The following is the text of an interview conducted by the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao (明報) with Professor James L. Gelvin (History) in late June 2013.
James L. Gelvin is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his B.A. from Columbia University, his Master's in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. A specialist in the modern social and cultural history of the Arab East, he is author of four books: The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012); The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004, 2007, 2011); The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (Cambridge University Press, 2005, 2007, 2013); and Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (University of California Press, 1998), along with numerous articles and chapters in edited volumes. He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print, 1850-1930 (University of California Press, 2013).
1. (MP): Will the Syria civil war develop into a regional sectarian conflict in the future, as Sunni countries react against the Hezbollah intervention? How great is the possibility that this local war will spill over to neighbours like Lebanon or Jordan?
The Syrian conflict has already spilled over to its neighbors. How could it not, when there are approximately 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt and when military operations have already spread beyond Syria’s borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel? But to view what is taking place in the region purely in sectarian terms is misleading.
To be sure, the fact that the Syrian conflict took on a sectarian dimension (although it did not start that way) has had serious effects on Lebanon, whose political system depends on a fragile balance among Shi‘is, Sunnis, and Christians. As the self-proclaimed protector of Lebanon’s Shi‘i community, Hizbullah has sided with the Syrian government, which has been an important ally and which, it claims, is fighting militant Sunni Islamists. Hizbullah has expanded its influence throughout eastern Lebanon, even into areas that are predominantly Sunni. For their part, Lebanese Sunnis resent the Syrian regime for its repression of the community during Syria’s thirty-year occupation of Lebanon and blame Syria for the assassination of Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Now, they believe, it is time for payback, and they have taken advantage of the porous Lebanese-Syrian border to assist the opposition. In the meantime, each side is maneuvering to be in the best position in Lebanon, and skirmishing has taken place in the cities of Tripoli and even Beirut.
Outside of Lebanon, however, one should not overestimate the importance of sectarianism. What is actually going on is not a religious struggle; it is an old-fashioned political struggle for influence in the region between Iran and its allies, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the other. Syria has been allied with Iran since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, when it became the only Arab country to side with Iran. Its reasons for doing so were not religious, but geo-strategic: by being the only country which sided with Iran, Syria’s importance in the region increased dramatically, as Iran did everything in its power to maintain the alliance, from selling Syria discounted oil to forgiving Syrian debt, the Arab states did everything in their power to attract Syria to their side, including paying for Syria’s Lebanon adventure. With the emergence of Hizbullah in Lebanon in roughly the same period, Iran found that it could extend its influence even further. Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, views toppling the Syrian government as a means of diminishing Iran’s influence in the region and hence enhancing its own.
There are a number of reasons why this fight for dominance is taking place now. To be sure, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2010 upset the previously-existing balance of power in the region, and Iran hastened to use the opportunity to increase its power as Saudi Arabia attempted to defend its position and that of its allies and even push back against Iran. In the background, however, was the perception that the United States was no longer the power in the Middle East it once was and that it was unreliable as an ally. For Iran, this meant that regional powers could take advantage of America’s diminished role. For Saudi Arabia, this meant that it had to step in to fill in for the United States. There are a number of reasons the United States does not seem to be as indispensible as it had once been. Included among them are the American aversion to foreign adventures after the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, the financial crisis of 2008, and Obama’s stated goal of refocusing American foreign policy on east Asia and the Pacific Rim instead of on the Middle East.
2. (MP): Is it possible for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his post and power in the end?
The Syrian conflict will end in one of three ways: total victory for the regime; total victory for the opposition; or protracted stalemate. There is little to no chance that Bashar al-Assad will step aside. The reason has to do with the nature of the regime: Before the 1970s, Syria was the most unstable government in the Arab world. It had experienced ten coups d’état since independence in 1946. After Hafez al-Assad took over, there were none. The reason is that Assad effectively “coup-proofed” Syria by restructuring the regime. He brought members of his family and members of his sect (Alawites) into key positions in the government (along with members of other minority communities) and created multiple and overlapping security agencies and military commands. He also outsourced much of the repression to hoodlums (ashbah) who hailed from his sect and home region. When Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, he retained this structure. As a result, one part of the regime cannot turn on another, as had happened in Egypt and Tunisia during their uprisings, nor will the regime fragment, as had happened in Libya and Yemen during theirs. Members of the regime realize that if they don’t stick together they will all die. The opposition also fears the consequences should they lose. For them, there is no difference between the regime with Assad and the regime without Assad—it’s the same regime. Hence, the Syrian conflict is a fight to the death.
