Status Audio Journal

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Syria Now / Syria’s Rebels: Before and After Aleppo

Syria Now
Syria’s Rebels: Before and After Aleppo
{{langos=='en'?('02/05/2017' | todate):('02/05/2017' | artodate)}} - Issue 4.1
Hosted by Bassam Haddad

In this interview, Bassam Haddad and Aron Lund discuss the state and status of Syria’s rebels, more than five months after the battle for Aleppo. They also discuss the factors that contributed to the formation and breakup of various rebel coalitions since 2011.


Aron Lund
Aron Lund

Aron Lund is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and has written extensively on Syrian politics.

Aron Lund is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and has written extensively on Syrian politics. Between 2013 and 2016, he edited the site Syria in Crisis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he was also a nonresident associate in 2016. He is a fellow of the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrew’s University. His publications include two Swedish-language books on Syrian politics, Drömmen om Damaskus (Stockholm, 2010) and Syrien brinner (Stockholm, 2014), the English-language Divided They Stand (Brussels, 2012), as well as several reports and book chapters published by, among others, the Carnegie Endowment, the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). He has an M.A. in Arabic from the Oriental Studies Program of Uppsala University in Sweden and has studied Arabic in Damascus, Algiers, and Cairo.

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Program Transcript

Transcribed into English by Charles Berger


Bassam Haddad (BH) – Good afternoon everyone, we are here with Aron Lund, a fellow at the century foundation and a very well-respected journalist working on Syria. Someone whose work has been followed by Syria experts, journalists, and the laypersons alike. And we are very happy and lucky to have him with us today. Hi Aron.


Aron Lund (AL) – Hi, thank you.


BHHow are you?


AL – I am fine, how are you?


BHGood. Good. I again am very happy to have you join Status, (al Wadha), for your first interview, perhaps one of several to come and we would like to talk with you a bit about Syria casually. Specifically, about the post-December situation after the takeover by the regime of the entirety of the city of Aleppo and the aftermath in terms of the developments within the rebel groups, movements and what is it exactly that you have, for instance, observed as a trend or pattern and if you can end with where, where you think we are now?


AL – Right, ok big question. Well, I mean I think that what happened with Assad and the government recapturing eastern Aleppo was, I mean, it has become symbolic or emblematic of sort of, not the government winning or the opposition losing, but a tipping point in the war I think, and really the seeds of that were, I mean, it was already happening. But eastern Aleppo finally falling to the government was kind of the point where everyone, and by everyone, I mean, in this, the international community, the western states, the United States, because they sort of recognized the [Unclear (02:12)] you know this is not, the rebels are not, they’re not winning. And that sort of, everyone’s been sort of reformulating their approach to the war since then I think. And I mean, the trends were clear already I think, that the rebels, I mean they were under siege in Aleppo since Spring 2016, and they tried to break out, and at one point they sort of broke out, but then they were pushed back in again. And, I think the real tipping point here was much earlier, it was probably, you know, if I have to find a single moment, it was the Russian intervention. Russian-Iranian escalation in September 2015 that was when things really changed, I think. And since then, I think we’ve seen the Syrian opposition it’s been coopted, what remained of the insurgency has been coopted by outside players in one way or another, and the, in the South of course, Jordan and the governments working through Jordan, have sort of, they have accepted to deescalate in the South and refocus their attention on the Islamic State and, and other Jihadi groups in that area, at the expense of the war against Assad. And, in the North, we’ve seen more or less the same thing with Turkey, when they pushed into the area northeast of Aleppo, with (Anfab?) and (Jarabluz?) and these places, in August 2016 and basically Turkey reconciling with Russia in the Summer of 2016 as a consequence of, you know, sanctions and just Turkey realizing the war wasn’t going their way. And the PKK, through various front organizations was rising in Syria, and that, I mean, we are now seeing Turkey focusing much more narrowly on Turkish interests at the expense of the war against Assad, as well. They’re still his enemy, they still want him gone, but they’re not really pushing for that in the same way as before. They’re pushing to secure their own border against, and to weaken the Kurdish groups.

