Adam Shatz talks to Joshua Landis about Syria. Joshua Landis is the Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and his blog, Syria Comment, has long been an indispensable guide to a country that has never been easy to see, both because of the nature of the Assad regime and because of the fog of war since the uprising began there in 2011.
Adam Shatz: Joshua, thank you for talking to us.
Joshua Landis: It's a real pleasure and it's an honour to be on your podcast.
AS: Josh, before the Sarin attack in Idlib Province, it seemed as if Trump would deliver on his promise to partner with the Russians and work with Assad, as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Whatever you think of that position, it promised to break with precedent. But then Assad carried out this gruesome attack, and Trump responded, not just with an air-strike but with a variety of statements to the effect that he’d changed his very changeable mind on the conflict. What’s your reading of Trump’s volte-face?
JL: Well, I think that the way I understand Trump’s volte-face is that he’s really reverting to the Obama doctrine, which is to maintain a red line on the use of chemical weapons, which he has done. I think that this use of chemical weapons was a test. Sarin had not been used since 2013, when Obama threatened to use force but ultimately made a deal with the Russians to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, over 100 tonnes of which were put onto American ships and incinerated in 2013. And that held good – it was a success, to the extent that not having chemical weapons used was good for everybody in Syria; of course, it did nothing for solving the civil war, for which he was bitterly criticised. But President Obama [sic] has upheld that, and he has really moved towards an Obama position on abjuring the human rights violations of the Assad regime while not really taking action to put somebody else in power, or to destroy the regime, or to kill Assad. We have to wait and see. His security advisers have said that Assad can’t be involved in the future of Syria, which is the Obama stand. They have abjured his human rights violations, but they have said – as McMaster, the national security adviser, said the other week – Assad has to go, but America’s not going to make him go. So that’s really the Obama doctrine.
AS: That is a pretty extraordinary shift, though, when you consider that Trump had said explicitly that he was abandoning Obama’s position on the Syrian war.
JL: It absolutely is, and he had marked off a rather clear policy during the campaign, in which he argued the reverse of Obama and Clinton – and I particular, of course, he was targeting Clinton and her regime change policy in Libya, which he said was a disaster, and had spread chaos and extremist groups from one end of Libya to the other. And then he extended that criticism, and he laid into President Bush and the Republican Party for getting us into stupid wars – he said that regime change in Iraq was also a crazy idea that had spread chaos, terrorism and al-Qaida in Iraq.
AS: Although he had initially been a supporter of the Iraq war, which he of course denied.
JL: Well, his one statement supporting the Iraq war was when he was cornered on a talk show about sex, and he was asked, Don’t you support the invasion of Iraq? And he said, Well, I guess so. You know, it was very lukewarm – he clearly didn’t want to discuss it. And then later on, he came out against it. So ... he’s vacillated. But you’re right – he didn’t take a clear stand in the very beginning of the Iraq war, and he wants to be where the people are, I think, and he was following whatever he thought would be popular at the time. The point is that he drew, during the campaign, this broad criticism of regime change and US involvement in the Middle East, and he ... said ... in fact, he implied that human rights had not been advanced by following the game plan of regime change, attacking dictators and getting rid of these evil dictators, soi-disant, and that this had in fact created much more suffering in the world; and that what you needed, he suggested, was a page out of the Putin playbook, which is strongmen in the Middle East, to do what we had done under presidents like Reagan, where we had supported dictators in Latin America and the Middle East in order to bring stability and to fight the Soviet Union. And so he said stability, dictators, which suggested that Assad would be that dictator in Syria, and he had embraced Sisi in Washington only a few days before the sarin attack, and said what an extraordinary job he was doing.
AS: And of course Sisi is very much allied with Assad.
JL: Yes, Sisi has supported Assad, because he does not want more dictators overturned, because it’ll undermine his own presidency. But now he’s had to walk away – President Trump has had to walk away from that tough, very simple view of the Middle East, because it put human rights really in the back seat. Then the sarin gas use forced him to calibrate that message, and his administration came forward and said, you know, we can’t reject human rights; we’ve got to uphold both stability and human rights – which puts us back to where we began with the Obama doctrine, of how do you, you know, walk this delicate line?
AS: And I imagine, Josh, that the fact that Trump has expressed horror over the sight of these massacred children, and yet at the same time is unwilling to allow other children even to enter the United States from Syria, and that, moreover, he’s not really willing to take on other grotesque violations of human rights inside Syria – I imagine that that package, as it were, is a bitter pill to swallow for people close to the opposition in Syria, who might say, ‘How can you express such selective horror?’ I mean, dying in a barrel bomb attack is not much better than being murdered with sarin gas.
JL: Absolutely. This raises all the hypocrisies of the West, where they’re willing to intervene to stop an international norm like sarin, but they’re not willing to intervene to stop the killing in the civil war. And it underlines, also, other hypocrisies, which is that the United States had bombed al-Qaida in exactly the same province, Idlib Province, only a week before the use of sarin gas, had hit a mosque by accident, and killed sixty people – roughly the same number of people killed by sarin. It underlines all the delicate issues of who’s right, who’s wrong, what role should America play.
