Dr Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Dr Karmon paid a visit to Bulgaria with regards for the conference of the International Institute for Security Cooperation, where he was also received as a member of the Board of the institute. Dr Karmon gave an interview for Focus News Agency, talking about the situation in Syria, Iran’s nuclear programme, and the uprisings in the Arab countries.
Focus: What do you think about the situation in Syria?
Dr Ely Karmon: I think that the regime in Syria will definitely fall. The Syrian situation is a bit similar to what happened in Libya, not in Tunisia, and not in Egypt. In Syria there was a much stronger authoritarian and repressive regime. The people, on the Libyan example, decided “we must die to be free”. And you see people dying every day. Hundreds and thousands of people. According to the Prime Minister of Syria, who deserted to Jordan, Bashar al-Assad controls only 30% of the territory. The northern part of Syria, close to the Turkish border, is now no man’s land. There is no control on the border. The situation in the Kurdish region is the same. There is no army there and the Kurds are controlling the border with Iraq. So, clearly the Syrian regime will not be able to survive. There are battles in Damascus and in Aleppo. There will be a moment like in Tripoli, in Libya, when they will crumble. The question is what will happen after that? First of all, I think that there will be a danger of a huge massacre of Alawis, because so many people were killed, and so many people were arrested and tortured. It is really a very nasty situation. Because of this, in my evaluation, there is a good possibility that Alawites will retreat in their enclave, which is situated on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which is called the Alawite Mountains. They are cleaning some territories of Sunnis. The massacres are intended to take possession of territories, where the Sunnis are mingled with Alawis. There is a scenario that they will form a small state and they will retreat there most of their forces and try to resist. The other possible scenario is, a bit like in Libya, that there will be more chaos, perhaps, and a very unstable situation. The Muslim Brotherhood will probably retain control of the country, like in Egypt or in Tunisia. And there is also an important presence of Al Qaida remnants, which came from Iraq. People do not know, but in 2003, 2005, 2006, Syria supported Al Qaida remnants in Iraq, with their own considerations against the Americans and Iraqi Shiites. Now these elements are parts of the insurgency, and they could have a strong influence. You saw what happened in Libya recently. The same could happen in Syria, and perhaps even on a larger scale.
Focus: As the Syrian regime is backed by Iran, do you think that if there is a military intervention of foreign forces in Syria, Iran would help Syria?
Dr Ely Karmon: Syria is an extremely important strategic ally of Iran. The only ally Iran has in the region, together with Hezbollah. They already lost Hamas, which was part of the coalition. Because, Hamas is now in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who are Sunnis. I wrote a book about this alliance, I called it Coalition against Nature. Hamas was not in a position to cooperate with the Syrian Ba'ath regime, which killed 20,000 Muslim Brothers, and the theocratic regime in Tehran, which is Shia, and its doctrine is not accepted by the Muslim Brotherhood. They co-operated from 1992 to last year. Now, it returns to nature. So Iran is in a very difficult position, from a strategic point of view. In my opinion, the fall of the regime in Syria could produce an uprising in Iran itself. Because the people will see that what happened in 2009 – they were the first to rise, the Iranians, but they were repressed brutally. Now perhaps they will say, “Ok, let us do it like in Syria, we have to fight to death”. So there is this possibility also. And now my evaluation is that all the strategy of terrorism, over the last months, is intended to try to push Israel in a conflict with Lebanon, or perhaps with the Palestinians in Gaza, which could spread to the Egyptians. They are trying to involve Israel and the world in a regional conflict and to forget about the nuclear facilities in Iran.
Focus: There are reports that the nuclear facilities of Iran are really close to being able produce nuclear weapons. Do you think that the West and Israel should act in some way, if Iran continues to develop its programme?
