One of Europe’s foremost Syria experts talks German elections, refugees, Syria’s reconstruction, and ISIS in second Al-Jumhuriya English podcast.
In our second English-language podcast, Al-Jumhuriya speaks to Dr. Bente Scheller, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Middle East office, based in Beirut. One of Europe’s foremost experts on Syria, Dr. Scheller previously worked at the Germany embassy in Damascus from 2002 to 2004, as well as the Berlin Aspen Institute’s Syria program. She is the author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads, published by Hurst in 2013.
Dr. Scheller spoke to Al-Jumhuriya in her Beirut office for half an hour on Wednesday, 11 October, in a conversation that ranged from the recent German elections and their likely impact on European Syria policy, to the ongoing debate over Western participation in the future reconstruction of Syria, to threats faced by Syrian refugees both in Europe and here in the Middle East, to recent military developments against ISIS and other actors in Syria’s east and north, and much more. Below is a full transcript of our discussion, along with the audio recording.
Al-Jumhuriya: Last month, there were elections in Germany, and the AfD party, which is […] a relatively extreme, far-right party […] got its best results ever, placing third, and marking the first time that a far-right party had entered the German parliament in something like six decades. How much of a concern should this be to people in Germany, including, obviously, the more than half a million Syrians currently living there?
Dr. Bente Scheller: I think the same as in Great Britain and other places where some right-wing movements became very prominent, with all the hate speech reaching new levels. And I think also people with a foreign complexion, people with foreign names, they had already more difficulty in public life and private life, because it seems to have become very prominent, and much more accepted that there is hate speech, and that there are insults, so I think it is really worrisome. And 13%, many Germans then say, Oh, that is only thirteen, that means 87% have not voted for these. I think maybe much more worrisome than the exact result is the implication for public life, for social divisions, for the right-wing really becoming an orientation also, because what you will see with other parties is that they just became more right-wing in their discourse, that they allowed the right-wing party this time to dictate what topics should be core to the elections campaigning. And then they also changed their position to compete with the right-wing parties rather than to stand against them and say no, this is not the way we want to take.
Al-Jumhuriya: That feeds very neatly into the second question, which is, obviously, the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel won reelection, but not by a margin great enough to sustain her governing coalition. And just on Monday, she agreed to a cap on refugee intake to Germany, which was something that previously she had firmly rejected. And that was seen as a concession—just as you were saying—to these sort of more conservative, anti-immigrant forces, with whom she’s now apparently looking to form a new coalition. So, do you expect we’ll see more policy shifts of this kind toward Syrian refugees and perhaps even toward the Assad regime, and the Syrian situation more generally?
Dr. Scheller: Well you know so far we don’t really know what will be the governing coalition. The negotiations are going on, and there are many options. But, maybe the biggest problem comes from inside the Christian Democratic Union, because you know it is affiliated with the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union, and those have been the strongest in advocating for capping the number of refugees coming into Germany. So she has kind of most resistance within her own closest circle, so to say. And what the other parties might say, and it will definitely be a hot topic in the negotiations currently, there are preparations for seeing the options of a coalition that could include her party, the liberals, and the Greens, and in the Greens, there is strong opposition towards capping the number of refugees, saying we cannot judge by the number, people need to bring their families. And, really, it is astonishing to see that the Christian Democratic, and the Christian Socialist Union, in their program have the value of family really above everything else. It’s very focal, very central to their policy to protect the family. So I think really it would be a point to take up with them, to say is that only valid for German families? Don’t you think that it will be really relevant to make sure that people can bring their families to Germany if they come as refugees, for social peace, and for signing up to your own values? So I think the debate will definitely include this as a crucial point, but of course there are other points that matter as well and many are more relevant than foreign policy.
So, regarding the second part of your question, what will the future government mean towards or for the policy towards Syria, towards Assad, it’s very difficult to see, because foreign policy is neglected often in light of elections. It’s not very high up on the agenda of the German people. I guess that’s the case for many other states as well. So far the German government has always been adamant that there will be no reconstruction happening in Syria as long as Assad is there. The formulation is the same as the European Union uses. No reconstruction as long as we don’t see serious signs of a real transition underway. Of course, here, you have room for interpretation. What is a serious transition? So, nothing is really guaranteed, but I think the German government has made it very clear that for them Assad remaining in power is not really an option. I really hope they will stick to that, and they will also consider the consequences when it comes to really making efforts to help inside Syria, be it humanitarian, or with any other kind of help. It has always been difficult to find a way. Some people are saying, and especially those who want the refugees to return as soon as possible, they’re saying let’s just do anything, so they have a chance to have perspectives in Syria, but I think there is an awareness that the situation in Syria is not only about material, and about housing, that most people have not fled because of these reasons, but because of the political system, and the horror, and Assad’s war on the population, so as long as he stays, there is no going back. I think that is understood in large parts of the German government.