AS: I’m curious, how are the other parties – the various parties to the Syrian conflict: the state, the rebels, the states that are supporting the different factions in the Syrian conflict – how are they interpreting Trump’s reversion to the Obama doctrine of conflict management, of expressions of selective horror over human rights abuses without actually doing anything to bring the conflict to an end?
JL: Well, you know, most opposition members are trying to spin Trump as someone who’s going to intervene, who’s not Obama, and is going to bring some measure of justice to Syria. I don’t know whether they really believe it, or whether they’re just putting this message out in order to try to build some momentum and some pressure on the people around Trump to actually take that next move to do something about Assad, and to begin to rearm the Syrian opposition.
AS: So in that regard, Josh, they’re not very different from others who have expressed such pipe dreams – I’m thinking of liberal hawks like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who praised Trump for carrying out the air strike.
JL:Right. You know, everybody is hopeful that Trump is going to do what they want him to do, and we’ve seen that as a powerful ... that’s been a powerful element to his getting elected. So, I think many people in his administration are using the airwaves to try to lay out these possibilities, and to keep people hoping that he’s going to fulfil their ambitions in Syria. My suspicion is that they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
AS: Josh, for a number of years we’ve heard occasional rumours that Russia, or Iran, was less committed to Assad as a figure than to the preservation of their interests inside Syria, whatever those happen to be, and that if those interests were protected, they might be willing to relinquish their support for him and to pave the way for a transition to another government. But that’s not how it seems to have worked out. The impression one gets is that they’ve really dug in their heels about Assad staying in power. Why is it that Assad, as a figure, is so important to them?
JL: It’s because it’s very difficult to replace the Assad family and to keep the regime integral, and to preserve its strength and the legitimacy that remains to it. And this is the problem that we’ve seen many times before: you get rid of Qaddafi, you get rid of Saddam Hussein, and the entire structure of these regimes falls away, precisely because these dictators have built the regimes in this fashion, so that they are coup-proofed – because Syria was a land of great instability, from 1949, just a few years after independence, when there were three coups, and then there were a series of coups, and government changes – tremendous instability. Syria was the banana republic of the Middle East for twenty years after its independence. Assad comes along, 1970, and stops that – he stops it by building a regime based around loyalty to him and his family: his brother is the head of the Republican Guard that protects Damascus and the presidency; cousins are very senior in the security structure; and then Alawites, his coreligionists, crowd the top, upper ranks of the security state – that means both the army and the intelligence agencies. And in this way he uses traditional loyalties to cement his permanency. That means, if you take out that person, that family, there’s nothing to hold it together at the core: the various Alawite generals would begin to fight each other for power, as the generals had been doing before Assad consolidated power. There would be no sort of central tent peg around which legitimacy and agreed loyalty was built. And this is what America found in Iraq – it tried to build a regime based not on loyalty to the man or to the single party, the Baath Party, and there was no agreed-upon loyalty factor in Iraq, and it became, by default, sectarianism; and, even deeper than that, there were a lot of different groups within the Shi’ites that fought against each other, and it’s been very difficult.
AS: It’s rather striking, Josh, that in Syria a minority sect, the Alawites, rather like the Sunni minority in Iraq, created a state, or dominated a state, based on a superficially universalist ideology – the ideology of pan-Arabism. Syria, of course, was known as the beating heart of pan-Arabism during the Cold War. And I think what you’re suggesting is that in Syria as in Iraq or, for that matter, a country like Yugoslavia, where Yugoslav identity was most passionately embraced by a minority, the Serbs, that this universal ideology essentially became a fig-leaf for what were a network of familial and clan interests.
JL: Absolutely. And we see that right across the Middle East, where Arab Nationalism was the presiding ideology, from the successful struggle against colonialism that ends at the end of World War II, when both Britain and France retreat from the Middle East. Now, that’s partly ... not because of the success of Arab nationalism – it’s largely because Europe was in its own civil war, the thirty years’ war between World War I and II, and it weakened itself so severely that it had to withdraw from the Middle East. But Arab Nationalism became the prevailing ideology right up until ... it’s been ... the Iranian Revolution, where Islamism successfully challenged it there, but then continued to build Islamist parties around the Middle East. And today Arab Nationalism is really a very weak reed – you know, Arafat gone in Palestine; Boumédiène; Ben Ali; Saddam Hussein. In many ways, Assad is the last of these.
AS: So was Arab Nationalism particularly attractive to minority groups, such as the Alawites or the Sunnis in Iraq, because it was a way for them to transcend their minority status, submerge themselves in something larger, and also, in a sense, conceal themselves within a kind of larger community of interests?