3. (MP): Will Moscow be able to persuade Bashar al-Assad to quit so that the Russians may strike a deal with the West?
Why should they want to? At this point the momentum seems to be with the government (although things can change) and it looks like the Russians might retain an ally in the region: the Russians still have a (now abandoned) naval facility in Tartus, they have a customer for their arms sales, but most important they have a reliable friend that enables them to project power into the region—their only such friend in the region. Furthermore, the Russians don’t like the West’s assumption that it should be allowed to foster regime change wherever it wants to under the guise of humanitarian intervention. The places where the West wants to foster regime change tend to be Russia’s allies—and who’s to say that, using the same logic the West might not interfere in Russia’s own internal affairs such as Chechnya.
4. (MP): If the Russians withdraw their support to the Assad regime, who else might the Assad regime rely on to maintain control over at least a portion of Syria’s territory?
There is no reason for the Russians to withdraw their support. But even if they did, it would have little effect on the Syrian government’s ability to control its territory. Russian support is most important in terms of protecting Syria from interference by the rest of the international community. Russian support has been essential for ensuring there would be no UN Security Council resolution of the type that cleared the way for the NATO bombing campaign of Libya, and since Russia is the only significant global power on Syria’s side Russia’s stance enhances Russia’s prestige and importance in international circles. In terms of international circles, when it comes to Syria, Russia holds 99% of the cards (a phrase that used to be said of the United States in the Middle East). In terms of assuring regime control over Syria, Iran and Hizbullah are more important than Russia.
5. (MP): It looks the Syrian rebels are not united and nobody can lead with enough authority. There are even Iraqi al-Qaeda fighting in the battle. Is it inevitable that Syria will become another Iraq and Afghanistan if the Assad regime is eventually overthrown?
A protracted stalemate is one possible outcome of the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, there has been a lot of talk about the possible fragmentation of Syria in the future. For example, some observers have suggested the possibility that Assad might try to establish an independent Alawite enclave in the area around Latakia, or that the Kurds will establish their own independent enclave in the east.
While nothing is impossible, both scenarios are highly unlikely for three reasons: First, for one side to defeat the other means that it has substantial military capabilities. That being the case, what is to prevent the winning side from reconquering the rest of Syria, thus putting an end to Alawite or Kurdish autonomy or independence? (In this context it is important to remember that the area now under Kurdish control is the oil producing area of Syria, and no victor in the Syrian conflict would be likely to let that go.) Second, neither the so-called “Alawite homeland” nor the Kurdish region is homogeneous.
In fact, a majority of the residents of the city of Latakia are Sunni, and at least 1/3 of the inhabitants of the largest Kurdish province are Arab. To establish an Alawite or Kurdish enclave would therefore mean ethnic cleansing of monumental proportions. Finally, the international community has been very reluctant to permit the fragmentation of states, particularly in the Middle East. Perhaps the overriding concern is that fragmentation would set a bad precedent and result in further blood-letting and perhaps even foreign intervention. Therefore, if neither side wins, the most likely result is a state like Somalia—dysfunctional, internally divided, without a real government that can impose its will throughout the territory, but with de jure sovereignty. After all, even Somalia has a permanent mission to the United Nations.
6. (MP): What are the major concerns for the West that causes it to hesitate about offering more substantial military support to the rebels?
Perhaps the greatest concern for the West when considering whether or not to send military support to the rebels has to do with the composition of the opposition. Amongst the opposition are a number of groups that are unsavory, to say the least, including both local jihadi groups and groups of foreign jihadis. The most famous of these groups is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which, depending on the source, might have merged with al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. At first, there was another reason, however: except for the Iranian and Hizbullah alliances, the United States was not all that hostile to the Syrian regime. As a matter of fact, in spite of its bluster, the Assad government was actually quite moderate on the Israel question: It not only kept its border with Israel quiet since 1973, it was engaged in peace negotiations with Israel up through the outbreak of the Syrian conflict.
