After the so-called “Arab Spring,” chaos has continued in Syria since March 2011. Many foreign powers are fighting inside Syria, issues have occurred such as the usage of chemical weapons, and the disorder has yet to be contained. Toshio Motoya spoke with Warif Halabi, the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Japan, about topics including the original causes of the chaos, what the Syrian government is aiming for, and hopes from Japan.
Motoya Thank you for giving a lecture at the Shoheijuku school the other day. If you only read Japanese newspapers about the situation in Syria, you receive nothing but biased information from the United States and Europe. However, your talk gave me a new point of view. I asked you here today because I wanted to learn about the assertions made by the Government of Syria.
Halabi Personally, it was a wonderful experience for me to be able to speak about the current situation in Syria at the Shoheijuku in front of many influential people. I am very grateful for such opportunities.
Motoya The reports on the Shoheijuku are only published in Apple Town in Japanese, but the magazine includes an English translation of Big Talk, so I am sure that more people will be able to learn about what you have to say. First, would you please share some basic information about the country of Syria?
Halabi Certainly. Syria shares borders with western Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey. Part of the country is on the Mediterranean Sea. The area is roughly half the size of Japan, and the population is approximately 24 million people. The capital is Damascus. In the past Syria was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, Turkey. After the end of World War I, Syria remained under the French mandate. It became independent in 1946. I would like to emphasize the fact that the land known as Syria has the longest history in the world. Syria is where history’s voice can be heard; it holds the oldest civilizations on the globe dating back to the 4th millennium B.C. Agriculture began there in 8,000 BC. The Old Testament says Adam and Eve came to Syria after they were banished from Eden.
Motoya Syria and Japan both have histories that begin from legends.
Halabi Yes. The civilization of Ancient Syria still has major impacts today, such as the first alphabet in history and the first written musical notes in The Kingdom of Ugarit in the 2nd millennium BC. In addition, Damascus is said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, and is home to the Umayyad Mosque, which is the oldest mosque in the world. The Umayyad Mosque has been sacred since the 2nd millennium BC. The Arameans built it as a temple in the 9th century BC; the Romans converted it to the Temple of Jupiter in the 3rd century AD. In the 4th century it was converted into the church of St. John the Baptist, and in 705(Nara Era time ) the 6th Omayyad Caliph Al-Walid built the present mosque as an incomparable one. Syria has history and is a religious Holy Land, the home of the prophets and moderate Islam, and was also a place where peace and love coexisted. Israel is the reason that Syria is experiencing such chaos today. Syria is the only Arab country that is fighting with Israel, which is backed by the U.S. and other countries in Europe. That’s why the U.S. is acting in such a strange way.
Motoya During the Six-Day War of 1967, the Golan Heights – which are Syrian territory – were occupied by Israel and have not yet been returned. Including this, various types of strife have occurred between Syria and Israel.
Halabi It is not really called the “Golan Heights.” The correct name is “Syrian Golan.” Yes, that’s true – in the War of 1967 it became the The occupied Syrian Golan. Despite the adoption of Security Council resolutions asking Israel, the occupied authorities, to return rights and lands to their owners, Israel continues ignoring the implementation of these resolutions, and that is the reason behind the situation of conflict between Syria and Israel, the occupying authorities.
Motoya People say the Arab Spring began in 2010 in Tunisia, and then spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria. I visited Tunisia and Libya right before then. Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya at that time, and it especially was a very modern nation with investments from the U.S. and Europe. However, major disorder is occurring there now due to the civil war. In a tribal society, I think the system of a tribal leader acting as a dictator is acceptable. Leaders must bring affluence to the people and work for co-existence and co-prosperity with neighbors. If that is possible, I don’t think democracy is necessarily required.
Halabi I agree, in the sense that there is no single definition for democracy; it depends on the culture and historical background of each country. The states agree at the United Nations that there is no single model of democracy that fits all. Actually, what is happening in Libya is a result of EU interference in Libya’s internal affairs to exploit Libya’s natural resources under the name of “lack of democracy.” With regards to the so-called “Arab Spring,” we should be more precise in explaining the current situation in the Middle East, and according to the current results of such movements we should use the term “Arab Winter.”
