Panel 2: Sectarianism and the Balkanization of the Levant
November 15, 2013
Kate Seelye, Middle East Institute: Today’s panel is being moderated by a journalist who could discuss the topic of Syria and the Levant in her sleep. Kim Ghattas is the State Department correspondent for the BBC, who grew up in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. She just returned from covering the Secretary of State John Kerry’s travels around the Middle East. She’s very up-to-date on the latest policy ins and outs. She’s also the author of the bestselling book, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from the Heart of American Power, which I suggest you read. It’s a very good read and you can learn more about her in our program books. Kim, I’d like to hand the panel over to you. Thank you.
Kim Ghattas, BBC: Thank you very much, Kate, for the introduction and thank you all very much for being here with us this morning for the second panel of the Middle East Institute’s yearly conference: Sectarianism and the Balkanization of the Levant.
Now, in 1916, the French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and the British adventurer and diplomatic advisor Mark Sykes came to a secret agreement that effectively divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire outside of the Arabian peninsula into areas of future British and French influence. That’s how the borders of the modern Levant were born. And they have held since then.
But nine decades later and two years into the Arab uprisings and two years into the Syrian Civil War, people are reaching for their history books and declaring the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Are we really seeing the Arab world breaking apart to give way to new states defined by sect or ethnicity, replacing the old imperial borders, and how does sectarianism fit into this? Or is the Balkanization driven by sectarianism and how do actors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and the U.S., of course, who are all fighting a proxy war inside Syria, how do they fit in to this dynamic?
Now, the title does include the word Levant but we’re going to expand a little bit beyond the traditional borders of the Levant to include in the discussion Iran and Iraq because we have a panel with us that brings a breadth of expertise and knowledge and on-the-ground expertise to discuss this very timely issue with us.
I’ll start with Paul Salem who’s to my left. He’s just joined the Middle East Institute as their Vice President for Policy & Research. He leads the Arab Transitions Initiative at the Middle East Institute. Before that, he was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center and in 2002, he also served on the Senior Review Committee for the UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report. For full disclosure, he used to be my professor at the American University of Beirut (laughter), which is probably why I turned out kind of okay. (Laughter.) His latest book is Broken Borders: the Causes and Consequences of the Arab Uprisings.
To Paul’s left is Mona Yacoubian from the Stimson Center. She’s the senior advisor of the Middle East Program there with a focus on Arab uprisings and with a specific concentration on Syria. She’s also the co-director of the Stimson - U.S. Institute of Peace Lebanon Working Group and she previously, from 1990-1997, served as North Africa analyst at the U.S. State Department.
To Mona’s left is Mohsen Milani from the University of South Florida. He’s the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies and professor of politics at the University of South Florida. He was previously a fellow at Harvard, Oxford, and Foscari Universities. He has a book coming out on Iranian foreign policy, which should be a very interesting read considering all the developments we’re watching unfold today. His previous book is the Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
And, at the very end of the table is Gregory Gause from University of Vermont and, also, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He taught at Columbia University. He just told me that he was a Fulbright scholar in Kuwait so he also speaks Arabic and has first-hand knowledge of the region. His latest book is the International Relations of the Persian Gulf.
Now, the title includes the words Balkanization and sectarianism. They are, of course, connected but they’re also a little bit separate so what I want to do in this discussion is start with one and then see how that leads into the second part of the discussion. I’m going to start with a question for Paul first. The way the discussion is going to go, I’m going to try to keep it interactive between the panelists. We’ll have until about 11:40 for discussion here with the panel and then we’ll open the floor up to questions from the audience.
Paul, I want to start with you because you’re from Lebanon, I’m from Lebanon, and we’ve lived through the war there -15 years of civil war where everybody at every turn at every new break-out of the fighting predicted this is the end of the borders of Lebanon as we know it. We’re going to be separated into cantons. It never really quite happened. Do you really think that the discussion about the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement is valid at this stage and do you think that because we’re in this phase of the Arab uprisings that it is a valid concern or a valid prediction?
Paul Salem, Middle East Institute: Well, thank you, Kim. I think historically when parts of the world face these kinds of problems where populations no longer fit with the orders of the regimes that were governing them - usually there was a malleability in establishing new borders, new rulers, emerging and announcing regimes - but I think we’re stuck with the borders we have, mainly because the international order except in very exceptional circumstances such as East Timor or former Yugoslavia - that new borders require international acceptance. They’re not simply self-announced and I don’t see any willingness in the regional power structure or the international power structure to announce and accept new official international borders.