JL: Absolutely. It was a way to safety for minorities. They embraced Arab Nationalism more heartily than Sunni Arabs. Now, of course, there was an elite of Sunni Arabs who also embraced it – it was very important that there were these sort of cross-cutting alliances between minorities and a Sunni elite, all of whom saw Arab Nationalism as the way to bind together these very fragmented societies, and to build the foundations for a new state – I mean, people bought nationalism after World War I, it was the growing ideology. But because the nationalist governments turned out to be, in fact, hijacked by minorities ... it’s important to understand that minorities were able to come to power, and to grab authority in the state, in every one of the Levantine countries after World War II, and this is largely because of the colonial occupation. The colonial powers, Britain and France, used minorities to divide and conquer and to keep their power in all these countries, and this meant that minorities were able to grab the state once colonial powers left – this is true for the Maronites of Lebanon, the Catholic Christians of Lebanon; the Alawites of Syria, who are about 12 per cent of the population; the Sunnis of Iraq, 20 per cent of the population; and also the Jews of Palestine, who were a third of the population by the time the British withdrew in 1948 and they got independence.
AS: To some extent that was also true of the Kabyles of Algeria, who were, at one and the same time, disproportionately influential and intermittently persecuted and forced to repress their ethnic identity.
JL: Well, and it’s true of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan as well, which in some ways was a foreign implant in Jordan – not that foreign, because it’s only from Arabia, the Hejaz, and it has Islamic legitimacy; but in all of them, they’ve been challenged – these minoritarian states. Now, the Jews were able to become a majority – they’re the only minority that were able to become a majority in numerical population, because ... through war, and because two-thirds of the Palestinians either fled or were driven out of Palestine. And, of course, the process is not an easy one – the Palestinians are still trying to get a hunk of the state; but their fortunes seem to diminish with every year.
AS: In a sense, you’re almost arguing that what we’re seeing now in Iraq and Syria are latter-day Nakbas?
JL: Yes, we are. Because the majority population is trying to get rid of minoritarian rule. And that begins in 1975 in Lebanon, with the Lebanese civil war, which was driven, at the most simplistic level, by the Muslim population, which had grown to be 60–65 per cent – 60 per cent perhaps, 66 per cent – it was a majority of the Lebanese population; and it looked up at the Maronites and Christians that were presiding ... had a lion’s share of power, and said, Why should you rule? One man, one vote. And it used democracy, and the call for democracy, to challenge the supremacy of the Christians. The Christians, of course, were terrified. They thought, If we lose power, we’re going to be driven out, in the same way that Armenians had been driven out of Turkey and so forth. So they clung on to power, they fought bitterly ...
AS: Of course, in all the cases that you’re describing – Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria – not a single one of these conflicts has been a pure internal struggle; in each of these cases the borders of the state have been porous and permeable, and powerful outside actors have profoundly shaped and made more violent the dynamics of the conflict. In Lebanon, for example, the Israel-Palestine conflict exerted a very significant influence, since you had a large Palestinian refugee community and the PLO was based there, etc. And now, with both Iraq and Syria, we see no less intense dynamics of external meddling both by regional powers and by international powers.
JL: Absolutely. All these wars turned into regional wars. And not just regional wars, but also ... international powers, because they pulled in the Cold War Russia and America, which were competing. Today, of course, the dynamic is Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Shi’ites versus Sunnis. Those are the fault lines in the Middle East; but Russia, of course, has sided with the Shi’ites, and America has sided with the Sunnis, by and large. And so, those divisions go right up onto an international level – they’re very geostrategic; they’re not just about religion, they’re being driven by geostrategic struggle for balance of power.
AS: That actually brings me to another question that I wanted to ask you about Iran’s proxy force in the Syrian conflict – Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia political and military organisation led by its General Secretary, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has played a critical role in protecting the Assad regime, and it’s made two claims about its support – one made early by Nasrallah in the conflict is that Hezbollah is fighting against taqfiris – against extreme jihadists. The other claim is that it is fighting to defend Shia shrines in Syria. Hezbollah hasn’t spoken much about its major reason for entering the conflict, or what some believe to be its major reason – protecting its supply line, so that Iran can continue to provide it with weapons. Josh, can you assess Hezbollah’s relationship to the Assad regime and its long-term project in Syria. I’m also wondering, if Hezbollah is successful in protecting the regime, how might this affect Israeli–Syrian relations, as Hezbollah potentially acquires power inside of Syria – is there a greater chance that Israel might be tempted to get drawn into the war?