Motoya If the government of a well-ruled nation becomes unstable due to pressure from the people, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda become involved, things get out of hand as efforts are made to overthrow the country. Moreover, in the case of Syria it is not only that pro- and anti-government forces are fighting; the conflict between the anti-government powers is also intensifying. The Japanese media is passed through a European and American filter, so the reports overly praise the anti-government side. This creates an image of Syria as being mostly ruled by the anti-government forces, but in truth this applies to only a small area along the border. Still, the civil war is not calming down. What do you think of this situation?
Halabi In our case , what so called “The anti-government forces” are mostly Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups like Jabhit Al-Nusra, Daesh, Jabhit Al-Islam, and Lewaa Al-Islam, which are mostly supported by Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is mostly supported by Qatar and Turkey. Unfortunately some Syrian people have been misled and worked with these terrorist and extremist groups for a while. All of these terrorist groups are supported and motivated by different outside powers who have different agendas, and this is why they are fighting each other inside Syria while each of these groups seeks to achieve its specific aims after they create the current chaotic situation inside Syria. However, most of our territories are under the control of our Syrian Arab Army. Only in some areas sharing borders with neighboring countries, especially Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, we have problems while the terrorist extremist groups are illegally entering Syria from these countries and existing in these areas. To speak about the main reasons behind the Syria crisis, one can say this issue actually has deep historical roots. The present Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon were all part of Syria in the past. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided this region among France and England. Each country became independent afterwards, but France and England have long wished to regain their influence in this region. It is a type of loose colonialism. In addition, Israel has joined hands with the U.S. and wants to get all of the Arab states on its side. The U.S. and its allies have served to strengthen the tide of religious extremist in the region, to facilitate the entry of extremist terrorist groups to Syria, and to support these groups through arming, financing, harboring, and training them in order to achieve their objectives and the objectives of Israel, in the fragmentation of the region ethnically and religiously to justify the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Syria interprets the teachings of Islam in a mild way, but countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar promote Wahhabism, and the Muslim Brotherhood has an extremist way of thinking and works to maintain the precepts of Islam in an extremely strict way. To succeed in promoting the thinking and existence of Wahhabism or the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria’s present regime is an obstacle. These motives are all mixed together, which has led to the current situation in Syria. In particular, Saudi Arabia has spent money to bring Al Qaeda into Syria, and Qatar took the initiative through the Arab League to make interfering resolutions in the internal affairs of Syria and the internationalization of the Syria crisis later on. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have submitted mistaken reports on the situation in Syria to the UN and also circulated them to other nations. The Turkish government, which is supported by and belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, is supporting and facilitating the entry of terrorist groups into the Syrian Arab Republic through its borders,
Motoya If you examine the history of the Middle East, it was originally a land of nomads and the concept of national borders was not very strong. Each tribe lived in settlements and had their own scope of movement. When the Western European powers entered this region during the era of imperialism, they arbitrarily drew borders according to their own national interests. I think this has led to the state of affairs in the Middle Eastern countries today. Furthermore, Jordan became a territory of the West and Syria and Egypt of the East. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. stretched its hand towards this area – which was a traditional interest of the European countries – because it wanted to achieve unilateral domination of the world. That’s why it started the Gulf War and War in Iraq.
Halabi I think that recognition of history is correct. In addition to the domination agenda, the U.S. is a close ally of Israel, and Syria is the only resisting state in the Arab arena that remains standing against Israel. By weakening and attacking Syria, the U.S. and Israel – the occupying authority – plan to destroy and undermine the axis of resistance against Israel.
Motoya The al-Assad administrations have governed Syria in a stable way for 40 years, over two generations, amidst the conflict between Israel and Iran. The mass media in Japan and across the world is based on the viewpoint of the Jewish people and Anglo-Saxons, so its estimations of these administrations are distorted. The media reports make it sound like the conflict in Syria is caused by antagonism between sects of Islam. In addition, although Syria is covered extensively, nobody reports on Libya after the collapse of the Gaddafi administration, which is suffering due to civil war.
Halabi That’s right. The facts are not covered by the news correctly. The current crisis in Syria is not a civil war, but rather is the result of regional and international interference in Syrian internal affairs. The countries that wanted to topple the government administrations for their own interests – such as Europe, the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – have sent extremists into Syria and supported these terrorist groups through arming, financing, harboring, and training them in order to achieve their objectives and the objectives of Israel. Frequent strife between more than 100 foreign terrorist groups is taking place in Syria right now. The media not covering what is going on in Libya right now, because the EU and other powerful involved actors do not want to show the consequences of their destructive interference and actions against Libya, in order to continue their similar agendas in different countries.
