Peter Scholl Latour on the Middle East

I grew up with his reportages, I read many of his books and I saw a few of his documentaries. I deeply respect Peter Scholl-Latour’s investigative journalism and the quality of his work. So I felt more than privileged to spent a couple of hours with him.

In the following interview we speak about the Middle East – particular about the Arab Spring and western interests and media. Here are some “highlights” of the interviews:

“There is no identifiable German position on Syria.”
“The German press and media is not free!”
We are now the allies of Al-Qaida! But nobody breathes a word about this!”
The Israelis are well-known for their cleverness and intelligence, but politically they’re not so terribly clever otherwise they wouldn’t have turned Iran into their bogeyman!”
The political class in America is mired in stupidity and ignorance!”
“We are witnessing an Islamic revival in Turkey!”

The interview is in German – an English slightly shorter text version will be available soon.
Parts of it will be published in the next issue of we-magazine on the Middle East.

And here´s the entire English version of the interview:

Stop this hypocrisy!
A conversation with Prof. Dr. Scholl-Latour about the Middle East.

we-magazine: How would you describe the German government’s current position on Syria?

Peter Scholl-Latour: It doesn’t have one! Either the Germans run after the Americans or they make a desperate attempt to do something different. As they did with Libya – and as we see that usually goes wrong. The only correct decision that’s been made was the decision not to take part in the Iraq war. On the other hand, it was a bad decision to be the only member of the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance not to give formal assent to the joint declaration of intent on Syria – when we didn’t need to send a single plane or soldier. It was sheer foolishness vis-à-vis our allies. Under no circumstances should we ever intervene in the internal affairs of Syria.

we-magazine: Use of poison gas in Syria has been squarely laid at the door of the Assad regime – at least by the western media and many politicians. Obama is always talking about “crossing the red line”. What do you think the consequences would be if the West intervened militarily in Syria?

Peter Scholl-Latour: This is a similar campaign of misinformation to the one that took place a few years ago with Iraq. At that time there was much talk of monstrous stockpiles of poison gas and missiles too. Tony Blair even went so far as to speak of the possible annihilation of Europe by Iraq. Absolute bullshit! And now they’re at it again and using the selfsame mechanisms. They realize that Assad is gaining ground and have to find a quick excuse to demark this so-called “red line” – which is a pretty stupid expression! – so they can send arms to the insurgents. Yet they’ve no idea into whose hands these weapons might fall!
The truly best fighting force on the side of the insurgents are not the deserters from the Syrian army – who are not as numerous as is generally believed – nor the Sunni village communities – who have come together in an alliance but aren’t all that effective in military terms. The real fighters, the ones who are also prepared to lay down their lives, are the guys from Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Islamist movement. And as even the Americans admit, they have joined forces with Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia! We are now the allies of Al-Qaida! But nobody breathes a word about this; the German press, you see, is not at all a free press!

we-magazine: Why isn’t the German press free? Why are so few people speaking up?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Paul Sethe, I don’t know if his name means anything today, but in post-war Germany he was a very great, very conservative journalist and one of the founders of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And he once wrote that the freedom of the press in the western world is the freedom of 200 rich people to publish their opinions. In present-day Germany this figure is down to four or five. It’s the publisher who decides which line will be followed. The publisher appoints the editor-in-chief and the editor-in-chief makes sure that journalists toe the line and if somebody doesn’t toe the line, their services are no longer required.

we-magazine: An elegant form of censorship.

Peter Scholl-Latour: Exactly. Add to this the self-censorship in the minds of journalists who think that the editor-in-chief or publisher would be pleased to read this or that, and so slant their articles accordingly.

we-magazine: To return to Syria – what happened there in comparison to Tunisia and Egypt?

Peter Scholl-Latour: I first went to Syria in 1951. And believe me, all this talk about freedom is too absurd! Syria’s troubles started in Dara’a – which by the way, interestingly enough lies directly on the border to Jordan from where it can be directly influenced, including by the Saudis. Admittedly also by a number of rallies and demonstrations held with the best of intentions.

