Bente Scheller specializes in Foreign & Security Policy in Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. She is also the author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game; Foreign Policy Under the Assads. The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation with her from her home in Germany.
Were you a specialist in Middle Eastern politics even before the Syrian revolution began?
Yes, definitely. I used to study international relations with a special focus on the Middle East. I visited Syria for the first time in 1999, and again in 2000, both times for the university. Between 2002 and 2004, I was a diplomat at the German Embassy in Damascus. So for a long time, I have been studying Syria. I used to know it really well and now I haven’t traveled there for many years as I would no longer be able to get a visa. I have no idea how it looks today and I know it will be really different, but I have always been focusing on Syria.
Why has Germany been distinguished in the issue of Syrian refugees ahead of other countries of the world? What is so special about Germany in this regard? Why is the German government encouraged to trace Assad criminals and their atrocities in Syria?
“I think from the Nuremberg trials, Germany took away that this is a necessary tool for international justice and so we have this opportunity in our legislation and other European states don’t have it the same way.”Bente Scheller
Well, I think it is partly a coincidence and partly a historic legacy so to speak. I mean, Germany, with its history of having a dictatorship, or several dictatorships that needed accountability, of course, has experience in this and the Nuremberg trials are a big precedent. This is when the principle of universal jurisdiction was created saying that just because a state designs its own legislation in a way that allows atrocities doesn’t mean that these are legitimate. So we have to handle these even though when they were committed, in the place they were committed, it might have had a legal basis.
I think from the Nuremberg trials, Germany took away that this is a necessary tool for international justice and so we have this opportunity in our legislation and other European states don’t have it the same way. Ours is much more unlimited than France’s or Norway’s. So I think that gave us a good opportunity. But then of course the huge number of refugees that we received here, particularly from Syria, played a role because there are approximately one million Syrian citizens here right now and that is a significant portion as we have only 80 million Germans so that’s quite a lot. And there is a lot of public interest, not only by the Syrian community of course, but also by the German public as well. In knowing where they came from and saying whatever we can do to create justice. If it is not possible inside Syria, and if there’s no international criminal court, we will do it.
Here in Germany the federal prosecutors have been working and collecting information long before the trials started. So the work of Syrian lawyers Anwar al-Bunni, Mazen Darwish, Joumana Seif, and Ibrahim Alkasem has definitely helped. They have been working with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) on these cases from NGOs and legal sector from which the federal prosecutor’s office started collecting evidence and information in 2011.
Do you think that there is a failure on the part of Syrians themselves in presenting their narratives that contradict the Assad regime’s propaganda?
I think Syrians have done extremely well, both in organizing the protests and being so courageous and also bringing out the narratives through different means with gorgeous documentaries, podcasts, articles, and writings.Bente Scheller
As a critical German, of course, I would always say that there’s something you can improve. But with the Syrian performance and how Syrian activists have been making their case, I am absolutely impressed! From day one there were all these creative means of protesting which were unheard of. Of course, we have seen parts of this in other places, but from the Syrians, I was so astonished. I worked in other contexts. I worked in Afghanistan and in our work looked into Iraq, but I have to say I haven’t seen any country in which their opposition would find such clever ways of protesting and organizing themselves because that is the part that many revolutions lack.
Everybody wants to topple a regime or create something completely different. But when it comes to the day-to-day jobs like garbage collection, providing water and sanitation, organizing schools and healthcare, this is really not something revolutionaries do. But the Syrians did! And that gave a great narrative because of the story of the White Helmets, for example. They are just one group of Civil Defense and there were so many others that were not that famous in name but these networks existed from day one and they were so prominent.
I think this is to do with the ability of the Syrians to create a counter reality to the propaganda of Assad, who initially said they were all germs, then early on switched to terrorists. They contradicted him in a very visible way and this is why the huge weight of propaganda of Russia followed. Because they saw this narrative and this reality was much stronger than what Assad could promote.
We saw the White Helmets act for many years and once they became prominent and featured, and were nominated for the Right Livelihood Award “Alternative Nobel Prize,” this is when the high point of propaganda came.
You are the author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game. Could you tell us briefly about this book?
It came out in 2013 and it’s a book on Syrian foreign policy. Basically, the pattern that I found when studying and analyzing Syria’s foreign policy is still valid, unfortunately. I wish that by now it would have turned into a history book. But what the Syrian regime does in its foreign relations is that it can never build constructive relations. If it has relations with neighboring states it tries to dominate them as it did with Lebanon. It tries to undermine them. For example, having relations with the Turkish government never kept the regime from funding and supporting the PKK, the same with Jordan and the Iraqi opposition.
Syria has a very sketchy way of handling its foreign relations and it never tries to build something, rather it tries to weaken others so it can look stronger. And then when it comes to a crisis, especially in all those crises that the Syrian regime had with the western states, it then turns to Russia and these are also the only moments when it is interesting for Russia to deal with the Syrian regime. And what the regime does then is to sit and wait until the dust settles. It will not change its path but it will wait for the others to do so. So basically it has been able to continue the same way it always did just because other states will then start to normalize with it again and start to improve relations again. This is why I called it the Waiting Game because this is what Syria is playing. As we see now with this wave of normalization efforts we’ve recently witnessed, it’s a strategy that still works.