Interview organised, designed and conducted by Nickolaos Angelis
In this first interview by Pecunia et Bellum, we discussed sensitive political and geopolitical matters with Danny Albaaj, a former Syrian Diplomat who witnessed the changes in Syria first hand. We note that the views or calculations expressed by the interviewee do not in any way reflect the opinions of the Pecunia et Bellum team members, individually or collectively.
Yes, so we may begin with the questions now, so generally could you say a few things about you, like, how would you define your career so far?
I’m a Political Science and Public Administration graduate. This is my academic background. I have a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and International Relations. I worked in several fields, mainly teaching for a while and from 2006 to 2009. I joined the Syrian foreign service in 2007 and I became a diplomat, where I had one year of experience in the International Organizations Department back in the capital, Damascus, then I was promoted to be the Chief Cabinet of the Deputy Foreign Minister for about 2 years. Then my first post was in Geneva, and the Syrian Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2010. Two years later, after the Syrian Revolution in, 2012 I defected against the Regime and I went publicly criticizing the way that they were handling the demonstrations – back then peaceful demonstrations – and shortly after that I tried to help some of the Syrian Opposition in a way so I joined some of them, in Turkey, trying to formulate what was then known as the Interim Government, and after that I just became a Fellow at Omran Research, Center for Strategic Studies as well, as now I’m doing the advocacy for SCM which is the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
So you were opposed from the start , it’s not like, something specific happened that caused that shift that you made?
There was nothing happening really in the beginning. If you watch the events during the timeline of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and in Egypt, change was there and we were hoping that this change would reach Syria. I was surprised actually with the level of violence that the government of Syria, adopted towards the peaceful demonstrations. So that was the fact that made me clearly take side with the demonstrations. It’s like a wave – you’ve seen it in Egypt, you’ve seen it in Tunisia. You’ve seen that when Qaddafi decided to go viciously against the demonstrators what happened. Even in my wildest thoughts I never thought that the Syrian Government would go as far as killing civilians on the street.
Did taking the side of the protesters ever make you think that you were against your own nation ?
Not at all, it’s with the people. It’s exactly the opposite. From the very first demonstration that took place in Damascus , three of my close friends were basically arrested and tortured. I’ve seen all the replies from the government, because I was in Geneva and we were supposed to deal with all the International human rights matters. I’ve seen that the regime was lying , so it wasn’t hard to realize that reality is different from what the government is claiming. And again, it’s a wave, it was all over the Arab world. It’s not like we’ve been living in very democratic, liberal open societies, where suddenly the people started to riot. It was a clear demand, let it be in Egypt, let it be in Yemen, let it be in Tunisia, let it be in Bahrain, let it be in Syria, let it be in wherever, people were demonstrating because they wanted better political regimes, more freedoms and better standards of living. We’re used to this. We were just waiting for the moment.
Some Youtubers crossed the Syrian borders a few months ago and they pretty much attempted to show an image of a normal country. Was it a propagandistic trick from the regime in order to whitewash Assad or is there actually a degree of normality in Syria today?
Yeah, “very normal”, to the extent that the government asked people to stay home, that they gave 15 days off and they closed schools, that people are dying from hunger and that Cholera is all over the place, that the government cannot control more than 20%, in reality of Syria, that the Russians and the Iranians are having the upper hand in every decision the government makes. Whatever propaganda could be put by a Youtuber here, or there or even interviews with officials every now and then, does not cover the reality. Syria adopted 3 days ago (December 7), the lowest -ever- in history, Annual Budget; 5 Billion USD. It is ridiculous. And if they claim that things are normal it’s very interesting to see how a country like Syria can survive with a $5 billion budget. So of course, nothing is normal.
What are your comments on the recent scandal that happened with the WHO head in Damascus?
WHO has worked on crisis level three times in Syria. The first time was when Polio started to go in the north and northeast, where vaccinations were not there. It was the first time that WHO basically helped by trying through the Opposition factions. Back then the Interim Government and the areas under the control of the opposition were used to distribute the Polio vaccinations, because Polio after being eradicated internationally, came back in Syria, because the vaccination was not there.
But this was about early 2014. The second time WHO worked in Syria was during Covid, which was all over the area. Now it’s the third time that they are working, because there is Cholera. WHO has always been there, now the scandal that came up with the Head of their Office and Damascus receiving bribes is something that WHO has to deal with and investigate themselves. Now we will wait to see what will come out. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is corruption. Of course the Syrian government is corrupted, and they are trying to corrupt everybody around them, so getting some money benefiting their own people at the expense of international organizations, is not something new. This would be left to the WHO, to finally decide how they would continue. But the government would not be -in any way- perceived in any better position, they are always corrupt, they are taking advantage of any situation, be it an epidemic inside the country or be it an international funding coming to help the people, they would put it there in their pockets, rather than really let it go to the ones in need. It’s always the same, when it comes to humanitarian aid. Most of it ends up in the market sold after the officials put their hand on it, and then resell it.
Do you see a link here between a health crisis like COVID-19, and Cholera with the oppressive measures taken by the government towards the anti-regime organizations in Syria?
They don’t really need such an excuse. They’re killing people. Do they really need an excuse for doing that? Do they need an epidemic to say “Oh, we’re killing and oppressing more people”? The regime has reached the point where they don’t care since there is no accountability for how they act.
Is there, any chance, that Syria, works as a cartel state for Drugs that makes money from trading the amphetamine-type stimulant Captagon pills?
It is working like this already, and it’s on the highest level possible. From Bassar (Al Assad) and on, this is the main foreign currency income source for them to survive. What follows are the remedies and the transfers, from the Syrian Diaspora to their families in Syria. The economy in Syria is totally collapsing. There’s no source of hard currency whatsoever. Therefore they have been using drugs (trafficking) before, actually since ages. However, it was more under control and used for political reasons, basically to fund the covert operations of the Intelligence Services and their ally Hezbollah. Now that they are in need they just went on exploiting and using it as a source. So, yes Syria is unfortunately a Cartel run by the Assad family.
The impression is emerging that there is a steadily growing degree of convergence between the Assad regime and the other -until recently hostile- Arab states like Qatar , along with the organization of Hamas. How did that come up and does it have the solid basis for a future reconciliation?
Not really. With Hamas it’s different. What they are (the regime) trying to do always is to try to present themselves as the only partner, so to speak, in Syria, that they are in control, that they can take into consideration the interests of other countries and of other non-state actors. With Hamas it’s historical since they’ve always been, like friends and moving and shifting, and then -with a clear push and pressure from Iran- Hamas normalized the relations with the Regime . They are all understanding, that as long as they are fighting Israel, there is one enemy together, so the enemy, of my enemy is my friend, therefore it’s better to be in a good relationship with the regime.
For us, and the Opposition, we see it as a failure of Political Islam to present again, any kind of ethical and good governance model. This was one of the main reasons why the Syrian Revolution shifted from its main aims, all the political Islam interference made the shift towards Jihadism, and Extremism and so on and so forth, and we have seen how it’s reached us, while when it comes to Qatar, and other states, I believe it will take time. It’s clear to see if there’s a real change in positions and in relations with the regime. The steps were taken forward more by the Emirates and by Bahrain, from the Gulf States, Egypt and others from other States. But I still see a long way to go. It’s not like by tomorrow everything will be normalized. The regime is trying for sure. Now, the reaction from the International community varies according to each country’s interest. I also see clearly that there is a clear resistance from the Americans to have any kind of such a normalization process, happening with the regime without a clear progress on the peace process, so they always curb some states to open up and have relations with the regime.
We hear also every now and then about Turkey, that they need to have talks with the regime, that it might happen that there would be a meeting, even between Erdogan and Assad, but I still believe that this is long shots, and it’s mostly used in Turkey, as I see it, for internal use for the coming elections, rather than for real strategic purposes. We don’t have to forget also the main role of the Russians in this sense, where they are also an ally of the Syrian regime, helping or pushing other states to normalize their relationship with it.
And since you mentioned Turkey, how would you assess its overall role in the Syrian War from the Euphrates Shield to the Olive Branch operation and the occupation of Northern Syria ?