But, what has happened is that the three nation states - Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq - have effectively collapsed as national projects. Lebanon effectively collapsed as a united nation in the seventies. Iraq over stages and then, is still not a nation. It’s broken. And Syria over the past two years has broken as a national project. In all three cases, also, the states are no longer sovereign. Lebanon doesn’t control its borders. Syria doesn’t and Iraq doesn’t nor all of its territory. So, we have broken nations and broken states in a border order that is not open to change and that perhaps is a problem.
We are also in a region which is terribly contested. In the first panel today, we talked about how Tunisia or Libya or even Egypt is in a geostrategic environment, which is not hotly contested. The Levant obviously is contested between Iraq and the Gulf, between Turkey and Arab countries, between the U.S., Russia, and China to some degree. You see it in Syria. You saw it in Lebanon. You see it in Iraq today. Not only are these sort of broken nations and broken states, the region itself is, in a sense, a proxy war zone. Until the regional conflicts or regional negotiations take place, I don’t think we’ll see any major progress.
To end, sectarian conflict, just take that as an example, effectively, is geostrategic competition between Iran and the Gulf, taking sect as a marker. In the 50s, the Cold War created huge conflict in the region between leftists and **inaudible**. The Communist Party in Iraq was the strongest and so on, so the markers of identity or politics are not necessarily the genuine drivers and that’s why my only hope is if we could get regional negotiations stabilizing the regional conflict, then the local conflicts are much easier handled.
Ghattas: Let me bring in Mona because, of course, everybody’s very focused on Syria. When we have this discussion about borders, we’re very focused on Syria. We heard today or yesterday the Kurds declaring self-rule. We have all these rumors about President Assad and his Alawite sect declaring perhaps a statelet that gives them access to the sea but also remains connected to Lebanon somehow and their connection with Hezbollah. How do you see this play out? Do you really think that we’re watching Syria break into small statelets?
Mona Yacoubian, Stimson Center: Thanks, Kim, and thanks to the Middle East Institute also for having me. Like Paul, I think Balkanization and the idea of the break-up of the Levant, let alone the break-up of Syria, I think that’s an exaggeration. It makes for great coffee and are we witnessing the collapse of the post-Ottoman order, etc.? I don’t see it in such extreme terms. However, I do think if we take a step back and try to understand what is happening to Syria in the broader context of the Arab uprisings, I think it provides for us two very important insights.
One is that the Arab uprisings’ writs large from my perspective are characterized by a breakdown of the old order. In the case of Syria, it is the breakdown of the Assad-led authoritarian regime. We don’t know yet what is going to come in its stead and I would argue we won’t know for many, many years.
The second key element, I think, of the Arab uprisings that has particular relevance to understanding Syria is, from my perspective, that the Arab uprisings really also underscore the changing nature of power - that power has become more diffuse. We could have a much longer discussion about why and how that is. Is it because of technology or what are the various aspects? But, for me, that was a very big take-away when it first started - is that we really, I think as analysts, didn’t appreciate what was happening on the peripheries of society and the ways in which change was fermenting at that level. I believe it continues. In the Syrian case, the diffusion of power, I think, manifests as sectarian - a deeper sectarian sentiment. In Libya, it would be maybe deeper tribalism but in Syria, I think it’s a deeper sectarian sentiment. That’s to me the connection between this idea of Balkanization and sectarianism. I don’t see Syria’s external borders changing but I also think I don’t see Syria ever going back to what it was pre-uprising.
Ghattas: So, what we might be seeing is actually the creation of sectarian enclaves within the actual borders.
Yacoubian: That’s exactly right. We’re already seeing de facto soft partition. We’re seeing - and I don’t think it’s been well documented. It’s anecdotally documented - the movement of communities along ethnic and sectarian lines so that communities that were minorities in a particular area - for example, around Baniyas on the coast, there are some Sunni villages that have been victims of massacres. That has led to the outpouring of Sunnis in that area. We’re seeing Shi’a villages elsewhere in the north that have been emptied. We’re seeing the movement of people. Then, I think the other exception in some ways to all of this is the Kurdish issue because there I think it is much more of a cohesive movement and this declaration the other day of a transitional government, that’s a significant move in so far as you see amongst the Kurds a much more cohesive movement toward declaring what it is that they want. Note, they’re not asking for a separate Kurdistan. I think what we will see is something akin to the Kurdish Republic in Iraq - a similar kind of analogue in Syria where there’s a great deal of autonomy but it’s still a part of Syria.
