the Syrian foreign minister, then. But the guns still thunder away outside his windows. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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