What on earth has descended upon the Middle East?
Why such an epic explosion of violence? It feels strange to ask these questions of Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s close advisers and former translator to his father, Hafez. Her office is spotless, flowers on the table, her female secretary preparing a morning round-up of the world’s press on the Middle East, the coffee hot and sweet. At one point, when she spoke of the destruction in Syria and the mass attacks on the region’s Arab armies, it was difficult to believe that this was Damascus and that a few hundred miles to the east Isis have been cutting the throats of their hostages. Indeed, Shaaban finds it difficult even to define what Isis really is.
Not so with America and the war in Syria. “Right from the beginning of this crisis, I never truly felt that the issue was about President Assad,” she says. “It was about the weakening and destruction of Syria. There has been so much destruction – of hospitals, schools, factories, government institutions, you name it. I think the Americans take their battles against leaders and presidents – but only as a pretext to destroy countries. Saddam was not the real target –it was Iraq. And it’s the same for Libya now – America told everyone it was about Gaddafi. The real issue is about weakening the Arab armies, whoever they are. When the Americans invaded Iraq, what was the first thing they did? They dissolved the Iraqi army.”
Shaaban, of course, reflects Syria’s regime. Thus she calls the war a “crisis” and does not choose to reflect on the regime’s responsibility for this – or the numbers killed by the regime forces as well as by the rebels. What she does have is a very clear analytical brain which can shape an argument into coherence however much you disagree with her. She showed this in her research through Syrian presidential and foreign-ministry archives when she was writing a remarkable book about Hafez al-Assad’s peace negotiations with the Clinton administration, in which the old “Lion of Damascus” turns out to be a lot shrewder than the world thought he was –and his betrayal by America much deeper than we suspected at the time. She talks on about the destruction of the Iraqi army, the losses in the Syrian army, the massive suicide attack against Egyptian troops in Sinai and the killing of Lebanese troops in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. And you have to listen.
“Now all Arab armies are targeted – and the purpose is to change the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the crux of all that is going on in the Middle East. I am not saying these tactics will work. I am saying ‘they’ are targeting the Arab armies. The Egyptian army is very strong. It is a logical army that is defending its country. And then it received this huge attack in Sinai. It’s my opinion that the target is to eliminate the threat that Arab armies represent for the liberation of Gaza and the West Bank and Golan and to make Israel’s occupation easier and less costly. This is a major dimension of the cause of the ‘Arab Spring’. In fact I call it an ‘Israeli Spring’.”
Of course, it’s not difficult to argue with this. Why should the West – presumably the author of these Arab military calamities – want to weaken an Egyptian army which is, by proxy (or directly) protecting Israel itself? Why would the West want the new Iraqi armies to be crushed by Isis – which Shaaban, even though she is speaking in English, naturally refers to by its Arab acronym of ‘Daesh’? Why, indeed, would the West be bombing Isis if it wished to weaken the Syrian army?
“The Americans are the major power in the world and they are weighing this power. But what is ‘Daesh’? I feel it could be the thing it is now without financial and political help from leaders. How does it sell its oil and get its money? In Syria, we are under sanctions and we cannot transfer a penny through New York. So how does ‘Daesh’ get financed in such a huge way? Let me ask you something. When Mosul fell to ‘Daesh’, the Americans did nothing. The Americans intervened only when Kurdistan was threatened – which means the US supports the partition of Iraq. So the US move against ‘Daesh’ is a political move for other objectives. It’s interesting that the Syrian people in Ain al-Arab” – this of course refers to the Syrian Kurds in the Isis-besieged town they call Kobane – “have been more successful in fighting ‘Daesh’ than the Americans.”
Shaaban looks at me sharply. There is no mention of the constant US air strikes against Isis around the town. But she is also contemplating the darkness of that throat-cutting institution, the woman stoned to death in Idlib, the extraordinarily effective propaganda campaign which it runs. “This is propaganda made by very professional experts. There are professional media people involved. It is being ‘directed’ by professionals. And once those who are behind ‘Daesh’ achieve their goals, then they can dispense with it, take off the black clothes and become a ‘moderate’ opposition.”
Shaaban laughs. She knows this is a clever conceit – the Middle East has been littered with monstrous “terrorist” organisations– the PLO, the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Nidal – which have either been turned into pussycats or eliminated themselves. The next line I was waiting for. “And by the way, what is this ‘moderate’ opposition which is supposed to exist here in Syria? ‘The moderate armed opposition’, they say. How can someone who is armed and puts a gun to your head be a ‘moderate’? Our army is defending our people.” I interrupt. The world would say that civilians have a right to bear arms when they are killed by the government’s forces. No reply. The people of Syria fight for their president, she says, morale is high, the destruction of their enemies – to the health and education systems and to the architectural heritage – is enormous. And so it goes on. President Bashar al-Assad, needless to say, gets a clean bill of health.
But then Shaaban turns to Saudi Arabia, the “Takfirist”curricula in Saudi schools, the culture of head-chopping criminals in Saudi Arabia, its support for the Taliban. “It is a culture very similar to the ‘culture’ of ‘Daesh’. So why was ‘Daesh’ created?” But as an Arab nationalist, does Shaaban want to restore the old Sykes-Picot colonial border between Syria and Iraq which Isis symbolically destroyed?
“I hope the new generation of Arab nationalists will break these borders and help to create a new Arab identity, the emergence of a different reality, to be a real player in international politics. I hope young Arabs will not cling to these borders. Why should Lebanese and Syrians have to stop at their border when the terrorists can move freely across? As Arabs, we should sit down and think how we can face these challenges together. There is a master-plan, a ‘maestro’ – yes, I know people say that this is a ‘conspiracy theory’. But what I’m saying is that the the conspiracy is no longer a ‘theory’ – it is a reality we must confront together.”
This was a bit like the end of a long symphony concert, the rousing send-off as Arab nationalism is reborn. Surely that is what the original Syrian Ba’ath party was supposed to be about. Shaaban condemned Turkey for its “lies” and President Erdogan’s desire for another “Ottoman military hegemony” in the Middle East. She takes comfort from the ease with which Sunni refugees from Idlib and Aleppo have settled among Alawites and Christians around Lattaki and Tartous – although she at no point names these religious groups. And she talks about the vast number of families who have lost loved ones – no blame attaching to anyone at this point – but then she utters an irrefutable truth. “When you kill a member of a family, you kill the whole family.” And there really is no answer to that one.