Motoya That’s a large number! So each group is fighting because of its own assertions? An international conference on Syria was held in Geneva. Still, since the situation is this chaotic it is likely impossible for anti-government forces to withdraw in a unilateral way, and I think it would be irrational for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. You may not agree with me, but the relationship between Syria and Israel regarding the Golon Heights is stable for now because of the cease-fire, even though this region is being occupied. Right now I think it is important for Syria to cease hostilities; I feel that maximum priority should be put on drawing a cease-fire line and getting rid of the reasons for fighting.
Halabi I don’t agree. We are fighting against international terrorist organizations and for the unity and territorial integrity of our state, Syria. We, as the government of Syria, have the full right to do so, and we cannot allow terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda to exist inside our country. We are in the process of receiving endorsement from related countries towards stopping their terrorist actions. I would like to emphasize that we are not fighting against the people of Syria, but our fighting is against terrorist groups guided by foreign nations. The government delegation of Syria went to the Geneva II Conference to stop the terror and bloodshed in Syria, to restore hope to the Syrians, to put an end to foreign interference in the internal affairs of Syria, and to reach an international agreement to stop supporting terrorism.
Motoya The U.S. did not end up carrying out an air strike against Syria. I think the background of this involves shale gas and shale oil. The U.S. has displayed its strong military force as the policeman of the world exactly because oil from the Middle East is an important resource. However, due to the development of shale gas and oil, its degree of dependence on Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries has decreased considerably. Because of this, thankfully the U.S. did not actually carry out aerial bombing, which was extremely lucky for Syria. If all the anti-government forces are international terrorist organizations, as you say you must have these organizations leave the country. However, are not some of them conspiring with anti-government forces in Syria? I feel like it would be difficult to make them leave the country in that case.
Halabi The U.S. did not take any military actions against Syria, while the destructive projects and false allegations by U.S. and its allies – which aim to affect the present and future of the people of Syria and the political and cultural approach of Syria – have been defeated successively. As a result, the president of the U.S. did not manage to convince the U.S. Congress and people as well as the other states that are U.S. allies to accept such military actions against Syria. For those anti-government forces, there is a very small portion of them from the citizens of Syria. However, most of them are terrorist groups that belong to Al Qaeda or its affiliated groups, supported by foreign countries to achieve their hidden agendas, which are difficult to achieve unless our president steps down from his responsibilities. If the support for terrorist activities stops coming from outside, our national efforts to manage the situation will be successful. For those countries who insist on the creation of a transition government without our President Bashar al-Assad, I would say to them that this is an internal affair, and President Bashar al-Assad places utmost priority on Syria’s security and stability and for the bonds and solidarity of the people of Syria. That’s why the Syrian government has been strongly maintained until now, after three years of these hegemonic and terrorist attacks. This is also why Syria is absolutely different from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Ukraine, where political disturbance is occurring recently. The citizens of Ukraine did not support President Viktor Yanukovych, but the position of our President Bashar al-Assad is entirely different because he has the full support of most Syrian people.
Motoya The people of Syria are not divided; rather, the issue is related to foreign influence. However, is it fair to say that there was an opportunity for these foreign powers to come in?
Halabi That’s true with regards to the fact that the people of Syria are not divided. Syrian people, like any other nation, have ambition to be in a much better situation, but reform is something and terrorism and interference in internal affairs are something else. That is why the foreign powers have no right at all to come in. As you mentioned before, disorder has continued in Libya and Egypt since the governments were toppled, and many people are saying they preferred the previous systems. I agree with this, and Syrians are keen to avoid such a destructive scenario. President Bashar al-Assad is described as a dictator, but that is untrue. He is the son of his father, President Hafez al-Assad, who peacefully governed and protected Syria for 40 years in spite of the critical situation we have in our region. There are deliberate attempts to accuse the Syrian president and government of committing crimes and atrocities through lies and manipulation of the facts, while statistics show that the largest number of complex issues is not the result of the actions of the Syrian government, but due to the behavior of extremist terrorist groups. There is one other important thing that must be said: the Syrian government has not used chemical weapons. The final report from the UN in December 2013 has confirmed what was said by the Syrian government on the use of sarin gas by armed terrorist groups in Khan al Assal and in some locations in the countryside of Damascus, al-Ghota. On the other hand, the other misleading allegations are neglected and not fully handled by the United Nations Mission because there is no proof of these allegations.