Obviously the Syrians too wanted more freedom. Only by then they had seen what had happened in Libya and what was happening in Egypt. So their enthusiasm was not exactly overwhelming. In fact it was strictly limited. But then concerted efforts were made to pump it up and inflate it, capped finally by that all-important move when Turkey threw open all its borders even – or should I say expressly for – arms shipments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – which speaks volumes!

Syria can hardly be compared with Egypt and Tunisia. In Tunisia it was that incident when the street vendor set himself on fire and burned to death for whatever reasons we simply don’t know. Whether it was for political reasons or because he was unhappy in love, nobody knows. Nor do we. Only it had this astonishing follow-on effect. In Tunisia nobody expected an uprising. Tunisians are very peace-loving, gentle people who are also very heavily Europeanized. But it was there of all places that the ball started to roll and within a few weeks Ben Ali was deposed. Yet sadly to say even today we can see that the much-trumpeted democratization process hasn’t taken place even in Tunisia. Ennahda, the party that fanned the flames of the uprising, was certainly a very honorable party in its early days, yet in its confrontation with the extremist Islamist forces of the Al-Nor party which is financed by Saudi Arabia, we can have no idea of which further turning it will take.

we-magazine: So what makes fundamentalist Islam so strong in these countries?

Peter Scholl-Latour: One thing we should not forget: movements like Hamas in Palestine or earlier on the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt too were all originally charitable organizations which took care of the people, set up huge community kitchens, built schools and so on, and by so doing got the people on their side. None of this started with violence. But then came the moment when the government saw them as a danger and reacted aggressively. And then naturally enough the Islamic parties also resorted to arms. In any case, the readiness to resort to arms was already there. In Algeria this led to a dreadful civil war which lasted eight years and took a death toll of 250,000 people about which nobody in the West has talked. And all this happened in the wake of free elections! This is what I mean by the hypocrisy of the West Free elections had taken place. General Chadli Bendjedi was foolish enough to allow free elections. He (and the West with him) completely misjudged the fact that it was the Islamic Salvation Front which held the majority and was sitting in parliament, and so there was this hasty coup d’état. And the West said not a word – on the contrary the West was only too glad that the danger had been averted. While people in other places were much less indulgent in their view of what had happened.

we-magazine: How would you describe the current situation in Syria?

Peter Scholl-Latour: By and large it has turned into a confrontation between different confessions. Although it would be a mistake to believe that the Sunnis are standing resolutely on the side of the insurgents. The greater part of the army – which includes a great many Sunnis – has remained with Assad.
In Syria there is a considerable middle class, a bourgeoisie, and they have seen the rising chaos in Libya and the falling living standards in Egypt and what they have seen hasn’t made them exactly eager for unrest.
The conflict really has been brought into the country from the outside, and not for any kind of humanitarian reasons but with the intention of establishing a democracy. But the whole point of the exercise – and this is the central issue about which nobody speaks – was to prevent the establishment of an Iranian Shiite bridge stretching from the borders of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, right through to Hezbollah.
Ever since the battle for al-Qusay, a rebel stronghold and a strategically important city in the west of Syria, Assad has regained the corridor between Damascus and the Alawi regions on the coast where he has his main support, which now leaves him in a much stronger position. His campaign was supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah, who naturally had their own excellent reasons for intervening – namely that if the Alawis in Syria were eliminated and not just stripped of their possessions and offices but actually murdered, then this would leave Hezbollah extremely isolated in its corner. And then the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Sunnis of Lebanon, and Syria’s people, the Americans and Israelis – also notorious for their ability to misread a situation – all these different parties would have attempted to eradicate Hezbollah. This is the reason for Hezbollah’s intervention. Hezbollah is the best Arab army in the Middle East. In 2006 it succeeded in something that is also always passed over in silence, it succeeded in holding off the Israeli offensive for three long weeks and in forcing it to retreat.

