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5th Feb 2023

Former CIA officer questions EU motives in Syria

  • Bas-relief faces in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, in southeast Iran (Photo: velaia)

EU and US intervention in Syria is designed to harm Iran and to protect Israel and Lebanese Christians, not Syrian people, according to Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer with experience of the region.

Speaking in an interview with EUobserver, Baer, a senior CIA field officer in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s and 1990s and a writer on international security affairs, said EU and US sanctions might weaken the Syrian regime but will not stop it from killing people in the current crisis.

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"It will make Syria more isolated and economically unstable. But the Alawites [the ruling Muslim sect in Syria] are not going to succumb to outside pressure for democratic reform because they think this would lead to a sectarian civil war [with the Sunni Muslim majority] ... [Syrian President] Bashar Assad thinks that if he shows weakness, if he loses control of any city for any length of time, then it's the end of his regime."

The EU on Friday (24 June) imposed travel bans and asset freezes on four Syrian regime members and three Iranians. The move comes on top of previous EU sanctions against 23 regime members and similar US measures.

The Iranians are senior officers in the Revolutionary Guards said to be "providing equipment and support" for Syrian repression: brigadier commander Mohammad Ali Jafari; major general Qasem Soleimaini; and Hossein Taeb.

It also imposed a ban on four companies said to be funding the Syrian rulers: Bena Properties; Al Mashreq Investment Fund; Military Housing Establishment; and Hamcho International.

The Alawite sect in Syria is allied with Iran, a Shia Muslim power, and Hezbollah, a Shia guerrilla army in Lebanon. The group is known in Israel as the "axis of evil." But it is also seen as a threat by Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries.

Baer said the EU decision to include sanctions on the Iranian officers - a UK initiative - is desinged to further stigmatise Iran in the wider campaign to stop it building nuclear weapons.

"If Iran is involved in Syria, it's at a minor level like blocking the Internet. At the end of the day, it's Syrian tanks, Syrian artillery which is slaughtering people ... I just see a general desire to frame Iran because of the nuclear issue. This kind of thing makes it easier to impose more economic sanctions [on Iran] down the line."

In another sign that the EU and US' main motive is to weaken the Shia axis, Baer noted they have not taken action against its enemies, such as Saudi-sponsored rulers in Bahrain and Yemen, who are also guilty of brutal repression.

"We've taken sides in the Middle East. We've taken sides with Israel and with the Sunnis, from the US to the Dutch and the French. It's part of our cultural and historical background," he said.

Baer added that France, the former colonial power in Lebanon and Syria, is mainly interested in protecting its old friends, the Maronite Christians in Lebanon: "They don't want to see the roof blown off Lebanon because they still feel responsible for the Maronites. They are tightly wrapped up in Lebanon."

He noted that Turkey is also trying to weaken the Shia alliance in order to become the pre-eminent power in the region. "I'm still talking to my Syrian contacts and they are quite convinced that weapons are coming in [to the opposition] not just from the Sunnis in Lebanon and through Iraq but also from Turkey," Baer said.

Baer predicted that if the conflict in Syria escalates, security chiefs will stage a coup "sacrificing" Assad in order to cut a deal with the opposition, as happened in Egypt.

Not black and white

An EU diplomat backed up some of his analysis.

The contact said EU sanctions will not work because Assad still has good relations with China, Iran, Russia and Latin America.

"When you talk to Syrian diplomats, they are relaxed. Life in Damascus is pretty normal. We [the EU] don't really know what our objectives are, but if it's regime change, it will take more than sanctions," he explained.

He added that the situation is more complicated than a simple struggle between the disenfranchised Sunni majority and the Alawite elite.

"We have reports that Wahhabists [radical Sunni Islamists], who are not necessarily controlled by any state, are coming into Syria from Iraq and from Saudi Arabia to create chaos. Inside Syria, there are snipers shooting at demonstrators who are not controlled by Assad but by the deep state, and other snipers who are shooting at both demonstrators and police," he said.

"The EU has reacted like [former US president] Bush did in 2001 and 2003, in black and white terms, but life is more grey," he noted, referring to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

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