            And then what really remains of the insurgency, the independent insurgency, that is still sort of primarily focused on toppling Assad, on the one hand, you have some pockets of territory like the east of (Houtha?), east of Damascus, and you have a few towns north of Homs, (Rostam?), (Talbis?) and these places, and a few other enclaves inside regime territory, but then really, it’s the northwest, inland basically, and some, you know, adjacent areas, in like western Aleppo, countryside, and north Hama, and a little speck of territory in northeast Latakia as well. So, and that part of the insurgency which still has backing from abroad, from Turkey, and Qatar, and even the US in some ways, that could, I mean, that still threatens us, or the Syrian government in many ways, but it’s also, I think, it’s gone too far down the Islamist route, you know. The former, the group now called (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham?), formerly (Shaat al-Sham?), and before that the Nusra front, which was al Qa’ida’s main [Unclear (05:54)] they really are the most powerful faction in that area of Syria right now. And the second most powerful faction, which is the only group that can really balance them in some way, with the proper amount of international support and so on, that’s (Ahar al-Sham?), which is also a pretty strict, fundamentalist group striving for theocracy and rejecting democracy, and understands, you know, is understood by and by, by the US and others, and they don’t want that group to win either, it is maybe Turkey and Qatar and other governments, and of course private funders abroad, and the Gulf and so on, could still support that insurgency, just to spite Assad, and spite Iran, and spite Russia, and prevent that area from falling.

            In Turkey’s case, because they don’t want the refugees and so on, but the idea that anyone would seriously back that slice of the insurgency as a contender for power in Syria, I think that’s not happening. Idlib, it will… is more likely to turn into a sort of a, as some people on the opposition side say, you know, it could become the heart of Syria, it is turning into an area that will be at some point regarded the way people in the West now look at Raqqa. This is sort of the jihadi badlands, we are not backing anyone, that we just want to get rid of this territory, and that is a tragedy, of course, for the civilians in that area, but the political effectiveness of the opposition has not really had any, there is no area where the Syrian opposition really has, can use as a staging ground to go for either a military victory or even a political solution, that would sort of incorporate that environment in some way. So, I think in some sense, the Syrian opposition, however we define that, they have already lost the war, and they can redefine the war as just fighting to stay in the game, and you know, sure, you can do that, but it is not the same thing as they were fighting for in 2012, 2013, 2014 and so on, so that’s my take.


BH Do you think we are witnessing, as some have said, the end of the military option? Not as in the end of the use of force to fight the regime and its allies, but sort of the end of a military option as far as nearly all the opposition factions are concerned, whether they are civilian or military. Is it that we are getting to that juncture, or that we have gotten to it, at least in part, or is, in your view, based on your work and observations and research, is it something that is going to be a matter of regrouping and then everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon again, in light, of course, of the various fissures and infighting that we have been witnessing?


AL – Ya, well I mean, first of all one should never say never, you know, this war has, you know, continued to surprise me and I think everyone. Every year there is this big upset, whether it was the Russian intervention, or the rise of the Islamic State or something like that. So, something could still happen to really change the game again, and I think there are some rebel groups that are still fighting with that as their you know, last remaining sort of hope, that Assad will just suddenly fall down dead one day, or something like this. But, I think, if that has not happened and it continues on the current trajectory, then what remains for the opposition groups, or for the armed opposition, is, some of the rebels are talking about you know, going underground and conducting an insurgency and it’s not territorially focused, and trying to hold territory, but you will instead go, you know, work with car bombs and assassinations and ambushes and just organizing clandestinely, and that could, absolutely that will be a part of Syria’s reality for many, many, many years I think.

But an insurgency like that, in this situation, will be a Jihadi insurgency, you know, like we saw in Iraq. The only group that sort of came out of that face alive was the Islamic State at that point, and Syria will be, the Islamic State or whatever, will be (Tahrir al-Shaar?), al-Qa’ida, whatever you want to call them. So, I mean I don’t see a future for, for any sort of internationally-backed, respectable so to speak, opposition under those circumstances. And, that doesn’t mean the fighting is over, it just means that the sort of, I think the, most of the governments involved in the Syrian war will no longer back a military strategy for regime change, as they have so far. And what that means, I think, is that people will; it will mean that the fighting is over, it will mean that they start focusing on their own interests, and securing them in different ways. And that is what we are seeing with Turkey, that is what we are seeing with Jordan, and I think what we are also seeing with the United States. You know, the United States has ramped up its counterterrorism operations, drone strikes, missile strikes and so on, in northwestern Syria, Idlib, a lot since Autumn, and that coincides I think with you know, the, some people say it is because the United States decided that “oh, these jihadi groups are a bigger threat than we thought.” I think maybe the real reason is that they decided that this insurgency is not going anywhere, there is no reason for us to hold back anymore. So, it is more of a nationally-focused, interest-focused, strategy. Where the Syrian opposition ends up in that, I do not know.

