Nikolaos van Dam* is a Dutch diplomat and scholar, author of a classic text on Syrian politics and sectarianism, The Struggle for Power in Syria (2011). During the Syrian uprising, he served as the Dutch Special Envoy to Syria, operating from Istanbul, and had intensive contact with most of the parties involved in the conflict. His book, Destroying a Nation, reflected those experiences.
I met Dr. Nikolaos van Dam in Damascus years before the revolution. He totally fascinated me with his deep knowledge and mild nature. I later saw him in Istanbul in 2016. He was the Special Envoy for Syria and he got only more elegant and knowledgeable in his area of knowledge. Not many people can be both academic and active but Van Dam is. Retired now, Van Dam has more time to contemplate on Syria and to see where thing went wrong in the Syrian revolution. His latest book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (also in Arabic (2018): تدمير وطن: الحرب الاهلية في سوريا) is maybe the most comprehensive and objective report on Syria. He explains the recent history of Syria, covering the growing disenchantment with the Assad regime, the chaos of civil war and the fractures which led to the rise and expansion of ISIS. Through an in-depth examination of the role of sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties in Syria, van Dam traces political developments within the Assad regime and the military and civilian power elite from the Arab Spring to the present day.
I have communicated with Dr. Van Dam a few times during the uprising. The latest however was to conduct this interview, which he graciously took the time to consider my questions and answer each of them thoroughly and deeply. Because the interview’s length, I will publish it in two parts. Part 2 will follow tomorrow.
“Whereas direct dialogue with the regime was rejected relatively early on in the conflict when there were several thousands of dead as a result of the war, the regime, cynically speaking, gradually is becoming more accepted as a matter of reality after more than 500,000 dead.”
Sawah: Ambassador Van Dam, so is it over? Has the Syrian uprising come to an end? And has the regime and its allies made their utmost victory? What went wrong?
Ambassador Van Dam: The Syrian uprising has failed, because the opposition groups have not been able to achieve their proclaimed aim of winning the war and toppling the regime. The regime appears to be on its way to a military victory, but winning the war militarily speaking does not yet mean that there will be peace in Syria; far from it. Having no war does not necessarily mean having peace.
The Syrian refugees abroad can be expected to keep the flame of the revolution going because they want to get rid of the regime at least as much as before, but that does not mean that under the present circumstances they can change much in the situation inside Syria itself.
The uprising inside Syria can be expected to come to an end only once the regime has regained full control over all of Syria’s territory. How long this will take depends to a large extent on the continuation of support for the military opposition groups from abroad, and on the presence of foreign military forces on Syrian territory, particularly from those countries that have not been invited by the Syrian regime, like Turkey, the United States and others. These countries may want to use their military presence as a kind of bargaining chip to extract political concessions from the regime, with the aim of supporting opposition groups to obtain things from the regime which they have not been able to achieve after more than seven years of war. I doubt, however, whether there is any chance of success in such an approach, except if it were intended by foreign powers to serve their regional strategic interests. For instance, concerning the United States and Israel vis-à-vis the presence of Iran, or Turkey vis-à-vis the PYD Kurdish military presence in the north. But these issues will be of little help to the main Syrian opposition groups represented in the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Higher Negotiations Council, because this is more about the strategic interests of other countries in Syria than that it is about the Syrians themselves.
“The question is whether only the party that “pulled the trigger” was responsible, or also the party that provided the other party with the motivation to attack it, knowing very well how the dictatorship was going to react.”
Actually, foreign support for the military opposition groups has generally declined. At first, the foreign countries supporting them were interested in helping topple the regime (although most of them did not say so explicitly, as they claimed they wanted a “political solution” which to them implied regime change), but later on priorities shifted towards defeating the Islamic State (Da’ish), as this movement was considered as a threat to these foreign supporters themselves, whereas the regime itself was not really a threat to them. The longer the war lasted, the more foreign countries started to gradually accept the reality that the Syrian regime was going to stay. Nevertheless, their official foreign policies towards Syria generally maintained the same position that there should not be any place for President Bashar al-Assad and those of his regime with blood on their hands, in Syria’s future. These policies generally were mere declaratory policies (as they turned out to have been in the past). Whereas direct dialogue with the regime was rejected relatively early on in the conflict when there were several thousands of dead as a result of the war, the regime, cynically speaking, gradually is becoming more accepted as a matter of reality after more than 500,000 dead.
Yes, a lot went wrong with the revolution, as can be concluded from its failure to achieve its proclaimed aims, the huge number of victims, the millions of refugees and destruction on a huge scale. The number of victims caused by the Syrian regime has reportedly been many times higher than those caused by the opposition, but since bloody violence was bound to come as a reaction to efforts to topple the regime – whether peaceful or with arms – the question should also be taken into account of whether only the party that “pulled the trigger” was responsible, or also the party that provided the other party with the motivation to attack it, knowing very well how the dictatorship was going to react (if past massacres, like Hama in 1982 were something to go by). I am not talking about justice and moral principles here, but about the hard realities on the ground that should well have been taken into account.
“I am aware, of course, that many opposition Syrians will fully disapprove of what I am saying here, but under the present circumstances I see no clear way how they could fully achieve their stated aims. The alternative is, perhaps, to wait for a more successful revolution, from their perspective, whenever; but in the meantime, life inside Syria has to go on.”