Al-Jumhuriya: Just to clarify, as you were saying, there’s this kind of almost fashionable theory at the moment that reconstruction can be used as leverage. I think [British Foreign Minister] Boris Johnson called it the last card we have to play, or something, with the Assad regime [Editor’s note: Johnson’s exact phrase was, “We have one big card left to play in a pretty poor hand and that is the cash we can provide for the reconstruction of Syria”], as you were saying, so the funding for reconstruction would be some means of compelling Assad and Russia and Iran to come to the table. You’re saying, if I understood correctly, Angela Merkel does not believe in that theory, then?
Dr. Scheller: It’s difficult to figure out what she believes in. But so far I don’t think that we see any indication in Germany that the political change will go to that extent. On the contrary, it has always been stressed by the ministry for development and construction, as well as by other parts of the government, there cannot be reconstruction supported by Germany as long as there is no serious transition underway. So, definitely, in Germany the tendency is not to talk along these lines.
However, you have the pressure, people who really think about how to create a situation that allows refugees to go back. And if you have crises that are complex, if you have wars that people really don’t follow, and they don’t really have a chance or the will to understand them properly, the easy solution always seems to be just throw money there. Let’s improve the material conditions, let’s create jobs, and then people will return. I think that’s a very specific view of things, implying that there is more migration than people seeking refuge, and I think with Syria it’s very clear, it’s not about those structural factors. And I see in the debate in Germany a lot of common sense in the fact that Assad is more of a problem than a solution.
It’s also difficult for me to see how this idea of reconstruction as leverage comes into the world. When we have seen something, with Assad’s policy over the past years but also before, there is not much way to influence his politics by giving incentives. He just does not react to them. The same as well [with] pressure, it needs to be rather strong for him to change course. Even his allies Iran and Russia have at times been frustrated about how little they can really shape Syrian politics. So we should not be idealistic about that. It is kind of an expectation that the West will be ready to give money just to ease the problem, and I think it is absolutely clear this will not allow us to impose conditions, neither now or then. Recently, there was this paper even at the European Council on Foreign Relations, saying the most important thing is to improve the situation now, so let’s just go into that. And it was not as blunt [as that], but basically it was saying let’s ask all the questions later, let’s put the conditions later. Neither now, nor then, I think will foreign aid be able to shape conditions, to set conditions, because this is what we’ve seen through the war. So many demands, issued not only by senior countries, but by the UN, by negotiators with Syria, and no readiness [from] the Syrian regime to give in to any of them. Why would he, then, after having the feeling that he already won, why would he give in to any other demand? He knows he can get away with everything.
So I think, really, if we talk about reconstruction or any other aid to Syria, we should scratch that off our list, it’s illusionary.
Al-Jumhuriya: Sticking with refugees for one more question, Human Rights Watch reported recently that Jordan has begun essentially forcibly deporting several thousand Syrian refugees back north of its border. And here in Lebanon, President Michel Aoun himself recently used the UN General Assembly pulpit to renew his longstanding call for the return of refugees. And there are reports of this happening already here on a relatively small scale for now in the eastern border zone. Do you expect this will start happening on a more significant scale here in Lebanon soon?
Dr. Scheller: I’m not sure about that, because the micro level on which it happened already had so much of an impact. I think really as a signal it was very powerful, because many of the Syrians I speak to here are really afraid that the situation will really fundamentally change for them here, and so it’s something where you might not be able to reach your aim of decreasing the number of refugees by forcefully deporting them. You’re rather doing this as a signal to scare people into voluntarily going back, even though the situation might not have changed and improved there. And I think therefore both Jordan and Lebanon are doing exactly this. They know it will not be possible for them to take really strong measures against a significant amount of refugees here. It’s a million or so that are still registered as refugees here. The real number might be even higher, and you just can’t put them all on buses, even though if you listen to the rhetoric of some politicians here you might think that this is what they would like to do. But especially to publicize on this, to publicize also, to publish the images of some of the refugees that were caught, and the raids in some of the unofficial camps, it sends a strong message. It’s scaring people, and that probably will continue.
Al-Jumhuriya: The next question is one that my colleague Karam Nachar had specifically asked me to press you on. He was saying he’s been hearing a lot from people in the Syrian NGO world about pressure from international donors, particularly in Europe, for Syrian NGOs that are located outside Syria, such as in Istanbul, pressure on these NGOs to actually return to Damascus, or elsewhere in the country, in order to continue to receive funding, on the basis that it’s now safe again and so on, and it’s no longer viable for Europe or other donor nations to fund groups that are outside the country. So what’s your perspective on that, should Syrian NGO workers outside Syria start worrying about things like that, do you think?