The problem, I mean, in a “normal civil war” (within quotation marks) maybe you could have rebel groups transitioning to a political role, taking part in everything, and political process, but the problem here is that you do not have a political process. The Assad government is not offering anything. I mean, they have their reconciliations on a local level and so on, what they call reconciliations, and they have various formal and informal mechanisms whereby you can be coopted back into the system, but it is really nothing that, I mean there is no real power-sharing going on, there is no open debate, there is no, there is nothing to, there is no other side of the conflict to jump over to, there is no one, you know, and that is the problem I think. And that is a function of how the regime works, in many ways, that it is so closed and narrow-minded and just incapable of change even in ways that would benefit it, I think.


BHThank you. Can we, can you tell us a couple things. Actually, I would like to follow up with the idea of whether this last juncture, which is about four months away from us right now. Except that it just feels like things froze, at some level; did this juncture after Aleppo, did, does it represent a break between the rebel factions, or at least most of them, and the what is called the civilian opposition? And I am not talking about the opposition inside Syria basically, a large number of people and groups who are not necessarily formally represented, but the opposition that is mostly outside Syria, or connected to various patron countries whether it is Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, or otherwise.


AL – Like the national coalition?


BH Yes, like the national coalition, and others, but mainly that. Did this juncture represent a, some sort of break? And if you have any insights on how this is viewed by internal groups that might have actually put their hope in the rebel factions, even if they did not support them ideologically, because that is always a messy thing. People always claim to be able to speak for, sometimes all Syrians, sometimes most Syrians, and we are all somewhat guilty of this, but there is something to be said about the kind of support that people have in Syria for different sides that is not a whole-hearted support, or an absolute support, whereby you know the regime is, you know, horrifically problematic, but people living under it feel, or certain groups and communities feel at least more protected than if they had been living under other groups or factions. And then the other side, people, end up supporting (al-Shaam?), thinking or hoping there might be some victory down the line but not really supporting everything that (Harar al-Shaam?) stands for, let alone (Jabaat al-Nusra or Jabaat fa-Shaam?). So, you know notwithstanding this sort of grey area positions, has there been a rupture in the civilian military, you know, connection, if it had ever been solid?


AL – Ya, that is an interesting question. I, what I think, I mean, as you say, people support the different sides for many, many reasons and that goes for the government side and the opposition side and of course also the YPG and the Islamic State, all of the sides. But I think the, I mean, the relevance of the national coalition and the higher negotiating committee, and these exiled bodies, was not primarily because they had popular support, you know, to an extent they did have popular support, as do all parties of the war. But, I mean their real relevance was that foreign governments that were involved in the war, and backed certain rebel factions, told these rebel factions that you have to be represented abroad by these, by the national coalition, by these groups, and they would put them in Geneva to negotiate, and they would sort of use these groups as their negotiating, you know, we want these Syrians to be in the unity government, or the transitional body, whatever they envisioned. We don’t want (Tahrir al-Shaam?) to take over. And the problem I think is, I mean even if the national coalition members and leaders and other exiled opposition groups agreed and groups inside Syria and some of the armed rebel factions connected to them, with many of those using the Free Syrian Army flag, or symbols, even if they persist, you know, they still support the same values, they still support the same solutions, and they stick to their rhetoric and so on, I mean they do not have a chance of getting anywhere with that without the foreign support, because they were very, very dependent on that support. From the United States, France, Great Britain and also Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia although those countries also supported other groups, more Islamist groups. So, I mean, if they are no longer considered useful to these governments, and I do not think they are, they will eventually be cast aside, or left to fade away. So, I am not sure there’s been a rupture, it is just that if these groups do not have a role to serve then no one will support them in the end. And I think the tipping point, which I would argue happened earlier, but was sort of symbolized by the fall of eastern Aleppo to the government, I think that tipping point has made it clear to all involved that there will not be, you know, Assad will not be defeated militarily, and there will also not be a situation where you pressure him so hard that he agrees to a political solution that will involve these groups. From this point on, some other, it will not be a transition in Syria, and without a transition these groups have no raison d’etre, there is no point of having them anymore. And that is in some way disconnected from, from how much popular support they have or you know, how well, or not well they have been able to convince rebel groups to support them. I think it is more of a function of that actually. If that makes sense.


