On the end of the Syrian war and the “post-imperial Middle East” (Part 2)
In part one of my exchange with Sharmine Narwani, the Beirut-based correspondent dissected the just-ended Syrian conflict as one of the very few journalists to witness it at ground level the whole of its eight years. As many readers wrote in to remark, Narwani’s account was a revelatory lifting of the lid. In the concluding part of our conversation, she takes a broader look at the post–Syria Middle East. Her insights are again original and her perspectives again thought-provoking. In Narwani’s view, the Middle East is poised at last to leave behind its long era of foreign interventions and Western dominance. “The region will now be led from within,” Narwani says. Syria, she argues persuasively, now stands as a case in point.
Once again, I have edited the transcript solely to manage its length.
Staying with this question of narratives, you once wrote about “just one too many lookalike mass protest movements that turn violent,” mentioning Syria, Egypt, Libya, Ukraine, Tunisia. Can you talk about your surmise concerning these “lookalikes”? I think I know just what you’re getting at but hope you can elaborate.
The four narratives that were utilized in undermining the Syrian state’s legitimacy and setting the stage for regime-change were: 1) The dictator is killing his own people, 2) the protesters are peaceful, 3) the opposition is unarmed, and 4) this is a popular revolution.
All four played off the themes of the preceding Arab uprisings that unseated leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. They became the pillars of the West’s propaganda against Syria, which meant anyone critically questioning them would be marginalized. Even today, after we know about the tens of thousands of ISIS and al–Qaida terrorists operating in Syria, and the thousands of tons of weapons shipped to Islamist extremists by the CIA, the Pentagon, the British, French, Saudis, Turks, Qataris, Emiratis and Israelis, we still hear things like “Assad killed 500,000 civilians.” Those numbers are all civilians, and no dead militants? Did ISIS or al–Qaida or Ahrar al–Sham or Jaysh al–Islam not kill anyone — at all — in this conflict, then?
“Peaceful protesters?” Yes, but who shot at them? Government forces — or foreign-backed gunmen who knew that Syrians must die for the population to rebel?
Was this a “revolution?” This one is always fascinating to me. What “popular revolution” has command centers in Jordan and Turkey and receives instructions from at least seven foreign capitals? … Once you know the details of what happened in Syria these past eight years, you can pick apart the four narratives fairly easily.
When I talk about lookalike movements, I am speaking specifically of foreign-backed regime-change operations. These protests, no matter where they take place, all use similar symbols, language and stunts. There are organizations, many Western-funded, that train young people around the world — particularly in countries where the U.S. would like to gain more influence — on how to delegitimize a government and overthrow it….
When protests do not lead to unseating a leader, however, the big guns come in and we see unidentified gunmen shooting into crowds of civilians. We found out about this in Ukraine because of a leaked phone call between the Estonian and EU foreign ministers. We saw this in Syria right at the beginning, too, in Daraa. Daraa residents reported “foreigners” who suddenly started appearing in the city before all the shooting started. … There are so many famous photos from Syria splashed across our newspapers, but I can assure you that most of these have long tales of deception behind them.
You made an especially good call — daring, too — in late 2013. You predicted the formation of a “security arc” from the Levant to the Persian Gulf — from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. And now there has been a meeting in Damascus of top military officials from three of these countries, leaving out Lebanon for some reason. The topic is precisely what you foresaw: how to combat terrorism.
Please talk about this, if you would. You suggested three objectives: territorial integrity, military and security cooperation, and a common worldview. Where is this project now and where’s it going?
It’s difficult to make predictions in this region because events, alliances and players change all the time. I decided to look at the long view of what was taking place in the region: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran were targets of the Sunni extremism that was being funded by the West and its regional allies. A main goal was to cripple Iran’s growing influence in the region, but also to dismantle the “resistance axis” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. In amassing these jihadist armies, Sunni monarchs and Western leaders miscalculated horribly. Instead of destroying Syria, isolating Iran, and re-establishing hegemony over Lebanon and Iraq, the terrorism onslaught galvanized these four very different states into prioritizing security above all else. The battle against NATO–trained and GCC–funded extremists became an existential moment for them, and they would have no other choice but to work with each other, pool resources, create a central command, coordinate military operations, share intelligence.
I believed the four states would weather the terror tsunami also because they had secured unusual great-power cover from Russia and China at the UN Security Council. These two powers were very vested in the outcome of the Syrian conflict, for different reasons, and had the West understood this at the outset, maybe the Syrian crisis would not have been pushed so far.
