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May 22, 2015
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Current Concerns  >  2012  >  No 9, 1 March 2012  >  “Foreign forces support the rebellion” [printversion]

“Foreign forces support the rebellion”

Interview with Jürgen Todenhöfer (“Welt Online”, Carolin Brühl)

The author Jürgen Todenhöfer frequently travels to Syria. He has also had meetings with the political leader Assad. Todenhöfer advocates a neutral view of the conflict.

The former CDU Member of the Bundestag visits Syria as often as he can – sometimes several times a year. One month ago he has traveled across the country for nearly four weeks. He could travel around unhindered. Todenhöfer visited Damascus, but also Homs, Hama and Daraa, the places which have hit the headlines for almost one year because of bloody conflicts between the regime’s security forces and insurgents.

Welt Online: Mr Todenhöfer, you were in Syria only recently. Who invited you, and how freely could you travel?

Jürgen Todenhöfer: Nobody invited me.

So you simply entered as a tourist? Is that possible?

Yes, it’s possible. I have been traveling to Syria for more than ten years. I wrote a book on Syria and Iraq, which was also translated into Arabic. It begins with the Hakawati, the teller of tales at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. I go there every year. Syria is the cradle of our civilization, and Damascus is one of the most beautiful cities in Arabia. The head of John the Baptist is buried in the Umayyad Mosque, in Damascus Saul became Paul.

Do you understand and speak Arabic?

Not a word.

How do you talk to them?

Usually I have one or two interpreters with me.

What motivated you to return to Syria just now, despite all the warnings?

If you have been traveling to this country for ten years, there is no reason not to go there right now. This time it was difficult initially. I was arrested at the airport of Damascus, because the Syrian secret service issued an entry ban against me. I had published an article in the German weekly “Die Zeit”, which some people in Syria found too critical. It took about two hours until I was finally allowed to enter the country. This incident certainly helped me some time later, because a German-Syrian had watched the scene, and described it to Assad a few days later on the occasion of a reception. Then Assad invited me for an interview.

Assad announced a referendum for a new constitution in March. How serious is this initiative to be taken? Is the fate of this country actually controlled by Assad himself?

I think he is the most powerful man in the country. Moreover, he has become stronger by the crisis.

Why so?

In a crisis you have to decide whether you can claim the power to deal with things on your own or rather hand it over to others. It seems to me that in the meantime Assad clearly gives the direction of policy. I think this referendum about a democratic constitution is his idea. Ten years ago, when Assad took office, he tried to modernize the country. He encountered many difficulties, from inside as well as from outside. The western states accused him to be involved in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Today it is a proven fact that this was not true. Assad’s efforts to reshape the country have certainly not been as successful as he wanted them to be.

Referendum in March a revolutionary decision

What prevented him from being successful?

In countries like Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Syria there are strong persisting forces. Assad did not only have to manage the Hariri problem, he also had to pull out the Syrian troops from Lebanon afterwards. That led to an internal political situation, in which it was difficult to implement fundamental reforms against the persisting forces. Assad explicitly told me that he considered democracy as “absolutely imperative” in Syria. And the development of a democratic constitution had to play an important role in this process.

Will he renounce the primacy of his Ba’ath Party?

He emphasized that all parties would be admitted. The referendum in March will be a revolutionary decision for an autocratic country like Syria, because Assad thus puts the decision about the country’s future into the people’s hands. The people will not only have the opportunity to accept this constitution, they can also reject it. I don’t know many autocratic rulers who would dare such a referendum.

This means that you believe in Assad’s will to change, and you believe this to be a realistic way for the country?

The more the West is bashing him, the harder it will be for Assad. A Marxist opposition politician, who had been imprisoned for 14 years under Assad’s father, told me that the only one who could lead Syria to democracy peacefully was Bashir al-Assad. Also, because the majority of Syrians still make a big difference between Assad and the system.

What should the West do then? Support Assad? Negotiate with him? The Western media are under the pressure of images of brutal violence that come from the country. Moreover, there are only few objective reports.

The situation in Syria is very complex. Although – rather surprisingly – not only Assad’s opponents, but also Assad’s supporters are heatedly arguing for democracy. Democracy in Syria is now a largely undisputed matter. I’ve seen demonstrations in Damascus, attended by numbers between one and two million people.

People chanted, “Assad, democracy”, “Assad, freedom”. The Syrian insurgents naturally want democracy, but without Assad. So there are peaceful demonstrations for and against Assad, but always in favor of democracy.

However, there are also armed forces on both sides, which engage in merciless military conflicts. Thereby civilians are killed again and again. This is totally unacceptable; it is harshly criticized and rightly so.

However, leading Syrian opposition politicians told me that the opposition guerrillas also killed civilians and ‘settled bills’. In Homs I was in the house of an avowed supporter of Assad. From a high-rise building across the street they shot into his three-year-old daughter’s room. I’ve seen the impacts. The day after my visit, he received a death threat and had to leave his house. I myself got into heavy cross fire in Homs, when two policemen were targeted by guerrillas.

The country is virtually in a state of civil war. In the West we only hear about the crimes which are perpetrated by the state security forces. But the misdeeds of the other side are concealed. The international coverage is extremely biased.

Why does Assad then refuse to allow journalists in the country, who could feature a more objective picture?

That’s a big mistake by the government. I have never experienced the importance of free journalism as strong as in Syria. Currently the opposition in Syria has an information monopoly which they mercilessly practice via Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia. In Homs, for example, there are four satellite stations from which each photographer can transmit his mobile phone photos in seconds. And they are utilized, of course.

