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AT THE end of 2020, the Socialist Party’s Sadet Karabulut had a debate in the Dutch parliament with Mark Rutte, prime minister of the right-wing government.
At that time almost two-and-a-half years had passed since the Dutch Syrian scandal began to unfold.
According to revelations made by Dutch media, financial and material support had been given to war criminals and jihadist groups in so-called opposition-controlled areas in Syria.
In the parliamentary debate, Sadet Karabulut asked whether it was true that Rutte and his government had tried to stop a motion for an independent inquiry into the Netherlands’ support for opposition groups in Syria.
“Yes, of course … We have advised to vote against the motion,” Rutte replied, according to the protocol of the debate.
An investigation would be a threat to the Syrians in the opposition and might create tensions between the Netherlands and its allies, he said.
A few weeks after the debate, I talk to Sadet Karabulut via Zoom. She has been an MP for the Socialist Party since 2006 and their foreign policy spokesperson.
When I ask her to comment on Prime Minister Rutte’s answer to her question, she does not mince words.
“This is bullshit,” she says, and continues: “The Dutch constitution states that we must comply with international law.
“Therefore, we have an obligation to bring out the truth and investigate whether the Netherlands has violated international law and thus our own constitution. But the government has blocked that until today.”
Let us go back to September 2018. That was the time when the public service programme Nieuwsuur and the daily paper Trouw began to publish their detailed review of the Netherlands’ support for “moderate armed groups” in Syria.
According to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs data from August of the same year, it was more than €25 million in the years 2015-18.
“This act must be seen in its context. When the war in Syria started in 2011, Western nations believed that the regime change was imminent.
“Together with Turkey and the Gulf States, they began to support all sorts of armed groups to get rid of Assad,” says Karabulut.
When the Dutch aid programme was launched, the government declared it meant to send “non-lethal aid” to “moderate rebels” and the opposition.
The aid would not be used in warfare. Responsible ministers gave assurances that groups receiving support would be monitored.
If someone violated the agreements or committed human rights violations, the support would be suspended immediately.
Nieuwsuur’s and Trouws’s review showed that the statement above was not true.
In addition to €27 million for the Free Syrian Police and the White Helmets, it emerged that the Netherlands had provided material support to 22 armed organisations.
Among them were forces guilty of terrorist crimes and ethnic cleansing.
“The revelations showed that we supported war criminals and jihadists and also those who collaborated with al-Qaida.
“The Netherlands has supported groups involved in Turkey’s illegal invasion of Afrin in northern Syria and the expulsion of Kurds, and we have supported the terrorist group Jabhat al-Shamiya, who committed massacres of Alawites,” Karabulut says.
The review gave concrete examples of how the support — computers, communication equipment, satellite telephones, generators etc — was used in the battles.
For example, the Netherlands sent Toyota and Isuzu pick-up trucks to northern Syria.
In a video that Nieuwsuur and Trouw published, it is shown how the recipients of these seemingly peaceful vehicles mounted machine guns on the flatbed.
“This was a huge revelation. We had two debates about it in parliament. But unfortunately, we still do not know the whole truth. It is stamped as a state secret.
“It is obvious to me that the government does not want us to know the truth. It is fortunate that we have talented, digging journalists who have revealed this.”
You are a member of the Socialist Party, I say, which is on the far left in parliament.
How do the other parties stand in relation to the Dutch involvement in Syria and the importance of finding out what happened?
“I am a socialist, an internationalist and a leftist, but there is broad support in the parliament in this issue.
“The people which I have collaborated with the most are members of the government parties, Christian Democratic Appeal and the Christian Union, who are also very critical of what has happened.
“The Social Democrats, on the other hand, are reluctant to dig further into the issue.”
The support programme for the Syrian armed “opposition” was officially slashed in the autumn of 2018.
The stop also included payments to the Free Syrian Police and the White Helmets.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry’s own investigation found that it could not guarantee that the multimillion sums that the police force and White Helmets received in cash did not end up in the hands of armed extremists.
After some political discussion and compromise, the majority of the parliament later that year voted in favour of a motion to examine the Syrian aid, with the aim of learning for the future.
However, the two committees that were given the task said that they lacked competence to review what had happened in Syria.
Because of that, they presented their lessons for the future without finding out the facts.
Even today, it is not even known which 22 groups have received money. Only a few of them have been named.
The continued secrecy is one of the reasons why Karabulut’s Socialist Party, together with members from the Green Left and several right-wing parties, has raised the issue again.
Another reason is that in October 2020 it turned out that the Netherlands had not interrupted all support for Syrian opposition groups with extremist links.
The public service channel VPRO revealed that since 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had financed a Syrian human rights organisation, Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD).
The amazing thing about this was that SADC’s programme director Labib al-Nahhas until 2017 was the spokesperson for Ahrar al-Sham.
This is a notorious armed Islamist group, which the Netherlands now lists as a terrorist organisation.
“It was another shocking revelation,” says Karabulut. “How could that happen? Everyone knows that Ahrar al-Sham is a jihadist organisation. We asked the government many questions but got no good answers.
“They said he left the organisation and had no blood on his hands. But in any case, the support was stopped after the revelation.”
In Europe, the threat of terrorism is often highlighted, I point out, and horrific acts have taken place in several countries. Why do you think the Rutte government does not want to investigate whether its aid programme has benefited terrorists in Syria, I ask.
“My conclusion is that the government does not want to know, because it would be painful for them if the truth came out.
“We have seen heinous attacks in Europe, but they should not come as a surprise. One cannot say that Salafists and jihadists are terrible in Europe and at the same time support them in Syria. What we do there has consequences here.”
The Rutte government thus does not want to examine the actions of its own and the allied Western countries in Syria.
But they are not opposed to scrutinising and prosecuting other actors. In September 2020, Foreign Minister Stef Blok declared that he wanted to hold the “Assad regime” accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On that issue, Karabulut agrees with the Foreign Minister. She does not in any way defend the current Syrian regime, which she says is a dictatorship.
“We also want Assad to be brought to justice in the International Criminal Court. But the Dutch government will not be credible if it simultaneously blocks an investigation into our own involvement in violations of human rights and international law.”
So what could the Netherlands and other Western countries do to improve the situation in Syria?
“We must learn from lessons learned from recent decades,” Karabulut says and explains further.
“Illegal bombings and regime change policies are not about helping the people. It’s about power, geopolitics and oil, but they sell it in terms of democracy and human rights.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to always follow international law and stop spending billions on wars that give no-one anything.”
In conclusion, she addresses perhaps the most crucial issue for Syria at the moment.
“I wish the Syrians had a different political leadership, and I neither support nor praise Assad. But the United States and the European Union must lift their severe economic sanctions and stop collectively punishing the entire Syrian people.”
This article was originally published in Swedish weekly Proletären (proletaren.se).
Patrik Paulov is a freelance writer based in Gothenburg, Sweden. He is author of the book Syria’s Silenced Voices (Syriens Tystade Röster), which is due be published in English later this year.
Shortly after the interview was conducted, the government in the Netherlands resigned. Not due to the Syria aid scandal, but due to a domestic political scandal. But Mark Rutte remains as leader of a transitional government until the parliamentary elections on March 17.
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