US policy in Syria ‘to systemically bleed Iran, Hezbollah’

“Many in DC claim that the US administration has no Syria strategy,” says Fouad Hamdan, executive director of the grassroots activist network Naame Shaam. “Wrong; President Obama's Syria policy is very clear to us. It is a policy to systematically bleed Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.”

Naame Shaam was founded in 2013 by Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian activists to call out Iran’s “military occupation” of Syria, and demanding answers, which Tehran has until now declined to directly provide. This activism comes at a price: Hamdan asked Syria Direct not to disclose information about the locations of the group’s members and cited specific consequences of their activism we have agreed not to disclose.

Below is the second part of Hamdan’s recent in-person interview in Washington DC following meetings with officials and thought leaders involved with Syria.

“Obama believes that a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime is more important” than stopping the war in Syria, Hamdan says. “But Iran’s nuclear military dreams and its destabilizing policies in the region are in reality one and the same.”

Read the first part of the interview here.

Q: What are you hearing in Washington?

All the people I met before the Vienna Deal on July 14 were either quiet when it came to criticizing the administration or they were telling me, yes yes you're right but we have a policy to focus on the nuclear negotiations with Iran first and the rest comes after that.

My message to these US officials has always been, the longer you don't do what you are always promising to do in Syria, basically setting up a strong, powerful, secular, moderate Free Syrian Army, the more moderate rebels will be defeated by jihadists, the more Syria is disintegrating, the more people are being killed, the more refugees are flooding neighboring countries, the more sectarian cleansing you are having in Syria, and the more explosive the situation will become.

It is not only about Syria, it is about the whole region. And this center of global jihadism is already spreading globally. 

It was disappointing to always hit a wall when talking to US officials here when it comes to the fate of Syria and what needs to be done. All I heard again and again was: Nuclear talks with Iran first, foreign policy legacy of President Obama, we had enough after the Invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: What is your policy recommendation?

We are asking the US administration to do what it has been promising: Set up a strong, Free Syrian Army of moderates and secular soldiers. And these people are there. What I hear back is, there are no moderates and that there is no Free Syrian Army. I respond, this is not correct and you know it. You have tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers and officers who are in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. They are sitting and waiting.

Then you have tens of thousands of rebels fighting with Jabhat a-Nusra and other militias inside Syria who fight with them because they get money and weapons and they're better organized.

These rebels, if you set up a real Free Syrian Army with enough arms and you have the money for it, they will come to you. They will fight with you. And you will only have to fight hardline jihadis left in Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State. Arab allies against the Assad regime will be more than happy to finance that operation.

Everyone in DC knows that the Syrian rebels, moderates or with an Islamist touch, will not accept to fight only the Islamic State. How can they? They have already refused, arguing they cannot look away when Assad’s helicopters drop barrel bombs on their families. Asking Syrians to do that is an insult to their self-esteem and to their intelligence. And when you ask rebels to become only cheap mercenaries in the war against jihadi terror you are willingly torpedoing your own plan to build a strong Free Syrian Army.

But what is most important, the US has to lead the battle in Syria against the Islamic State, Jabhat a-Nusra, the Assad regime, the Pasdaran and Hezbollah. The US cannot leave that battle to be managed by the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks because they have contradicting or unclear agendas: Turkey supports the Syrian Muslim Brothers, Qatar more or less does so while Saudi Arabia opposes the Muslim Brothers. In summary: Leading from behind is not working and will never work. It is making things worse.

I was confronted in DC with the question, “So what the hell do you want us to do in Syria now, a no-fly zone?” No, is my answer! We do not want the establishment of a no-fly zone before the establishment of a moderate, empowered Free Syrian Army. If you impose a no-fly-zone now, the Islamic State, Jabhat a-Nusra and all the other jihadi loonies inside Syria will take over the country.  

The drama is that President Obama just doesn't want to get seriously involved in Syria. At least not until the nuclear deal passes all hurdles in Congress. Until now he has separated the nuclear issue from Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region and rejected any policy that could lead to a direct confrontation with Iran in Syria. He believes that a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime is more important. But Iran’s nuclear military dreams and its destabilizing policies in the region are in reality one and the same. These dreams are intrinsically linked to Iran’s intervention in Syria and Lebanon.