It’s an up and down thing, I cannot say there was a stable clear cut move, or let’s say line, that the Turkish Foreign Policy adopted through the Syrian case from day one to today. If we remember at the beginning they were basically the friends of Bashar and they tried back then when Davutoglu was the Foreign Affairs Minister, to mediate, and to bring up a lot of solutions, where demonstrations could have stopped and some reforms could have taken place, and they would support Syria.
This was played mutually, with them and Qatar, at the same place. The changes inside the Turkish political system, especially after the Coup attempt, and with the revision of the Constitution, with the move of all this political gain, we see that every now and then President Erdogan and his team give -I wouldn’t call it contradictory- but let’s say, different indications about how they want to deal with with Syria. As regards the Turkish role, some people, some analysts say that it was supportive, Turkey hosted more than 3 million Syrians inside Turkey, helping them as refugees and also helping the Opposition. Turkey is still the only country that hosts the Etilaf, which is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, but at the same time Turkey has direct military actions in Syria.
Turkey has always seen PKK as a threat to its national security, whenever PKK jumps into their face they will take extreme measures and this is not going to change. It is clear that the Syrian regime knew that. Previously, they (Syrian regime) were hosting Öcalan for a while, and then, after the crisis, with the clear threat of Turkey to invade there was another agreement that was signed between Syria and Turkey to cooperate against PKK fighters and leaders. Syrians played it well as they benefited most from Turkey, with giving away the PKK Card with the uprising setting in Syria and all the changes they brought back PKK to the game trying to help them. So PKK was for a long time a friend and ally of the Syrian Regime but again, unfortunately it’s a card that is being played by several players. Let it be the Americans, the Turks, the Syrians, something very unfortunate for the Kurdish people to be dealt with by one faction which is very radical and at a certain point it would not even represent all the Kurdish population in Syria. Thus, the Turkish government would act in order to protect its national security. Sometimes it is understood that military actions have to take place, especially when there’s no government in Syria to deal with. And some other times, as now, like they give this indication, that maybe intelligence and security cooperation with the regime, might help not to lead to major military actions taking place.
You wrote and supported the view about ‘the possibility of the creation of a “triangle of stability” between Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’ in the region. How does the Ukrainian War, would you say, affect the dynamics of the region?
I was actually hoping that such a triangle of stability would work. Historically, the region is an unstable region. If you look at the Middle East, in the last 100 years, there were more than 100 conflicts, let it be international, let it be domestic, let it be cross-border and to achieve stability it takes many elements. One of those is that when we saw there was very close cooperation between Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, conflicts in the region were not prevented, however, at least there was containment. Now with Syria out of this equation I was hoping that maybe Turkey, as a major one, could play such a role by replacing Syria in this triangle. Now this triangle again, is not very stable per se. However such cooperation would actually ease down the tension, help again contain any conflict if it takes place. This was my hope. There were indications where Egypt and Saudi Arabia brought back the relations with Turkey and the latter also took some opening steps towards both countries. But it did not crystallize or develop towards this triangle. So it’s not there.
Now about the war in Ukraine and how it affects that. It is an international factor that is affecting one of the international players, which is obviously Russia mainly in the region, but it is not really directly connected to the stabilization in the region. So, Russia has not been playing a role, where it’s supposed to be to stabilize. It’s more about keeping the regime and keeping its interests protected.
But these as military steps and actions are not really crystallized again, or developed to their full extent. Maybe if Russia hadn’t gone into war in Ukraine, its role could have been played better and the possibility of having a stabilized region could have been increased. However, the Russians now are busy, so their role in the region is questionable with a big question; is it going to obtain that? What would be the outcome according to the developments of the War in Ukraine? Are the troops going to be moved from Syria outside back into Russia? And what if there’s this vacuum happening, could such a triangle of stabilization work? Could Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cooperate, to say “Οkay, we can fill that vacuum that would take place with the Russian withdrawal”? It’s not clear.
Which is the specific collaboration between Russia and Syria in the battlefield of Ukraine and what role does Wagner Group play in Syria, today?