What about the free Internet access?

As far as the Internet is concerned, Syria is one of the most developed countries in the Arab world. By the way, it was Assad himself who encouraged that. If you go to a restaurant, you have free WLAN access almost everywhere right away and you can receive your emails. Anyway, a few weeks ago, a report was distributed by the world press that iPhones were now prohibited in Syria. I phoned someone in Damascus then and asked my interlocutor about it. He laughed. “You are just calling me on my iPhone.” Half of the reports about Syria are incorrect.

Do you know other examples?

While I was staying in Damascus, the world press reported that the headquarters of the Ba’ath party had been attacked and severely damaged. There had been a dead man. I was very impressed by this. Until then, for me Damascus was a safe city. There were even still some tourists.

Therefore, the next day I went to see the building. Two friendly police officers were standing outside the undamaged building. When I asked where the serious damage was, they showed me two demolished glass panels in the entrance hall, into which somebody had thrown a firecracker. On my visit to Homs, I saw that the market stalls were filled with food and vegetables. Me too, I purchased there. A few days later I read in the world press: “Humanitarian catastrophe in Homs”.

Shortly after that I went downtown for a second time and I met with rebels there. I always meet with representatives of both sides. I asked them about the “humanitarian catastrophe”. They admitted with a laugh: “We launched that”. They were very proud. A few days later a bus with young Alawis was stopped by motorcycles in Homs. The young men were executed by the aggressors at a distance of a few meters.

Only one survived. He described the offenders as armed rebels. The attack was a signal to Assad, who is also an Alawi. Yet, in the evening news of al-Jazira they said that Assad once more had put innocent young men to death in Homs.

The media coverage of Syria reminds me in an alarming way of the coverage before the Iraq war. However, the coverage of the Syrian state television is not much better.

Where are the rebels getting their support from? Are these hostile neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which indeed have already been involved in the conflict in Libya? Is this conflict also an intra-Islamic conflict?

I spent four weeks in the country. Nevertheless I know that I have not seen much. But I have seen that this uprising is not always peaceful. There are forces abroad that provide heavy weapons to the violent part of the uprising.

Qatar is the hottest scent. Qatar was also the major supplier of weapons to Libya. The Americans do not intervene directly; the armed resistance is organized by neighboring Arab states, mainly via Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera is also based in Qatar.

So this is a kind of proxy war?

I do not know. I am not a supporter of conspiracy theories. But in the background there is the attempt of the United States, to create a “Greater Middle East”, where there are only pro-American states, loyal to the party line. The United States take the whole region for their territory. Kissinger once said that oil was too valuable to be left to the Arabs.

The Americans have missed the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. But then they made the decision to shape the upheavals in the Arab world to their advantage. I have great sympathy for democratic America, but in the Middle East the United States do not care about democracy. Otherwise, they would indeed support the demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, but there they support the dictatorial governments.

In your opinion, how will the situation in Syria continue?

In Syria, there will be a democracy just like in the entire Arab world. Violence against the peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable. But when I asked Assad, why – at least for a certain time – the violence against the armed rebels could not be stopped, he asked me if I could name him a western country that tolerates 20 to 30 of its soldiers being killed every day.

He asked me: Would Ms. Merkel accept that? I had no reply. I told him that he should enter into a dialogue nevertheless, also with the extreme forces. Only dialogue could bring about a cease-fire. He had to be at the vanguard of the democracy movement in order to achieve peace and democracy.

What was his reply?

He said that the most important thing would be that a truly democratic constitution was worked out, and that the people could decide about it. [...] •

Source: Welt Online on 10.2.2012, reprinted with kind permission of Dr Juergen Todenhoefer
(Translation Current Concerns)

Jürgen Todenhöfer studied law and political science at the universities of Munich, Paris, Bonn and Freiburg. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg. In 1972 he was elected as a direct candidate of the CDU in the German Bundestag. He was a deputy until 1990 and development politics spokesman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. Even earlier, in 1987, he entered  the Hubert Burda Media Holding and became deputy chairman of the executiv board.

In the past 10 years, Jürgen Todenhöfer again and again commented critically the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He published a serial of books about these two wars. In 2003, he wrote „Wer weint schon um Abdul und Tanaya? Die Irrtümer des Kreuzzugs gegen den Terror“ (ISBN 3-451-05420-5) (Who weeps for Abdul and Tanaya? The faults of the crusade against terrorism) – a book which illustrates the absurdity of the “war on terror” using the example of children in Afghanistan. In the book „Andy und Marwa. Zwei Kinder und der Krieg“ (2005, ISBN 3-570-00859 – 2) (Andy and Marwa – two children and the war) Todenhöfer portrays two fates of the Iraq war: that of an Iraqi girl and that of a young American soldier. In „Why do you kill? The untold story of the Iraqi resistance” (2008, ISBN 978-1-934708-14-9) Todenhöfer – in many conversations on the spot – follows up the reasons for the resistance against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. His most recent book, „Teile dein Glück… und du veränderst die Welt! – Fundstücke einer abenteuerlichen Reise“ (2010 ISBN 978-3-570-10069-1) (Share your happiness… and you’ll change the world! – Finds of an adventurous journey), is a book about vital ethical issues.

For more information about Jürgen Todenhöfer, visit his website:

“Without hesitation, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Ayalon, declared the Federal Republic of Germany not only a leading European power but a ‘world leader’ in Munich.”

Source: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 4.2.2012 on the “Munich Security Conference of 3 – 5 February