New York City — Mohammad Kassem is a longtime trade union leader in Lebanon, and a fighter for the sovereignty and independence of the people of his area of the world. On a recent trip to the U.S., he had much to say about the union struggle in Lebanon, the root cause of the fighting in Syria, the character of the groups allied against the Assad government, and the impact of this fighting on Lebanon and the region.
Lebanese Teachers’ Union stages militant strikes
Among his many credentials, Kassem is former general secretary of the Lebanese Teachers Union, and a member of the Lebanese Trade Unions Coordinating Committee. He explained to WW that in Lebanon, religious sectarianism is built into the government, and most trade unions are controlled by different political parties.
In marked contrast, the 30,000-strong Lebanese Teachers Union is the only union that has organized across the 17 different religious groupings, encouraging unity between peoples. The five work stoppages and demonstrations it staged over the past year — which brought out as many as 50,000 people in the streets — won major salary increases in a country where inflation runs at 130 percent.
The union has also taken positions opposing government corruption, International Monetary Fund and World Bank control of the Lebanese economy, and cuts to schools and health care. It supports increasing taxes on the rich and lessening taxes on the poor.
Lebanon polarized, destabilized by Syrian fighting
Kassem explained: “Historically, Lebanon and Syria were part of the same country” until they were divided by Britain and France, the colonial powers, in the 1916 Sykes Picot Treaty. “So, Lebanon is deeply affected by what happens in Syria.”
A country of only 4.5 million people, Lebanon now hosts 2 million Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting. Kassem continued: “Lebanon can’t afford the cost of maintaining them. Employment, health care, housing is not being provided. Some Syrians and Lebanese are competing for jobs. The refugees’ willingness to take less money is exploited by companies.”
He explained that the Lebanese economy “has been destabilized and is in a coma — no tourism, no trade.”
The conflict in Syria has further polarized Lebanon politically. On the one hand, elements in the March 14 Alliance, advised by the Gulf states and the U.S., are funding some of the most extreme opposition groups in Syria. On the other hand, Hezbollah supporters fighting in Syria on the side of the government there, “have kept open a strategic area from Damascus to the sea, stopping the opposition from attacking coastal areas and the capital.”
Kassem blames the suffering in Lebanon and Syria on the U.S. and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, “which paid $20 billion to $30 billion for military actions against Syria, and which fund the opposition to Assad based outside the country and pay for their conferences in 5-star hotels all over the world.
“Most of Lebanon feels that the threat to Syria is a threat to Lebanon. … The opposition has declared openly that first it will topple Assad and then it will move to Lebanon and dispose of Hezbollah.” [Based in Lebanon’s Shia community, Hezbollah is the leading group in the Lebanese resistance against Israeli aggression. It is highly respected for liberating southern Lebanon from Israeli troops in 2000, after 18 years of occupation, and for forcing the Israeli Defense Force from Lebanon after it invaded in 2006.]
Opposition blocked agreement on reforms in Syria
For the decade prior to the fighting, the Assad government adopted a neoliberal economic program, privatizing much of the economy and discontinuing government subsidies of food and fuel. Kassem said, “Before conflict began in Syria, I felt there should be certain reforms and freedom in Syria — improving social conditions of the people and keeping the subsidies for those in need, especially in the countryside.”
Kassem explained that the “real” opposition began to raise these issues. “I felt the government and opposition should negotiate. I felt the Syrian president and a group of his leading team did begin this discussion. Some of these reforms were adopted by the government — in elections, constitutional reforms, political freedoms and organization.
“But the American-Israeli-Gulf objective was to obstruct this agreement. Groups backed and financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and supported politically by the U.S. and Israel, encouraged certain groups of the opposition to reject these reforms and replace the call for reforms with a call for toppling the president.
“As a result of the involvement of NATO powers and the Gulf regimes in Syria, the real opposition, which refuses any outside intervention in their internal struggle … has lost all power.”
Objectives of U.S. and Gulf client regimes
“The Gulf regimes are autocratic and monarchical regimes without democratic rights. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive cars. These regimes felt threatened. What if groups and individuals within their countries asked for their rights as the Syrians were doing? This is why they intervened,” explained Kassem.
Because of the “Syrian government’s stands against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and of Lebanon,” the U.S. felt that “Syria should be punished.” The main objective of the U.S. in this alliance is to fight Syria as a first step in a domino effect that will also end the Lebanese resistance and [the government in] Iran, which supports both the Syrian government and the Lebanese resistance.
Far from helping the Syrian people, Kassem stressed, “The end result of this U.S., NATO and Gulf intervention is the current situation where most of the military opposition to Assad — al-Qaida, al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — are ready to cut throats and eat hearts.” These groups, called Takfiri in the Arab world, feel justified in killing those who do not subscribe to the narrow beliefs of their group.
West and Gulf states created Syrian religious fighters
“This is not political Islam,” Kassem said. “I am for the right of everyone to choose their own religion. But there are red lines you can’t cross — forcing others to believe in your belief, killing people who don’t believe in your belief.
“The Koran says that God is there for all. I am against any form of Takfiri. No one has the right to judge the belief of others. No one has the right to deprive anyone of his right to believe.
“The people recruited for these groups have been taken advantage of. They are brainwashed to think that if they believe in God, they have nothing to lose. This is abusing poor people, as more than 80 percent [of the ranks of the Takfiri] are poor, unemployed or ex-prisoners
He continued: “The CIA is using these groups. The CIA supported fundamentalist groups to fight in Afghanistan. Later, these forces opposed the CIA. …
“When the Islamist revolution took place in Iran, the undemocratic Gulf states felt threatened, and encouraged and financed [Takfiri] groups that oppose any form of change.
“After Israel lost battles in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-2009, a new spirit of Muslims began to emerge opposing occupation and U.S control of the world. The Gulf states tried to counter this by fomenting strife between sects — Sunni vs. Shia.”
Kassem called the charges against the Syrian government of using chemical weapons false, and an excuse for intervention: “I can assure you that chemical weapons were used by the opposition. They had access to places where the regime kept these weapons. In Turkey, some fighters were captured carrying sarin gas.”