JL: Yes. We do have to see this as a regional war, which is what you’re outlining. In a sense, there is a super-struggle going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, for authority, influence and dominance in the Middle East. And what we’re seeing happen in the northern Middle East – that’s Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – is that ... Shi’ite minorities in Lebanon – Hezbollah; Syria – the Assad regime, the Alawites; and of course a Shi’ite majority in Iraq – which has been brought to power by the United States and really ... un-clinched this regional war, and allowed for a reshuffling of the balance of power, and allowed for Iran to see a way to dominate the entire northern Arab world. And it has tried to ... it has made sure that Hezbollah has been the paramount power in Lebanon; and despite attempts by Israel in 2006, and others, to destroy Hezbollah, Hezbollah has reigned supreme, keeping Assad in power – that’s the civil war in Syria – and of course consolidating its grip with the Shi’ites in Iraq. This allows for what some people, King Abdullah of Jordan, called the Shi’ite crescent. And that [has] helped Iran to consolidate its power over the north. Of course, Saudi Arabia and Israel see this as a real challenge to their own stability. They fret over this consolidation of Iranian support; they do not want Hezbollah and Iran at their border, along the Golan Heights, and along the Syrian border as well as the Lebanese border. That is a net loss for Israel, and it’s led some of the leaders of Israel to make an argument that ISIS is better than Hezbollah! And that shows you the geostrategic element in this. Saudi Arabia, of course, also has supported the rebels, supported the Sunnis, hoped very much that the Sunnis in Syria would become the paramount power, and overthrow the Assad regime. Turkey jumped in on this; Israel has supported it – and it’s created this rather odd alliance between the Gulf states and Israel and Turkey, against Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and Russia. So, those are the stakes, and what we’re seeing, in many ways, is the consolidation of this Iranian security arc, stretching from Lebanon to Iran, over the Middle East – and the United States is also very concerned about it, and we hear from Trump people ...
AS: Iran, of course, since the early 1980s, with the creation of Hezbollah during the Israeli invasion – Iran has viewed Lebanon as its lung in the Arab Middle East. But just to push tp push a little bit against your remark about the Shia crescent, it’s also true that Hezbollah has been fairly deft in cultivating an alliance inside Lebanon with a substantial share of the Christian population, Christians who are afraid of Sunni jihadists; and although, from one vantage point, Hezbollah has put Lebanon in harm’s way by entering the Syrian conflict on the side of Assad, from another vantage point Hezbollah has protected Lebanon – both its Shia and Christian communities – from the threat of Sunni radicalism.
JL: Yes. No, Shi’ites today, by many Christians in Lebanon, as well as in Syria and in Iraq, are seen as protectors – protectors because they’re minorities, and there is this sort of minority closing of ranks against the fear of Islamism and Salafism, that if Salafism becomes the predominant power in the region, the Christians will be driven out. So they see the Assad government and Hezbollah, and Iran ultimately, as protectors of their own status in the Middle East. And that’s what General Aoun, who’s now president of Lebanon, has championed – that outlook on the world. But the Christians are very split in Lebanon; not so much in Syria.
AS: Pierre-Jean Luizard, a French specialist on the Middle East, published two years ago a much-discussed book called, in France, a La piege Daech, or ‘The Daesh Trap’ – the trap of the Islamic State. In that book he argued that Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria had been driven into the arms of the Islamic State, not because they share its ideology or its ambitions, but rather because their aspirations had been crushed by authoritarian, intolerant and sometimes murderous forces, often with the assistance of outside actors, including the United States. So, to put it crudely, if you have to choose between living in the Caliphate and having your head drilled by a Shia militia, you’re going to choose the Caliphate. Now that Assad seems to be prevailing, at least for the foreseeable future, and now that parts of the international community are willing to tolerate him remaining in power, if only as a bulwark against the Islamic State, won’t this possibly drive more Sunnis in Iraq and Syria towards the Islamic State? Josh - what kind of future can be imagined for Sunnis who feel besieged in these countries?
JL: Well, that brings up a very good question, which is: How do you rebuild the comity, the sort of modus vivendi, between these different groups in society? And that is ... very difficult to do, because we’re seeing the intolerance become a vicious circle, as you say: the more the struggle goes on, the more it becomes violent, the more the two groups learn to distrust each other, and to begin to view each other not as part of the same nation, but as different nations, different peoples. So, when somebody says Assad is killing his own people, in Idlib, to a certain extent Assad no longer sees it that way – he sees those people as aliens who don’t belong to Syria, that they are terrorist crypto-Saudi agents who are being run by America and Turkey, who are trying to destroy the Syrian nation. That’s the way he speaks about it, that’s the way he sees it – and I think he’s convinced a lot of his followers to look at it in the same way. They, of course, see Assad as very much as a fifth column who is an agent of Iran, who is an unbeliever and a majus, as one of the favourite epithets – in the war videos and opposition languages, majus, meaning ‘magi’, are somebody from the east, a pre-Islamic Persian, Zoroastrian. And so, both sides have come to demonise the other, so they no longer see each other as being fellow countrymen. How do you, then, repair those divides? We are facing the same problem in Iraq – how do we bring Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites together, to form a common Iraqi nationalism, with power-sharing? Is that a reasonable objective, or are we banging our head against a wall? People disagree on that.
AS: Also Josh, who’s going to do it? I mean, ultimately the solution has to come from inside these countries – it can’t be imposed; and the idea that ‘we’ can do it sounds like another imperial folly.