Dr. Scheller: I hadn’t heard of this. And for me, technically, also the question is how should they go there and still be able to receive money, because with the sanctions any transfer to Syrian organizations is already difficult, and I don’t think that it will be any easier if they are actually based in Damascus. Nothing is impossible, it’s just that about this part I haven’t heard, and I think also it would be difficult because who can go back? Who has the possibility to go back and be accepted back? I think really many international organizations also over the past years had the experience [of] how much their staff and affiliates are exposed to random arrests and forms of persecution and harassment in Syria. And therefore I can’t really see this coming as a bigger condition.
Al-Jumhuriya: If anything, it may just be a pretext to slash funding, a convenient way…?
Dr. Scheller: It might be, but it was always so difficult for Syrian organizations, because many never had the chance to register anywhere. Not to register in Syria obviously because of the NGO laws that were in place long before 2011, and that were made and shaped not to have registrations of real NGOs, so many organizations that even existed before didn’t have the chance to register. And then of course moving outside, and how should they register. Some of them found ways, and we supported them also in legal studies on the possibilities to register. But for many it was really not possible. So I think there were mechanisms developed to either help register or to organize partnerships through which they could receive funding, but it was always difficult I think. You will know that much better from your work on fundraising for Al-Jumhuriya, and I don’t think this pretext would be needed to further cut what they were giving.
Al-Jumhuriya: On a quite different note, Germany was recently the first country in the world, along with Sweden, to successfully prosecute and convict individuals responsible for war crimes in Syria. And these individuals ranged from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra members, to Free Syrian Army fighters, to, in one case in Sweden, an actual Assad regime soldier. What do you think the significance, if any, of that is? Could it be perhaps an avenue for eventual future prosecutions of more senior war criminals?
Dr. Scheller: I think it’s really good to see all these cases being dealt with in Germany and other countries. But more significant than this dealing with individuals is an approach that recently was started in Germany. Probably you heard of the Syrian lawyers Anwar al-Bunni and Mazen Darwish filing together with the European [Center for] Constitutional and Human Rights cases against institutions of the Assad regime. I think really with the scale of crimes, it would be very dissatisfying, even though important, just to go after individuals […] Stephen Rapp, the war crimes prosecutor, said what’s happening in Syria is killing on an industrial scale. We see the massive human rights abuses and the systematic and deliberate ones. So I think it’s more important to go after these institutions. And therefore we really are following what’s happening around these cases in Germany. We really hope they will be accepted; currently the federal prosecutor is investigating them. He’s hearing witnesses to get a better idea of how feasible it is actually to have these cases being dealt with in Germany. But the first step is done; to file these complaints—one against air force security, one against the proceedings in Saydnaya prison, and one against military intelligence. I think it’s really important to highlight also through these cases it’s not just individuals who stray from the line, and the majority of people are behaving and the state is giving rules that are being followed. No, it is not. And I think it’s much more important to bring these cases in front of the eyes of the public to understand the scale of what’s happening in Syria, and particularly the scale of crimes committed by a regime that is part of many international conventions that should prevent it from doing this. The Syrian regime being part of the international convention against torture—you will never see this in their actions. And therefore I think we should hope for these cases to be picked up.
Al-Jumhuriya: Do you know if there would be scope, under German jurisdiction or other jurisdiction, to try Bashar al-Assad himself, even if in absentia, or would he be protected by diplomatic immunity?
Dr. Scheller: I’m not a legal expert. But, of course, the principle of universal jurisdiction which is being applied in Germany, and in an unlimited way, in theory should include that possibility; to really follow the responsibility of crimes, of war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and finding the person who’s responsible for that, even if it is a president. Nothing should be there to hinder that there is a trial about this, or a verdict. Of course, you know, with many of these cases, whether it’s the international criminal court, or juridical courts like the one that I just described for Germany, they might have a verdict, but then they will never get hold of the perpetrators. It’s a long way, we have to manage our expectations about what in the end might happen. We also have to be aware that it might be even a positive thing, if not all that is being dealt with in courts will have satisfying results, because we need proof, we need evidence, we really have to show we are not like them. It’s not political justice being done, it is about finding the responsibility for crimes and having proof of it, and then we can judge. So maybe whatever we will see as the final result will not be satisfying, however it gives people, survivors especially, family members of those who died under torture, an opportunity to speak, to have their stories heard, to have an understanding about the size and the forms violence takes in Syria these days. And I think it is good to show there are peaceful ways to seek for justice. Many Syrians are not oriented to revenge, they want justice, and since it’s clear in Syria they will probably not have that possibility, it’s extremely important from my point of view to have other countries offering this road.
