INTERVIEW Belgian historian Koert Debeuf: What happened in Syria is sad because we could see it happening

Europe did not interfere with the Syrian uprising partly because of reticence at weapons ending up in the wrong hands, but also because of a lack of geopolitical understanding from the policy makers' part, Koert Debeuf, the Director of TIMEP Europe, author of "Inside the Arab Revolution: Three Years on the Front Line of the Arab Spring" told AGERPRES in an interview.

Syria's collapse into chaos would have been easy to avoid, if messages from experts who lived in the region were heard at the political levels, he says.

Debeuf has 20 years of experience in European and Middle East politics. He was advisor, speech writer and spokesperson of the Prime Minister of Belgium, Director of the Belgian think tank Prometheus, and served in the European Parliament as Chief of Staff of the President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt.

ALDE sent him to Cairo in 2011 to observe the Arab Spring, where he lived in from 2011 to 2016, traveling extensively through the Middle East and North Africa. In 2013, Debeuf was the only EU official envoy who traveled to Aleppo and briefed Brussels on the situation.

The historian compares the Arab Spring to the French Revolution and argues that it took decades for the French Revolution to get over the chaos and give birth to a new society.

"Because it's so huge there is obviously a lot of chaos and this chaos will continue. You have two things in a big revolution: one is chaos, war, destruction and on the other hand you have a change of people's minds. The pessimistic side of it is that we have to expect much more destruction, killings, redefining of maps," he pointed out.

AGERPRES: Why the Middle East and then why Egypt for 5 years?

Koert Debeuf: Actually a friend of mine from the cabinet of the [Belgian] Prime Minister became ambassador to Lebanon and invited us on a holiday. I had only been in Israel and in Turkey, nowhere else in the region. We went for three weeks, first in Lebanon and then we traveled to Syria by car. The prejudice I had towards Islam and the Middle East completely vanished. I was so impressed by what I saw, and I so loved what I saw that the next year we went to Jordan.

And then, suddenly, the revolutions started. It was the year after. I had been in Damascus three times and Amman also three times. The Tunisia and Egypt happened. I was mesmerized and I thought ... Because I'm a historian and I like to live history. I think it's important to live history . I was too young when the Berlin wall fell, I was only 16. So when I saw all this happening I thought 'This is a historic moment. I have to be there'.

I told Guy Verhofstadt, my employer, that I have to be there. He agreed because he thought that so much was happening there that we [Europeans] do not understand so we needed someone there to understand what's happening.

AGERPRES: At that point you were the only envoy of a European political party on the ground trying to explain what was happening. Many experts in the Middle East were trying to get a message through and warn everybody of all the things that could go wrong if left with no support. And there was little understanding at the European level. Did you manage to get through to the decision makers in the EU?

Debeuf: Let's see the positive side. It's an absolute fact that Guy Verhofstadt has been very supportive of this project. We knew each other, of course, for a long time. He trusted me. I think it's time to say this: he trusted me blindly and he was pushing this forward on the agenda.

I was lucky that this trust was there from the ALDE group.

It was sometimes very difficult, but... I'm a small fish and there was this huge mountain in front of me which was the Arab world and then you have to climb over the mountain to see this big wall which is the EU. And you have to get up on it and it's very difficult.

But I think a few times, I think I have succeeded in changing something to go over the mountain and through the wall. And that was very rewarding.

AGERPRES: When did you feel that? What were those breakthroughs that made you feel you got through in Brussels?

Debeuf: The few times I was able to bring the commander of the Free Syrian Army to Catherine Ashton [former head of EU diplomacy] were important moments. She understood things that before she didn't know. And there is no blame there. It's normal, you don't speak to rebel commanders as a head of the EU diplomacy. But once she did, she was open to it so she tried to do things. In the end they didn't work but it was an opportunity there.

Secondly, more importantly, I was the first European official who went into Syria and what I saw, in 2012, was that, contrary to any report, aid was not going in to Northern Syria.

If you read the reports of the UN, the Red Cross, of the EU, they were just no correct. Or they were correct, but they represented nothing. If you point at a map to show where aid is going and say that 10.000 bottles of water went to Aleppo, it's one bottle for 1.000 people. It doesn't matter.

It was Kristalina Georgieva who was very open to listen to my argumentation. When we went there and said what we found she said that 'If this is true, we have to do something about it.' And she actually did something about it. Aid arrived. Illegally but it reached through Turkey to the North of Syria.

If I am happy about one thing that we accomplished, it's this.

AGERPRES: That was pretty bold from a EU commissioner. Usually, international aid comes through the Syrian government. The UN has had a problem with the funding for the humanitarian response for the Syrian crisis just for this reason, that many donors did not want to have the aid pass through Damascus.

Debeuf: Exactly. Syria is a maze in many many ways. My disillusion... Wait, I'm looking for a stronger word. Deception, in French. I was so angry at the Red Cross. Cause I was telling them all this and they wrote in the the Netherlands where their headquarters for Europe are. They wrote against me, saying that I was putting their people in danger by stating what people in the north of Syria were telling me: that the Red Cross was in the basket of Assad.

Of course, the Red Cross is not just in one basket, they have to keep the balance to be able to reach people from all areas. But that didn't change the fact that people in Northern Syria did not get any aid.

They should have been honest about it.

We had a fight and then the UN and the Red Cross admitted that they had difficulties in going to some areas. Before that they acted like there was no problem at all.

AGERPRES: That was unfortunate. Because many people in North Syria and somewhere else, in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, they did not get aid from international organizations, but there were Islamist charity organizations that actually were able to deliver aid.

Debeuf: I asked them who they got aid from and they said clearly that it was Saudi Arabia, Qatar and khalas [ "done" in Arabic].

