Thomas Pierret (of the University of Edinburgh) and I have disagreed on Syria, privately and publicly (on an academic email list) but I regard him as a knowledgeable expert on Syria with a command of Arabic, although he can be quite uncritical in his reading of claims by Syrian exile opposition--but that is his business. I chose to post the answers of interviewees (this is part of a series) without editing or comment from me so as not to be unfair to the answers. I may interview myself at the end of the series and respond to many points that appeared in the interviews. My questions precedes his answers in bold:
I do not understand what you are talking about. The Muslim Brothers were involved in early attempts at organizing the opposition abroad, but they played no major role on the ground during the early, peaceful phase of the revolution, neither did any other Islamist movement. The peaceful phase of the revolution was a spontaneous, grassroots movement that involved various components of the Syrian society. It happens that this society comprises a large number of conservative, religious-minded people, but that does not make the uprising an Islamist one. I never heard the claim that Suhayr Al-Atasi was leading the uprising. Her stance was courageous and she certainly was an important symbol, but no particular group or figure was leading that largely de-centralized uprising.
I do not speak in the name of the "supporters of the opposition". As far as I am concerned, it has not been difficult for me to acknowledge something I had anticipated from day one. Kinship has been key to securing the loyalty of the upper echelons of the military in order to avoid the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The latter did not have the chance to have a large number of relatives among the top military/security hierarchy, contrary to Bashar al-Asad, whose own brother Maher is the actual no. 1 in the military (other relatives in top military/security positions include Hafez Makhluf, Dhu al-Himma Shalish, Atef Najib and Asef Shawkat, among many others). In such a situation, generals cannot seriously think about sacrificing the president in order to save the system: contrary to their Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts, they are not in a position to claim that they are in fact good guys who have nothing to do with the awful incumbent dictator. They stay with Asad, or they fall with him. Beyond kin ties, the loyalty of the military hierarchy has been secured through sectarianism, since it is likely that a majority of the officers belong to the Alawite community.
This will be contested. Salafi interpretations of Islam (there are several of them) are on the rise for various reasons, but a backlash is not to be excluded if some Salafi groups show too forceful in imposing their views upon the population. Some people may turn (back) to proponents of more flexible approaches like the Muslim Brothers and the traditional ulama. Reformist approaches are likely to remain in the backseat, but they were not in good shape before the revolution either. Under the Asads, proponents of Islamic reform were either silenced, or delegitimized through cooptation.
5) Are you pleased with the state of Western academic consensus on Syria, where few are comfortable to speak out against the opposition? I know that because I often receive private communications from colleagues (in our academic email list) who don’t feel comfortable in publicly criticizing the opposition?
I do not think that there is a clear "consensus" among Western academics about Syria, but if a majority of Western scholars support the revolution, I am totally pleased with that. As for academics being afraid of publicly criticizing the opposition, well, I can tell you that, conversely I received private communications from colleagues in our academic email list who did not feel comfortable in publicly supporting the opposition. The fact is simply that many of our colleagues do not like to speak up in general.
6) Why was the news and reality of Islamist involvement in the early uprising and revolt in Syria covered up—in my opinion—in Western media and even academic narrative? Looking back, was the story of Suhayr Al-Atasi leading the uprising one of many lies spread by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters to camouflage their involvement?
Islamist involvement on the ground started to become significant with the militarisation of the revolution from late 2011 on (I distinguish between the emergence of the first armed organizations during the summer, and the militarisation of the revolution as a whole at the end of the year). It was hardly covered up by the Western media, who have probably released more reports on Jabhat al-Nusra than on any other aspect of the Syrian revolution.
7) Do you think that conditions of women in Syria will not deteriorate no matter what?
Conditions of women can only improve because they cannot be worse than under a regime that has displaced, shelled, killed, injured, raped, arrested, tortured, widowed, and orphaned millions of Syrian women.
8) Is it possible that justice in the future can be meted without sectarian revenge?
Do you mean "will Sunnis kill Alawites once they are in power?" I cannot care about it at this stage. My present concern is that Asad's sectarian army is committing mass atrocities against the Sunni population. It is not a risk for the future, it is something that is happening right now. The problem is that many people do not even recognize the sectarian character of these atrocities, claiming that repression targets opponents from all sects, including Alawites. In fact ordinary repression does target opponents from all sects, but collective punishments (large-scale massacres, destruction of entire cities) are reserved for Sunnis, just like they were reserved for Iraqi Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein.
I do not deny the fact that some groups among the armed opposition have been involved in sectarian crimes, but differences in means, scale and political responsibility simply make any comparison irrelevant.
To sum up: let's stop the regime's mass crimes against the Sunnis, then we can speak of the risk of sectarian revenge.
9) If a growing number of Syrians feel disenchanted from the regime and from the opposition, what will that mean?
The regime and the opposition are essentially different realities, so I do not think that you can feel disenchanted from both in the same way. The regime has an address, a leader, it is unified and it has a clear pattern of action, that is, mass killing and destruction. The opposition is a very diverse reality that ranges from exiled proponents of non-violence to local civilian committees and councils on the ground, mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brothers, mainstream armed groups like the "FSA" (whatever that means), and radical Salafi Jihadis. Many Syrians certainly dislike one or several of these components, but at least the "opposition" offers them a broad spectrum of political options. The regime does not.
10) was it embarrassing for Western supporters of the Syrian armed opposition that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were the early and later sponsors?
Not at all. The question is not whether or not the Syrian opposition should accept Saudi and Qatari support (Turkey does not provide any tangible aid, it merely facilitates), it is whether the Syrian opposition wants to keep on fighting, or surrender (I do not believe in a third way, i.e. peaceful revolution and/or negotiations; it cannot work with that regime). If the opposition wants to keep on fighting, it cannot survive without external logistical support, and none is willing to provide it except for Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
My only concern is the half-heartedness and inefficiency of these countries' military support. For various reasons, these states want to weaken Asad, but they are not eager to see him replaced, hence the limits of their support. The outdated Croatian weapons provided to the rebels over the last months are better than nothing, but these states could do much more. Arms deliveries they have paid for compare very poorly, for instance, with the top-notch weaponry provided to Hezbollah by Iran and Syria."