Bassam Barabandi: "With 7 to 10 dollars per month, Syrians are starving"

He was a Syrian diplomat in USA when the war back at home began; Assad's atrocities made him leave diplomacy. Now, Barabandi directs People Demande Change and is a renowned commentator on the Middle East.

Bassam Barabandi, in an exclusive interview with TSF: "Ten years ago, when it first started, it was really mixed feelings. In first place, it was something which we found good, happy, healthy. People were moving in the street, as it never happened before. People assume always that when you live under a directorship, that people become like a machine. And suddenly this machine is starting to walk, shout and move. So, this kind of feelings are very beautiful, something that is very difficult to describe. At the same time, knowing the regime mentality, I expected this kind of a bloody reaction. But still, we didn't expect that that it goes to that high level of bloodshed. It was a kind of mixed feelings that we hoped that he would listen.

When the revolution started, people were not talking about changing the regime, they were asking for more rights, more democracy, a more fair sharing of the wealth of the country. They would ask for social justice, mainly; then, when the regime used the force, and it was heavily force, he sent a message: there was nothing, he would not give up anything. That's when our feelings started to change. We hoped that the regime, by the pressure of international community, by the media, by the people on the ground, would act in a more rational way. Unfortunately, he didn't.

That was when you decided to quit the diplomatic career, the Syrian public service?

Being a diplomat means representing the regime. You have to represent the regime no matter what the regime is saying, good or wrong. So, I couldn't find myself at a place to justify the regime"s crimes. To say that this people are criminals or outlaws, because that is what they are. I mean, my generation, my people, my friends, I know who this is going on. So for me, it was a moral question and I couldn't handle it. I couldn't stay, I couldn't support the regime propaganda and just left.

You often say that what started as a social revolution, it became a conflict that was islamized...

Unfortunately, the two major mistakes the people were pushed to were being Islamist and having weapons. Being Islamist means that the international community failed to support the Syrians. And they failed to support the civil society in the right time and in the right ways. So other groups filled that gap. They shifted from civil society activities, from - as we said before - social justice, changing the regulation, the laws, democracy, human rights values. This is what the people were asking for. After the repression from the regime, they changed to something completely different. Then, a second major problem or fatal mistake was to have weapons. I understand that some people say we need to defend ourselves. But I think there's other countries that want to push so many different scenarios for Syria, that they provide the weapons for the population, benefiting the regime who is using excessive power against the people. And we lost. Actually, the Syrian people lost due to the regime being unable or unwilling to change its behavior towards its own people. Plus the Islamist, plus the people carrying their weapons. So, these three component allow us to reach where we are now today.

And where are you today?

Today everybody talks about the Syrian crisis, but nobody talks about the Syrian people. In Europe, they talk about Syrian immigration. They don't talk about the Syrian crisis. In Turkey, they talk about Syrian refugees, they don't talk about Syrian crisis. The Russians and the Iranians they talk about their own interests in Syria. The Iranians want to be on the Syrian border with Israel because of their nuclear issue, to blackmail the West. Russia wants to take the sea port for projecting power to the Mediterranean... You know, everybody tried to figure out how to position himself inside Syria for his own interest. And nobody talks about the Syrians.

We used to be 22 million people, half of them are now outside Syria, and half of them inside Syria. But when you read all the articles or interviews in the world about Syria, they talk about Iran, Turkey, Russia, Israel, America, you don't see people talking about Syrians. And that, by itself, is a tragedy. I mean, you are talking about human beings... and it´s a large number, almost 12 million inside Syria and almost same number outside Syria. This is where we are now. I am afraid the Syrian people, because of the mistakes and conflict of interests within the regional powers, we lost our case. We cannot today talk about the Syrian state; who are you Syrian? Who represents you, Syria? What is your voice as a political party or political opposition? We, the civil society were the more active, more professional, able to live in Europe, away from the polarization in the Middle East. And they succeeded. You can see there's so many cases in Europe put forward by Srian dispora against the regime. But that doesn't solve the problem. The problem is purely political, a political problem inside Syria.