But agreeing to lift the economic sanctions on Iran for the sake of limited concessions from the Iranian regime about its nuclear program, and without any serious commitment to end its intervention in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, is a disaster. Because this would mean effectively giving Iran a green light and the financial ability to carry on with its destabilizing policies in these countries. And to eventually run for the nuclear bomb.

Many in DC claim that the US administration has no Syria strategy. Wrong. President Obama's Syria policy is very clear to us. It is a policy to systematically bleed Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. To slowly consume them, to burn them, there.

Q: The people in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan have been paying the price for this cynical strategy since 2012. Don't you think it's maybe time to change that strategy?

Yes, of course, But unfortunately the Obama administration believes that a short-term foreign policy win with a nuclear deal in Vienna is more important than ending the killing in Syria. It seems to be even more important than long-term American interests.

It cannot be in the US interest that the Iranian regime is left to consolidate its dominance in the region through Shiite militias that are as sectarian and extremist as the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra. It just cannot be in the US interest that Syria and the wider region are left to descend into the Dark Ages, with the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra attracting more and more extremists and exporting them to the rest the world.

To put it bluntly, the US administration has no problem for the time being with the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra bleeding the Pasdaran, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias and their allies in Syria. The US is allowing Turkey, and it's allowing the Gulfies to fund and support jihadists to continue to bleed Iran and Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria.

Q: In Washington, they call it "draining the swamp." Let them kill each other off, and it will drain the swamp. Advocates of this fail to recognize that when one fighter is killed, 10 step up to replace that one. They think there is a finite end to the supply of fighters, and there is not. This theory, which, from what I can tell, is only popular inside Washington DC. It doesn't make sense.

If you are hopelessly cynical, then “draining the Syrian swamp” is working just fine. Some in DC and in the Middle East surely believe it is a masterpiece of political strategy since 2012 to allow and even encourage Sunni jihadis to bleed the Shiite Iranian Pasdaran, Hezbollah and the Alawite Syrian regime.

At the other end, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the effective ruler of the so-called regime-held areas in Syria, along with Hezbollah, underestimated the resilience and brutality of these jihadi loonies. In 2013, with the battle of al-Qusayr, they officially intervened in Syria and walked into that trap instead of dumping Assad and getting out of Syria. Syria since then is the Vietnam of Iran and Hezbollah. We at Naame Shaam overestimated the intelligence of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. We never thought they would fall into the trap.

A friend in DC told me, “DC is the epicenter of global cynicism.” I refuse to believe this because many US officials, many Democrats and Republicans I spoke to, are against the bleeding strategy. They want the killing in Syria to end.

Q: Let's look inside Syria. What if all the parties involved in this war, Iran, the regime, everyone, somehow have tacitly agreed that Syria can be divided into various areas. The Kurds can take their piece, Jabhat a-Nusra and friends can keep Idlib province, the rebels will probably take Aleppo and the regime takes from Latakia down to Damascus. What if there is some sort of unspoken agreement to that effect?

This seems to be exactly the case. The US administration seems to be letting it happen. When you let something happen, there is agreement in an indirect way, and it's part of the US strategy to bleed Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.

We are heading towards an unspoken ‘Plan B’ whereby Damascus, linked with a corridor along the Lebanese border to al-Qusayr, Hama and Homs, and the coastal region all end up controlled by the Pasdaran and Hezbollah. Assad may remain as a puppet at the head of that Shiite-Alawite region. The rest of the country would be controlled by a toxic cocktail of jihadi loonies, the Islamic State, Jabhat a-Nusra and so on.

This is a horror scenario because it is an illusion to believe that this would calm things. Don't forget that along the coastline, you have millions of Sunnis who live there; many of them had fled there from other parts of the country. And does anyone seriously believe that the borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq would remain peaceful?