Motoya But Syria does possess chemical weapons, correct?
Halabi Yes, but we have disposed all of such weapons. The Syrian government is committed to fulfilling its obligations regarding the destruction of chemical weapons.
Motoya I understand what you are saying, but due to the complicated information it is hard for me to feel confident regarding what is the truth. However, I think it can be said that the Arab Spring worsened the situations in all countries. Egypt expelled President Hosni Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood gained political power through the election. Despite this, the army toppled the government via a coup d'état. It seems certain that Minister of Defence Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – a popular military member among the citizens – will run for president. Many Egyptians desire stability, which is the reason for their great support of the army. I think the chaos in Egypt will finally be resolved after that.
Halabi While we have the “Arab Winter,” these countries are facing such difficulties. I am also closely watching the situation in Egypt. I think various political systems would be possible; it depends on the situation of each country, and that is why the definitions of democracy are varied. I believe a military regime would be perfectly acceptable as long as it is inspired by civilian needs and governs in a way that is good for the people.
Motoya Democracy and market economies exist in opposition to the past systems of communism and planned economies. History has declared the latter systems to be the victors, but that doesn’t mean they are the absolute best choice. I agree with you entirely on this point. Still, confrontation between citizens should be avoided to the utmost under all political systems, and thorough efforts should probably be made to eliminate foreign powers that are involved in these confrontations. If the majority of anti-government forces are foreign terrorists as you say, then discussions should be held with the anti-establishment groups made up of Syrian citizens – as the partners in correct negotiations – and measures should be taken to replace requests that cannot be accepted, such as having al-Assad step down. For example, you could provide regions that are ruled by local governments. In that way, the civil war should be stopped. Japan would extensively support that framework if the civil war were ended.
Halabi The Syrian government is doing its utmost efforts at the national level to settle the situation. But, while the current crisis in Syria is the result of regional and international interference in Syrian internal affairs, we are participating in the Geneva II Conference – in spite of the fact that we did not participate in the first conference – as a way to have dialogue between Syrian-Syrian delegations and to find a political solution between all concerned states in order to continue our national efforts to put an end to the suffering of our own people. However the problem that we faced at Geneva II was that we do not have a true national partner to contribute to our success. While the government delegation made tremendous efforts for the success of the dialogue, the delegation of the “coalition” – which is chosen by the foreign powers – rejected all of those efforts because they do not fit with the agenda of the U.S. and its allies. The delectation of the “coalition” refused to reassure the principles of sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, and the liberation of all occupied territories, which are not supposed to be refused by any Syrian. And we still request that members of the national opposition, who are representing the Syrian people, participate in the negotiations of the Geneva II Conference.
Motoya Even if citizens of the same country draw lines around their territories, these lines will someday be erased. But if foreign powers become involved in this, the divisions will last forever. It is not good for the entire world if foreign weapons are brought in and the country becomes like a training school for guerillas. I expect great things of the Syrian government’s abilities in the future.
Halabi The Syrian government is actually appealing to those Syrians who are misled, asking them to stop cooperating with international terrorist organizations. The initiatives of the ministry of reconciliation, through its reconciliation committees in various regions, as well as the peaceful popular initiatives in several areas, mostly recorded notable and remarkably successful results. Recently, for example, thousands of persons who were mislead and got involved in the current events in Syria have turned themselves and their weapons to the authorities, and the authorities settled their cases and released them after they pledged not to bear any weapons or participate in acts that harm the safety and security of the homeland. However, at the international level, the U.S. and its allies – especially neighboring countries – insist on employing the option of violence and terrorism, and supporting the armed terrorist groups (most of their members are affiliated with the terrorist organizations Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the al-Islam Army) by facilitating the terrorists and extremists groups sneaking across borders to attack Syria. I agree with you that it is not good for the entire world if foreign weapons and fighters are brought inside Syria, and the Syrian Arab Republic asserts that employing double standards in dealing with the terrorism targeting Syria’s state and people will lead to foiling efforts for reaching a political solution, causing terrorism to spread to other countries, particularly some neighboring countries that harbor terrorist groups, training them, arming them, and facilitating illegal entry through their lands into Syria, in addition to causing instability in the region and the world and threatening their security.