Dr Ely Karmon: Iran is a threat to the entire region and to the Western countries and USA. First of all, Iran is a direct and immediate danger to the Gulf countries. You have Shi'ites in Bahran, around 70%. They could take over Bahrain in 24 hours without any problem, or even less. Shi'ites live in the richest oil region in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – they have influence there, they could produce an insurgency, and they already are reverting the regimes in these countries. Israel is under threat, because they are declaring openly that they want to destroy Israel as soon as possible. I do not believe that they will use a [nuclear] bomb, but with the umbrella of the bomb, they could so much more than they are doing today. And they are a threat for the West, also. They now have project to build new missiles, which would cover most of Europe, and even USA, from Venezuela. You heard a lot about the infrastructure being built in Venezuela – not far from USA. They could hit Miami, if they deploy missiles from Venezuela. Unfortunately, the international community has reacted very, very slowly. The reaction was also very weak. And even USA, not only the Obama administration, but before that. The Obama administration, by the way, was the only one, which really pushed for sanctions on Syria, but it was too late. Iran are not afraid of Obama now, they see Obama as a paper tiger. They do not take him into consideration. They are almost sure that he will not start a war. And they think that perhaps Israel will attack. This is one of the problems we have – there is no complete coordination and understanding between the Israeli and US leaderships. Israel is not sure that USA would not accept a nuclear Iran, like it accepted a nuclear North Korea. For us, Iran is an immediate threat, while for USA, Iran is a distant threat. It is also clear that on the background of the, I would say, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US leadership, and US military leaders as well, are not happy to start a new conflict. On the other hand, if they leave Iran to become nuclear, they will lose any influence they have in the Middle East. Iran will be a hegemony power.
Focus: Do you think that the upcoming elections in USA help slow down this process, as now the US politicians are paying more attention on the elections.
Dr Ely Karmon: It is clear that at least President Obama, who wants to be re-elected, he wanted to be sure that Israel would not attack independently Iran. The Israeli leadership has tried to push the USA for some concrete evidence – on one hand to declare openly what is the deadline for Iran to stop their programme; and on the other hand to take some military steps to show the Iranians that we are serious. There are some steps, as some military naval ships are in the region, but this is not sufficient, for the moment at least. You see that the Iranians are not at all deterred. I do not think that Israel will do anything before the elections in USA, or before the end of this year. Everyone is trying to use their political and psychological capabilities to push their standpoint. Because it is clear from the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is continuing, and even enhancing its uranium enrichment programme.
Focus: Do you think that the Arab uprisings could have a stabilising effect in the region in a short-term perspective?
Dr Ely Karmon: On the contrary, in a short-term perspective it is very destabilising. Al Qaeda, or what we call today the global jihadists, who were defeated in Afghanistan and in Pakistan – Bin Laden is dead as well as most of the other leaders, only Ayman al-Zawahiri is alive – they did not have any influence in the uprisings. On the contrary, this was opposed to the doctrine of Jihad of Al Qaeda. But, paradoxically, they can now take advantage of the instability, on the one hand, and the fact that the Islamist parties come to power in Tunisia and Egypt, on the other. There is a clear example in Gaza – since Hamas took control in 2006, first by elections and then a military coup, you have some 12 jihadi organisations. There were no such organisations before that. If you look at the West Bank – there are no jihadi organisations, but there are some in Gaza. After the Muslim Brotherhood took control, you see jihadists in Sana'a. And in Yemen, where the situation is a real mess – you will have the real Al Qaeda there in the near future. Economically, these countries – Syria, Libya, and Egypt are in a very difficult position, and the West cannot even support them seriously, because they are in their own economic crisis. Even USA is in an economic crisis. So, who will provide economic stability, in order to permit some kind of political stability in a region, where you se more and more sectarian fighting? Alawis, Sunnis, Shi'ites... and in Libya you have 13 tribes and 3 regions, in Yemen you have Sunnis and Shi'ites – half and half, but you also have tribes, which are pro-Al Qaeda. The situation is really a big mess. So I expect no stability for the near future. When we saw what happened recently – all these I call them black forces, because they have black flags – they are taking control and the moderates have practically no influence. When the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt attacked the USA embassy and there were big demonstrations – it took two days for the President of Egypt to react, and he spoke against the filmmakers.
It is strange the USA did not take measures to prevent the recent attacks against US embassies in the region. Not strange, actually, it is an error, because there was a video by al-Zawahiri several days before the incidents. USA succeeded in killing al-Libi, who was, after al-Zawahiri, the second most important person in Al Qaeda. Al-Libi was a very charismatic person, and was one of the main propagandists, who often appeared on videos, in the radical camp. But he was killed several months ago. Only now, al-Zawahiri recognised that al-Libi was killed by the USA and asked the revenge for his death to be taken. We know that September 11 is a very important date. USA, and the Libyan government, did not take the necessary measures to defend the US Embassy in Benghazi. In Tunisia the security measures were also not sufficient, and the protesters almost entering and burning down the embassy.