This brings up another issue: What does the United States want to accomplish by arming the opposition anyway? If it wants the defeat of the regime, the United States is not going about it in a manner that would meet that goal. To defeat the regime, the opposition needs more than light weapons; it needs the sort of weapons systems (not to mention air support or no-fly zones) that the West is reluctant to give it for fear that those weapons would be turned back on the West. But if the goal is to prolong the conflict, to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons (not a likely scenario) or to involve Iran and Hizbullah in a quagmire like Vietnam and distract and weaken them (a more likely scenario), then the decision to arm the opposition with light weapons is a good one—albeit a cynical one.
7. (MP): Why do the leaders from Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia harbour such strong anti-Assad sentiment? Is it not only a coincidence that the leaders of those countries are all Sunnis?
In addition to what I said in reply to Question 1, it might be stated that the only state in the region that has taken a strong pro-Assad position is Iran—the only state that has had strong relations with Syria for over 30 years. Iran is locked in a power struggle with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar (yes, Qatar) for influence in the region. Since the Syrian regime is Iran’s most important ally in the Arab world, is it not logical that those opposing the spread of Iranian influence would seek to weaken Iran by supporting the overthrow of its most important asset?
Why are outsiders so quick to assume that the roots of the alliance system in the Middle East might be found in religion? By the same logic, what are the religious motivations for Russia to support the Syrian regime and the United States to oppose it?
8. (MP): If the conflict between Iran-Syria-Hezbollah camp and the Saudi-Turkey-Egypt-Qatar camp is geopolitical but not sectarian, what are the roots behind such geopolitical considerations? For example, what is the biggest threat from Iran to Saudi Arabia? It is improbable that Iran has the intention of invading Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries, and there are no historical examples of Iran invading its neighbors during recent centuries. Even in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, Iran was the invaded side.
During most of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and Iran were both American allies working to contain Iraq and maintain a balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. Until last year, Iran was a major backer of Hamas, the Palestinian (Sunni) Islamist movement. Iraq is currently led by a government that is predominantly Shi‘i but continues to approach Iran with a certain degree of wariness. If the current competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is rooted in sectarianism, how could any of this be? The answer is that the root of the current competition is not sectarian—although both sides appeal to their co-religionists whenever they believe it will further their foreign policy goals. Each side also attributes the policies of the other to the unconventional religious beliefs of their rival’s leadership: Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of attempting to spread Wahhabism, a strict puritanical form of Sunni Islam, and Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of attempting to spread its own brand of revolutionary Shi‘ism. Hence, when Saudi Arabia intervened in the Bahraini uprising in 2011, it claimed to do so to prevent Iranian subversion and a Shi‘i takeover of the country (the ruling clique in Bahrain is Sunni, although a majority of the country is Shi‘i)—in spite of the fact that there was no evidence for Iranian involvement. In much the same way, the Saudis blamed the Iranians for the 2011 disturbances in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is predominantly Shi‘i, rather than on poverty and unemployment there and discrimination against Shi‘is in the kingdom.
The real reason for Saudi-Iranian competition is geo-strategic. Saudi Arabia is a “status-quo state.” Saudi Arabia is a relatively weak country with a small population (estimated to be 20 million citizens—about ¼ the number as Iran). In foreign affairs, it has traditionally depended on the United States and on a favorable balance of power both in the region and in the Gulf area for its security. Things changed first in 2003, when the American invasion and occupation of Iraq eliminated a regime hostile to Iran and essential for its containment. They changed again in 2011: the Saudis believed the United States did not react strongly enough to the overthrow of Saudi/American allies in the region, particularly Hosni Mubarak, and they feared that the uprisings would put in place leaders who might be less friendly or reliable. They thus decided to take on a more pro-active foreign policy to maintain the status quo. They do not fear an Iranian invasion (although they claim to fear Iranian subversion): that would virtually guarantee American intervention and be counterproductive for Iran. What they fear is something more intangible: a balance of power no longer in their favor.
