Oz Katerji is a journalist and filmmaker known among Middle East specialists for his comprehensive knowledge and sharp analysis. His current focus is on the Syrian crisis, and he was recently in the media for protesting at a speech made by Jeremy Corbyn at a Stop the War Coalition event. Despite having begun around five years ago, the conflict in Syria has received increased media attention in recent weeks thanks to the siege of Aleppo leading to debates concerning possible ways to end the slaughter of innocent civilians. What would be the best path forward as far as Oz is concerned?
“Ideally, we would see the enforcement of a no-fly-zone in Aleppo, as well air and naval strikes on military installations being used by the Assad regime – especially air bases. We would not be shooting down Vladimir Putin’s planes; I don’t think he would be willing to risk his country’s security by getting into a direct conflict with the US and its allies, but as long as Russian and Syrian violations go unchallenged he will keep pushing and pushing, because he wants to build hegemony in the region. An intervention would be an enforcement of international law, with the aim of saving lives, not a provocation.”
The complex nature of the war in Syria leads many to express confusion about who is actually fighting on the ground. Oz is keen to highlight the important difference between the men and boys who are involved in active combat and the civilian population, which includes women, children, the elderly, and those unable to fight. “Of course, five years of genocide – and it is genocide, in every functional sense of the word – has had a toll on the revolutionary forces. In the places where the revolution was strongest, where the organisation of local councils was most democratic, the regime pounded the population until they were forced to surrender. This was the case in Maarat al-Numan, in Darayaa, which was really the heart of the original protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government, and in Homs. Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has expressed her support for a Homs style solution in Aleppo, which is just appalling: it is a form of ethnic cleansing by the regime. A friend of mine had a great uncle who’d never left Homs, this was a man in his eighties, and the regime forced him to leave the only home he’d ever known.”
We know the left don’t want arms delivered to the revolutionaries, they don’t want a no-fly-zone, but what do they want?
Despite this tragic outlook, Oz is confident that the Syrian opposition is still mainly made up of people who want to see democracy in Syria, even if their views are influenced by religious conservatism. “Syria is a conservative, mainly Sunni Muslim country, and people in the west lack the cultural knowledge to understand that. Having a beard and believing in God doesn’t make someone an extremist. We have to realise that this is the Middle East, and things work a little bit differently.” Of course, when the Syrian uprisings began in 2012, the opposition was much more diverse, and many of its leaders had more liberal, secularist views, which would be easier for Western commentators to understand. During his time as English Editor at the Syria News Desk, Oz saw how these protest leaders were killed, thrown into prison and tortured, or forced to flee the country to save themselves and their families.
Like many with an interest in Syria and its future, Oz expresses intense frustration with left-wing western politicians for their lack of willingness to support intervention – “their position is not practical. We know they don’t want arms delivered to the revolutionaries, they don’t want a no-fly-zone, but what do they want?” This frustration is what led him to protest against the recent Stop the War Coalition conference, where he called on Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to condemn Russian and Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on Syrian civilians, only to be shouted down by delegates chanting “no more war”. Oz explains that Corbyn and his closest allies in the Labour Party had a huge influence on UK government policy regarding Syria, particularly in the decision not to intervene in the crisis when, in 2013, it became apparent that the Assad regime had used Sarin Gas against civilians living on the outskirts of Damascus.
Oz is infuriated by the power wielded by this political faction, whose views he understands to be based primarily on Islamophobia and sheer hypocrisy. “Corbyn wouldn’t stand up on a stage with David Cameron to defend the EU, which he supposedly believes in, but he expects members of the Syrian opposition to work with Assad, with the brutal dictator who’s been killing them and destroying their homes, in a unity government.” As mentioned above, he is likewise very critical of the notion that the Syrian opposition are, in Diane Abbott’s words, ‘rag-tag jihadists’. With such a damning view of the current state of British politics, in which he sees “racist career politician” Boris Johnson as having a more acceptable stance on Syria than the leader of the Labour Party, I wonder how he views the upcoming US election.
Corbyn wouldn’t share a stage with Cameron to defend the EU, but he wants the Syrian opposition to be in government with the dictator who is killing them
“I know that there are a lot of people who dislike some of Hillary’s past foreign policy decisions, and I can understand that, but if she’s serious in what she’s been saying about Syria, she could make a positive difference. She’s been in discussions with activists, and she’s prepared to stand up to Putin – unlike Trump, who is happy to support Russia in what it’s doing. Unfortunately, I have to say that this has basically been Obama’s policy as well.” Of course, Russia and the US are not the only external actors with an interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war, and it’s common to hear comments about the influence of the Arab Gulf states in the conflict. Oz is clear – “they have got blood on their hands, because if they wanted to support the revolutionaries by sending MANPADS (anti-aircraft missiles which can be mounted on your shoulder) they could do that today, but they won’t. However, the foreign policy of the Gulf states is very linked to what the USA says and does, so that’s the context in which we should understand their inaction.”
The Syrian civil war is arguably the conflict that will define our generation, and have an ongoing impact on those that follow. This is not the time for party political rhetoric or point scoring – this is a time for anyone who claims to believe in freedom and human rights to come together and find a workable way of ending the bloodshed in Syria, and allowing its people to rebuild their country to be fairer, more democratic and free of fear.