Motoya I also hope you will take care not to become like Libya. The situation in Libya grew chaotic all at once due to the death of Gaddafi. I hope you will somehow achieve an outlook towards a cease-fire while al-Assad still maintains his influence. In your opinion, what should Japan do to help Syria?
Halabi We are asserting that it is strange for other countries to hinder our determination of choosing our president – they have no right to do so. The world should understand that the issue of the presidency in Syria is an internal affair, and that nobody has the authority to grant or withdraw legitimacy from a president, a government, a constitution, a law, or anything else in Syria except Syrians themselves; this is their constitutional right and duty. We plan to hold a presidential election in July. It will be an open election. Our President Bashar al-Assad will also run this election, and the national opposition can put up candidates as well according to our Constitution. The Syrian citizens should choose the next leader by voting rather than by committing terrorist acts. Japan can play a specific role to this end – Japan is greatly trusted across the world, and has friendly relations with the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar in which it can put pressure on these countries to stop supporting terrorism and interfering in Syria’s internal affairs, and to close the border in the face of terrorist groups, in order to proceed with other issues that bring peace and stability to our country. Japan also can help our government, which has legitimate rights, to rebuild our country and satisfy the Syrians who need to be resettled inside Syria. JICA, for example, can come back to Syria to work on development projects as a Syrian priority, including the reconstruction, which will be reflected in improving the standard of living and well-being of the Syrian citizens and the Development Goals.
Motoya I will do what I can to help.
Halabi Thank you very much. When I came to Japan, I keenly felt that Japanese people have an extremely correct way of thinking. I am enjoying my stay in Japan as I fulfill my duties.
Motoya Still, there is too little journalism in Japan from the viewpoint of Syria. I think having you, a female ambassador, come to Japan is very significant for carrying out promotional activities. Because Syria is an Islamic country, appointing a woman to this post shows that the al-Assad administration is quite advanced.
Halabi President Bashar al-Assad is unfortunately misunderstood in different ways, but he is actually a very fair, responsible, and open-minded person. In the past he studied medicine at Damascus University and specialized in ophthalmology in London. The president focused over the past years, among many things, on an ambitious strategy of gradual social and economic reform and empowering the social market economy. He is also good at grasping the hearts and minds of the people, for which he is very well lovable by many people. In addition, I evaluate him most highly for his optimism, self-confidence, and for his dedication to protect the Syrian state and its people.
Motoya I hope that peace will come to Syria soon, and that I can meet al-Assad some day.
Halabi Me too, in order to achieve that, the Syrian Arab Republic will continue combating terrorism with all means at its disposal. And at the same time, it will continue working diligently towards a political solution and national reconciliation.
Motoya At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Halabi I hope young Japanese people who are unsatisfied with their great and unique values will take another look at their values. The important thing is to respect and evaluate your own country’s values and culture, rather than to follow others’ principles and values. The coming life is for the youth. I hope young people will show up and speak loudly with people across the world about their own ways of thinking. After reconsidering their values and working according to their principles, I think the Japanese people should aim to be active on the global stage.
Motoya I agree entirely. I think the foundation of this is having a sense of pride in Japan and believing it is a wonderful country. Although Japanese people are capable of being active across the world, more and more people are staying in Japan because of the ridiculous mass media and education. I think they should have confidence, go out into the world, and make international contributions.
Halabi Just like Japan, various things are being forced on Syria through interference by other countries. However, the young people of Syria are taking stances according to their own characteristic ways of thinking, and are fighting against this foreign interference and domination. I hope that Japanese young people will also take stances in line with their unique ways of thinking in this way.
Motoya Thank you very much for joining me today.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Damascus University in 1995, Halabi studied at locations including the University of Oxford in England, and earned a master’s degree in Political Science from Long Island University in New York. She entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1991 and has represented Syria at the Embassy of Syria in Vienna, Austria and the United Nations in New York. She took up her current post in 2013.