BH - Yes. Thank you. I, before we move on to something a bit more, I guess analytical. I would like to ask you if you could share with us, just briefly. If we go quickly through the actors supporting the regime and or the opposition, whether it is the Arab Gulf states, the United States, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, China and others. If you can, you know, give us from where you stand, especially that you are in Europe, you are in a good place geographically to be able to see those kind of dimensions, if you can tell us, you know, where, how do you think, although you’ve touched on that, how do you think things have changed today? We are talking on May 1, several months after December, and maybe we are putting a bit too much emphasis on December and Aleppo but it is really, it is simply a landmark rather than anything else.


AL – Ya, well I think, I mean, all of this is has been happening for many years, you know? I think, for example, the United States, the position of the Obama administration evolved a lot between like 2012 and even 2013, 2014, I mean they, the United States went into the conflict thinking Assad would fall on his own somehow, or maybe they could nudge him a little bit and he would fall and then something would happen and then they would, the transition would magically take place, and then gradually realized that this was not happening and Obama didn’t want to get too involved, but he also wanted to sort of shape the opposition in ways that would, so the United States position has shifted a lot over time, I think. But you also see the position of the US allies shifting, with Turkey being the clearest example, I think. When they really did change their policy in 2016, and that, I think, was one of the big tipping points in the war. But, I mean also, like the Saudi Government, for example, they still hate Bashar al-Assad and they want him gone, but they are also busy doing stuff in Yemen, they are busy doing other things, and so it is a, I think generally, as I have said before, I think the opposition side has moved more and more toward sort of, looking out for their own interests in Syria after realizing they would not achieve what they set out to do. And that can take different forms and so on, and they’re not willing to talk about it publically, because there is no point in handing Assad and Putin and (Hamdali?) a free concession by saying that, you know, Assad can stay. The Trump administration did this to some extent. Now, they said, basically, that you know, that we still think Assad should go, but we are not going to spend a lot of time trying to achieve that anymore, we have other priorities now. So, on the government side, the programming side I think, you know. What do I know? But it seems to me that interests there, and policies there have been pretty consistent all along.

The Iranian government really wants the Assad government, the regime, the Assad family and so on, to stay because it is a huge part of their regional security infrastructure because of Hezbollah and Lebanon and so on. And the Russian government has been, it has been interesting to watch how Western governments have always sort of, the US in particular, I think, has tried to, sort of, they really wanted Russia to work for transition in Syria, they wanted Russia to do this and that and get Assad out, maybe they can push him out, or convince him, or launch a coup from the inside or something. But the Russians have, you know, they have formally, they have said they are committed to, you know, they do not want regime change, they want an orderly solution and so on, but in practice they have been working to save the regime, like the Iranians, because they are also locked into this, you know, the Russians, they are not magicians. They can tip the war in Assad’s advantage, and they have, but I don’t think the Russian government can, you know, go in to the sort of, the internal functioning of the Syrian government and get, you know, sort of surgically remove Assad and his family and his cronies from power without destroying it, and without provoking Iran, and they need Iran and they need Assad to win the war and that’s their goal. So, they are trying to win the war and that means supporting Assad. Whatever they say publically. And, so far, they have been doing pretty well at that, I mean they are winning the war in so far as the war can be won.

And I think it is more, it is, you know, how their strategy will evolve depends largely on how well the regime sticks together and functions and how much territory it can take with support from them. I mean, they do not necessarily have an interest in recapturing every centimeter of Syria. Putin has shown very clearly, I think, that he is comfortable with having these frozen conflicts, and sort of, half-finished wars, whether it is in Georgia or even, you know, many, many places around Russia’s own borders. And I am sure he is fine with having that in Syria as well, Assad might like to have support until he retakes every grain of Syrian territory but that is not necessarily where Putin is going, I think. But we are not even close to that point, you know, they still have to sure up Assad, get rid of the last rebel areas around Damascus and Homs and deal with the Idlib region in some way and sort of push the foreign backers of the opposition even harder until they back off even more from the war and then they can you know, maybe Russia can start to sort of recalibrate its priorities in Syria. But so far, they are with Assad and they are sticking with him until they have crossed that threshold I think. This is my, you know, it is, I am not privy to the internal deliberations in the Kremlin or in Washington D.C. so, but this is my reading of the situation.