It may have sounded crazy back in 2013, but I could easily see Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon becoming an anchor of stability in this region. … Today, I see the “security arc” becoming a reality, though there are no declarations from their capitals. Certainly, the recent unprecedented meeting of the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi defense ministers to overtly coordinate against terrorism was a sign, but all four countries have already demonstrated their commitment to this vision in countless military and intelligence operations over the past few years. Most important, these four states have discovered they can handle terrorism on their own, from within the region.
Drawing closer in, what do you mean by a common worldview?
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah already shared an anti-imperialist, anti–Zionist view of the world that valued nonaligned, independent positions, rejected a Western-dominated liberal world order, and prioritized development and self-sufficiency. Iraq and Lebanon tended to be more Western-centric, although significant segments of their populations were aligned with the resistance axis. I think what has emerged on the back of the Syrian conflict is a major, global, balance-of-power shift that will force these two states to reassess their political orientation and draw closer to their direct neighbors, who really have been the only ones they could reliably count on.
As [neoliberal] globalism recedes, the world will become economically more regionalized, and multipolarity will redefine global institutions. You can already see the rebalancing of U.S. influence in the region in the Middle East’s rush to deal with Russia and China — even by very close U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. So a new worldview is very much emerging in this region — one that favors an Eastern outlook, regional cooperation and rising new centers of power.
We’ve now tipped into a prominent theme in your writing: an end to Western intervention. Middle Eastern solutions to Middle Eastern problems. In effect, you’re looking ahead to a post-imperial Middle East.
It’s a large thought. For the first time in — how long? — you say decades, I would say centuries, the region’s direction and destiny are to be led from within. That’s to say not by foreign powers but by Middle Eastern states, non-state social sectors, political parties, etc. Where are we with this? One must take care to avoid angélisme. Do you know this word? A favorite of mine, given how much there is around, meaning naïve extremes of idealism.
Thank you for adding to my vocabulary — no, I didn’t know the word. I do sometimes get accused of idealism in my analysis — projecting onto the world those things I desire. That’s a fair opinion. I think we can determine if I have done that by examining my predictions in the past decade. Many of these have come to pass, or are in progress. A British ambassador in the region, as he was leaving his post, told me: “What you were saying two years ago sounded ridiculous, but now we are all talking the same language.” It was the nicest compliment ever — because he wasn’t exactly onside, you know?
While the Western powers can no longer invade and occupy countries — they’re broke and war isn’t popular — I believe they will continue to try to intervene in this region because their irregular warfare methods are cheaper and less detectable. That’s not going to work with their main adversaries, though, because these states now know the game and have cover from the Russians and Chinese — who also know the game. The legacy of U.S. interventionism is that it has left in its wake some very smart and efficient adversaries.
I always say “efficiency” is the most important word that defines the post–American era in the Mideast. The Iranians, Syrians, Hezbollah defeated the combined efforts of NATO and the GCC — no mean feat. They can make their own missiles, develop their own centrifuges, produce pesticides, chemo drugs, drought-resistant wheat and Coca–Cola. That’s what I mean when I say the region will now be led from within. We have the brainpower, will and efficiency here now and are outsmarting the old oppressors in leaps and bounds.
At a certain point in your work you begin to use “we,” as against “they,” meaning Westerners, as you just did. So we’re into the question of identity, or identities. It seems quite important to you. One understands entirely, but again it also seems important to tread carefully. Don’t we want to push past the “we-they,” “self and other” discourses characteristic of the Western-dominated centuries — the Orientalist centuries, we might say?
I don’t think “we” and “they” amount to absolute identities. … I am both Eastern and Western, and I derive great strength from this. It gives me a broad perspective that I know others in my field lack. I am also not at all ideological — I prefer to cherry-pick ideas that make sense to me. So I have no inherent hatred of “the Other.”
If I use the word “West” to suggest an enemy, you can be sure I mean a minority political class that manufactures consent under false pretenses to execute acts of aggression. I can’t use any other word. This is a Western thing, specifically, born of centuries of Western colonialism, imperialism, hegemony and its accompanying arrogances. If anything, I’m being historically accurate.
I’ve said often that parity between West and non–West is an inevitable feature of our century. You seem to agree. You’ve written about the transformation of the global order by the non–West — the same thought in different language, if I understand you correctly. Can you expand on this?
Empires rise and fall. So do the power and economies of states and regions. … And now the world’s political and economic gravity is shifting. I often think about how this cycle never changes, and yet the powerful never learn this. When a country’s fortunes rise, it seems to take just a few generations for it to become fat, lazy, arrogant and lose its competitive edge. We see that on a micro-level with wealth and families all the time. Nobody learns, though.
