Interview with Nikolaos van Dam by Tigran Yegavian[i]

After 10 years of war in Syria, what is your analysis of the current situation? And what is the human, economic and social assessment ?

The war in Syria has been a disaster for everyone, particularly for the people of Syria, but also for some of the countries that have interfered militarily, like Turkey. The disaster extends to all fronts: humanitarian, social, economic, military and political. Over half a million Syrians have been killed, and more than half of the Syrians have become refugees. Much of the country has been destroyed, and the economy has been ruined to such an extent, that the standard of living of most Syrians in the country is now below the poverty line. Inflation and rising prices have made things worse, and imposed sanctions have led to even more suffering among the people. They are hardly effective against the regime’s elite.

In your book The Struggle for Power in Syria, you were certain that any scenario leading to the overthrow of the regime would inevitably be extremely violent. Should the opposition have thought of this from the beginning and refrained from triggering the popular revolt? 

The opposition groups should have realized well beforehand that any confrontation with the regime was bound to be extremely violent, as I predicted already in the early 1980s, taking the nature of the Syrian regime into account. The Ba’th regime would never have given in to the demonstrators’ demands voluntarily, not with 100,000s demonstrating peacefully, and certainly not after their slogans included statements like ‘the people want to topple regime’ and ‘the people want the execution of the president’. After their wall of fear was broken, the demonstrators unintentionally entered into a kind of ‘killing fields’, imagining – wrongly – that the so-called ‘international community’ was going to support and save them. They painfully experienced that this ‘international community’, which consists of friends and enemies, is not a coherent and reliable entity, prepared to help them enough to achieve their aims.

Many Syrian demonstrators were driven by their enthusiasm and zeal, believing that they could bring down the regime, as happened in Egypt where president Mubarak resigned within three weeks. The killing of Libyan leader Qadhafi increased their belief that they were similarly going to be supported by Western and Arab countries in toppling president Bashar al-Asad. But this did not happen, if only because after the intervention in Libya, Russia opposed the authorization by the UN Security Council of any subsequent military intervention that might be misused to achieve regime change, as happened in Libya.

In 2012, on the occasion of the Syrian Revolution’s first anniversary, I stressed the necessity of dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the regime, but this view was rejected by many at the time. A failed dialogue, however, is better than a failed war. I predicted that if the conflict continued as it was, the number of deaths, then approximately 10,000, might well rise to 300,000. In reality it turned out to be much worse.

One should only engage in a war or in an effort to topple a regime when there is a realistic prospect of defeating the opponent. A coup by rivals from within the regime might have created a serious threat, but defectors without heavy arms did not stand a chance. Many of the defected military understandably argued that they had to protect themselves and their people from the attacks and atrocities of the Syrian regime. But their taking up of arms made things even worse, because they did not have the military capacity to topple the regime. And once, thanks to extensive foreign military aid, they started to threaten the Syrian regime in 2015 after all, Russia intervened militarily. If the opposition groups had managed to threaten the regime earlier on, Russia would most probably have intervened earlier, not wanting to lose Syria as its ally.

Many Syrians and foreigners who sided with the opposition, insisted that the Syrian Revolution was fully justified, and some even argued that the Syrian Revolution was ‘worth it’, as it was a sincere effort to end dictatorship. This may be true from a principled and theoretical point of view, but the potential, and particularly predictable lethal consequences, should have been taken seriously into account as well. Fighting against violent dictatorship is of course entirely legitimate, but one should also have anticipated that this could result in a bloodbath with only negative results. It is with great indignation that the opposition and their supporters generally reject the idea that those who started the Revolution bear some co-responsibility for its bloody results, arguing that it is actually the regime which is responsible. The regime may indeed be responsible for some 90 per cent of all civilian victims and for excessive and indiscriminate killing, including with chemical weapons or barrel bombs. Military opposition groups, however, are responsible for the other victims. They wanted to kill ‘the lion’ (al-Asad), but were butchered themselves on a large scale instead.

One cannot, at will, selectively take credit for a revolution when it is successful, but reject any co-responsibility when it has failed. When pursuing idealistic principles, it is irresponsible to ignore the realities on the ground, particularly when so many human lives are at stake.

In 2011, I already stressed that president Bashar al-Asad was not going to sign his own death warrant and that the key people of his army and intelligence services were not going to give up, because for them it was a struggle for life and death. Many people apparently did not understand that the prospect of the Syrian regime being prosecuted, and some of its key members being executed, created a kind of guarantee that these people would never resign voluntarily. In the case of Syria, accountability can only be enforced by toppling the ruling people involved. Expecting their voluntary cooperation in their own fatal demise is naïve, even under heavy pressure.

You were the Netherlands’ Special Envoy for Syria, operating from Istanbul. How do you explain the failure of the Syrian opposition to federate around a common platform? Is it due to the games played by regional Sunni actors?

Leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Istanbul explained to me that whereas many Western countries expected the numerous civilian and military groups to come to a unified position, they should also realize that in organizations which are supposed to respect the principle of freedom of expression, there is bound to be a diversity of opinion. And this is true. There was a great diversity of opinion among the opposition groups, some of them moderate and secular, others traditional Islamic, yet others radical Islamic. Most groups were Arab, others Kurdish or Turkmen. In a period of war, however, ranks have to be united in order to adequately confront the opponent.