BHThank you, well let us, I mean ya that is true, it’s very difficult to figure this out, especially that it looks like things might change more than, for instance, they have in the past six years ending with December or almost six years, things might actually take a different turn with what the United States is doing. But, you know, apart from trying to guess the future, I would like to go back to the past a little bit and ask you questions that students of Syria would like to hear your take on. How do I know this? I think, you know, I think it is something that we can reflect on right now and people might be, you know, a bit more “free” to think about, as even though the killing has not stopped, and the fighting has not stopped, and the crisis has not stopped, and the refugees have not stopped, you know, for some reason the media gives the impression that things are, have stopped in Syria, or have actually slowed down significantly, as if only the big news is worth, you know, relaying. The question is, I have been following you over the years as you wrote about various rebel groups and how they come together or break apart, form coalitions and then disintegrate, or you know, kind of disband. And my question to you is, what do you think explains this kind of coming together and breaking apart of these formations over the years? Are there some particular factors that you have noticed over time that sort of explain these patterns, or is it mostly a function of what happens on the battlefield in terms of the fortunes of some of these groups in being able to push ahead or otherwise? And then of course some say it is about economics and funding as much as it is about messaging and ideology. So, is there a way of looking back that we could begin at least, to look at the factors that explain some of these patterns?


AL – Well ya, that is a really interesting question actually, and one I have thought a lot about without necessarily reaching all the answers, but I, ya, I think the Syrian war has shown, and I mean, I think you can draw some important lessons about factionalized insurgencies or multi-sided wars and factionalized wars from Syria, because it has been such an extreme example of that. And, I mean, if you look at which groups have been successful in Syria, because at the high point of the war, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency actually, they said in 2013 that there was, I think, the number was 1200 to 1500 armed factions in Syria. I think they referred to the opposition side only, and then of course many of these groups were small, and just very localized, you know, someone and his cousins in a village, and many of them cooperated under some bigger umbrella and so on, but they were sort of distinct entities anyway. And that is a huge number of groups, of course. And in an environment of that kind, most of those groups did not succeed, they were either destroyed or they folded and went away, or more commonly I think, they were absorbed into a bigger group. And then you have to look at which were the bigger groups that were successful, and I think, I mean you can just look at Syria’s, what Syria looks like right now.

            In part in the government areas, you have the Islamic State, and you have the Kurdish areas, which are run by, you know, they call themselves many different things, YPG, (Tevdem?), PYD and so on, but it is really the PKK. And then you have the opposition areas of a mixture of different groups really, but a few of them bigger than the others. The most successful ones, I would say, have been (Tahrir al-Shaam?), before the Nusra front, basically al-Qa’ida, you know, now they say they are not al-Qa’ida anymore, but you know, they were formed out of al-Qa’ida. And then (Ahar al-Sham?), which is sort of a national group, still has roots in Salafi jihadism but different in various ways. More pragmatic, I would say. And then you have a group that I have looked a lot at actually in the eastern (Unta?) region which is sort of a contained battle space because it is under siege, so that you have this microcosm of groups there, very interesting to see how they sort of related to each other when they were cut-off from the larger insurgency. And the biggest group there was the Islam Army, Jaesh al-Islam, with (Zahar al-roosh?) which is also a Salafi group. And I think what these groups have in common, all of them, a few different things, they have ideology in common. Not the same ideology, but a very, you know, a driving, motivating ideology definitely. You had, most of them, some sort of Salafi, or Salafi-jihadi approach, but in the case of the Kurdish groups it was more, you know, the (Ahlist?) ideology, which is sort of the leftist sort of (bajalans?) ideology, roots in Marxism but considerably changed now, but still an ideology that is really alive among supporters. They believe in this, and they’re taught the doctrine, they believe in the doctrine, and they are even willing to die for it, you know, and they have suicide bombers and they are a secular group, that is pretty unusual.            