Ghattas: I want to bring in Mohsen with your expertise of Iran and that view from Iran towards the conflict in Syria. What is Tehran’s view of the evolving conflict and the borders of the region? How do they see this conflict play out and what is essential to them? Is it the survival of Syria as it is? Is it the survival of Assad? And then I’ll move on to Greg and then I’d like to get a conversation started between all of you.
Mohsen Milani, University of South Florida: Thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you to the Middle East Institute for organizing this great conference.
I believe that we are on the verge of a major transformation in the Middle East but it is a kind of transformation that defies what the conventional wisdom has been telling us about. I think two events are most likely to influence the future of the Middle East more so than the Arab Spring and the sectarian civil war inside Syria. One is the possibility of a U.S. - Iran rapprochement. If my analysis is correct that both Tehran and Washington have agreed that some sort of rapprochement must take place between the two countries in the next few years, that is going to change the calculation of every single country in that region. Along with Israel and Turkey, I see these three players as the major drivers of the politics of the Middle East.
Ghattas: It might also decrease sectarianism?
Milani: I’ll get to that in a second. Yes.
The second event that is taking place and has been taking place quietly is the re-entry of Russia into the Middle Eastern politics. Russia is already an ally of Iran. It has become a major player in Syria and I think they are about to take advantage of the chaos in Egypt and try to re-enter the Middle Eastern politics.
Now, how does Tehran look at what is happening in the Levant? Well, first of all, I think Iran is going to fight to the bitter end to defend Assad-ism in Syria. In other words, although Iran has invested heavily to support Bashar al-Assad, they will continue to do so but I think the fact that we have a moderate and pragmatic government in Iran, in Hassan Rouhani, I can see the possibility that if the rapprochement with the U.S. proceeds, Iran might agree to a situation in which Assad is removed from power as long as the military and the intelligence apparatus of the Syrian estate does not collapse. In other words, something similar to what has taken place in Egypt. I am one of those who never believed that we had a revolution in Egypt. I think what we have had is social and political upheaval but the fundamental reality of Egypt has not changed and that is that the military is the major driver. I think the Iranians are willing to entertain that possibility.
Finally, about sectarianism, I think there is a great deal of exaggeration about the role of sectarianism. I think sectarianism does play a major role in the Middle East but it only becomes important when it is intertwined with the state as the major player in the Middle East as well as with nationalism. In other words, the unit of analysis for understanding the Middle East today is not sectarianism but it is state competition. For example, in the Persian Gulf, in the Levant, between Saudi Arabia and Iran which have been involved in a vicious cold war for the past few years and both of them are the drivers of sectarianism in Syria but they’re driving sectarianism not because of their religious differences but because this is the most effective weapon they have to push their agenda.
Ghattas: Greg, you’ve written recently about new sectarianism in the region and how it actually is more about political context. It’s not just about Sunnis vs. Shi’as but it is also a political tool. I wonder whether you agree with Mohsen but also if you could first answer another question that I have for you. Is it less about borders in the region? Are people contesting the borders? I don’t know if you agree with the premise of Balkanization. Or, is it really about being accepted as equal citizens in a country whether you are a minority that is being oppressed by the majority or a majority ruled by a minority? Because at the onset, in Syria, this was not a sectarian civil war. This was a popular uprising by people who felt that they were being oppressed.
Gregory Gause, Brookings Doha Center: I think that the fundamental driver of the entire upheavals of the Arab world in 2011 was this demand for bread and dignity, equality and citizenship, greater economic and fairer economic prospects. Those dynamics played themselves out very differently in different places.
