Video and Transcript: Politics and war in Syria: Part One. Susan Dirgham interviews Jeremy Salt

Susan Dirgham is convener of Australians for Reconciliation in Syria (AMRIS) and Jeremy Salt is a scholar of Media propaganda and the Middle East. In Part One, they discuss the history of western interventions in the Middle East and the most recent in Syria. Then, on western mass media, Susan raises the question of why we don't hear about how Syria is a secular country, with women's rights and where women were granted the vote in 1949. Below is a mixture of description, summary and transcript. If you want to cite exactly, then you would need to listen to the video.

JEREMY SALT: Talks about 19th century history of interventions in the Middle East, then about intervention in Iraq in 1990s. The UN ran this nominally, but really England and United States did. Two UN humanitarians objected to the inhumanity of economic sanctions against Iraq, possibly even mentioned ‘genocide’: they were Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck. [1] To Susan’s question, Dr Salt agrees that UN personnel no longer speak out.

2003 ‘weapons of mass destruction’: The use of no-fly zones to conduct aerial bombardments. [2] Libya. No fly zone fig leaf. Syria; they wanted to get a UN resolution for a no-fly zone, but Russia and China blocked this with the UN. Next best thing pull down the government of Damascus by using armed gangs – mercenaries. From 2011 until now and still have not reached their main objective, which is the destruction of the government in Damascus, but they have destroyed a large part of Syria.

Similar to the Sandinista template of mercenaries used in Nicaragua.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Why do these people choose to fight for/align themselves with western governments when they can see as clearly as you and I can see that these western governments are out to destroy Arab societies?

JEREMY SALT: (Not exact quotes always; some paraphrase) But we don’t know who these people are. Initially some of them were Syrians, but a lot were from Iraq. Because, in many ways, the war in Syria is the Iraq war exported. The Saudis and other Gulf states have pumped money into Sunni Muslim groups in Western Iraq to destabilise the government in Bagdad, which they didn’t like.

The whole protest movement in Syria was wildly exaggerated [by external war-mongering forces] who were waiting to seize just such an opportunity to make their move against Syria. We’ve seen this happen in Latin America, the Middle East over many, many decades. It happened in Chili, Iran, Ukraine. When the people begin to protest, you come in from behind and you turn those protests to your advantage.

So, for the question of why local people would support western-aligned interventions, the level of true support is unknown. This is not a civil war. This is a campaign against Syria orchestrated by outside governments, who want to destroy Syria and are using a protest movement. Infiltrating it. You might remember the first week of that protest movement in Dada, in Southern Syria. We are told that the Syrian military started firing into peaceful protesters. What the media didn’t report was the number of civilians and police who were killed by armed men in that week. And we were told by the same media that there were snipers on rooftops firing into peaceful demonstrators. They said, ‘government snipers’. Almost certainly, they were not. They were provocateurs, stirring as much trouble up as they could. Since those days, we know full well, that the number of foreigners coming to Syria has turned into a flood.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Jeremy, the thing you mention about snipers; I was in Damascus in April 2011, just one month after the start of the crisis, and I met a young man who had been to an anti-government rally just that morning and he said that two people were killed at the rally and others were shot. There were police at the rally with arms, but they did not draw their weapons. So it was just a mystery, who killed these people and Syrians know this.

JEREMY SALT: Once again, this is part of a template. This happens in many situations like this. Where you send your undercover agents into a situation. They open fire from a rooftop or from round a corner. No-one really knows who does it, but that’s the opportunity that the enemy wants, and its media wants, to portray the government as being brutal and oppressive – to killing its own people.

So, what we are seeing in Syria is just another repeat of what we have seen in many, many other countries. We had this in Istanbul, in

SUSAN DIRGHAM: One thing that people don’t know is that there was the CIA-orchestrated coup in Syria in 1949. The first CIA coup ever. The CIA had just been recently set up. This was in Syria. So Syrian people know their history, know their enemies –

JEREMY SALT: The whole thing is people in the Arab world generally have a very strong grasp of history and, you know, the people who suffer, who are the victims, remember the history. The people who do bad things to them; they want to move on, want to forget it. So, of course there is a [?known] history. And it’s not just 1949; This goes back to the end of the first world war. Syria has been ‘under siege’, effectively, all that time, up unto the present day. So, 1949, yes, that coup, Husni al-Zaim was put there by the CIA, and then he’s followed by a second man, Sami al-Hinnawi, then Adib Shishakli. And Shishakli, whether he was actually put-up to it by the Americans, is not clear. He probably wasn’t, but what he did, the Americans liked. Because, one thing that he didn’t like was a proposal to unite the fertile crescent. To bring Syria and Iraq together. Iraq was under the domination of the British, so, if that had happened, it would have held a wonderful advantage for Britain – and the Americans didn’t want that. Because, beneath all of these things that we are talking about, all through the 20th century, up to the present day, there were these subterranean tensions between these outside powers. Britain and France were wartime allies in 1914. Once the war was over, they were rivals. And the British did what they could to limit French gains. And why did the French leave Syria in 1946? Because the British put pressure on them. Made them leave, because France was, relatively speaking, in a weak position. Britain was weak, but not as weak. And we see, in the 1950s, Britain and the United States, this same sort of subterranean tension playing up because Britain’s fading as an imperial power, America’s moving into the region and doesn’t want the British to regain lost ground. So this is all part of the picture.

Secular society and women’s rights in Syria: if people knew the truth…

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Another bit of history going back to those times, is that women were given the vote in Syria in 1949. And what disturbs me greatly is we [Australians/westerners] don’t really know what Syrian society is like. It’s hidden behind that ‘brutal dictator’. So our media is presenting a ‘brutal dictator’ versus ‘rebels’ and, behind that ‘brutal dictator’, you’ve got the army - a secular army - and you’ve got a secular society, and you’ve got women, who have extraordinary freedoms. Do you think, if we knew …?

Western governments and media do not want us to know the truth

JEREMY SALT: Yes, of course, if we knew; if people went there. I mean Syria had a quite reasonable tourist industry before this war broke out. We all know that Syria’s a fantastic country. A wonderful place, right. So, a number of people who go there would see that for themselves, but what the others have to rely on is what the media tell them. And the media doesn’t tell them the things that you’re saying. And the media wasn’t saying these things about many, many other countries. The media will pick up a story, a narrative, which fits in with what they and the government wants. As it did over Iraq, as it has done with many other situations. So Syria becomes a target to be destroyed, therefore it’s not in the interests of the government or much of the media to talk about positive things about Syria. Not to talk about a secular society, freedom for women, and all the rest – because people would say then, ‘Well, why are we taking Syria? Why are we going for Syria?

And so the narrative over Syria has been shocking from the beginning. There has been no balanced reporting whatsoever about Syria. I mean, one or two reporters file reasonable reports from time to time, but 95, 97% of the coverage has not conformed in any way to the standards of proper journalism. It’s been completely biased. You haven’t seen the other side. If you are a journalist the primary responsibility is what they call ‘balance’. You’re never going to achieve perfect balance, but in a situation like this, even if you want to report what the rebels are saying and doing - even if you and I don’t think they really are rebels – let them have their say. Let people think about it. But you have to report what the others are saying. You have to go to the Syrian government. You’ve got to go to the victims of the rebels. They are very good – the media – for the last five years has talked about the ‘victims of the Syrian army’ – as they say it – but they haven’t paid any attention at all to the victims of these armed groups. And if they did, then naturally, people would get a very different idea. If they [journalists] talked to the government and were able to see what happens in families who’ve lost young men. I mean, how many young men have died in Syria fighting these [‘rebel’] groups? Sixty thousand? Something like that. Plus all the others – tens of thousands – wounded. If that were shown, the whole narrative would be disrupted. But it can’t be shown. It can’t be shown. You cannot really show the victims of war. This is common in all wars. They don’t like to show the gruesome detail.

We saw the other day how Obama was wiping away tears for children who had been shot dead in America. Well, this is the same Obama who has been ordering missile strikes in Yemen that have killed children. Now if you show the victims of those missile strikes in Yemen – actually show the bodies – well then, the American public would do a double-take: ‘What on earth are we doing? Dead children! We’re killing children in Yemen.’ No, you don’t see those photographs. And the same in Syria. You don’t see the gory detail of what the armed groups are doing. It will be played down. But when the government does something, or the military does something, it’s magnified to the ultimate degree. So there can’t be any trust in the mainstream media now, there cannot be. After the absolute pinnacle of propaganda about Iraq; Syria is even worse.


[1] Denis Halliday - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . Denis J. Halliday (born c.1941) was the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq from 1 September 1997 until 1998. He is Irish and holds an M.A. in ...

Hans von Sponeck: Economic Sanctions "Hit Wrong Target," Says Former U.N. ... Economic Sanctions “Hit Wrong Target,” Says Former U.N. Humanitarian ... Iraq,” warned former United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator Hans von Sponeck, .... Commonwealth Club of California held at the swank Westin St. Francis Hotel in ..

[2] Use of ‘No Fly Zones’: The way this works is to accuse a government of bombing its own citizens then for external powers to declare a ‘no fly zone’, which is somehow interpreted to mean that those powers can enter the zone and bomb government planes which may actually be trying to defend themselves against armed takeovers that imperil citizens. So this stops a country from defending itself militarily and enables outside powers to take over, beginning with the airspace.

Washington refines its False Flag operations

by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts. Previously (16/11/15) on

Washington and its French vassal have refined how they conduct their false flag operations. With the Charlie Hebdo operation, they knew to immediately set the story in stone in order to avoid any questions from the print and TV media and in order to use the set story to take the place of an investigation.

The set story made it unnecessary to explain the mysterious "suicide" of one of the main police investigators while engaged in the investigation of the event. The set story also made it unnecessary to explain why it was necessary to kill rather than capture the alleged perpetrators, or to explain how the French authorities could be so wrong about the alleged get-away-driver but not about the two gunmen. There has been no explanation why the authorities believed there was a get-away-driver, and no such driver has been captured or killed. Indeed, there are many unanswered questions of no interest to any media except the alternative Internet media.

What the US and France learned from the Charlie Hebdo skepticism on the Internet is to keep the story flowing. Charlie Hebdo involved two scenes of violence, and the connection between the two acts of terrorism was vague. This time there were several scenes of violence, and they were better connected in the story.

More importantly, the story was followed quickly by more drama, such as the pursuit of a suspected perpetrator into Belgium, a French bombing attack on the Islamic State, a French aircraft carrier sent to the Middle East, a declaration of war by the French President against ISIL, and speculation that Hollande, pressured by Washington, will invoke NATO's Article V, which will pull NATO into an invasion of the Islamic State. By superceding each event with a new one, the public's attention is shifted away from the attack itself and the interests served by the attack. Already the attack itself is old news. The public's attention has been led elsewhere. How soon will NATO have boots on the ground?

The Western media has avoided many interesting aspects of the Paris attacks. For example, what did the directors of the CIA and French intelligence discuss at their meeting a few days prior to the Paris attacks. Why were fake passports used to identify attackers? Why did the attacks occur on the same day as a multi-site simulation of a terrorist attack involving first responders, police, emergency services and medical personnel? Why has there been no media investigation of the report that French police were blinded by a sophisticated cyber attack on their mobile data tracking system? Does anyone really believe that ISIL has such capability?

The Western media serves merely as an amplifier of the government's propaganda. Even the non-Western media follows this pattern because of the titillating effect. It is a good story for the media, and it requires no effort.

Initially even the Russian media served to trumphet the set story that rescues the Western political establishment from politial defeat at home and Russian defeat in Syria. But it wasn't too long before some of the Russian media remembered numerous false stories about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, about Assad's use of chemical weapons, about US ABMs being placed on Russia's borders to protect Europe from nonexistant Iranian nuclear ICBMs. And so on.

Russian media began asking questions and received some good answers from Gearoid O Colmain:

To understand the Paris attacks, it helps to begin with the question: "What is ISIL?" Apparently, ISIL is a creation of the CIA or some deep-state organization shielded by the CIA's operations department. ISIL seems to have been used to overthrow Quadaffi in Libya and then sent to overthrow Assad in Syria. One would think that ISIL would be throughly infiltrated by the CIA, Mossad, British and French intelligence. Perhaps ISIL is discovering that it is an independent power and is substituting an agenda of its own for Washington's, but ISIL still appears to be at least partially dependent on support, active or passive, from Washington.

ISIL is a new group that suddenly appeared. ISIL is portrayed as barbaric knife-wielding fanatics from medieval times. How did such a group so quickly acquire such extensive global capability as to blow a Russian airliner out of Egyptian skies, conduct bombings in Lebanon and Turkey, outwit French intelligence and conduct successful multi-prong attacks in Paris? How come ISIL never attacks Israel?

The next question is: "How does the Paris attack benefit ISIL?" Is it a benefit to ISIL to have Europe's borders closed, thus halting ISIL's ability to infiltrate Europe as refugees? Does it help ISIL to provoke French bombing of ISIL positions in the Middle East and to bring upon itself a NATO invasion?

Who does benefit? Clearly, the European and American political establishment in so many ways. Establishment political parties in France, Germany, and the UK are in trouble, because they enabled Washington's Middle East wars that are bringing floods of refugees into Europe. Pegida is rising in Germany, Farage's Independent Party in the UK, and Marine Le Pen's National Front in France. Indeed, a recent poll showed Marine Le Pen in the lead as the next president of France.

The Paris attack takes the issue and the initiative away from these dissident political parties. Among the first words out of the mouth of the French president in response to the attack was his declaration that the borders of France are closed. Already Merkel's political allies in Germany are pushing her government in that direction. "Paris changes everything," they declare. It certainly saved the European political establishment from defeat and loss of power.

The same result occurred in the US. Outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were slaughtering the establishment's presidential candidates. Trump and Sanders had the momentum. But "Paris changes everything." Trump and Sanders are now sidelined, out of the news. The momentum is lost. The story has changed. "Paris attacks become focus of 2016 race," declares CNN." id="txt3"> 3 

Also among the early words from the French president, and without any evidence in support, was Hollande's declaration that the Islamic State had attacked the French nation. Obviously, it is set for Hollande to invoke NATO's Article V, which would send a NATO invasion force into Syria. This would be Washington's way of countering the Russian initiative that has saved the Assad government from defeat by the Islamic State. The NATO invasion would overthrow Assad as part of the war against the Islamic State.

The Russian government did not immediately recognize this threat. The Russian government saw in the Paris attack the opportunity to gain Western cooperation in the fight against ISIL. The Russian line has been that we must all fight ISIL together.

The Russian presence, although highly effective, is small in Syria. What does the Russian government do when its policy in Syria is crowded by a NATO invasion?

The only benefactor of the Paris attack is the Western political establishment and Washington's goal of unseating Assad in Syria. The Paris attack has removed the threat to the French, German, and British political establishments from the National Front, Pegida, and the UK Independence Party. The Paris attack has removed the threat to the US political establishment from Trump and Sanders. The Paris attack has advanced Washington's goal of removing Assad from power.

The answer to the Roman question, "cui bono," is clear.

But don't expect to hear it from the Western media.

" id="SyrianGirl">Appendix: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks Exposed by Syrian Girl Partisan


" id="fn1">1. ">↑  Dr. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following. Roberts' latest books are and .

" id="fn2">2. ">↑  See Appendix: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks Exposed by Syrian Girl Partisan, ">above.

" id="fn3">3. ">↑  (16/11/15) | CNN

Terrorism is a new ideological trend, has nothing to do with Islam - Grand Mufti of Syria

Terrorism is a new ideological trend, has nothing to do with Islam - Grand Mufti of Syria

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The Middle East conflict - war in Syria and Iraq - has already spilled over. No one is safe from the terrorist attacks, neither East, nor West. Islamic State claims it is still strong, and its ideas are attracting new recruits to replace those killed on the field. Islamic State says the horrors it perpetrates are done in the name Allah - spurring resentment against Muslims all across the globe. Today, we speak to an Islamic scholar, a Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, to see how the jihadists have twisted the idea of Islam. And does their agenda have anything to do with Islam at all?

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Thank you very much for being with us today. This is a great honor. We are delighted to have you, because there are so many things we want to discuss. You said that there is no such thing as a religious war, there are only political interests. But ISIL fighters want to conquer the whole world, they use Islam as their banner and call this fight a religious war. Are they guided by political interests?

Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: First of all, I want to express my gratitude to the Russian Federation, because it sided with the truth. It did not separate Syrians by their Shia or Sunni background. It decided to support the Syrian people as a whole.

Syria is a secular, democratic society where different religious groups coexist – Christians, the Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims. Those who call their wars religious, do so in order to provoke radicalism among Muslims. This of course goes against the true Islamic culture, because a person with values will never commit the atrocities ISIL is known for. They use religion as a pretext for conflict and bloodshed. I think there are two kinds of Islamic State fighters – those who know nothing about true Islam and those who have some religious background, but they use religion to promote their own agenda and kill others. 

SS: How are ISIL leaders able to make so many young people follow them? They make them participate in violent acts, in combat – how do they do it?

ABH: What ISIL is doing is not new. This organization has existed before – under different names. They convince their followers that they are guided by religious convictions, spread their ideology, spending a lot of money on that work. We must remember it.

SS: Right! But they don’t buy these young people – they come from Europe, Russia, the U.S. young people from good families for some reason go to Syria and begin to fight for ISIL. How do Islamic State leaders achieve that? It does not matter how they name themselves. How do they do this? What goes on in people’s heads?

ABH: We met with some guys who came from the UK, France. Many of them were Syrians. They come here to build some sort of Islamic caliphate. They think that they will promote Islam and spread it to the whole world.

But we know that religion should not be preached with weapons – rather with love and solidarity. ISIL uses ideology to lead young people astray. But they do it for their own political purposes. Most of the people being killed in Syria today are Muslims. The majority of ISIL victims are Muslims! 

SS: But why do these young men join ISIL? Why do young, healthy people that have good lives at home, go to fight for Islamic State?

ABH: Many young people go abroad, because they want to follow a new ideological trend – radical Islam. They are lost, and leading them back on the right path will take some serious effort. They end up with the wrong people, believing they can wage war in the name of religion.
Now, after Russia began to bomb ISIL targets in Syria, many young Islamic State fighters ran off. What happened to their convictions? They fled. 

If you want to create a true state, you need to build it on the basis of political values and democracy. We don’t impose any religion in Syria; we don’t say that there must be a Christian state, a Jewish state or a Muslim State. These ideas come from outside. The West is instigating such ideologies. The West is playing a big part in the process. 
I think a state should be founded on strong political and cultural elite. 
What we see in Syria today is similar to what happened in Yugoslavia - Croatia, Bosnia. There were major cultural elites there. But the West began to provoke different political and religious groups in order to start a civil war, which resulted in manslaughter. 
So in Syria we have to build a society that will have room for all religious and ethnic groups. We see this kind of order in Russia. Religion is distorted by those who want to start new conflicts, wars…

SS: We will talk more about religion. But first I wanted to ask you about extremists. Pope Francis warned about ISIL fighters entering Europe as refugees. Do you think Europeans should look at every refugee as a suspect?

ABH: Are all refugees Syrians? Of course not! These are people from different countries turned into conflict zones. We see people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Tajikistan and Libya. They are all running to Europe. And many of them have radical convictions. That’s true.

Europeans allowed this ideological trend to develop freely, they let radical Islam spiral out of control. I have seen this in France, the UK and the U.S.. There are Islamic centers financed by Saudi Arabia. These centers became magnets for new extremists, who later travel to the Middle East and start wars there. You reap what you sow. Now we are seeing the results of this policy.

SS: So today terrorism is a trend?

ABH: Terrorism is a dangerous political trend. It is also a cultural trend. And we have to study it in order to fight it. 
ISIL is trying to promote its political agenda through violence, using weapons. They tell their followers that they will go to paradise, “If you murder people, you will end up in paradise.” But this goes against the Prophet’s teachings, because, of course, nobody gets to paradise using these methods. We need to preach the idea that a person gets to paradise through cultural enlightening, education and solidarity.

SS: You’ve said many times that what is happening in Syria now has nothing to do with religion. Why is it that those who fight for the opposition, for ISIL, don’t hear you? Why are they not listening to you?

ABH: Most of those who are now fighting for ISIL came from other countries. They are not Syrians. They come from China, Russia, Europe… And the organizers of this movement indoctrinated them. So the fighters are not listening to us. Many of them don’t even know anything about me.  
Syria has always been a place where different religions co-existed in a civilized manner within one country. We’ve had different eras – Christian and Muslim conquests. But in the end there was always peace. For two thousand years we did not have people murdered for religious reasons in our land. Syria has never had a strict religious government system, unlike Lebanon, for example, where the president must be a Christian, and the Prime Minister – a Sunni Muslim. We could never imagine something like that in Syria. The current conflict is not about religion. Syria is an ancient country. I think what is happening in Syria today is a result of a conspiracy.

SS: But, conspiracy or not, people will always be people. There are good people and bad people everywhere. For example, I remember how Islamists in Egypt were burning Coptic churches, and Muslims created a human shield around the churches, so that Christians could worship in peace. What is the situation in Syria like in this respect? Do Syrians help Christians, the Druze?

ABH: In Egypt it was different. It was all internal. There was not much external interference there, no Blackwater personnel, for example. Egypt changed its political regime on its own, whereas in Syria the attempt to overthrow the government was orchestrated from abroad, by other countries. Syrians were provoked. But we are still there, despite the conspiracy. 

SS: I am also asking about regular Syrians. Do they help Christians to survive, Christians who are also being attacked by ISIL extremists? Do they help each other in Syria?

ABH: Of course, we are afraid for our Christians. But, to be honest, we don’t divide our people into Christians and Muslims, we protect all Syrians. There are many Christian politicians in our country. Our former defense minister is one of them. We don’t make a distinction between Christians and Muslims… We live as one family and protect each other. We don’t divide people into the Druze, Sunni or Shia Muslims, and Christians. So, we are very concerned about the fact that so many Christians are now leaving the region. We will never let the situation get to the point where there are no more Christians in Syria, because this country also belongs to Christians.
Of course, Islam recognizes Jesus Christ, as we all know. We don’t reject Mother Mary, don’t reject Jesus. Whereas ISIL doesn’t think about Christians, they just follow their own agenda. And fighters from different countries help them. That’s why we are now standing alongside Russia and believe that our strong friends will help us, because together we are strong. 
As for religion, today it is used to divide countries, to create so-called Islamic states, which would basically be weak states under Western control.

SS: Thank you again for being with us today. I want to talk more about ISIL. ISIL is not just fighting against everybody, right? They are also trying to create a state, with certain social institutions - education, etc. They pay salaries, give money to the poor. It may even seem that at times they are doing it better than the actual state – at least judging by the number of their followers. 

ABH: I can’t quite agree with you. We see what is really going on there. They just steal the money. They steal the money, their business is contraband. They steal oil from Syrian and Iraqi fields and smuggle it out. They sell it at a low price to whoever is willing to buy it. So they are not just terrorists – they are also thieves and murderers.  
There is also money coming in from Qatar, Saudi Arabia – through so-called charities. They use the money to destroy our country, to destroy Syria. And the vicious cycle continues. 
Now ISIL fighters flee when they hear that Russian jets are coming. They left many Syrian oil fields where they used to steal oil and then sell it. So it is not a state, it is a criminal group. They are not trying to create anything. Look at what they’ve done in Palmyra. What state would do something like that? A true state will not destroy or sell historic treasures. Of course, they think that they are a state. But they are thieves, murderers and criminals.

SS: Why do they destroy historic landmarks? What is their goal? They also destroy mosques. What do they get from that? Of course, they have ideological differences with people from other religious groups. But destroying landmarks and mosques – what’s the point?

ABH: You tell me! Why did they vandalize the Iraqi museum? Nobody had ever done that. ISIL began its conquest in Iraq by ransacking the Mosul Museum. What for? ISIL wants to erase the history of our region, our legacy.
The colonizers tried to do the same in South America, when they invaded the continent and tried to bring the locals to their knees, in order to tap the territories for resources. They also tried to erase the history.
It is an attempt to rewrite history. This is how they plan to weaken the countries – rob people of their history. It is basically neocolonialism, but it is done through third parties. And of course they have some interests too. 
So they might use religious convictions as a pretext, but it leads to enslavement of people and nothing else. That’s what they’ve done.

SS: Let’s get back to one perennial issue. I hope nobody will get offended, but it is very important for us to get an understanding of this. You always emphasize that radical ideologies have nothing to do with real Islam. And most Muslim spiritual leaders agree with you. But could you please explain to me: with Muslim clergy almost unanimously condemning extremism, why is extremism still so explicit in Islam? 

ABH: First of all, this is reaction. All this radicalization comes as a reaction to the enormous tragedies and frustrations that we’ve had throughout our history. For example, when the government doesn’t care about its citizens, when it doesn’t care about upholding religion, it certainly leads to the emergence of people who accuse the government of defying the foundations of religion. So extremism originally comes as a reaction to poor governance.
Secular states, secular democratic nations, should undoubtedly support religion and their country's’ cultural heritage. They shouldn’t forget that religious and cultural heritage also plays an important role. And if you start destroying it, this may indeed lead to the rise of radicals as a kind of backlash. 
Religion and religious organizations must be present in society, because they are good for people. They provide not only for religious institutions or Islam as such, but for the entire public. They must be an indispensable part of the social fabric. 
But those people seek to set specific parts of society against the powers that be. In fact, much of what I’m talking about is evident in Europe. Do you remember the name of Germany’s major political party? It’s the Christian Democratic Union. That is to say that Europeans follow those principles themselves, even though religion must indeed be isolated from politics, and should primarily remain a social and cultural institution. Therefore, I believe the government must reserve a role for religion to play. But we must be very careful in drawing the line between state and religion. Religion is first and foremost a path of spiritual development for people. Our children may belong to different religions, but we should not divide the country because of religion. It is the same in Russia. As far as I know, you have secular laws – the criminal code and other regulations. And they have no reference to religion, because all citizens must be treated equally. The bottom line is that we must distinguish between religious ideas and government policies. A number of states see themselves as religious states: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. President Erdogan aspires to do the same in Turkey. But in Syria, we do not use religion for political purposes, because religion must bring people together and teach them to love each other. We don’t want to use religion to oppress people. First and foremost, we need to approach religion globally, realizing that religion is one thing, and the state is something different.

SS: Let’s talk about the current situation. Regional countries together with big powers are trying to reach a consensus on Syria’s future. They’re even talking about a dialogue between the government and the opposition. But who should President Assad talk to if most of his opponents are religious fanatics?

ABH: The war has been going on for four years. All these years we’ve been inviting them to start a dialogue. Since the first day of the tragedy we started calling the opposition to come to the negotiation table. Russia encouraged the Syrian opposition to engage in talks three years ago. They refused. Today, their representatives visit Moscow. They agreed to participate in Geneva talks. So Russia has been calling for a dialogue for about 3 years. The Syrian government also sent 3 delegations to Moscow. We hold talks regularly.
But we see that the so-called opposition is in no way a united organization. There are many groups fighting each other, fighting ISIL, fighting us. The Syrian opposition wants to recognize nothing – not talks, not Assad. When Russia launched an anti-ISIL military campaign, the initial response of the so-called moderate opposition was negative. Presently some commanders of the so-called Free Syrian Army say that they are ready to cooperate with the Russian Federation against ISIL. But we offer them to do more than that. What we want them to do is to act together against terrorists unconditionally.
We see Western countries having a hidden agenda, and international players calling for compromise finding them under pressure. But Russia keeps urging the opposition to engage in a dialogue. But Russia’s calls often remain unheeded.
Today a lot depends on the opposition sponsors. It’s them who make decisions, not the opposition itself. It has no independent opinion of its own.
They say there should be a new government in Syria. But the government they want will be essentially a neocolonial government. We changed the Constitution for them; we held elections. Basically, we have a different government today. But they reject everything. The only language they understand is the language of weapons. That’s how they talk – with weapons. They destroy churches and mosques in the name of the so-called revolution. What kind of a revolution is this? You destroy your own country. You steal the country’s resources, destroy hospitals.

SS: Still, President Assad is a controversial figure. Do you think it will be easier to achieve peace if he steps down?

ABH: It’s not for me to decide. It is not up to me; it is not up to Bashar Assad. It’s up to the Syrian people to decide.

SS: But what do you think personally? It’s important.

ABH: I think if Assad steps down, this will result in a breakup of Syria. The reason they want President Assad to go is not to restore democracy. They just want to divide Syria into a number of small countries.
We will only accept a decision made by the Syrian people. Let’s allow the Syrian people to speak. We have been hearing a lot of President Hollande, but the Syrian people aren’t allowed to express their opinion for some reason. Let’s stop listening to people from the U.S., the White House, the Élysée Palace, let’s hear what the ordinary Syrian people have to say. We have to let them talk. Just like it’s not up to Washington to decide who should be president of Russia, it’s not up to Washington to decide who should be president in Damascus. We will recognize the results of a fair independent election. It can be monitored by the UN or Russia.
But they refuse, saying, ‘No, we won’t stop fighting until Assad is gone.’ But what is the alternative? Let’s say Assad steps down. What next? What is the alternative for the Syrian people? Let the Syrian people finally say something on the matter.

SS: I remember when the Syrian conflict just began you said that if we didn’t stop the war immediately, it would drag on for another 10-15 years. What’s your prognosis now? Will this terrible conflict drag on until 2025, or is it possible to end it sooner?  

ABH: I hope it will end in 2016, that’s what I hope for, because we’ve begun making joint efforts in order to resolve this crisis. We can now see significant military success achieved on the Syrian-Lebanese border, with the army advancing towards the Syrian-Turkish border.
Syria’s problem is external, not internal. Our problem is our so-called “friends and neighbors” that extend a helping hand to these terrorists. So when we clear the Syrian-Turkish border of terrorists there will be a dramatic improvement.   The presence of the Russian air force coupled with the efforts of the Syrian army led to considerable success. Now a lot of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border has been cleared of terrorists. As for Idlib and Raqqa, we’ll continue operations there in the days to come. So I hope all the terrorists will simply scatter. I also hope your brave Russian pilots will come back home once peace is restored. 

SS: I want to ask you a very personal question. When terrorists killed your son, you forgave them and asked the judge to forgive them, too. How is that possible? How did you overcome the burning desire for revenge? Are there many people like you in Syria? 

ABH: It’s not the men that blew up his car that should be punished, it’s the people who finance them, the people who come to our country from abroad to do all of this.
Of course I won’t forgive the radicals who urge people to kill, who put themselves above others, who say they’ve created some ‘Islamic state’, mutilating the very tenets of Islam. I condemn those people and I’m never going to forgive them because they are playing games with people’s lives at stake.

It’s the leaders of the Gulf countries, Turkey and the America that should stand trial, because they supplied the arms. The weapons that killed my son came from them. To me, all the people who were killed at their hands are like my son. Every Syrian that died in this war is my son.

SS: Mr. Mufti, thank you so much for the interview. I hope your voice will be heard by those who need it. I really hope that this war will end in the near future, because it has lasted for far too long. Thank you very much.