            So, that was important, I think, and then the other thing would be that they were, they have all been, all of these groups have been very, very goal-oriented and very, very ruthless in certain ways. But I mean, against internal rivals, especially, of course, the Islamic State, which, you know, kills anyone that tries to oppose it, and they had a small tribal uprising in Eastern Syria soon after they took that area in 2014. They basically wiped out whole clans that had been linked to those (illegible) and just to sort of make their point. But also, the Islam Army and the (Unta?) region, very harsh tactics against dissidents in that area and other rebel factions, and (Tahrir al-Sham?), we are seeing has now, Northwestern Syria has been a little bit different than the other areas, but (Tahrir al-Sham?) they’ve broken up several smaller factions and (Ahar al-Sham?) have probably been the most diplomatic and decent, more often took over groups by preservation and offering money, support, and so on, and protection. Not so much coercion, although that has happened as well. So, they have that in common. And then I would say that for most of them, it is actually the case that they came in with a readymade hierarchy, they are very, in the case of the Nusra Front (Tahrir al-Sham?) today, and the Islamic State, they came in through Iraq and they had, you know, the structure of the group was already finished, you know, they came in with a leader, they had a hierarchy, they had money, they had activists and everyone knew who is, what the chain of command was. And then they split, but still they had the Salafi-jihadi structure, it was there. And in the case of the Kurdish groups, the same thing, you know, the PKK already existed as a functioning insurgent organization in Iraq, they just rolled in across the border and applied that template to Syria. So, I mean, the Islam Army, Ahar al-Sham, a little bit different, but still they drew a lot of their inspiration from the Salafi-jihadi groups that had fought in Iraq, and they took sort of the organizational model from there, and they had, both of them, especially I would say the Islam Army had a core network to rely on from the start. In the Islam Army, in that case, it was the Salafi movement in Duma, which is a city inside eastern (Huta?) which has a strong united, had a very lively Salafi movement before the war, so there was already, you know, a network of mosques and students and clerics in that area that they could rely on when the war began. So, in contrast to all the other groups, which basically rose from the bottom-up, these groups came in with something they could apply top-down, and they did so quite ruthlessly.

            And, I think that that is really a part of the explanation and then of course you have the factors you mentioned, which is, you know, sheer luck in many cases, but also foreign funding, for example. They all have funding sources from abroad that have been very important to them, and that is obvious, but they also, it is also the case that they got the funding because they were already functioning organizations and had these networks abroad already and they had already sort of, and they proved that they could do something with the money, and they could recruit, and they could send people to the Gulf and so on. So that, it is, those things work together I think, but I mean, my understanding of this is the, I mean, the Syrian civil war, to me, seems to demonstrate that an insurgency that is so factionalized and so divided, it will not just unify from the bottom-up. Ya, it, there will be coercion involved, you have to have a group that goes in and really forces people to fall in line, or they will not, they will split, and they will, you know, that is what happened in nearly all of the coalitions. The rebels have formed I do not know how many coalitions and Islamic councils and this and that, and they all fall apart because at some point someone gets, you know, a judge rules against them and they just walk away and form a new council or split and say that, you know, expel the others. But the groups that did not tolerate that, those were groups that survived, the Islamic State did not do that, they just killed anyone who did not agree, and that works. I would love to say that that does not work, and that is not the way you run an insurgency but I think it is. And Syria has demonstrated that quite clearly, I think.


BH Thanks, Aron. Ok well, you know, we are reaching sort of the end, and before we let you go I have just a couple of things that I would like to check with you about. First, can you tell us a little bit about what has been, this is going to sound like a, silly NPR question, ya I cannot believe I am asking it, but given your background and given how closely connected to the event, can you tell us what been sort of, quite surprising or shocking, based on your observation of the past six years in terms of the developments in Syria? I mean, there are things one expects to happen in similar conflicts and insurrections, uprisings, revolutions, civil wars, however you want to characterize what’s happening in Syria. I am not fond of the term civil war myself, in this case, but what has been, what has actually perhaps caused you to rethink some things, or what has been like literally shocking, or surprising?