For me, the starting point of understanding the Fertile Crescent or the Mashriq or whatever we want to call it is the breakdown of the state in Syria and Iraq. That predates, of course, the Arab Spring. The United States as a matter of policy destroyed the state in Iraq after the state had been weakened through sanctions and the stupidity of the government of Iraq. But Syria and Iraq had, I think we could see, had state-building projects going on from the 60s. These were ugly and authoritarian and violent but that’s not so unusual in the history of state building. Henry VIII and Cardinal Richelieu were not nice people, right, but they built centralized states. That project has failed. It’s failed and that to me is where sectarianism comes from. When the state can no longer provide basic security, you go to the communities that you feel can provide security for you and that’s largely sectarian although ethnic in the Kurdish areas in the Mashriq.
We don’t see that in a place like Jordan because the state, challenged earlier in a fierce civil war, survived and built itself. When we talk about why Jordan didn’t have upheaval, didn’t have regime change in the Arab Spring, the experience of that civil war, the victory of the state, and the building of state authority, I think, is an ignored element to that. I don’t disagree with Paul and Mona and Mohsen, unfortunately. I’d like to disagree with them because it’s more fun. (Laughter.)
Ghattas: I’ll try to make you clash later on.
Gause: Good. I don’t think this is about redrawing a border à la the former Yugoslavia into independent sovereign states. Paul’s absolutely right. The borders of this part of the world were drawn by international actors and I don’t see any international actors who have an interest in redrawing those borders in the short-term or even the medium-term. But I think that what we’re seeing is the end of state authority from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and we could go into Palestine as well. I think that that’s going to be a reality that’s going to define the dynamics of regional politics for some time.
Ghattas: I must just explain that I’ve come back from this trip with John Kerry feeling quite under the weather but I was absolutely intent on being here today so forgive me if I cough every now and then. I’m not really crying because of the state of the region (laughter) but because I’m trying to suppress my cough.
But let me just come to you, Mona and Paul, and ask you why are we seeing all these articles in the Western press about the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement, about redrawing of maps in the region? It strikes me as though, just like the map was drawn at the time by the West, the West is now looking at the region and thinking, “oh, perhaps it’s time to redraw the maps again” but not a single person that I’ve spoken to in the Arab world has ever told me that they want to belong to a different kind of country, that they want the borders of their country to be redrawn.
Yacoubian: As I said before, I think, “why is the West playing it this way?” It’s compelling. I mean, it’s a very compelling story to talk about the collapse of the post-Ottoman era, to heighten the notion of the artificiality of the borders as they were drawn under Sykes-Picot and to look at - in a way it speaks to Syria’s geostrategic centrality in all of this. Because what’s really happened is not so much that the borders are collapsing, it’s that Syria is collapsing in the sense of this regime now.
Ghattas: But, within its border.
Yacoubian: But, within its borders and Syria collapsing or the order within Syria collapsing, as I said, as part of, I draw on analytically a line between what’s happened in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt to Syria. I believe these are different manifestations of the same core phenomenon, which is this strive for change in the Arab world.
But, if I could, just for a moment, so we can spark a little debate on this question of sectarianism and whether or not it is a dynamic that is fueled from on high or from above. Whether it’s because of the breakdown of the state as Greg puts it, and I find that very compelling that when state institutions break down people then turn to their clan, to their community for protection. I think there’s certainly something to that. I less buy the argument that the rise of sectarianism in Syria is purely the result of a proxy battle of outside actors. I do think it’s a factor and I think it’s critical to tamping down the violence in Syria - that there be more discussion amongst the regional players, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran.
I want to just go back for a moment to this idea of the diffusion of power and I think to understand the complexity of the sectarian dynamic in Syria, it’s important to think not only about the breakdown of the state and the state institutions but also the bubbling up of the grassroots. Again whether it’s through identity politics, whether it’s through some kind of identification more as sect or clan. To me, there is also at the heart of this an existential element. So when one’s spheres are based on who I am as sect or ethnicity, it very quickly becomes existential.
Ghattas: It’s about survival.
Yacoubian: It’s about survival and that in turn, I would argue, then has an impact on both the vicious cycle that is then started as a result of this. The fact that the stakes are so high, that they are in fact existential - whether or not they truly are - it’s the perception and that’s all that matters. Therefore, last point, I think what ends up happening is we have a cycle that becomes self-perpetuating and is frankly, in my opinion, no longer in the control of elites and I think we’re seeing it in Syria very clearly.
Ghattas: So, it’s bottom-up and top-down.
Yacoubian: It’s both.
Ghattas: And, Paul, where do you stand on that? Do you agree with Mona or do you agree with Greg or somehow with both? You’re somewhere in the middle?