JL: Well, you’re absolutely right. And, you know, I’ve been making an argument what I call the great sorting-out for a number of years now, and comparing what’s going on in the eleven states to what went on in central Europe during the interwar years and [World War II]. In some ways, this comparison is too grim, and perhaps cynical, about nation-building in the Middle East. But I think ... it provides an important corrective to a US policy which has believed that it can preserve the borders of all of these states and create a power-sharing arrangement that will bring happiness, and will ultimately bind together these different peoples in an organic community – except they won’t be different peoples; they’ll be the same people, who just have little, teeny differences. And that’s really a central argument for all the policymakers about how to proceed in the Middle East.
AS: Is this federalism or neo-Ottomanism you’re talking about?
JL: Well, the trouble is that what we saw with the great sorting-out in Europe is that all these new states that were created out of multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires after World War I – the class of 1919, as I call them – that includes over nine nation-states in central Europe that were created whole-cloth or reconstituted in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where different peoples were asked to form an organic community and become a nation. These multi-ethnic empires that were destroyed in World War I, the empire-destroying war – Russian Empire, German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for our purposes, the Ottoman Empire – were turned into nation-states; and they failed spectacularly. And it’s led to the process of this great sorting-out, where Poland, for example, was 64 per cent Poles before World War II; by the end of World War II, by 1950, it was 100 per cent Polish. That meant the destruction of 3 million Jews, the ethnic cleansing of 5 million Germans, mostly at the end of the war, and Ruthenians – that’s Ukrainians and Lithuanians – were also driven out. In Czechoslovakia we see the same thing, where the Sudeten German, 3 million, were destroyed, as well as all the Jews; and then the Czechs and Slovaks, two of the most ... seemingly liberal peoples, could not live together, and chose their Velvet Revolution.
AS: I take your point, and clearly Europe to did see, as you call it, a great ‘sorting-out’, but of course that term as you’re using it describes a set of different processes – or, I should say, historical events and catastrophes – ranging from the Final Solution, the extermination of European jewry to the ethnic cleansing that took place at the very end of and in the aftermath of the Second World War. But what all these events share is that they’re are not a sorting-out of primordial identities so much as they are political events, driven by war, state interests, racial ideology, etc. And so to bring the conversation back to the Middle East, I think there is, unfortunately, a danger in the West’s conversation about sectarian warfare, to treat these identities as if they were primordial and as if this conflict that we’ve been seeing in Iraq and Syria is somehow natural, this sorting-out is a natural process, when in fact Syrian and Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians lived together for centuries with only episodes of internecine conflict. What we’re seeing now is actually quite exceptional.
JL: You’re absolutely right, Adam. This should not be mistaken for primordialism. These identities, religious identities, had been accommodated in the Ottoman Empire, as they had been in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where you see cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, have very distinct quarters for Armenians, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Jewish Quarter, Catholic, Orthodox – all these different quarters, where people lived cheek by jowl. Now, that didn’t necessarily mean that they saw each other as equals, but they had much more in common than separated them. There might be walls between these different sections of town, but the Ottoman Empire was able to contain the centrifugal forces of these many different groups, and keep them. And that was the power of the Ottomans – that’s why the Ottoman Empire lasted for 500 years; it’s one of the central arguments that every historian makes, is that the Ottoman Empire was more successful than Spain, than much of medieval Europe, because it accommodated these different identities and peoples in a happy empire – and Jews fled Spain, where they were evicted, and came to Istanbul, where they were protected. And so it’s nationalism – it’s a very modern ... notions of community and difference that turn these identities into something completely different. They’re radically changed, and, unfortunately, these religious differences, which had sat more lightly on people, get turned into very important differences, and that’s why we’re seeing Shi’ite and Sunni, all of a sudden, recognising who they are – people who didn’t even know the difference, really, are now ... they’ve become profoundly important, in the same way that Czechs and Slovaks, or so forth ... in a way, religion has become the new ethnicity in the Middle East; and that’s a great danger, because it does rip people apart, and it leads to things like the Armenians being ... the holocaust of the Armenians, with the rise of Turkish nationalism; the driving out of Palestinians, with the rise of Jewish nationalism. Nationalism is a very brutal force, and ... I guess the point of my argument is that we shouldn’t look at nationalism as something that’s not important, that doesn’t reorganise people – because Americans think that they can shape the national identities of the peoples of the Middle East much too easily, where it’s much more difficult to get an Arab–Israeli peace, or to get Sunnis and Shi’ites to sit down together in Iraq, after something like, you know, retaking Mosul. We shouldn’t underplay the difficulties, because we will make mistakes that lead to further violence.
AS: Do you think that the United States, with its planned overthrow of the Saddam regime bears at least some of the responsibility for this outcome?