Al-Jumhuriya: To turn briefly to military affairs, obviously the city of Raqqa is expected to be fully cleared of ISIS fighters within the next few days or weeks, at least according to reports [Editor’s note: the interview took place before the deal was reached to evacuate remaining ISIS fighters from Raqqa]. What is your expectation for the aftermath—who would govern Raqqa, would it produce stability? What’s your take on all that?
Dr. Scheller: I think we will really need to see who’s going to govern. Currently one of the forces strongly engaged in all the military advances in eastern Syria is the Syrian Democratic Forces, with a strong Kurdish element, and also Arab and tribal elements engaged, so it’s not a merely Kurdish force, but however it means that a strongly Kurdish-dominated force is coming to areas where there is hardly any Kurdish constituency. And from what we hear from people in those areas, for them this part is not in the foreground at the moment. Many are happy that ISIS is gone. Many are also happy, or will be happy, when finally the bombardment stops. Because through the international coalition’s bombardments, these advances in recent months have been possible, but the death toll among civilians was significant. But yeah, if it comes to really picking up the pieces and trying to govern, I think first those who come there to really push ISIS out of the city will be the ones who also take control, and the status afterwards needs to be seen. It will be a challenge in many regards to really get things, not only under control, but to rebuild. I mean, we’ve seen it with ISIS leaving other places, they leave mines, they mine whatever they have, they really try to make it very hard to establish new ways of having civil life come back to make cities that they abandon come to life again. So whoever is there will definitely face significant challenges. And then also we don’t know whether conquering the city of Raqqa is as strong on the ground as we perceive it. The ideology of ISIS remains, the remnants of ISIS of course that are of course just moving to other places, many of the factors that enabled the inception of ISIS are still there. So I think we should not be too optimistic that conquering Raqqa will put an end to the so-called Islamic State. It’s an end of its territoriality, but it’s not an end of the group.
Al-Jumhuriya: Again on the military front, over the weekend Turkey began a ground incursion into Idlib Province, in a fairly confusing-sounding agreement with Russia, which is supposedly to be supplying the air power, regardless of Turkey and Russia’s previous disagreements on Syria. And there’s talk now of bringing in Turkish-backed rebels from Aleppo Province to supposedly fight Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda spinoff in Syria. This is all quite hard to follow, do you have a clear idea of what’s really going on here?
Dr. Scheller: I find it very difficult to follow up on that, because as you mention, there are so many changes in the relations of all the international actors involved. The thing that is clearest to me [is] for Turkey the main priority of the past year has been to prevent Kurdish aspirations from becoming too powerful in Syria. That refers in the case of Idlib particularly to keeping the Western part of Afrin, that is Kurdish-dominated, from joining the more eastern parts that are Kurdish. In between Idlib you have this corridor that is not yet controlled by the Kurds and I think Turkey is just interested in keeping it like that and doing everything they can. I am not sure why they would now come directly militarily, I did not understand the timing of the move and the way it was done, I think we will learn only later about that.
The presence inside Syria might seem something that they see as a good option for now, but it has been very difficult for them, even with the past time they came, it was by no means easy. They had to rely strongly on their Syrian partners, and they find it very risky to take this responsibility. And other forces we’ve seen getting involved directly also might not have calculated what it means long-term for them.
Al-Jumhuriya: Finally, in 2013, you wrote a book, titled, The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads. Is Assad still playing a waiting game, and if so, is it still wise? Is it likely to succeed?
Dr. Scheller: I think really it was a very wise title that I chose; I wish I had been wrong. I wish it was something that would have turned into a history book, rather than a kind of manual for how to really survive any crisis. But yeah I think Assad has proven that this strategy works out very well. When you read the foreword of the book, you will see that I thought that the use of chemical weapons would be overstretching, overplaying his hand, and that at least that would put an end to the waiting game. But no, even that, he’s survived it, and he’s about to survive it for a second time, now that the UN really has blamed the responsibility for Sarin use in Syria this year on the regime. We hardly even see an outcry internationally. I thought it would be very relevant because it’s such a blatant breach of international norms, but no, it goes hardly noticed.
And the Geneva talks I think are a masterful example of playing this waiting game. I think in reference to Clausewitz who said something like war is the continuation of politics with other means, somebody highlighted to me Assad is doing it the other way round. He uses diplomacy as a continuation of the war. Being engaged in Geneva is [a blessing] for him because he just does not make any concessions, he just comes, the negotiations are going on, and at the same time he’s continuing the military advances, backed by his two main allies, Russia and Iran. So, for him, it’s good because he has this ticket on which he can be play on the international level. But it’s very clear he was never ready to make concessions there. These were just the fig leaf and the pretext that he is active to seek peace while on the ground we see completely different action.