Salem: Well, let me comment on the Sykes-Picot perspective, see if I agree or disagree. What’s relevant about remembering the Sykes-Picot moment is not so much what happened then - we’re under completely different conditions - but this part of the world, call it the Levant or whatever you want to call it, is the most conflicted region in the world. It houses…
Ghattas: That’s why I’m crying. (Laughter.)
Salem: It houses the top four or five wars of the world: the Arab-Israeli Conflict which has been going on forever, which has a lot to do with collapse of Lebanon, with the invasion of Iraq, with chemical weapons deals in Syria; the Iranian-GCC proxy war, cold war is a major one; the War on Terror, both internationally towards the region and within the region is a major one. It also obviously houses the world’s main energy reserves. So, this is not a normal region.
This is also a region that was born ninety years ago by ripping out 500 years of Turkish government so it was an unusual birth and then later ripping out French and British mandates so this is not like Egypt or Brazil or other parts. It’s a super troubled place and the regional and international conflict aspect effectively is what tore apart Lebanon and Syria and, of course, Lebanon had its huge internal problems, Syria and Iraq did. But, the pressures from these wars and conflicts were decisive in all cases.
Thus, as a policy perspective, I conclude that until the region is stabilized somewhat, it’s very unrealistic to expect a few Syrian groups or Iraqi groups or Lebanese groups to be able to build viable nation-states while three or four major wars rage over them, in them, and around them. This obviously means the Arab-Israeli conflict. It means, maybe more hopefully, Iran-Western rapprochement that might lead to some Iranian-GCC accommodations, which would be key.
That’s why I think when we talk about Sykes-Picot of course that was a moment in history, but regional agreements and negotiation and international negotiation and agreement over the stabilizing of the Levant is necessary and is key and without it, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and maybe sparks in Bahrain and Yemen and other places, this will not be resolved. It does require international agreement and the U.S., with all of its maybe decline in power and so on, both militarily and diplomatically remains the most powerful and influential player in the world and in the region. It’s no longer a solo power.
Ghattas: But there’s a lot of push-back at the moment by the Saudis, the Israelis…
Salem: Of course! Which is the nature of politics.
But, I mean to say, and here we are in Washington, because this region requires regional and international negotiation and stabilization, the U.S. has a large role to play, which means reaching out to the Russians, talking with the Saudis, bringing in the Iranians. Diplomacy and politics are the tools; power and diplomacy must be used to stabilize this region. Sitting back and saying, “Well, the Syrians will talk about it and figure it out in Geneva or let’s have Maliki figure it out by himself or let’s have Hassan Nasrallah and Najib Mikati and Michel Suleiman try to work it out,” that’s totally unrealistic. It requires a major regional stabilization.
Ghattas: We’ll talk about Syria in a second. If you want to interject or disagree, please go ahead. Greg, you want to say something.
Salem: I want to disagree with Greg but I can’t.
Gause: I definitely want to disagree with Paul. (Laughter.) First off, this is the Middle East Institute, let’s be smart. The way that you can tell everybody that you are a real Middle East type is you don’t talk about the end of Sykes-Picot. You talk about the end of San Remo because that is where the borders were actually drawn. If the borders were drawn by Sykes and Picot, Mosul would be part of Syria. Ok, that’s how you identify yourself as an insider and pass my class. (Laughter.)
Ghattas: I don’t belong in your class. (Laughter.)
Gause: Secondly, I think that Paul and Mohsen are both getting a little ahead of themselves when they talk about an Iranian-American rapprochement. It seems to me that the nuclear issue on the table is something in which a deal can be done. But, with all sorts of obstacles…
Ghattas: We’re not there yet.
Gause: We’re not there yet but it’s possible.
Translating that into a larger geopolitical bargain in the region, I think, is extremely difficult because the United States is not about to sanction - despite the fears of the Gulf States - a leading Iranian role in the Levant. All right? The two fundamental interests that continue to drive American policy are the relationship with Israel and our desire to maintain our dominance in the Persian Gulf. Both drive against any kind of deal where the United States would in essence turn over the keys of the region to Iran - which is the big fear in the Gulf, less in Israel.