AL – Oh, ok, well I mean, many things, of course. I am kind of struggling to come up with one. You know, one thing that I think I understood more clearly the longer this went on, and the more I learned, and the more people I spoke to, and the more people that were willing to speak to me, was just the, how stupid politics can be. Because, I mean, in the sense that many, many people who make very important decisions in this war, on all sides, they know very little, about their opponents especially. You know, everyone is driven by prejudice and information just filters out through these networks of the sources you like and the sources you rely on, and the amount of you know, rumor and conspiracy theory, and so on, so on, I just think the, I mean this applies to the Syrian actors of course, and also to the international actors, even the (united union?). I started out thinking maybe inside, you know, the big governments, they must have the best analytical apparatuses and all the information, and all the details and so on, but in the end, it comes down to people who have to make decisions. And one person can only take in so much information. And people who makes decisions on these things, Syria, they are usually people who will also have to make decisions on everything from Ethiopia to Russia, to North Korea, they do not know much about Syria. You know, they know what they are told and then they have to act on that information somehow, and decisions just end up being made very arbitrarily, on all sides, and that sort of collides into this, you know all of that imperfect decision-making just collides in this hellish war. Because many, many sides, I think, of the war, have not chosen the most rational way to approach the problem from their you know, if you look back in perfect hindsight then it is easy to see that many, all involved could have done very different things and they would have benefitted from that. And I am not, you know, of course, I am in the same situation. I do not know, you know, one percent of what I would like to know to understand this, I have to guess and then I make errors all the time, but on the other hand I do not make any decisions, so that is good. But that has been an eye-opener for me at least, I have a lot less confidence in the wisdom of big government at this point.


BHThank you. Thank you, Aron, that actually is very interesting and I am hoping that we cannot continue to be surprised, but continue to talk. Ok, before leaving, or leaving you, or releasing you, I wanted to see if throughout the years, since you, I am assuming you were not able to do field work in Syria, many would wonder what did you rely on as sources, and of course, I mean you have, you know, probably sources that you cannot reveal and so on and so forth; in general, how were you able to keep up? Because if one, those of us who have read your articles and reports, you know, saw a lot of rich material, how were you able to follow these intricacies of the rebels and rebel movements and so on?


AL – Ya, I, that is true, I mean, I did get to Syria now last year finally in October, November, but that was the first time in six years. I could not and I did not get a visa before so, and I did not you know, want to go in and get kidnapped with, on the other side, so. But I, I mean, when this started in 2011, I had already, I wrote a book in Swedish about the Syrian opposition that came out in I think September 2010. So, I was already really, sort of into the Syrian opposition, I had been interviewing people for several years and gone around you know, in Syria and all these exile groups in Europe, so I had a network I think already and most of that network of course now has transformed into what is now the exile opposition, and many of them are not very relevant anymore because new groups rose to become important in Syria. Rebels. But I started out there I think, so I had an understanding of the situation from there and I used that as much as I could.

            But then, really, it is the case, I mean, it is, I mean there is an enormous amount of information available if you just look for it. All of the rebel groups and all of the opposition factions and a lot of groups and people on the regime side as well, and the Islamic State, and the Kurds and so forth, everyone. And the various governments, they are all just pushing out information daily, there is, you cannot even read a fraction of it. But if you are looking for information on something, the situation, a city, or a group, or an event or whatever it is, then there will be information out there, you can just call someone up or you read all the statements, and you read them from the different sides, and so on. And you always have to cross-check the information because everyone is lying to you, you just have to figure out who is lying about what. But they will, generally, they will be very helpful to point out the lies on the other side, so that is a good way of approaching I think. So, I mean, there is an enormous amount of information out there, it is just about taking your time to sit down and try to understand it and take that in and do what you can with it, and then just knowing your limits when something is not noble and you should just try to stay away from saying anything on that topic, I think. Or, you know, not convince yourself that you know more than you do, because a lot of these things, many of these things will remain un-understood forever. So, I, you know, I think that is it, you know. Just use the wealth of information that is out there, talk to people, you know, either you go to, if you can go to Syria, great, go to Syria. If you can go to the region around Syria, that is also great. And then there is phone, and there is Skype, and there is email, and there are all sorts of social media, and there is a lot of people who want to talk to you about these things actually and their point-of-view, so just use that, and that is what I try to do.


BHThanks Aron, is there anything that you would like to say before we let you go on with your life?


AL – (Chuckles) I should come up with something clever now.


(Both laugh)


BHNo it does not, it can be silly. You know.


AL – No, I just, no. Thanks for having me and thanks for doing a great job with Jadaliyya, which is a great site.


BHThank you, and actually this was really, this was really comfortable and insightful and informative. I hope that we can do this more often, it does not have to be like a, an all-around conversation about all kinds of things. Maybe as developments take place, we will give you a call and get your viewpoint.


AL – Ok, thank you. Great.


BH Ok Aron, thank you very much for giving us your time. Take care!


AL – Alright, take care. Bye Bye!


BHBye Bye!



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