In an interview with Al Mayadeen’s Min ad-Dākhil (From the Inside), taped in Beirut last month shortly after Syrian forces and Hezbollah fighters recaptured Qusayr, Flynt laid out why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not fallen, despite the many predictions of his government’s collapse and high-level calls (from President Obama and the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others) for him to go:
“We’ve been through this before, after former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Many people in Washington thought that this would be the beginning of the end of the Assad regime. They were wrong then; we’re going through a more extreme version of this now in Washington, but it’s still wrong.
It’s wrong for a couple of reasons. One, President Assad and his government retain—this is borne out by polling data, by other evidence—they retain the support of significant parts of Syrian society. I would estimate that at least half of Syrian society continues to support the Assad government…and that’s probably increasing. On the other hand, there is no hard evidence—no polls or any other data—that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians supports (let’s call it) the opposition. Clearly there are Syrians who are disaffected from their government, Syrians who feel like they have legitimate grievances either against the government or that the government is not addressing…I think there are serious political problems in Syria. But there is no evidence that a majority of Syrians wants to get rid of the Assad government, and I think that’s a very important base of support for the government.
The other thing that I think is in play here—and Hillary and I have been arguing this for a long time—it is a delusion for the United States or other Western countries to think that if somehow you were able to bring down the Assad government, that what replaces it is some secular liberal democracy that wants to be aligned, in its foreign policy, with the West. That’s an absolute fantasy; it has nothing to do with reality…If the Assad government were somehow to disappear, what would replace it would be a group of very contentious, not unified and, in many cases—some people in the West like to say jihadi; I think I prefer the term takfeeri—Islamists (Jabhat an-Nusra and other groups that seem to have a lot in common with Al-Qa’ida). The kind of Syria that emerges after the Assad government disappears—I don’t think it’s going to be very good for Syrians; I don’t think it would be very good for American interests in the Middle East.”
For the rest of the interview—conducted by the wonderful Zeinab as-Saffar and now posted on Al Mayadeen’s Web site in two parts—see here. (For those wanting to skip the Arabic-language introduction to Part One, go 2:40 into the video.)
Among other major themes in the interview, Flynt explains the drivers of U.S. policy toward Syria:
“I think it’s important to say this honestly—the things that are driving American policy toward Syria now are, first of all, a sense that, if you could bring down the Assad government, it’s this big blow to Iran. Iran is a major driver for the Obama administration in Syria.
Secondly, there’s an interest in co-opting the Arab Awakening. When the Arab Awakening started, you had pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, in Egypt, fall; you had a near miss in Bahrain. So the Obama administration, in early 2011, is looking around. It wants to find a way to show that it’s not just authoritarian regimes that subordinate their foreign policies to the United States that are at risk in the Arab Awakening; the Arab Awakening could also take down a government, a political order that has a clear commitment to foreign policy independence. And Syria was the case for doing that. They thought they could use the opposition to do this. This project has failed.”
But, while the project failed—and was bound, from the outset, to fail, as we have been pointing out for more than two years—Flynt notes that outside support for the opposition took “what might have been an indigenously generated protest against particular grievances” and turned it into a “violent campaign to try and overthrow the Assad government. It became, in a way, a civil war. As long as weapons, money are coming in from outside, the opposition was able to prompt a lot of fighting, prompt a lot of damage, a lot of deaths.”
Turning to the sectarian element in the Syrian conflict, Flynt takes on the Washington narrative that “it is Iran and Hezbollah that have made this a sectarian struggle. I think the reality is just the reverse. It is the Saudis, it is other external supporters of the opposition who have really wanted to make this a battle against an ‘infidel’ regime, a ‘Shi’a’ regime. And then when Hezbollah, when Iran are helping the Assad government, then this becomes a sectarian battle.
From an Iranian perspective, what I understand of the Hezbollah perspective, this is really an effort to resist a campaign—sponsored in part by the United States, sponsored in part by Saudi Arabia, sponsored by others—to use the Syrian opposition to bring about regime change in Syria, and tilt the balance of power in the region. It’s also an effort to preserve a position of resistance against U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region. Those were the motives for Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Assad government, as I understand it.
I think that, in the end, resistance will overcome sectarianism…Hezbollah was born in resistance to an Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon…The goal was, ultimately, to end the occupation, to make the Israelis leave Lebanon, and Hizballah finally succeeded at that. In some ways, the situation [in Syria] is tactically different, but I think, strategically, the same dynamic applies.
You’ve had a kind of foreign invasion of Syria…This is part of what’s so sad about the Syrian situation, that you took what might have been some elements of legitimate grievance, legitimate protest internally and you just overlaid this external invasion on top of it. In the end, the Assad government is fighting for Syrian sovereignty. The supporters of the Assad government, whether it’s Iran or Hezbollah, they’re fighting to prevent, in a sense, a foreign occupation of Syria…
If you look at what actually wins in this region, resistance wins. Sectarianism doesn’t win; resistance wins.”
Other topics treated in the interview include whether violence in Syria will spread to other states, how Israeli concerns about Hezbollah as “an effective and meaningful constraint” on Israeli freedom of military initiative affect Israel’s calculations (and dealings with Washington) vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict, and the “enormous mistakes” that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his associates have made in their conduct of Turkey’s policy toward Syria since March 2011. The interview was taped before the Obama administration announced its decision to begin directly providing military support to Syrian oppositionists, but Flynt anticipates this decision and explains, before the fact, the perverse political and strategic calculations motivating it.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett