Turkish journalist reports from Aleppo; finds Syrians oppose Jihadism, support Assad, grateful to Hezbollah and Russia ALEXANDER MERCOURIS

Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin in second report from Aleppo casts further doubts about Western claims about the Syrian war.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold up his pictures during a rally supporting him and the army in Damascus February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST) - RTX19467

As I have said previously, Taştekin is the only mainstream media journalist of a NATO country I know of to have visited Aleppo since the end of the fighting there apart from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen.  However in contrast to Jeremy Bowen’s bland and disappointing report, Taştekin’s reports are informative and interesting.

Based on interviews Taştekin straightforwardly contradicts Western claims that the Syrian conflict is a religious civil war pitting President Assad’s Alawite regime against Syria’s Sunni majority

Contrary to persistent popular analysis from abroad, the country is not divided. Despite sectarian campaigns and clashes by jihadis financed with money they received from the Gulf, Syrians did not split along sectarian lines. There was no sectarian divide between the Syrian army and the people, as some said. When you carefully observe the internal dynamics, you can see it was not a war between Alawites and Sunnis or Christians and Muslims.

Only in Homs, when the clashes began, did systematic attacks by Sunnis against Alawites, Shiites and Christians trigger a sectarian divide, but that was short-lived.

Aleppo is the best example that this was not a sectarian war. At least six Sunni religious notables were killed in Aleppo because they rejected an armed uprising. Sunni religious figures were constantly under threat for not joining the war. The most annoying question you can ask soldiers on the Aleppo front is whether they are Sunni or Alawite. Nothing angers Syrians as much as this question.

Though I have never visited Syria my numerous interactions with various Syrians over several decades tend to bear this out.  I wrote about this back in February 2016.  Here is what I said

The reality of Syria [……] is of a society that prior to the war had successfully avoided the sectarian divisions that disfigured politics in neighbouring Lebanon, and where the prevailing ideology not just of the state but also of the great majority of the people was founded not on religion but on Arab nationalism.

People in Syria identified themselves first and foremost as Arabs and Syrians, not as Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Christians or Druze.

My own experience in dealing with many Syrians is that the fact the country’s leader – whether Hafez Al-Assad or his son Bashar – was from an Alawite family was always of much more interest to outsiders than it was to Syrians themselves. In the case of Hafez Al-Assad his undoubted intelligence, and his success in defending Syrian and Arab interests by standing up to the US and Israel, earned him a grudging respect even from those Syrians who deplored his regime for its arbitrariness and corruption……

This is not to say that there has not always been in Syria a minority of people who are hardline sectarian Sunni religious fundamentalists. Whilst it is impossible to say what proportion of the population before the start of the war held these views, the best estimates I heard from people who know the country is that they were less than a tenth of the total population, and that they were concentrated disproportionately in a small number of provincial cities such as Hama, Idlib and Homs.

At this point it is necessary to say that the common view that religious sectarianism in places like Syria is a rural peasant phenomenon is wrong. Most rural Sunnis in Syria and elsewhere are devout. However extreme Sunni religious sectarianism of the sort that spawns violent jihadism is – as shown by numerous studies of the background of violent jihadis – overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon.

Note Taştekin’s comment that

Only in Homs, when the clashes began, did systematic attacks by Sunnis against Alawites, Shiites and Christians trigger a sectarian divide, but that was short-lived.

Which corresponds exactly with what I had previously told by my Syrian informants that “hardline sectarian Sunni religious fundamentalists” account for

less than a tenth of the total population, and that they [are] concentrated disproportionately in a small number of provincial cities such as Hama, Idlib and Homs

(bold italics added)

I would add the “hardline sectarian Sunni religious fundamentalists” my Syrian informants spoke about before the war were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.  By comparison with today’s Wahhabi Jihadists who are waging war against the Syrian government they might even be judged ‘moderates’.

Taştekin also reports something else: that over the course of the war President Bashar Al-Assad’s stature and authority has massively increased, as Syrians have rallied behind the strong leadership he has given.  Interestingly this extends to the numerous critics of the regime he leads

As far as I could see, Assad is more popular today than before. Of course, this popularity doesn’t cover his entire regime.

According to bureaucrats, politicians and citizens Al-Monitor spoke with in Aleppo and Damascus, the system is mired in bribery and corruption and cannot survive for long. People will want to see some of the ruling officials punished. The country has paid an extraordinary price for the war and will not tolerate those profiting from cronyism, nepotism, corruption and abuse.

An Aleppo University professor who requested anonymity spoke of the war’s influence on politics.

“I oppose the regime, but I have to admit Assad managed the crisis well. At the moment, we have no alternative to him. If there were an election today, he would get more than 70% of the vote. Of course, my criticism of the regime hasn’t changed. People put their criticisms on the back burner temporarily because they realized the country was about to disintegrate. It wasn’t the right time to settle scores with the regime. But when the war is finally finished, people will want drastic changes. The government is aware of this mood and is trying to change some things. Be assured, nothing will be the same as before,” he said.

An academic who joined our discussion said, “Many heads will roll. [There is] no other way.”

As the regime has been given some period of grace by its opponents, there is no serious debate on Assad’s presidency and his legitimacy. What we have is the foreign-supported opposition holding Assad responsible for the bloodshed, and then those identified as legitimate internal opposition seeing Assad as the guarantor of the country’s integrity.

This exactly corresponds with my own impression, which I recently gave in a panel discussion for Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear.  In it I said that I had got the impression that President Assad’s stature and support had hugely increased during the war, and that any hopes or fears he would be gone when the war was over as a consequence of a peace settlement are profoundly wrong.

Lastly, Taştekin reports respect and gratitude towards Russia and Hezbollah, but considerable suspicion of Syria’s other ally Iran

Nobody challenges the role Russia will play. But it is not the same for Iran, the other major ally. It’s not hard to detect resentment among the people and even government officials of Iran’s interventionist attitude. Many Syrians even prefer an alliance with Russia because they believe Moscow is not interfering in their domestic affairs. Moreover, Al-Monitor was told that Iranians’ overbearing, superior attitude especially annoys the Syrian army.

A veteran Syrian journalist told me Iran’s assistance won’t result in Iranian influence on Syrian politics. “You have to understand the political structure in Syria. Syria’s alliances don’t allow [for] influence on the country. Assad is balancing Iran with Russians and vice versa. If Iran presses too hard, he cites Russian reservations. If Russia presses too hard, Assad then refers to Iranian objections.”

Curiously, Syrians’ unease with Iranians doesn’t apply to Iran-supported, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which hails from the same cultural basin as Syrians. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is no less prestigious in Syria than Assad. In Damascus, Homs and elsewhere — even in Aleppo, with its prominent Sunni identity — you will see Nasrallah posters all over, and there is widespread affection for him among Christians.

In the government offices I visited, all I saw were joint photos of Nasrallah and Assad. Some shops even have Nasrallah’s portrait painted on the shutters. Street vendors sell lapel pins, cigarette lighters and wallets with photos of Assad and Nasrallah. I didn’t see a single photograph of Iranian leaders. You see Iranians on the front lines but not in city centers. In short, people distinguish between Hezbollah and Iran.

Though Taştekin does not report the fact, it is possible that some of the resentment towards Iran is due to a fairly general belief – not just in Syria but also in Russia – that last year Iran did less than it promised, sending poorly trained Shiite militias from Iraq rather than the properly trained Iranian ground troops both the Syrians and the Russians had been expecting.  However the greater part of the reason is surely the one that Taştekin says: Russia intervened in Syria in order to save the country from being overrun by Jihadi terrorists, whereas for Iran Syria is a pawn in its greater geopolitical play, which is directed at the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  It is not surprising if some Syrians resent this.

Altogether Taştekin’s two reports from Aleppo are models of how proper reporting should be done.  They give a clear picture of the state of opinion in Aleppo and Syria.  That his reports are not being given wide coverage is a reflection of how unpopular the image he gives of the mood in Syria is with some people in the West.

http://theduran.com/turkish-journalists-report-aleppo-syrians-oppose-jihadism-support-assad-grateful-hezbollah-russia/

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