JL: I do – I think that kicking over the anthill in Iraq led to a much more violent sorting-out, if you will, of this problem than had Iraqis been left to deal with it on their own. Now, of course, probably Kurds and Shi’ites will beg to differ with me, because, by and large, the many Kurds and Shi’ites in Iraq are happy that Saddam Hussein was destroyed, and that his Baath Party and so forth ... because they were being brutally dealt with by Saddam Hussein’s regime. And yet, because we used force, we misunderstood the nature of Iraqi society – we thought we could build this power-sharing, new Iraqi nation that would become democratic, that people would embrace us. We got that completely wrong. And what we did is we tripped this sectarian and ethnic war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and then led to the ... spread of al-Qaida throughout much of Iraq, and now ISIS. It’s been a very violent process. We don’t know – ultimately this is counter-factual history, and it’s hard to assess how things are going to end up. I’ve had many neoconservatives argue to me, rather convincingly, that ... they use the pressure cooker metaphor, and they say, Better to take the top off and kill the dictator today, before the pressure builds up even more tomorrow. There’ll be a civil war, but civil wars are inevitable; and it’ll be a smaller civil war if we ... kill the dictator today than if we let it sit there for another decade. I’m not convinced by that argument – I don’t think that we know that much, and I don’t think it’s true. The only way to counter that argument is to use the Soviet Union as a model – to say, If you don’t kick it over, and you don’t invade it, it’s possible that the elites at some point will realise the system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that they will change their attitudes. You’ll have a meltdown, you’ll have some violence, you’ll have a lot of poverty – but it won’t be as bad as the transformation of the Soviet Union was from a communist country to a sort of statist crony capitalism, as it is today. But that evolution, no matter how painful it was, was nothing like had America invaded and tried to build a democratic country using military force.
AS: During the Afghanistan war, a new term emerged, and that was Af-Pak, as if Afghanistan and Pakistan were a single territorial unit. Do you think it’s fair to say that there’s now something called ‘Iraq-Syria’?
JL: I do. I do, because it’s gotten sucked into this regional war, it’s become very sectarianised, the conflict. And what we saw were the emergence of an ISIS state, a Sunni, very sectarian state that emerged from the outskirts of Baghdad, stretching already all the way to the outskirts of Aleppo, and including, really, all that tribal, Arab tribal desert civilisation that is stuck between those two capitals, and bound them together into one state. That Sunni Arab state that emerged there, and endured for a few years, before America decided to destroy it, was an expression of an emerging national identity. I think, if the United States had not intervened, and that state had been allowed to survive there, it might have found legs – it might have developed institutions, and evolved over the years into something much more acceptable; but we don’t know. The United States has decided that international borders are important, and that it’s going to preserve them, and it’s going to crush that Sunni sectarian state that was [born in?] there. And so, in that sense, I think that these two countries, Iraq and Syria, have in a sense become joined at the hip; in the effort to destroy ISIS ... as much as ISIS emerged, in between them, now in the effort to destroy it, we’re getting Iranian influence embedded both in Baghdad and Damascus. A sectarianisation of those two states has become deeper, and the populations have been divided along those sectarian lines. And that brings those two states together – what happens on one side of that border immediately flows over to the other side of that border.
AS: Josh, you’ve talked about the relationship between Sunnis and Shia in both Iraq and Syria. Both those countries also have substantial Kurdish populations. Can you talk a bit about the dynamics of the Kurdish question in Iraq and Syria , particularly in relation to Turkey’s ambitions?
JL: Well, the single people who have benefited from the collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian state are the Kurds. As we recall, after World War I, the Kurd did not get a state – and they’ve always complained that they’re one of the biggest ethnic groups, or should-be nations, that did not get a state, and now they are getting states. A state has emerged – a de facto state – in northern Iraq, and that began with the no-fly zone that the United States imposed in 1990, during the first Gulf War, and it has evolved since. And today the Kurds are virtually independent in northern Iraq. The schools teach in Kurdish; most Kurds below the age of thirty do not know Arabic, or know it at a very elementary level, because the second language is English, taught in Kurdistan and northern Iraq. In Syria, the Kurds are 10 per cent of the population, rather than 20 per cent as they are in Iraq. But they dominate – they ... are a compact minority, and they are the majority in parts of northern Syrian, north-eastern Syria; and they have taken those regions, they have built their own army, they have a political leadership. And this, of course, has infuriated Turkey, because the political leadership in Syria hived off from the PKK, or the Turkish Workers’ Party, that Turkey sees as a tremendous danger to national sovereignty inside Turkey – because perhaps 20 million Turks are Kurdish. They live largely in the eastern part of Turkey. Turks are worried that if the Kurds gain independence in Turkey, they’ll lose the entire eastern part of their country; and so they want to crush this emerging Kurdish state in the north of Iraq; a state and a population with which the United States has formed a deep alliance is now arming and training in order to destroy ISIS territory in Syria.
AS: And that group, the PYD, is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which not only Turkey but also the United States regards as a terrorist organisation. Just to add to the complexity.