And what can the civil society do?

We collectively, me and other Syrians, our job today is just to raise awareness that this case, this tragedy, still there. If it is not on the media, it doesn't mean it's solved. The is there, the killing is there, starvation is there. We don't have the power to change anything. But we don't want to keep silent to say "if you don't care, we don't care". Now we reach out to all the governments, all the media, or other international civil societies, just to keep this kind of pressure. We believe in our country. We need help from everybody to solve the problem. If we keep silent, or if we just say "the international community does not care anymore, so let's go continue our life".... It doesn't work.

At this point, it"s hard not to admit that Bashar al-Assad with Russia have won the war and they set the rules...

Look, defining the war for the Russians is number one, testing all kinds of the new weapons they have. They try everything and they mention it openly. Number two, basically they are claiming that they are in Syria to protect the Assad regime. In reality, their address is to tell Europe "now we have a pace in Latakia, we have a military base, we are part of Mediterranean for the first time in the last 200 years". And they don't want to give up that; and whenever they get pressured from the EU, for example, economic pressure because of Syria, they just try to push more refugees towards Europe. They try to blackmail Europeans, through the Syrian refugees. I don't see this is a win for Russia. I mean, this behavior doesn"t work... Assad is not controlling the country yet. If the Russians withdraw tomorrow, Assad will withdraw tomorrow as well. Or, if the Iranians change their mind and leave, Assad is leaving. I mean, he cannot survive without Russia and Iran. And they know this, as well. So I don't know what they mean by winning. They destroyed 1/3 of the country; it is documented by UN reports. They are not able to make a political settlement, they are not able to provide any economic support for the Syrian people. If you remember... just last week, they asked the Israeli to pay them money to give Corona vaccine to the regime. You know, this is like a Picasso picture...

Surrealistic things...

You are there with Russian forces on the ground, you don't need 1 million euro from Israel to buy a vaccine for the Syrian, you are an occupying power. So I don't know what they mean by winning, it's just that they destroyed all other forces. But it's not sustainable for them either.

Why do you say that it was a mistake the Americand supported only the Kurds and that things will not change in the Great Middle East while that does not change?

We have to differentiate between the Syrian Kurds and the Kurds who are not Syrian. Let's talk about the Syrian Kurds, they suffered a lot from the Arabism or Baath party regime, there is no question. From the 1960"s till today, they suffered in a way that still happens until today. They were never allowed to have their own language, or fill government jobs, or join the army, or go to the university. Or even to have an ID. Can you imagine people from 1960s till 2011, they don't have ID of the country they are living in? They suffered, there's no question about that. And the revolution gave them to chance to gain their rights. Same as with the other Syrians who have the ID, but they don't have rights. This is the difference between us and the Kurds.

So, we hoped at that time that all these people who are suffering from regime, which is mainly all the Syrian people, to get together. When the Americans made partnership with certain parts of the Kurds, which is PKK, not with the Syrian Kurds... the PKK are a communist group, which is blacklisted in Europe and United State as a terrorist group. And when you get an alliance with them, in the area, majority are Arabs. Now, today, the PKK established their own entity supported by the United States, but they say in their literature or their books, that "we want our own state, we want to be our own separate state". Separate from whom? They become an occupation power in the Arab area. So today, the Arabs are facing three, four or five options, either to join Turkey, or to join Iranian forces, or join to the Russian forces, or the Americans who don't want to talk with the Arabs. Who has benefited from that chaos is ISIS. ISIS is sending the propaganda, we are back again to the same propaganda which says "we are defending the Sunni against the Shia Muslim, against the Kurds". And we try to tell the Americans "if you don't make a new social contract in the region, between the Arab and the Kurds, where we have a new model for new Syria, you are losing, you are losing your money and energy, and you will not achieve what you want". International forces are there, the regime forces are there, Iranian forces are there. And they are competing to get more legitimacy from the locals. This is what we say: the American are supporting a group who wants to have a separation from Syria. Demographically, they represent 20%. These are ingredients for another Civil War, these are ingredients of more instability, let's put it in other words, and ISIS is benefiting from this. Iran has benefited, Russia has benefited, the regime is benefiting...