East is not better than West in this regard. It just happens to be Asia’s time right now. All the ingredients for massive growth and transformation exist only in Asia today: money, vision, hunger, clout, essential alliances — and huge, underserved populations who lack critical infrastructure and networks. Think jobs, jobs, jobs. Economy has always driven political power, so we will also see a Western rush in Asia’s direction. The Europeans are quietly disregarding U.S. diktats on investing in China’s [Belt and Road] vision and will eventually do so with Russia as well. …
Historically, declining hegemons start to act like large dinosaurs — slow-moving, small-brained, unable to change their trajectories because of too much momentum and too little vision. You know, Trump was elected on a platform that promoted upgraded relations and more business with Russia and China. But the permanent state could not fathom or allow this: Russia and China had already been framed as America’s primary enemies. That’s a lack of vision. That’s a dead-end trajectory that will speed up American decline.
Where do you locate the center of gravity on this question — in the Middle East? In the Sino–Russian relationship? China, Russia, Iran, India, maybe?
There’s no question the Sino–Russian relationship is the transformative one ushering in this new era. The West has always sought, as a key foreign policy objective, to keep these two behemoths from forming a cooperative relationship. I recall watching Obama’s 2014 trip to the Far East with horrified fascination. The U.S. president was literally flipping off China during visits to Japan, Philippines, South Korea — challenging China’s geopolitical influence and territorial claims in its own neighborhood — all while, during the same trip, blasting the Russians with sanctions threats. I mean, really? What net result did he expect from that smooth move?
This was about a year before Iran agreed to a nuclear deal with the U.S. and other Security Council permanent members, so Obama was also ratcheting up threats and pushing levers against Iran. At the same time, Iran, Russia and China had been “discovering” each other over the Syrian conflict. The U.S. really helped these three Eurasian countries find common cause amidst a hailstorm of American threats and bluster.
What Iran, Russia and China also discovered during this process is that they share critical similarities: These are three states that believe in realpolitik despite their differing ideologies, influences and histories. They all act in their own self-interest, believe that cleaving to international law benefits them, prefer soft power over hard, agree that international institutions and networks need a fundamental overhaul, and believe that U.S. behaviors constitute a grave danger to global peace and stability. … They’re looking to make economies grow, secure their neighborhoods and maintain domestic stability—within a multipolar framework. …
In short, the main center of gravity in this global transformation — in my view — is Iran, Russia, China. There are, of course, other countries that impact this in Asia, specifically the Koreas and India/Pakistan. Resolving those two conflicts will more seamlessly pave the way to a prosperous Asian century. Also, watch for a fundamental pivot in German–Russian relations. This event will be what ultimately ties Europe’s fortune to Asia’s rise.
I have to add that we also have to reckon with the West’s resistance to its loss of dominance, its relative loss of influence. It’ll be very formidable, messy and prolonged, don’t you think? The decades ahead seem to hold a ferocious fight.
Yes, nobody is expecting a “surrender” of any sort. The old hegemons will go down fighting, and that’s a real danger to us all. They have an opportunity here to recognize the natural order of things, the changes that are inevitable — then adapt and participate meaningfully with the new economies and political centers. But that would require some common sense and foresight, and I don’t see that in Washington, London or Paris today, unfortunately. If anything, they’re picking more fights — Venezuela, Ukraine, Iran — and clinging to old constructs like NATO that thrive on conflict.
There’s a very real possibility that we will see some catastrophic wars break out. As horrible as this sounds, since 2013 I have found myself sometimes wondering if a full-on war in the Middle East wouldn’t be a good thing, because I believe it would be over very quickly. The drawn-out bloodletting of the last eight years [in Syria] seems to me to be the worst possible scenario — one that, I believe, really suits the old powers. Oddly enough, they don’t yet seem to recognize that the bloodletting goes both ways, and what Americans have hemorrhaged in money, credibility and influence will never be regained.
It’s as if Washington is doing all it can to encourage alliances and cooperation among non–Western nations. The American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, and then the re-imposition of sanctions — on two occasions now — are two good examples among many. How can one explain miscalculations of this magnitude?
Indeed. You found Britain and France among the partners in a Military Operations Center established in Jordan a month after you reported on the diplomatic exchanges in Damascus. So they’re a hard read, the Europeans. Please tell us about the “MOC” Who else was in it, and what did it do? Is it still operational?
The MOC was a secret group of opposition-backing states that set up an ops room in Amman [the Jordanian capital], probably sometime in 2013. By early 2014, the “Southern Front” was established in the south of Syria. It was an umbrella group consisting of 54 militias backed by the MOC countries. As mentioned earlier, most of these militias that received funding, weapons, supplies, intelligence from Western states were co-located with al–Qaida throughout the key Daraa governorate bordering Jordan. There is no doubt that the MOC knew about this and yet continued to arm and support the al–Qaida-linked militants.
