Sunday, March 6

India's former Syria ambassador: Bashar al-Assad was in over his head in 2011

In January an Indian Career Ambassador, V.P Haran, took a walk down memory lane to give his firsthand impressions to a German publication of what was happening in Syria prior to and during the uprising in 2011.  

The catch is that the Google translation of the interview I feature here is atrocious. With the exception of one sentence I've cleaned up the lede but for the rest of the translation you're on your own. Yet enough of the ambassador's points come through to make the difficult read worth it -- especially for those who suspect that Bashar al-Assad was caught flat-footed when the uprising broke out in Syria in 2011. 

As with several other offspring of authoritarian national leaders who'd spent much of their lives outside their native country before coming to power -- Rajiv Gandhi and Gamal Mubarak immediately come to mind -- Bashar, trained as a physician and European in his outlook, did not have his father's command of local politics.  

He had just enough command to navigate the shoals in the Ba'ath Party in peaceful times. But when the country was hit by a foreign-orchestrated insurgency that required him to quickly impose radical political changes, he was easily stymied by the party's old guard. 

And while Haran doesn't come right and out and say this (others have) Bashar had a puffy head. Lulled by his popularity at home and across the Arab world, he had an inflated opinion of his ability to paper over fault lines in the country's different factions. The upshot was that he often moved with the speed of molasses in winter to take action -- seemingly on his theory that he was so well-liked everyone would understand that he had their best interests at heart.  

One could speculate in his defense that at least part of his attitude was because he didn't want to be seen by Syrians as his famously ruthless father. If so, he greatly underestimated the foreign forces arrayed against Syria and their determination to take over the government. 

And, as we learn from Ambassador Haran, Syria's government did not have the police power that would have given Bashar breathing room to muddle through political reforms. There wasn't any need, even in the big cities, for a large police presence. He recounted that women could walk home at 2:00 in the morning wearing jewelry and not fear being accosted. There just wasn't that much crime. So when the protests in 2011 turned destructive the government had to hire contractors in the attempt to keep order. 

From other accounts the mercenary police force was Blackwater in Iraq on steroids. They didn't care what they did to impose and maintain order; their brutality and summary killings played into the hands of the insurgents, and the beleaguered military also overreacted in several instances. By the time Bashar realized what was happening it was too late. The instigators had been handed their casus belli. 

India's Ambassador confirms: War in Syria was instigated from outside
German Economic News (Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten - "DWN")
Published: January 16, 2016 - 12:53

A revealing report from the former Ambassador of India in Syria makes clear: The representation of the West that Syrian President Assad should be overthrown by a popular uprising is untenable. The war was instigated from outside, including the Gulf States and Al Qaeda. With it, the US worked together over the Al Nusra wings. Assad underestimated the risk because he knew that his people were behind him.

V. P. Haran served from 2009 to 2012 as India's ambassador to Syria. He talked to the multi-award winning Indian magazine Fountain Ink how sections of the media have exaggerated the uprising and sign the Al-Qaeda since the early days of the conflict a teammate was (translation: German Economic News). The assessment of the Ambassador confirmed the findings of the US journalist Seymour Hersh that Assad had to fear no militant opposition in his own people.

How was Syria when you arrived there in January 2009?

V. P. Haran: Syria was a peaceful country and there was no underlying tensions. The Syrian economy was doing well and the average growth rate was more than 5 percent. Unemployment stood at about 8 percent, but unemployed Syrians could find work in the Gulf states. However, there was a high rate of educated unemployed. Syria was also in a comfortable position in terms of foreign debt at 12.5 percent of GDP. A large part of Russia was owed but which many wrote off the debt. The real problem was the drought in the north-east, which had led to a massive resettlement in the South and the South-west.

What was life like in Damascus?

V. P. Haran: As a diplomat one tends to lead a retired life, but sometimes I drove into the city center, sometimes by taxi, drank tea in cafes talking with the people. Those were wonderful moments and wonderful days. Public order was never a problem. My female colleague told me that they could wear jewelry and the morning run at two o'clock home alone and thereby feel safe. In some districts restaurants had opened up at five o'clock in the morning. You never had the feeling that there would be trouble on the streets. Some say that would be the Mucha Barat [mukhabarat,] owed (military intelligence), but I felt that people felt responsible for their collective security.

When I reached Damascus, I was told that every second part of Mucha Barat would. This is a gross overestimation. There is an intelligence unit and it works very efficiently internally, but for me it has never been a direct encounter. In my four years of service, I was once persecuted in the media {} in Idlib province. A Jeep has attached to us, but it was not intimidating.

Do you foresee the Arab Spring in Syria?

V. P. Haran: As the situation in Tunisia and Egypt tense, President Bashar al-Assad gave a television appearance, in which he stated that the political and economic conditions in Syria be different. He said he was confident that Syria would not follow suit. That was the general assessment of the diplomatic community.

Bashar al-Assad was a popular leader and the wearing part in also means that he is still in power. There are no adequate internal opposition and many of the problems in Syria are from foreign sources that are trying to get rid of an inconvenient regime. 67 percent of the entire Arab world had elected him in a 2009 survey for most popular Arab person. Even the diplomatic community was generally agreed that he had the support of about 80 percent of Syria. Even Western diplomats said that. He had begun in 2000 reforms, but which he did not complete because of the opposition by the Baath Party.