Iran, on the other hand, is not a status-quo power—the balance of power in the region as a whole and in the Gulf in particular is currently not favorable to Iran, which has only one state allied with it in the region (Syria—although Iraq might emerge as such in the future), and its relationship with the United States has been antagonistic. Iran has seen the uprisings as an opportunity to expand its influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia (and the United States). The Saudis have intervened where it could to put down the uprisings (mainly by shoring up monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan), and support the Syrian uprising because they view it as an opportunity to break up the Syrian-Iranian alliance and thus limit Iranian influence in the Arab world.
While the ability to define OPEC oil policy is part of what is at stake, along with control over the Strait of Hormuz upon which oil pricing depends, what is most important for Iran is its ability to project power into the region and thus break out of international isolation, either by winning allies in the region or by having countries in the region doing its bidding from fear. Saudi policy is the mirror image of the Iranian—to keep its freedom of action in foreign affairs, it needs to maintain its friendships and limit the ability of the Iranians to project power.
9. (MP): You argued that the goal of the US is more likely to be dragging Iran and Hezbollah in quagmire like Vietnam to distract and weaken them. If that happens, what will you predict on the next moves for the United States? How can the US maintain a military balance between the Assad side and the rebel side, besides offering light weapons? Will a no-fly zone work?
The Obama administration has been split on what to do about Syria. There are a number of high-ranking officials, along with important politicians outside the administration, who have argued for a more active US role, including the establishment of safe-havens and arming the opposition with more lethal arms than the administration is currently committed to supplying them with. So far, Obama himself has been reluctant to get involved at all. One should see the current policy more as an attempt to placate critics who are urging greater intervention than as a means of turning the tide in Syria. After all, in all likelihood Obama fears a rebel victory as much as a regime victory. While the route the administration has taken is thus mainly to silence those critics, it has the added benefit of possibly keeping the conflict alive even if the tide has turned in favor of the regime and therefore bleeding Iran and Hizbullah. This has to be seen as a fall-back position which the administration has been forced to take in a situation where no likely outcome will be in America’s interest.
Could a no-fly zone turn the tide? First of all, it has to be remembered that a no-fly zone was not actually imposed in Libya. Although UN Security Council Resolution 1973 called for the imposition of a no-fly zone, NATO began flying close combat missions almost immediately, since the Libyan government did not depend on air power against its opponents. NATO planes destroyed government vehicles and attacked military formations on the ground. (“Operation Deny Flight” over Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s has often been cited as a successfully applied no-fly zone; nevertheless, it was not as simple and bloodless as remembered: it lasted almost 3 years, involved over 100,000 sorties, also devolved into close combat operations, led to the loss of one plane, and had to be suspended when UN forces were used as human shields.) The same thing is likely to happen in Syria if a no-fly zone is imposed there, as Obama well knows. Hence, a no-fly zone is not a “light footprint.” So far, the United States has viewed this form of intervention as too much. (The reason why the US went along with a “no-fly zone” in Libya was that there was no political downside to it—Libya was never as important to the US as it was to Europe—and Libya is just one big desert. As such,it is the sort of terrain in which airpower is effective.) Even after Assad purportedly crossed Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons against the opposition, the US did little but send small arms to the opposition. Whatever the military arguments for or against a no-fly zone might be, it is not currently on the table.
10. (MP): Russian media has just verified that Moscow has given up its last military stronghold in Tartus. Does that mean that Putin's support for the Assad regime is flagging?
Maybe we should take the Russians at their word: They claim they are evacuating Tartus
(a) out of concern for Russian citizens there (it is, after all, within a war zone);
(b) to avoid being dragged in to an accidental or unwanted military confrontation, either with the opposition or some foreign power. Elements of the opposition might attack Russian personal/infrastructure to incite a Russian response which might, in turn, bolster their own domestic and foreign support. Furthermore, jihadis among the opposition have no love for the Russians who are embroiled in the Chechen insurgency against Muslims and who are foreign "occupiers" on "Islamic" Syrian soil. In terms of a possible unplanned confrontation with a foreign power, we have to take into account the deal between Syria and Russia for advanced ship destroying missiles.
(c) the Russians claim their Mediterranean needs might be met by basing in Limassol, Cyprus, which has the added advantage of not being located in a war zone.
The Russians are unlikely to abandon the regime in international forums for reasons I have already given. That is really the only place where Russian support for the regime matters.