JL: Indeed. And in fact the United States has tried to split the difference, and say that the PYD is not the PKK – it has not designated it as a terrorist organisation, even though it designates the PKK as a terrorist organisation. So the United States has finessed that problem – Turkey is not convinced at all that the United States is doing something ... Turkey is convinced that, by arming the PYD, this is going to come back and haunt Turkey, because those arms, that professional army, is going to seep across the border, is going to be used to help the PKK in Turkey launch a war – a war which is already going on at a low level, but could become much more violent in the future. So Turkey is furious, and America needs to do this – because President Trump and President Obama promised the American public that it would destroy ISIS.
AS: And the PYD are the best fighters, the most reliable fighters against ISIS. Now, adding to the ambiguities of the relationship between Turkey and its Kurdish population is the fact that the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who’s in jail, have, at least in public, shifted their demands from national independence in territories where Kurds are the majority in Turkey, to a call for equality and cultural or national recognition inside Turkey as citizens. In other words, the claim of Turkish Kurds is that they’re not looking to break away from Turkey and set up their own republic; they want equality and language rights inside Turkey. Now, if I’m correct, my sense is that the Erdoğan government simply doesn’t take them at their word, and finds it more convenient to make war with the Kurds than to reach an accommodation with them.
JL: Yes. I mean, part of this is political calculation, in order to consolidate his own power and to fan the flames of nationalism, which redound to his favour. But part of it, I think, is the anxiety of the slippery slope – the belief that most Kurds, in their hearts, want independence. That’s what the idea is, that if you start giving them language rights, their own schools, and federalism, that it will only end with independence. And that’s the fear. There is some basis for that fear – I mean, one has to only travel in northern Iraq to see how, you know ... the Kurds are bringing up for a vote independence, imminently; so this is what the anxiety is, is that if you give them an inch, they’re going to take a mile.
AS: One of the more surprising developments in the last six months in Syria, Josh, has been the shift in Turkey’s position. Turkey had always been the most enthusiastic backer, aside from the Gulf states – perhaps even more than the Gulf states – of the rebel groups, and arguably the most lax in permitting jihadists of various stripes to gain the upper hand in the rebellion. Now under pressure from attacks by Isis inside Turkey, the Erdoğan has shifted, at least tactically, towards an alliance with Russia, which is Assad’s main backer. How do you understand this shift in position?
JL: Well, the shift is because Turkey couldn’t beat Russia. Turkey shot down a Russian airplane, 2015, that briefly traversed its territory. Russia is backing Assad, Turkey was backing the Syrian opposition and the rebels. The two came into conflict because of this, and Turkey could not prevail. Russia began to rebuild Assad’s state, and was pushing the rebels back into Turkey – Turkey tried to call Russia’s bluff, take down this airplane. It looked to Nato to back it up, and to the United States. The United States was unwilling to back up ... Turkey. And that’s when I think Turkey realised, this is a losing ... we’re not going to win this – we’ve got to about-face; and when Trump, in his election campaign, said, We don’t want to fight Russia, we’re going to support the dictators of the Middle East, and ... it became very obvious that if Turkey didn’t ... make a rapprochement with Russia, that it was going to be the odd man out. And so it made that about-face. Now, it’s also important that Russia is a much bigger trading partner with Turkey than the United States – there’s $30 billion worth of trade; Russia had begun to cut off that trade and put sanctions on Turkey. So Turkish businessmen were screaming bloody murder.
AS: Essentially, we’ve reached the phase in the conflict where it has been grinding along for so long, and so futilely, that outside backers which once professed grand principles are casting them aside, and digging in their heels around their core economic assets.
JL: Absolutely. And, you know, also the rebels played their part in this – the Syrian rebels – because they remained very divided, they became increasingly dominated by extremist groups like al-Qaida and Ahrar al-Sham, and Turkey found it very difficult – just the way the United States had before it – found it difficult to justify giving more arms to what became increasingly radical groups, like ISIS – and ISIS began to attack everyone, blowing up bombs in Turkey. So this became untenable – Turks revolted against it, they did not want their government to send more arms into Turkey [sic] that they feared would come back and blow up Turks. So, all those factors militated towards this about-face by Erdoğan. And he’s made this about-face, but at the same time he’s clearly challenging Russia in Syria – he’s continuing to send arms to the opposition groups to support them, and we’ve seen [these] recent offensives, in Idlib, pushing down towards Hama, which are very much backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that continue to want more leverage against Assad – and the way they get that is by building up the rebels. So they haven’t given up the game – they are going along with Russia, but they’re pursuing their own independent policies at the same time.
AS: Now Josh, you know, we haven’t spoken much about the Syrian people, except to say that, increasingly, Syrians see many of their co-nationals as no longer belonging to the same community, because the cleavages along sectarian lines have become so bitter and so lethal. And so, in a sense, one great question is: Who are the Syrian people? What will their future be? Will their future even be inside Syria? About five million Syrians have left the country, many of them are attempting to settle in Western countries that have closed their doors to them, including, of course, the United States. The question is, and perhaps it is un-answerable – because there are no polls – but I felt that I should ask you: What is your sense of how Syrians view the future, the possible future of their country? What kind of solution in Syria, what kind of settlement, could attract the support of a majority of Syrians, and allow them eventually to rebuild this brutalised country, this utterly shattered country, which was once one of the more welcoming countries in the Middle East?