This too is not simply a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. Have a look at the numbers. There are more than 50 percent Sunni Muslims in Syria. And there are Kurds, Druze, Maronites, Assyrians, Alawites and others making up the rest. Bashar al-Assad has the full support of minorities and even a large proportion of Sunni Muslims supported him. But up to the time when I went in 2012, Syria had changed a lot. During the first few years were like in heaven, things worsened early in the year 2011th

Can you remember the first protests?

V. P. Haran: From February, when Bahrain witnessed protests, there were attempts by some NGOs protests in Damascus to organize. Two were organized over two weekends, but only 20 or 30 people participated. The number of journalists and members of the diplomatic community was far greater than that of the demonstrators. Then the March 18th 2011, the children wrote on the walls of the school and then was a large protest occurred. In the following week, there was another protest in Latakia and then happened with every other Friday something.

Soon it was chaotic in parts of Latakia, Homs and Hama, Aleppo remained calm but what the opposition really bothered. The opposition could the people of Aleppo not to bring the regime to get up, so they sent busloads of people to Aleppo. These people then burned something on the streets and went back. Journalists then reported it and said Aleppo had rebelled.

A few things need to be said about it: some parts of the media have exaggerated in their negative representations Syria. Sometimes it was reported about things that are not happening. For example, I spoke with a prominent sheikh, as my colleagues I phoned totally stressed, saying that the sheikh would play a role in, scheduled for the afternoon, protests. But that did not happen. For indeed I was sitting at the moment yes with him at lunch. There was a lot of exaggeration by the media.

There is an opportunity that stands out. In Idlib belonging to the hard core Sunnis had gone to Aleppo and had people into joining the opposition. People in Aleppo began to beat them and sent them away. The mass had become unmanageable and the police had to come and bring them under control. The Sunnis of Idlib had to be taken to a house and the police had to give them their uniforms so they could go without being lynched.

Damascus altered very at this time?

V. P. Haran: I can remember one incident on 14 April, when I took my daily walk to the stadium, which was about two kilometers away. On the way I came to the bakery past where I always came over, but there was a long queue in front of the unusually silent bakery. On the way back, the snake was still there and I asked for. People covered in with bread, because they had heard that something was going to happen. The next day nothing happened, although it was a Friday.

As the situation worsened, my walk to the stage in the second half of 2012 was replaced by a around the park in mezzeh district. One day a motorcycle at high speed and turned off at a corner, from which it took the engine revved. A short time later, a jeep of security people came over, but it missed the branch, the motorcycle had taken. After they could not find the bike, they came to the park and asked the people if they had seen what had happened. Then we were told that the people on the motorcycle were planning attacks.

In mezzeh, not far from the district where the diplomats live, there is a cactus field, and rebels were by a tunneling device you come into it had there a warehouse constructed from shot fire rockets at the office of the Prime Minister made it. Then the security forces invaded and destroyed the camp. This was a targeted operation and I talked to someone who had an apartment with a clear view, and he told me that they had taken a building targeted and completely destroyed. A huge secret camp with arms and ammunition was recovered from the building.

But parts of the country remained calm.

The external opposition supporters could not digest. They sent a group of people at the Syrian-Jordanian border, where they overran two security guards. They brought all the people around there. Some of them were killed in the most brutal Al Qaeda manner. The government reported that not immediately, but a member of the diplomatic community confirmed that it had been from Iraq Al-Qaeda. It was obvious that al Qaeda were from Iraq since April 2011 in Syria.

Al-Qaeda was on there from the first week, and if not, then, appeared since the first week since the end of 2011 as Al Qaeda flags. It was these groups who supplied the opposition with support from outside the borders. In Raqqa the fighters came from the north and it was clear that it was Al Qaeda.

Assad has repeatedly said that there were terrorists from the beginning. Why has he thought no?

V. P. Haran: The heads of the people were not open. What should a interest Al-Qaida in Iraq have in mind to create chaos in Syria? Much of it was directed by outsiders, namely the Gulf States. Al Jazeera has also played a role. In April, I had led a guest to the amphitheater in Bosra and then after Sweida, for which I had to take the highway to the Jordanian border. On this day, an Al Jazeera correspondent was asked to leave Syria and he traveled on the same road. The correspondent reported from checkpoints every few seconds. My message called me in a panic because of what they had seen on television. I told them I had only encountered a checkpoint.

Why the Syrian government did not provide better arguments in favor of the presence of terrorists?

V. P. Haran: We asked to see the lack of analysis of the media and they said, no one believed them. They had very bad PR and media handling. On the other hand, there were riots by the government. Syria has very inadequate police forces. And when began the problems, the government was forced to hire security forces to address problems that are otherwise handled by the police. Some in the army also committed excesses and the government had to put some of them under house arrest or in jail, but they did not publicize.

Bashar al-Assad was not slow to adopt it reforms, but also slow in to announce changes that were made. For example, when they issued the reform that reduced the primacy of the Baath Party, have been reported from this reform only after three months. Your PR was not wise. You have the crisis not handled well.


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