We-magazine: Israel is weaker than ever before …

Peter Scholl-Latour: Yes, that is correct.
The Israelis are well-known for their cleverness and intelligence, but politically they’re not so terribly clever otherwise they wouldn’t have turned Iran into their bogeyman. Khomeini – I was one of the few people who knew him personally – didn’t “throw out the Jews”. Iran is the only Islamic country in which a minority of some 30,000 Jews still lives and who have synagogues and an MP in parliament. Obviously, this MP cannot be a Zionist.
It simply isn’t the case that Syria is Israel’s biggest enemy. Israel will really have to watch out when it gets the Al-Qaida bands of the Al-Nusra Front on its Golan border. For 40 years now, ever since the Jom-Kippur war, not a single shot has been fired on this border. Since this uprising broke out, though, there’ve been bouts of sporadic firing which are bound to intensify. It’s absolute bullshit for the West to believe that “my friends are automatically your enemies” equation. Just look at Afghanistan: the Americans believed that because the Mujahideen were the enemies of the Russians, the ungodly Shorawi, they were the friends of America. Total idiocy! As soon as the Russians quit Afghanistan, it was the Americans themselves who became the enemy.

we-magazine: Is this a lack of knowledge or sheer ignorance on the part of America and the West?

Peter Scholl-Latour: The Americans have the best oriental scholars in the world. But it also must be said that the political class in America is mired in stupidity and ignorance. Ignorance and hypocrisy are the main diseases andemic to the West.

we-magazine: What can the EU and Germany do?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Nothing. What should the Germans do? Everything that German politicians keep spouting is complete nonsense! At least from 2003 when they didn’t react to that lightening American strike in Afghanistan – which by the by was a textbook example of a good campaign. They should have pulled out immediately once it was over. The Germans knew it would all go wrong. They had the reports from the BND, the Foreign Intelligence Agency; they had the reports from the commanding officers. But Berlin simply refused to believe them. Now I won’t name the ministers. They don’t regard me with any kindly eye. But basically the only one of them with any clear vision – though he was also unlucky in other respects – was Guttenberg. Even Herr Jung believed that things would work out right in the end. What utter nonsense! You just have to look at the “Euro Hawk” affair to see how disastrously ministers are served by their secretaries of state and their apparatus of informants. Guttenberg gave one of the responsible secretaries of state the boot. He cleared the deck and he was perfectly right to do so.

we-magazine: What should the West do to gain a better profile in this transformation process towards democratic governance?

Peter Scholl-Latour: I am growing increasingly allergic to hearing the word democracy. It makes me cringe! “Human rights” is another term that’s been so blatantly misused that it’s lost its meaning. When I see the former French foreign minister Juppé appearing side by side with the Saudi foreign minister al-Faisal to caution Syrians to be good democrats in spite of everything – then honestly speaking I must say this is the giddy height of hypocrisy! The Saudis of all people!
Leading other countries to democracy is simply not our job. They should do it themselves; it’s none of our business. We should leave them alone. Any involvement can only turn out badly.

we-magazine: So what continues to motivate the West to believe that it should act like a missionary?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Well, in many aspects – as simplistic as this may sound – obviously it’s petrol.
But this isn’t the case in Syria. The intention there is simply to break the connecting Iran – Hezbollah bridge. And the Israelis are obsessed with putting Iran and all its allies back in their place. I really don’t see the reason for this. I myself have talked to Khomeini about Israel, and when I submitted my questions back then – which I put through his son Ahmed – one of them was what would you do with the Jews in Israel when you won’t recognize the state of Israel and even want to wipe it out? I was sitting by the government spokesman at that time, and Ahmed was in Bonn, and both of them started to laugh. I was startled because I didn’t think my question was any laughing matter. But Khomeini’s son explained to me that he’d never heard such an idiotic question in his whole life – as though the Arabs would ever be capable of winning a war with the Jews. That’s their way of thinking. But apparently nobody knows it.

we-magazine: Nobody knows it in the West …

Peter Scholl-Latour: Well, I have written about it!

we-magazine: So what’s your scenario for the arena of conflict around Israel. How far does it hold the potential to trigger a third world war?