JL: Boy ... that’s the million-dollar question. It’s very hard to see through this ... to see into the future. You know, on the one hand, one can look at this as a major tectonic shift in identity and power in the northern Middle East, on a par to what happened in the twelfth century, when Shi’ite lords dominated much of northern Syria, and were a powerful element supported by Persia. The Mamluks, and then, following them, the Ottomans, changed that: they pushed out the Shi’ites, marginalised them – they became very impotent; and the Arab world became a Sunni world, led by the Ottoman Empire. Today, you could see something like the twelfth century coming back, with Shi’ites predominating in the north. Now, a lot of Sunnis argue, you know: Assad is a flash-in-the-pan, Shi’ite power in Syria, it’s not going to last but a moment, because there aren’t very many Shi’ites – there are only 12 per cent Alawites, Shi’ites are about ... Twelver Shi’ites are about 1 per cent; Druze, 3 per cent; Christians are 3 per cent – this is tiddly-winks: not more than 20 per cent of Syrians are minorities, religious minorities. But, you know, political power can be very enduring, if Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq all secure their alliance; and that means that Sunnis in Syria could live under this kind of a regime – a regime that’s backed by Iran – for a long time. If that happens, identities are likely to shift once again, to be plastic, and to be reworked. I don’t know how that happens, but that’s a possibility; or the ... counter-argument, that the Assad regime’s going to explode, this insurgency’s not going to go away, it’s going to continue, the Sunni Arabs will prevail ... I’m worried that, if Saudi Arabia, Turkey ...
AS: But, one wonders, for the sake of what? Because I wouldn’t say that the great slogan of the rebellion today is the establishment of a democratic society based on the rule of law.
JL: No, it isn’t. And what I worry about is, if the United States tries to build a Sunni enclave in eastern Syria, which is one of the proposals – in fact, about six different think tanks in Washington have proposed this at various levels: some kind of an autonomous region in the Euphrates Valley, the region that’s going to be taken away from ISIS, which constitutes about 35 per cent of Syrian land – there are many people in Washington who want a sort of US mandate over this, where Sunni Arabs will be built up as an autonomous force. Which Arabs, which tribal groups, which rebel groups would lead that, we don’t know. But that’s the argument. Now, I don’t think the United States will do it, because I don’t think anybody in this administration has the patience or the desire to really nation-build in eastern Syria. But that could be ...
AS: This sounds to me like an echo of Leslie Gelb’s plan for a ‘three-state solution’ in Iraq.
JL: Well, it is – and it’s a continuation of the notion that America was helping the rebels to defeat Assad, and no longer is it ... we’re not going to drive Assad out of the four cities, but we will set up this quasi-independent part of Syria as a ... safe zone with its own leaders. So it’s really just a downsizing of the initial Obama plan, which was to bring about Sunni ascendancy in Syria through supporting the rebels. Now it’s supporting them only in this ex-ISIS territory. But whether that comes to pass or not, the point that I think ... the thing that frightens me, because of my seeing this as a great sorting-out, is that, if Saudi Arabia, and the US and others, continue to fund rebellion by the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria, they’re likely to get crushed, with the present disposition of power in the Middle East ... that it could lead to ethnic cleansing. And we’ve seen an element of ethnic cleansing already against the Sunnis – I mean, most of the 5 million Syrians that have fled Syria are Sunnis, from rebel areas that have been badly bombed. That’s true in Iraq, with the crushing of cities like Ramadi, where 80 per cent of the housing stock was destroyed – a Sunni city; Tikrit; and now Mosul, a much bigger city, which is being very badly destroyed. Many of the people, Sunnis, of that area, complicit with ISIS at some level, are never going to feel safe going back to their houses – they’re going to become refugees. And the fear is, the longer this war goes on, one of two things can happen: either Sunnis get increasingly driven out of their country, or they win, and revenge is taken against the others. And I don’t see how the Sunnis can win any time soon. Now ... of course, I can’t see what’s going to happen in the more distant future. But today, they’re so badly fragmented – the Sunni world is beleaguered, Turkey is inward-looking, Saudi Arabia is completely ensconced in its war in Yemen, and ... the lower oil prices, driven by fracking and so forth, have weakened Saudi Arabia tremendously. Israel is very insular, and I don’t think wants to get sucked into the Syrian civil war. So it’s hard to see where assistance to a Sunni rebel world that has been badly bruised and fragmented is going to come from, and how it can turn around its fortunes. And, in that sense, I think ... the faster the international community, and Syrians and Iraqis, find some kind of an accommodation that bring stability, the more people’s lives will be preserved, the less ethnic cleansing will go on. And, ultimately, it’s an unhappy solution for many, but I think it’ll be less violent, because, if you look at the balance of power, it’s very clearly in favour of the pro-Iranian forces in this region today.
AS: Josh, thanks so much for talking to us.