Sawah: Should the opposition give in? Should they tell the Russians “OK, we are in” in order to get what they can get?
Ambassador Van Dam: I’m afraid that the opposition cannot get everything they want (whether or not it is justified), because they lack the military power to impose their will. The longer the war has taken, the fewer are the possibilities for any peaceful compromise between the regime and the opposition groups, assuming that there ever has been any room for political compromises. The thesis that the regime would have been prepared to negotiate when under enough military pressure seems doubtful, because the war was a struggle for life and death in which the regime’s main aim was to survive, and not to share powers with others that could lead to its downfall.
Both parties in fact wanted the opposing side to fully disappear, and neither side has shown any willingness to make substantial concessions. In general, negotiations are supposed to end in a compromise, in which neither side obtains all of what it wants. If the aim of both negotiating parties is, however, to obtain almost everything they want, leaving the other side with almost nothing, a compromise is practically impossible. This has been the real situation for a long time. With the regime winning the war militarily speaking, its preparedness for a political compromise appears to be even less, if there ever was such a willingness.
As long as the opposition keeps claiming that the regime – which is the stronger party – has to disappear as part of a political solution, they will not obtain anything. This does not mean that by now accepting the continuation of the regime – which they have tried to topple for over seven years – they will obtain anything either. What might perhaps have been acceptable for the regime several years ago, when circumstances were quite different, is not necessarily acceptable now. Possible chances have been missed by refusing any real dialogue with the regime in the past (which applies also to many Western and Arab countries), and by maintaining the demand that the regime had to disappear and brought before justice (however much such a demand may have been justified on grounds of justice and morality).
A problem is that if you ask much more during negotiations than is realistic, you may end up with less than you had at the beginning of the negotiations, or nothing at all. And this is what appears to have happened in Syria. It should be noted, however, that the concept of “realistic” is rather controversial and sensitive. The various sides to the conflict tended to perceive their own positions and points of view as “realistic”, but did not always take enough into account whether or not their views could also be brought into practice, either through negotiations or military struggle. Much depended, in this respect, on the military balance of power, and which side was more powerful than the other to impose its will, with or without the help of its foreign supporters.
Of course, the opposition should keep demanding the support of Western and Arab countries. But this support, just like in the past, is bound to be mainly political and moral, and should not be expected to be backed up by military force. And sanctions against the regime generally have not achieved the aim for which they were imposed. Perhaps the opposition should cut their losses and try to save as yet whatever there is still to save. But it means that they would have to agree to an unjust settlement. I am aware, of course, that many opposition Syrians will fully disapprove of what I am saying here, but under the present circumstances I see no clear way how they could fully achieve their stated aims. The alternative is, perhaps, to wait for a more successful revolution, from their perspective, whenever; but in the meantime, life inside Syria has to go on.
“If you want to defeat and kill a lion—Assad means lion in Arabic—you must be well-prepared beforehand to be the stronger and better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed oneself.”
Sawah: 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 considered that since the beginning and refrain from starting the revolution?
Ambassador Van Dam: Of course, the opposition (or I should say the many opposition groups) should have considered the extremely violent and bloody consequences and prospects. With hindsight one might argue that the opposition groups should have thought at least twice, or more, before starting the revolution, both peaceful and armed. But this is easier said (now, afterwards) than that it could be done at the time, mainly because the revolution erupted spontaneously, inspired as it was by the so-called Arab Spring elsewhere in the region. The Syrian demonstrators had seen how Egyptian President Mubarak had voluntarily stepped down, whereas the Tunisian president Ben Ali had fled the country, both after massive and mainly peaceful demonstrations. And the Libyan regime was toppled as a result of foreign military intervention. Of course, also other factors played an important role in the revolution, like poverty, drought, and not least of all decades of severe suppression by the Ba’th regime. As I put it in the Arabic edition (2018) of my book Destroying a Nation, “if you want to defeat and kill a lion—Assad means lion in Arabic—you must be well-prepared beforehand to be the stronger and better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed oneself.” And the latter happened, because the opposition groups were not well prepared and turned out to be weaker armed.
But the opposition – from its perspective – did not have the luxury of doing nothing under the circumstances that existed at the time. Many of those who deserted from the army in order to establish military opposition groups did so in an effort to put up resistance against the severe and violent suppression by the regime. Violence created counter-violence. It was only later on, that they could make their plans to topple the regime in a more organized way. But they nevertheless remained divided. And without massive foreign support they wouldn’t have stood a chance.
The Syrian demonstrators were optimistic, or rather overoptimistic, that something similar could happen in Syria, as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and that they would receive enough support from many countries that had declared that President Bashar al-Assad should resign. The visit of US Ambassador Ford and his French colleague Chevallier in July 2011 to the demonstrators in Hama was interpreted as a positive signal that US and French support was forthcoming. But in the end, it did not come as expected or imagined.
Moreover, the background and power structure of the regime in Syria is very different from that in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The opposition groups and demonstrators should have known that, rationally speaking. But they were emotionally overwhelmed by the imaginary prospects of success. Actually, the so-called Arab Spring, which was warmly welcomed in the West with the unrealistic expectation that democracy was about to come to bigger parts of the Arab world, turned out to be a big disaster in many respects for all the Arab countries involved.