Peter Scholl-Latour: No, there’s no danger of that. All the parties there are far too quarrelsome and divided for that to happen.
But there’s another thing that we Europeans have to get into our heads – European states are not fit for going to war! We still need America. Even when the Americans exasperate us and drive us to despair with the stupid things they do, we’re still very much dependent on them. When the British and French were waging their war of the air in Libya – which was a well conducted operation – they ran out of bombs after just three weeks. And even before they began, the Americans had to take out the Libyan air defense. They all had to fall back on the Americans. And this happens everywhere.

we-magazine: So the role of NATO can be equated with that of America?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Yes. Europe is now in a most undignified situation.

we-magazine: What can Europe do to get out of it?

Peter Scholl-Latour: First of all it needs to sell people the message that we need decent weapons. Only this is something that nobody’s saying – on the contrary, military budgets are being constantly slashed. The French have now mounted a superb military campaign in Mali which was a considerable source of satisfaction for me personally as I once served in the French army. But they’ve now got to see to it that they get out double-quick.

we-magazine: Will they get out?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Sure, they’ll get out, obviously they will. But who’s going to take their place? The Mali army is a bunch of total incompetents and all the African troops of the African Union – even when they’re UNO contingents – have failed miserably everywhere they’ve been. I’ve seen this myself in the Congo, in Sierra Leone… and the list goes on ….everywhere just abject failure.

we-magazine: To return for the moment to Tunisia and Egypt, what role did religion play in the overthrow?

Peter Scholl-Latour: At the beginning none whatsoever. It was an uprising of the upper middle class of intellectuals, of a very honorable and fairly extensive middle class section of the population in Tunisia. And the same applies to Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. But obviously the same does not apply exactly to the provincial towns and cities, and especially not to the villages where the mass of people followed a plain, relatively peaceful form of Islam which they got on very well with. And these are the very people who are faring much worse now than ever before. But the worst thing is that now the extremists are coming from Saudi Arabia, one of our closest allies, and fanning the flames of the discontent and manipulating it to their own ends and purposes. All Islamic extremists come from Saudi Arabia. Here in Germany too, our own Salafists are funded by Saudi Arabia. And we continue to supply them with Leopard tanks. It just shows the sheer extent of our hypocrisy.
And you must add to this the deteriorating security situation in the country. Many Egyptians now regret the passing of the Mubarak regime – that is the end result of our policies and the economic inaptitude of the countries. Criminal elements have grown very strong.

we-magazine: The same can be said about nearly all the countries …

Peter Scholl-Latour: Indeed. Libya is certainly one of the high points. The Algerians, the Algerian military, who are the real holders of power, had better watch out now that nothing happens on their patch, especially as president Bouteflika, who was relatively well-liked by the people, is now on his deathbed.

we-magazine: What’s the situation like in Jordan?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Jordan is an appendage of Saudi Arabia. Of course the Americans are there and the British have their old positions there, and the Israelis are Jordan’s protectors. But all that can change with the enormous influx of refugees. Because these refugees are not all dear boys and democratically inclined freedom fighters. There are also hardliners among them, and above all huge numbers of Palestinians who used to live in Syria. And they had quite a good life in Syria, much better than anywhere else.
All this represents a new potential for conflict in Jordan.
And it’s also very telling that the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Maschaal, who used to live in Syria is now living in Qatar. Qatar – that’s one of the West’s closest allies.

we-magazine: Qatar is playing a similar role to Saudi Arabia?

Peter Scholl-Latour: Yes, but with only 200,000 inhabitants. Basically this state is a sick joke but such sick jokes are tolerated by the West. It puts on Formula 1 racing and plays host to the FIFA World Cup. The way it squanders money is scandalous. And all because this Emir is sitting on rich reserves of natural gas and oil – which we need. This is why he can be so outrageously lavish. We’re living in a world that’s totally corrupt. He also tolerates that foreign workers in his country are treated like slaves and nobody says a word!

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