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How the West Used Libya to Hijack the Arab Revolts

Vijay Prashad talks neoliberal economics, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and why NATO's intervention in Libya marked a new chapter in the story of the Arab revolts.

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In Syria, Bashar al Assad essentially is a border guard for Israel. He has maintained that border very carefully. There’s a kind of rhetorical back and forth, but really Bashar al Assad has been a very stable force for Israel. And the so-called peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, brokered at Camp David between Sadat and Begin in 1979--that peace treaty made the Egyptian army come offline. And the Egyptian army was paid a bursary by the United States, essentially, to maintain the peace treaty with Israel. Because of this, Israel’s plans could shift, so it could then be able to fight asymmetrical war against its two, much weaker adversaries, in Lebanon and Palestine. And Israel, when it battled, had an asymmetric advantage over these two countries.

But with the Arab uprisings, Egypt is no more a settled border. It is already the case that Syria is not going to be a reliable border, whatever happens. The opposition inside Syria is making statements about Israel that are not quite conducive to settling the mood in the Ministry of Defense in Israel. So the Assad regime is radicalizing its rhetoric against Israel.

So if I were working in the Ministry of Defense, I would be calling up the political wing in Israel and say, “Look, we need to make a genuine peace treaty with the Palestinians. We need to genuinely move toward some kind of rapprochement with the Palestinian leadership moving towards a settlement. Because, otherwise, we are going to be isolated. No longer do we have an asymmetrical advantage over our neighbors,” which they had had since the 1978 engagement and then the peace agreement in '79. So, no more will Israel be able to walk into Lebanon in 1982, and again in 2006. No longer is that going to be possible. I think Israel has to do some serious consideration about the politics of its neighborhood.

AK: You make an interesting point about Assad’s utility to Israel. But now, the US and its allies recently announced that they would directly aid Syrian opposition fighters in their quest to overthrow Assad. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the interplay between how Israel is viewing the situation as the international community looks like they may be going in the direction of Libya, although there is no talk of air power yet.

VP: Let’s just deal with this in a kind of timeline way. And I’m just going to talk about one week’s events. On the 27th of March, Mr. Kofi Annan, the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, was able to secure from the Assad regime a six-point plan. The plan essentially was that Assad said he would withdraw troops from the cities and that he would allow humanitarian support, so that humanitarian assistance and basic needs can get into the cities. This has been, by the way, a big demand of the Syrian opposition inside the country.

On April 1 in Istanbul, the “Friends of Syria” group met. There, the Gulf Arab states, notably the Saudis and the Qataris, with the Americans, the British, and to some extent other European states, made a very different kind of approach, disregarding the Annan agreement, which was a considerable breakthrough, even if we doubt the sincerity of the Assad regime. At this meeting, they said they would be willing to spend millions of dollars buying arms for the opposition, which is a demand being made by the Syrian opposition outside Syria. The great danger, of course, is that this is going to further escalate the conflict. But after the “Friends of Syria” meeting, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the head of NATO said, “we are not going to enter the military conflict at all”--basically behind the Annan plan.

In Baghdad, where the Arab League had just met, the Iraqi government of Nuri al Maliki gave a statement saying, “we condemn this financing of the opposition, especially giving arms,” and at the same time they had just completed the Arab League meeting in Baghdad, where only 10 out of 22 heads of state came. Only one Gulf Arab state, Kuwait, came to that meeting. The Saudis boycotted it, the Qataris boycotted, and the Americans are very unhappy because the Iraqis are refusing to stop Iranian planes flying into Syria.

So, what I am just trying to do is give you a picture with this timeline. There is a very disturbing project underway, from the Western states and the Gulf Arabs. On the one hand, they are trying to stoke this conflict, to maintain it, to prevent a political dialogue from beginning--whatever the sincerity is, still a road is open. They’re trying to mess with that political dialogue at the same time that they’re not willing to take the Libyan role, at all.

I think this is a very disturbing attack by all sides on the Syrian people, because blood is going to be shed inside Syria, and this kind of irresponsibility is going unchallenged. I find this very disturbing. No mainstream North Atlantic paper has written about this kind of agenda that is being played out.

AK: You write that Libya’s revolt was hijacked by the Atlantic powers, helped along by the Saudis. But there was also a grassroots element to the uprising as well. Could you talk about the interplay between grassroots protest against Gaddafi and the elite neoliberals who latched on to NATO’s military power?

VP: This is the heart of the second half of my book. The way the story runs is, from the 1990s, there has been a very great number of protests against the Gaddafi regime. These protests have come from, basically, three different kinds of social agents. One is, to some extent, groups that have gone to the Islamists, and they became part of the Libyan Islamic fighting group, which was founded in the 1990s. And they are largely rural, but not entirely.

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