Don't think that the jihadis would stop where they are and be happy with a border along a Shiite-Alawistan rump state. They will do their best to go all the way to Damascus, al-Qusayr and Latakia. The wars in Syria and along its borders would intensify.

Q: Everyone is looking at the short term, just getting through the immediate moment and waiting to see who falls first. If anyone were thinking long term, this would not be happening.

Exactly. Some in DC believe in subsuming them - in letting the swamp dry and so on and at some point everything will be just fine.

Some even believe that signing a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime will strengthen the so-called moderates in Iran, who would then change the nature of the regime for the better. Wishful thinking; the so-called moderates are as moderate as Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can be.

Since President Hassan Rouhani, the “moderate,” was elected in 2013 more opponents have been jailed and executed then during the era of his “radical” predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We all know that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are nothing more than “moderate” masks of a brutal regime.

Remember what the UN special rapporteur on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, said last March: Since the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president, “the overall situation has worsened” in Iran. Shaheed pointed to soaring numbers of executions and the jailing of journalists and activists in Iran. At least 753 people, including 25 women and 13 minors, were executed in Iran in 2014 alone, marking a 12-year-high. So, tell me more about the “moderates” inside the Iranian regime.

Remember also that the Pasdaran have proven time after time that they are willing to crush internal dissent ruthlessly. They've been warning of a regular basis over the past few years that if anyone repeats the Iran uprisings of 2009, which they call "The Big Betrayal," they will send first the paramilitary Basij and then the Pasdaran to kill anyone left. We kill you all - no problem - and the regime in Tehran is willing to do that.

In addition, the Iranian regime has convinced most Iranians, even among the opposition, that they are better off with the mullahs in power because the only alternative is chaos like in Syria or Iraq. The Iranian regime’s propaganda has been also using the Sunni jihadi threat to rally people behind the mullahs.

You will not have a revolution in Iran in the short- and medium term. If someone in DC is betting on winning the Syria war in the streets of Tehran, then he is delusional.

Q: Do you see a battle for Damascus coming or will it not happen?

I think nothing big will happen before the nuclear deal passes through Congress.  After that, anything can happen. But the preparations are there.

The moment a battle for Damascus begins and you flood the rebels with weapons or you send more rebels to fight, the moment you do that you will have hundreds, if not thousands, more Hezbollah fighters coming from Lebanon. They will really fight for Damascus.

Q: Does the Syrian army have advantage in terms of the number of soldiers?

They have the numbers and they can have the weapons. If that battle happens, it will be very destructive. Where are the millions of residents going to flee to?

Hezbollah has a huge problem in Lebanon with the body bags that are returning [from Syria]. That's why since early this year, they have been systematically investing in building something called Hezbollah Syria. The paramilitary shabiha, or National Defense Force, will disappear at some point and be merged into Hezbollah Syria. But they're not going to burn them in street-by-street fighting against thousands of Sunni jihadis. Maybe they are smart and will not stay forever and fight for Damascus.

Q: It seems to me that all parties fighting have a bottom line of what they will not relinquish. We're not seeing fighting for a united Syria anymore; we're seeing fighting for pieces of turf.

I think the Syrian rebels, whoever they are, except murderous jihadis such as the Islamic State, are fighting for a united Syria.

Q: I feel like that is their ideal but in reality they will settle...

Reality is different. The jihadists and rebels will not settle for a rump Shiite-Alawistan entity encompassing Damascus, Hama, Homs, al-Qusayr and the coastline. They will not. They will attack them afterwards.

Q: Assuming the American administration stays in this zone of having no idea what it is doing in Syria, what do the next six months look like for Syria?

It's not about the next six months; we're talking about the period after the nuclear deal survives Congress and starts to be implemented. For now, it will be more of the same: a war of attrition, or bleeding Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.

Whether or not the Vienna nuclear deal is ultimately approved by the US Congress, President Obama should immediately start and lead a new negotiation process with the Iranian regime focusing on the latter’s intervention in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. This diplomatic process should include all parties directly affected by this intervention. The negotiations should start now, while there is still some strong economic leverage represented by the current sanctions regime against Iran.