There’s not a lot of on-the-record information about the MOC, but through various news and think tank reports, plus some revelations from member states, it seems there are over a dozen members, including the U.S., Jordan, some European and Persian Gulf Arab states. I have personally heard that Israel is a member, too, and that — certainly toward the end — most of MOC’s focus was to ensure their militias protected Israel’s interests in the southwest of Syria.
Trump cut aid to Syrian militants in mid–2017, but when I was in Daraa a year later, just before the final southern battle, the MOC was being discussed as though it was still operational. I think, at that point, it had morphed into something a bit different: It wasn’t as interested in the Southern Front groups and had conveyed to them that they were basically on their own in the upcoming southern battle. MOC’s focus by then, I believe, was mainly to negotiate a beneficial outcome in the south since maintaining hostilities with Syria was becoming untenable for Jordan, the Syrian army was winning all over, and locals in Daraa were pressuring the militants to quit — but most important, to make sure that any political or military outcome would not leave Israel vulnerable.
Don’t forget, at the time the main conversation was about the U.S. trying to get Russia to keep Iran and Hezbollah out of those southern areas, so this makes perfect sense. A Daraa-based SAA [Syrian Arab Army, the government’s military force] commander I spoke with at length had information from various captured militants that MOC’s priority instructions were mostly all related to Israel.
This [John] Bolton–[Mike] Pompeo nexus in the Trump administration is very worrisome on the Iran question. I was distressed when Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, announced his resignation in March — and relieved when it wasn’t accepted. Where do you think this is headed? Do you see the Americans pushing as far as open conflict with Iran?
The good thing about Bolton, Pompeo, [Elliott] Abrams and [Jared] Kushner is that they’re nuts and the international community doesn’t take them all that seriously. The bad thing about Bolton–Pompeo–Abrams–Kushner is that they’re nuts and you never know when they might get the president to take them seriously.
So far, it does not look like the administration has the necessary support from within its congressional and military centers to launch an open conflict against Iran. We know this partly because it has ratcheted up irregular warfare tactics against Iran — sanctions, subversion, sabotage, propaganda — which means the U.S. is currently not going to attack Iran. That can always change quickly, particularly if there is a “trigger incident,” which, by the way, both the U.S. and its regional allies are very proficient at manufacturing.
I think the Pentagon is actually afraid of a war with Iran. I was told several years ago by a friend who works there that the U.S. has never won an irregular warfare gaming exercise against Iran — unless it cheated. These war games cost millions of dollars. A real war will cost much more.
Then again, we’re dealing with crazy in the White House — with a direct line to crazy in Tel Aviv and crazy in Riyadh. …
Let me mention my view here and ask you to respond. Iran’s emergence as a regional power is as inevitable as parity between West and non–West. Not only is it futile for the U.S. to resist this, but Americans should embrace the Iranians as natural allies in all sorts of contexts. That’s my POV. What is yours?
My view is that Iran is unlikely to respond to any further U.S. entreaties until Washington alters its malign behaviors. And that’s not about to happen. After reneging on the nuclear deal, Trump has privately reached out to engage Iran in talks. No authority in Iran has even bothered to respond to him. The sentiment is shared by the Iranian public, who realize that the U.S. will never respect Iran, never uphold its commitments and never stop banging the war drums. Why would Iran want or need to engage the U.S. government? To stop sanctions? There are many in Iran who believe sanctions have saved the country by forcing Iranians to become producers, manufacturers, even exporters.
Iran is a regional power despite U.S. efforts to cripple it, so what could the U.S. possibly bring to the table? Have you seen what U.S. allies in the global South look like? They produce nothing, they import everything, they have underachieved in most developmental categories, they have staggering debts and they wear austerity’s shackles. Not a single one of their leaders could survive without U.S. patronage. “Parity” is simply not in the American vocabulary of international affairs.
We’ve had several new developments in the course of our exchange. Let’s look at them one at a time. You’ve just addressed U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. So let’s go to the decisive defeat of ISIS, as recently announced. Where does credit lie here? The American press routinely suggests that the U.S. got it done. Who actually defeated ISIS?
Brace yourselves. The view in this region is that the U.S. has spent the past five years enabling ISIS and encouraging its land grabs in Iraq and Syria. Contrary to U.S. media reports, the U.S. did not defeat ISIS. If anything, it mostly sat around not fighting ISIS.