But what do you really expect from the Biden Administration?

We say to the Americans... "you have all your money there and your forces. So you should have an upper word to say this doesn't work". Unfortunately, they are listening, but very slowly, and they are acting very slowly as well. I think this administration, not only the Administration and the Congress or the media, I think that's the whole American society in DC is 100% focusing on China. That means they need to have very good relations with the EU, because they cannot face China only by themselves. So, we will see for sure more close relation with the EU. That is for sure and that is number one. Number two, they hope to finish - from the whole middle east issue - problems in a way that I think they are deep inside... they say "guys, we will try to find the bottom line of settlement and we are leaving them up to you to work it out". So from that angle, I think they will be more aggressive in solving the Iran nuclear issue. This is a 100% priority for them to think this is the way they make this area more stable or less conflictual. I think they made it clear they want to solve the Yemen issue. And I believe Syria will be under the Iranian issue. In case they solve the Iran nuclear deal, underneath there would be three major problems solved: Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the Iranian influence in these countries. They will not go like Trump to tell the Iranian "you should leave". Rather, they will ask the Iranians: "what's your interest in these areas?" So at least we know how to handle it to find some common ground. They hope to work in that design.

The influence of the Iran supported militias in Syria is real?

It's funny... all those tragedy, I don't know what is the right word, the relation between Iran and Russia and the regime in Syria is really a case study. Iran and Russia, they are providing billions of dollars for the military operation, salaries, weapons, on all things related to military operation. They have no limit for the money to spend. Especially when building a new militia, or building up their own forces. So it's really open issue how much money they are spending. The Iranians say they are spending between three to $4 billion a year, the Russian said the official number is $3 billion a year. So collectively, we have at least $7 billion a year from Iran and Russia, for the militarization of the conflict. Whereas when you come to work between the Syrian government and Russian government, as government to government or Syrian Government to Iranian government, the Russian and Iranian say "we don't have money, we can give you a credit line, we can give you loans, and you have to pay back". And since it"s a war, there is no way to pay back, there's no income. So they ask them to get sovereignty funds, sovereignty guarantees from the Syrian natural wealth. So the Iranian gives you their $2 billion and they say, "you know what? We need the phosphate mines in this area, which is equal to $2 billion", the Russian detect all their military base as payback to the loans from Russia. So when they work government to government, they work in very greedy way to say, "we don't have the money to give you, we give you credit lines, we give you loans, and you have to pay back, and if you don't pay back, you should give us something on the ground". Whereas when it comes to military things, because they are building their own forces, their own militias, their own proxies, the official numbers is that each country is paying between three to $4 billion. So we reached up today to a country that has no income at all, as government is not exporting and importing, they are living on the credit lines from Russia and Iran. And they are selling Syrian properties, Syrian state properties, as buildings. Yesterday, they've started to sell antique buildings, historical buildings in Damascus, to Russia. And natural resources. This shows you exactly how these countries are helping. They are not helping, zero! We go back to where we started; this is not a Syrian war anymore. It's about regional competition to take part of Syria under the title that "we are supporting the legitimate regime".

Will there ever be an end to that?