But they were happy and I must confess that I was happy to see that there was at least aid from Saudi Arabia. But I was like "where is the UN, where is the EU?" That's why I admired Georgieva for being open to this and going partly against the organization she was working in.

AGERPRES: Do you think that this lack of aid from international organizations and the fact that the money came from organizations in Saudi Arabia or Qatar lead to the emergence of radicalism?

Debeuf: It was the fact that no aid was coming that made people more radical. Radical is a big word. When you're bombed every day, what can you rely on? You become simply more religious. You pray to God so you wouldn't be hit. I would probably do the same. For people to become more religious is normal.

The fact that rebel groups have religious names comes from the fact that it was their pitch for money from the Gulf which often worked. If you call it Jaish al Islam (The Islamic Army) is better than Hurriya (Freedom in Arabic). That worked.

But the most important part of radicalization to me did not come only from the aid, even though it was important.

I spent two days at the headquarters of the FSA and I saw everything. I saw the general commander seeing people all the time. They came from everywhere in Syria. They were commanders from everywhere, Deir Ezzor, Damascus. Those guys came there to ask for arms because they had to fight against airplanes and they did not have proper arms.

The general commander said that the Americans had promised him arms so that he could arm his people. But these arms never came. So the credibility of their force was null. 
I've been eating with these people. I slept at their place. I know these people.

AGERPRES: When was that?

Debeuf: It was 2013. January to April. I've been there two times.

These men, I've seen them, spoke to them, lived with them. They were secular. Muslims, but secular. Very very moderate.

So it all collapsed because we did not give them what they needed. I was at a discussion at a house of a soldier in Azaz, where we were sleeping while the Syrian army was bombing. I was there for a discussion between people and an FSA commander. They said "you're not organized, you don't have arms. Al Nusra is organized, they have arms and they pay us. If you can't promise us arms, we go to Nusra."

This is how Jabhat al Nusra, which was Al Qaeda by then, was growing. If you want to fight the regime, even if you're secular, what do you do when you have no money, no weapons? You move to Al Nusra.

Are these people more radical? Not necessarily, but they make the radical groups bigger.

AGERPRRES: The radical factions capitalized on this.

Debeuf: Exactly. For me what happened in Syria is sad because we could see it happening. Like you said, I was warning, I wrote like hell to get this message out. The message arrived by it didn't change anything. For reasons I do understand.

AGERPRES: Why was the EU so slow? Does Europe only care when there's a migration crisis?

Debeuf: What have we learned from Afghanistan, Libya or the Balkans? These arms are traveling around the world getting into the wrong hands. Sure, this is true. So I understand the reticence to arm Syrian rebels whom nobody knew or trusted. Even though I brought people to them.

I've discussed this at the highest level. I told them they were serious people. I went with the EU ambassador to Antakia, I brought him officers from the FSA, and while we were sitting there, he asks them right in the face "How can you guarantee to me you are not Al Qaeda?"

It was so indecent. So it was partly reticence, partly a lack of geopolitical understanding.

Seeing the situation now, I think that everybody agrees that if we established a no fly zone in 2011 the situation would have been completely different. No we say "Oh, it's too late!".

The fact is that it's never too late, but now the Russians are there so suddenly we risk a world war instead of just protecting people.

My proposal back then, in 2011-2012, was to give them not many anti-aircraft weapons. Because the loyalist forces were not fighting on the ground, they were bombing. If you take down 2 or 3 planes, people would refuse to fly them.

It was frustrating to see this message not going through, and things were getting worse and worse and to me, every time, the solution was very clear. Maybe it was wrong, but it was clear for me.

AGERPRES: What do you think is the difference between what happened in North Africa and the Levant? Why did the Arab Spring turned to such violence in Syria?

Debeuf: Libya, for instance, could have been in the same state. It was France that ended Gaddafi. If we gave the proper support the Libyan rebels were asking for... The first prime minister of Libya came to Brussels saying 'We need your help now on this and this point'. And Europe didn't move.

If we moved, the situation would have been different. But we didn't. We went there and then we got out and we focused on every country through the economic gains. Then we started fighting each other for economic gains, instead of helping the country. The result of that is what we have now.

It all could have been prevented easily, and that is another frustration.

But in Libya, were there not for the NATO intervention it would have been as bloody as Syria.

The only difference between North Africa and the Middle East is that in the Middle East you have one powerhouse, Iran, which is active there because the region is more religiously mixed. In Egypt you have 10 % Christians, In Libya you only have Sunnis, Tunisia only Sunni, Algeria only Sunni, Morocco only Sunni.

AGERPRES: How do you see the situation in all these countries evolving in the future? Is there a silver lining?

Debeuf: Well, it's going to get much worse before it gets better. I believe that what we are seeing is a big earthquake. It's a revolution. I like to compare it with the French Revolution because I think it is perhaps from the same magnitude. On the scale of Richter this is a huge thing.

Because it's so huge there is obviously a lot of chaos and this chaos will continue. You have two things in a big revolution: one is chaos, war, destruction and on the other hand you have a change of people's minds. The pessimistic side of it is that we have to expect much more destruction, killings, redefining of maps.

On the other hand, people's minds have changed. The genie of freedom is out of the bottle and you see people have changed. That's the optimistic part. And everybody who knows the Middle East from the inside sees this optimistic part. If you don't know it from the inside you see only the destruction part.

That's why I think that it's important for an expert to have lived there. Because this way you can feel and see the underlying currents.

What we see now is a very ferocious scene, big waves, but under the surface there's a tsunami. And someday it will come out and that will change everything. AGERPRES/(EN—author: Ana Maria Luca, editor: Razvan-Adrian Pandea)

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