John Kerry, the former secretary of state, even admitted: “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [another name for ISIS] was getting stronger. … And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh [as ISIS is also called] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”
The U.S.–led coalition literally watched and did nothing as ISIS marched across the Iraqi border into Syria. … It ignored the ISIS oil trucks that crossed into Turkey to finance the terror group’s growth. It turned a blind eye to its allies funding and arming ISIS — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are specifically named by U.S. officials in both public statements and leaked emails. ISIS was a valuable American asset in its regime-change war against Syria — and in its desire to create a Kurdish entity spanning the Iraqi–Syrian border that would cut off Iran’s land route to the Mediterranean.
If years of media propaganda have you fuming at my very suggestion that the U.S. colluded with ISIS, then watch what the U.S. military did when ISIS first launched its territory grabs in Iraq. Nothing at all. In fact, the U.S. refused to get involved until the terror group threatened Kurdish Iraq. Even then, the U.S. military didn’t do much of anything except “manage” the Islamic State’s fast-expanding territorial borders. …
In 2017, it took only three months for the SAA and its allies to liberate central and northern Syria from ISIS. At that time, the U.S. allowed over 3,000 ISIS fighters to flee Raqqa so it could rush southward to halt the Syrian army’s gains against ISIS at the Euphrates River. For 17 months, the U.S. and its Kurdish allies were co-located with ISIS east of the Euphrates — yet did nothing except fire upon Syrian–allied forces trying to eliminate ISIS remnants under U.S. protection. The Americans only recently eliminated ISIS in that remaining Syrian pocket, largely because Trump wanted the publicity of having “defeated” the terrorist group.
The U.S. isn’t finished with ISIS though. They have freed enough of them to keep terror attacks humming throughout the region for years to come, and Western media scene-set for this by constantly warning of more ISIS attacks — which then justifies continued U.S. presence in these nations.
There is also the quite astonishing news that the U.S. is actively trying to prevent Syrian refugees in Lebanon from returning home as reconstruction proceeds. And I take it the Europeans are complicit in this. Again, they’re a hard read. Last August, France and Germany summited with Russia and Turkey in Istanbul to begin mapping reconstruction plans. I thought it was bad enough the Americans didn’t even attend. This latest development — well, the Americans, it seems, will stop at nothing. Hardly are they done with Syria. Please unroll this for us.
I did some extensive research on IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Syria a few years ago and so had a chance to interview major international NGOs, UN agencies and Syrian officials. The Syrians have been encouraging refugees to return to Syria — and never wanted them to leave. Depopulating the country and simulating a “humanitarian crisis” was a foreign strategy against Syria from the start.
In 2012, I recall top UN officials in New York yelling about the Syrian “humanitarian crisis,” while in Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross — the only organization that can officially designate the nature of a crisis — was telling me there is no humanitarian crisis in Syria: “A humanitarian crisis is when a large number of a given population does not have access to medical aid, food, water, electricity, etc. — when the system cannot any longer respond to the needs of the population,” the ICRC spokesman told me in January 2012, explaining this was clearly not the case in Syria once fighting stopped in any area.
Syrians were fleeing violence in their areas, and routes were made available for them to leave the country — but not return. The head of UNDP [United Nations Development Program] in Lebanon told me that he had not met a single Syrian refugee who did not want to return to Syria. So what was stopping them from doing so?
I don’t want to sound completely cynical, but there is a recognized problem in the “NGO industry,” where to justify ever-larger amounts of funding, NGOs tend to inflate crises. Don’t take it from me — there is a lot written about this issue. Syrian refugees meant money and programs, so where was the incentive to reverse this trend? The default NGO position was, “We are not allowed to encourage refugees to return. It is their perception of security that must dictate that.” Of course, we heard this in reference to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan — and not so much when European states were shouting about sending refugees back to Syria.
But the other reason refugees were not returning is that foreign adversaries of Syria did not want them to. In Lebanon, Western powers have basically prevented return for years. Even Beirut-based Western media noted during the last Syrian elections that thousands of Syrian refugees poured into their embassy to cast their votes. This was not a population “afraid of Assad,” as many suggest.
What about this latest turn of events?
Why don’t the U.S., U.K., etc. want Syrians to return home? Because then Syria will have the manpower to rebuild the country and secure its borders, because then the “crisis” is over, because then you lose leverage over Syria’s neighboring states and within Syria itself. It’s pretty crass stuff. Today, you have a disgusting situation in the south of Syria, where refugees and IDPs are literally dying in terrible conditions in Rukban camp, just south of the U.S.’s al–Tanf military base. The Russians are trying to open up a “humanitarian corridor” to get aid in and get people out, but the U.S. is refusing most of these measures. That camp acts as a shield for the American base. It’s leverage over an important border route.