I think it's impossible. In reality, if you want to be realistic, the Russian in Syria, I doubt there's any force that can take Russia out of Syria, even America. In the previous administration, they were very open to say, "Russia you are historically patrolling and have influence of Syria. So it's up to you. We leave it, we are not competing with you, keep your base, we don't have any interest". Let's put it in a different way. These countries, regional powers, they want the land, they are not here for ideological reasons, or projecting power, political power. Russia they need the land in Tartus to tell the European "guys we are here". The Iranian they need the land to say "we are have in connection from Tehran to Beirut", so they need the land. Turkish need their lands, to say "we are in this land, it is our foot here". There's many thousands Turkish forces in Syria. People don't talk about them, but they are more than 35 to 40,000, official army in Idlib. And they also say "we are here to protect US and Europe from further refugee wave. So we have to be inside Syria. And we need another thing. We should go inside Syria for fighting the PKK". Israeli needs the land to protect itself from Hezbollah, and Iranian proxy in the south of Syria. So when you look, it's not a war of ideology or like cold war - free world and the communism.

This war is different because every single power, regional power, they need land. And that's the problem in Syria. It's not like the cold war where you had communists and a free world, it's not ideology. It's It's war on that. Basically, if there will be settlement in Syria, the settlement will say, "we'll divide Syria into this five countries, as sphere of influence, and they say "Hello, this is the solution, the North to Turkey south to Israel, in the sea to Russia and the middle to Iran, and then "Syrian guys enjoy what you have". This is where we are. In reality, this is where we are heading.

What is the situation like on the ground, at the moment?

It's Corona, Corona, Corona, everywhere. There are no medicines, there are no hospitals, there's no equipment. There are no doctors, actually. Unfortunately, the doctors were the first to die from the corona. More than 200 doctors were killed or died by corona because they are first fighters. There's no equipment, there's nothing to there to defeat that disease. So this is number one. Number two, the inflation is becoming very high. The prices is very high, very expensive. There is shortage of everything. The regime, they say because of the sanctions; we say it's not about the sanction, it is because of the war. Because ten years ago, the regime or the government of Syria, they had reserves in the central bank... something like $40 billion. Today they are minus something, they are living on their credit lines. So it's not about the sanctions. It's about misusing the money to use it for the killing. That happens for the last 10 years.

So now everybody is in very bad shape economically, there's shortage of everything in the market. There's no job opportunity, as you can imagine. And even within the regime controlled area, now people are talking about social or economic revolution. People need to eat, they don't have any more bread or any milk, the basic of the basic stuff do not exist. And if it exists, it's extremely expensive. The salaries of the employees ten years ago, was around $300 to $400. Two years ago it became around $100. Today is $7 to 10. And, as you can imagine, the salaries go down but the prices go up. So, people are starving. There we go back to the Russian Iranian: they are the major powers on the ground. They say "we don't have money to support your economy, we can give you a loan and we take grants". That is the equation, there is no real income coming to the regime, no export-import, the infrastructure has been destroyed. So things are very bad, extremely bad. Where we are heading to, we don't know.

Waiting for EU to share the burden?

The Russians hope the European will come in to help. The EU says "how can we help if you are still pushing more refugees toward our borders, this doesn't work". You have to change substantial change inside Damascus, so that people feel secure to come back, or at least take their money back home. So then we have something to work on it. The Russians say "we are winners, we win the war. So we set the terms of the victory". So enjoy what you have and here we are. So sad and depressing. I mean, this is what it is. So this is our job. We, as civil society, as Syrian living in Europe and America, we are here just to tell the Western European that you cannot leave 10 million people or more than 10 million people under starvation because you don't want to act. We don't need any military action from yourself, zero! Military action, zero interference. But you cannot ignore that case, because we don't know how the consequences in the region will be. Nobody knows. The faster we come to a political solution, the better for everyone. Ignoring it, doesn't help anyone.

Political agreement with a regime change?

Let's talk about regime change. We have a UN Security Council resolution, which talks about a gradual, peaceful and organized transfer of powers at least until elections under the UN supervision, under a new standard of doing elections, with transparency. We are asking the European to or the international community to implement what they have agreed on. The country is already destroyed. So, any military intervention will not change anything, it makes it much worse. Rather than that, the European Union should, or the American should put more pressure on Iran and Russia in order to start doing something politically, giving people the confidence to come back to the country which is nobody is doing, right now.

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