It took the main opposition groups almost five years to come to a common negotiating position, which was formulated in their Riyadh Declaration of December 2015. It idealistically stated their support for a ‘democracy through a pluralistic system in which all Syrian groups, including both men and women, would be represented, without discrimination or exclusion on the basis of religion, denomination or ethnicity and to be based on the principles of human rights, transparency, accountability and the rule of law as applied to all’.

It is doubtful whether this declaration would in practice ever be truly implemented, because its Islamist co-signatories, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, do not actually support non-discrimination on the basis of religion, whereas Arab nationalist groups do not generally support the idea of equality among Arabs and Kurds or Turkmens. It is only under the common denominator of the identity of ‘Syrian nationals’, that all can be equal. Full agreement on this principle has yet to be reached.

Another reason which prevented the formation of a unified opposition was that various states that supported the opposition groups, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, all had different political and military agendas. These contrasting agendas led to Syrian internecine rivalries on the ground, making the opposition less effective militarily. The fact that many defected Syrian officers were viewed with suspicion by the various opposition groups and therefore sidelined, also hindered their efficacy.

Do you think that the Syrian conflict represents a case study of Western impotence? What weight do the United States and Europe have in Syria today and what lessons do you personally draw from it?

Providing a realistic honest picture is in my personal view a better kind of friendship for the Syrian people than just giving nice words of moral support to the opposition, and creating false expectations.

For various countries that intervened, it was more their own perceived interests that guided their actions, than that they were interested in the fate of the Syrian people.

The influence of the United States in Syria is – next to its sanctions – limited through its relatively small military presence, but nevertheless has the potential danger of US-Russian confrontation. US support for the Kurdish PYD/YPG in the northeast against Islamic State remnants creates friction with its NATO ally Turkey, because of the strong link between the PYD/YPG and its Turkish sister party, the PKK. In the long term, the US is bound to give priority to Turkey over the Kurds of Syria. The European Union, being mainly an economic power block, has hardly any influence at all.

One of the lessons Western and Arab countries should draw from the war in Syria is that they should, in principle, avoid military interference in Middle Eastern countries that do not threaten them. Usually, the effects of such interventions are counterproductive if not disastrous, as has been clearly shown in the cases of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Intervening countries must be realistic about their shortcomings. Western and Arab countries were engaged in Syria with a limited will and limited means, but they were not prepared to adapt their goals accordingly, as a result of which they were not in a position to achieve what they claimed they wanted.

If Bashar al-Assad won the war, can he win the peace?

Even if president Bashar al-Asad wins the war, by regaining full control over all of Syria, he cannot, in my view, win the peace, because of the irreparable damage the war has caused among the Syrian people. The war has created too many intra-Syrian enemies. Al-Asad could still rule the country for a long period, but not in a peaceful manner. The threat of civil unrest will remain.

What foreseeable outcome can we expect? Will Russia take part in the reconstruction by pushing aside the Iranians?  But internally, are we not heading towards a repetition of the Algerian or Chechen scenario, which consists of the Syrian government co-opting loyalist political Islam by Islamizing society?

I expect foreign countries to gradually reestablish diplomatic relations with Damascus, by accepting that their earlier wish to effectuate regime change is not going to take place in the foreseeable future. Russia may want to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Iran, however, is bound to stay as part of its alliance with Damascus – albeit perhaps on a smaller scale –, also within the framework of Iranian-Israeli confrontations, in which Syria is being used as a military strategic forward post against Israeli or US attacks. Syria remains an important bridge between Iran and Lebanon and its Lebanese ally Hizballah.

More countries, including China and Arab Gulf states, may be willing to finance the reconstruction of Syria, because not doing so would guarantee further instability for Syria and thereby for the region.

I don’t see any prospect where the Syrian regime would be prepared to cooperate with Islamist parties which are its enemies, although it will continue to coopt Islamic figures, as in the past. Islamizing society with such a heavy representation of mainly secular Alawi’s in key regime positions would be quite contradictory.

What is the future for the next generation of Syrians, half of whom are refugees and a third of whom have no access to education? What kind of dangers does this generation pose for the future of Syria and the entire region?

Most refugees will want to stay abroad indefinitely, particularly in the Western countries that offer integration opportunities. Some refugees in the surrounding countries may want to return once they have the chance, or if host country pressure for them to leave becomes unbearable. For the time being, however, most of them are afraid to return to Syria for lack of security and possibilities to make a decent living.

Most Syrians have undergone traumatic experiences as a result of the war, the effects of which are bound to be transferred to subsequent generations. Many Syrians will likely continue to hold severe grudges against both the regime and opposition parties, which have drawn them into this war without their consent. Corruption, violence and crime are bound to continue flourishing, as long as the regime is unable to stabilize the country. The severe lack of access to education for more than a generation not only hinders prosperity and development, but also creates additional tensions in a region already full of unsolved conflicts.

Although real stability and prosperity remain out of sight for the foreseeable future, no rule is eternal. New revolutions or military coups d’état are bound to take place again someday, although there is no guarantee that successor regimes will bring the required stability and prosperity, let alone democracy. In the long term, things are bound to get better for the Syrian people, but without the bloody Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution they would have been much better

[i] Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria. This interview was published in French as ‘La révolution syrienne, ou le grand gâchis’, in Conflits. Revue de Géopolitique, March, 2022.