It’s all one. Wagner could look like a private company, but it’s a clear government agent so it’s a clear cut decision of Russian resources about where it would be deployed, and where it would be mostly used. I see clearly the need now in Ukraine, for the presence of Wagner. Yes, that means withdrawal, but not only from Syria that might also mean withdrawal of Wagner operations all over the world, because they are also active, in Africa, Libya, so for sure the situation that Russia has put itself in now by invading Ukraine has complicated all the things, and hindered their ability to influence somewhere else. This will go on as long as the War in Ukraine is there, so we see a clear outcome of that; what we are seeing now is that there are less and less tools for Russia to influence international policy, including the Middle East of course.
And concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, a key political group for the region , do you see that there is any change for its influence as well, or is it something that is becoming more fragmented.
Political Islam, in general, in Syria, and in the region, has lost harshly. The way they ruled Egypt, that push back, I mean, I didn’t wish for that change to happen. I was hoping that they would stay in power, and then they would be replaced by a democratic movement, where people would vote them out, the same way it happened in Morocco, for example where Muslim Brotherhood ruled for a few terms, and then people just simply voted them out because they couldn’t do anything. I was hoping for such a scenario in Egypt. I understand that maybe it was needed for the Egyptian army to move the way it did but anyway, what I’m saying is seeing how Muslim Brotherhood dealt with all the uprisings, how they led and how they were hungry for authority rather than reforms, distanced themselves from real democracy, real change and made them look as another dictatorship, that just wants to replace the ones that were in power before.
So it wasn’t about having a better life for the people, it was mostly about : “If the army is ruling, why not us?” And “if they are a dictatorship maybe our dictatorship model could work”, and that basically distanced them from everybody, including the young generation, including the Opposition factions, including also their allies, let it be regional, or international. That model failed, failed by all aspects. It is up to them now to actually come up with with changes and political speech, and their own beliefs in their own standards, and their own demand so actually prove to the people again, that they are pro-democratic, and that they are for democracy, as it is the only way everybody can coexist and compete each other politically through programs, through better policies.
Will this happen? I don’t see it now, because there’s no environment for such things to develop. However, the ball is in their court, to represent a program and to talk to the masses, addressing their needs and having a clear assurance that democracy is what they want. Other than, they would be simply the other face of the military dictators.
As a former representative of Syria in the United Nations Human Rights Council, how do you assess the handling of recent events in Ukraine? Do you see any improvements regarding the policies that they’re trying to implement as an organization, in general? Is the Council itself learning from the past events?
Every UN body is literally driven by its members – by the Member States. It’s all about the policies of the countries and as long as this is the case, we would only see, unfortunately, double standards, politicizing of affairs, like Human Rights which should not be politicized, politicizing of Humanitarian Aid that should also not be politicized. Now regarding learning, I hope countries are learning from these experiences, I hope to see that if it was at the beginning of a way to depoliticise human rights, then yes, maybe there is a way to go for it.
The Human Rights Council in particular has no teeth, it would only put reports, investigate, and put it in the hands of the Security Council which is the main Body of the United Nations to take any action and then it’s the same case all over and over again. This is politicization, it’s the interest of the 5 Permanent Members that govern all the International Community. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a good role to play. If we look now in Syria and Israel, they are the two members of the General Assembly that basically have international mechanisms on them to investigate their actions, to go after the gross human rights violations that they are perpetrating , and both are protected by a big country Israelis are protected by the US, the Syrians are protected by the Russians.
So maybe at a certain point countries would look, and say “Okay, we may have to stop protecting perpetrators, we have to bring justice in one way or another”. International Criminal Law works on individuals, it doesn’t criminalize the system, or governments.
So maybe if we can lock down or stop one international criminal or international gross human rights violator and end impunity, it would be good for everybody and we would not have reached a place where what’s happening in Ukraine is happening.
Because if you stop these things early and if people know that there’s accountability and consequences for such measures, then we would not go that far, so it’s all linked. Yes, I hope they are learning and of course they are learning but it would always come back to politics and the interest of each country where maybe the whole idea of the United Nations and its Bodies could be oriented to what could be done better in order not to allow such gross violations and atrocities to take place.