Q: We've talked about external parties and their influence in Syria. My question is, how responsible are Syrians for the continuation of this war?

Most Syrians are terrified by what is happening. They don't want jihadis taking over Syria. They hate the regime, but the drama of the Syrian people is manifold. One is that the Syrian National Coalition has failed on many levels to offer a real alternative to the regime. We need that Coalition, but it has a leadership that is basically controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Their agenda is to establish sharia law in Syria, though they do not admit that publicly, and as long as this is the case, the Coalition will remain weak, divided and lacking serious Western support.

This while Syria is disintegrating and one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies in the world is unfolding there.

I am for the first time publically criticizing the Syrian Muslim Brothers, among which I have a few personal friends with whom I argue and disagree about their policies. We at Naame Shaam are staunchly secular and progressive.

Q: I think there is a darkness haunting the Syrian people; what I see is a general unwillingness to connect with the suffering and tragedies of people different from themselves, from their immediate circles... a tendency to dig in and say, Syria is about what I want for it, not what other groups and parties with equally legitimate desires and hopes for their country want for it. They are entrenched in their own identities that keep them caught in a pattern of victimization, unable to empathize for others caught up in this chaos.

My own best friend in Syria firmly believes that the innocents who died in the East Ghouta chemical attacks in August 2013 deserved it because they were the wives of terrorists and the children were simply future terrorists. This viewpoint is not uncommon. You have to acknowledge that there is some level of darkness there; that people do not trust each other. And so therefore if they are not aggressive toward their perceived enemies, someone will be aggressive towards them. This war didn't come out of nowhere. It didn't come from the outside. It came from the inside.

Unfortunately, you are right. But let me defend the Syrian people, even the pro-regime minhabekjiya (literally, those who love Assad). The Assad regime over more than 40 years has managed to destroy any kind of proper education in the country. It installed a system of fear and terror deeply entrenched in the DNA of almost every Syrian. They produced two generations of Syrians who are afraid, who don't trust anybody, who are not very well educated, who rarely speak foreign languages and who were cut off from the world in many ways and who were brutalized, non-stop.

When such a nation revolts against its regime, it does so because enough is enough. They had enough of being treated like shit. Remember the early revolutionary slogans, "a-shaab a-souri la yinzall" (the Syrian people cannot be humiliated) and “dignity and freedom.” Just remember how they tortured people, how police talk to people in the streets, the fear of the mukhabarat everywhere.

Q: Even in your own family.

Even in your own family and you can't trust anyone. Even the Syrians abroad were afraid to talk because they don't know who is what and they want to be able to return to Syria to see their families. Terror everywhere; the same thing Saddam Hussein did with Iraqis. So when a nation like that with such a background explodes and revolts; it can only revolt and explode in a bloody mess.

They cannot be the idealistic revolutionaries we dream of – highly educated, humanistic, strategic intellectuals. They are terrorized people who don't trust anybody. And you want that revolution to function properly? It's a mess and will be for a while and at some point something will come out which is good.

This does not mean it's an excuse for the mess some rebels are creating.

Q: What is the message of Naame Sham? Are you talking to Syrians? The world?

We are talking to the US administration and to key European officials, whom we want to treat the war in Syria as an international armed conflict involving a foreign occupation by the Iranian regime and its militias, and a liberation struggle by the Syrian people against this occupation.

Time has also come for them to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria, including Iran's and Hezbollah's role. Last April, we at Naame Shaam handed to the Office of the ICC Prosecutor in The Hague our new report entitledSilent Sectarian Cleansing: Iranian Role in Mass Demolitions and Population Transfers in Syria.

I’d like to end with an appeal to President Obama: Fulfil your promises by arming and training enough moderate Syrian rebels, not only to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups, but also Syrian and Iranian regime forces and militias; impose no-fly zones to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access throughout Syria, in line with the international “responsibility to protect” norm. You do that, you make history, Arabs will love you forever and you have the mother of all foreign policy legacies a president could ever dream of. 

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.