I fear that if the settling down of this region requires an American-Iranian deal or a Saudi-Iranian deal, we’re going to be waiting a long time for that. I’m no more optimistic than Paul is that the local parties in the current atmosphere can get themselves together and actually do a deal on the ground and present it to the regional powers. I’m not optimistic about that but I’m also very pessimistic that there could be in the short-term some kind of geopolitical deal by the outsiders that would stabilize the place.
Ghattas: I want to bring in Mohsen indeed because you raised the issue of the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement initially and I want to have your thoughts both on what Greg said and also I want to explore the idea that President Rouhani, at the moment the President of Iran, was a leader under Rafsanjani back in the day when he was president and he helped improve ties with Saudi Arabia at the time. Do you see a way by which this could be replicated again this time thereby decreasing sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’as because there is that big clash apparently happening in the region?
Also, I was just with John Kerry on this trip. I interviewed him in Abu Dhabi and going back to your point, Greg, the enmity between the U.S. and Iran is about much more than just the nuclear program. How do you resolve that? I was somewhat astounded when Mr. Kerry said that Syria was a thirty-second discussion with Mr. Zarif. Either they feel that they should be very much focused for now just on the details of the nuclear agreement or they haven’t quite figured out how you do come to some sort of geopolitical arrangement with Iran if you get through this nuclear deal. Why don’t you tell us what you think, Mohsen?
Milani: I usually try not to disagree with people who are bigger than me. (Laughter.) But this time I have to.
Gause: Especially right on your border. (Laughter.)
Ghattas: I’ll protect you - with the Lebanese, we have lots of ways of doing things. (Laughter.)
Milani: No. I’m small but I’m fast. (Laughter.)
I talked about the possibility of a rapprochement. Thirty-three years of mutual animosity and a hidden war between the U.S. and Iran is not going to disappear overnight. The reason why I said the possibility of rapprochement is that nobody in Iran is talking about normal relations with the U.S. - not even President Rouhani. What they have talked about is creating a situation in which the U.S. and Iran can manage their disagreement. It is more a management of conflict than normalization of relations. These are two different things.
Read moreover, the question of nuclear agreement is one thing and I think that there is a great deal of agreement inside Iran that there should be an agreement but the question of normalization with the U.S., it is an entirely different thing. I, for example, believe Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader, has made up his mind in that he does want to have a resolution of the nuclear issue. Regarding normalizing relations with the U.S., I don’t think he has made up his mind. So, what I’m talking about the possibility of a rapprochement, not that the two countries become friends again, but the possibility that the two countries can actually begin to talk about different issues which takes me to the Syrian crisis.
Ghattas: And Hezbollah.
Milani: And Hezbollah. Look, if we keep saying that Iran is the number one supporter of Assad, which it is true - Russia is the number one international supporter of Assad but Iran is the number one regional supporter of Assad - you cannot have peace in Syria without including Iran in these negotiations. Whatever type of negotiation goes on. It is just not realistic to talk about this. The fact that Zarif and Kerry talked about Syria for thirty seconds is fantastic. They have talked thirty more seconds than they did six months ago. (Laughter.)
Ghattas: Always look on the bright side.
Milani: And, that is the good beginning.
Look, the crisis in Syria is no longer part of the so-called Arab Spring. It has become much more complicated. There is the struggle between Assad and his opposition. Then, there is a sectarian element to it. I think the Christians and other minorities are very wise to look at Iraq and see what happened when the state collapsed in Iraq. They are not going to support the opposition as long as they think there is a possibility of a repetition of Iraq in Syria. And, finally, believe it or not, there are regional players as well as international players who are involved directly in the Syrian crisis. Therefore, the solution to the Syrian crisis: a) is political and b) is engagement of all of these players in terms of resolution.
Finally, to your question about Saudi Arabia and Iran, you are absolutely right. Rafsanjani opened a direct channel to the king when he was president and after he was president and I believe Mr. Rouhani desperately wants to restore a good relationship with Saudi Arabia. I think his government is prepared to do this. I am not very sure if the Saudi government at this time is prepared to do this because they are so scared of a possibility, forget about normalization, of a possibility that the Americans begin to talk about Syria for thirty seconds with the Foreign Minister of the country who is the single greatest regional supporter of Syria.
Gause: I don’t disagree with that but the situation on the ground is very different from the time of the Rafsanjani opening to Saudi, right? At that time, Iraq was not a client state of Iran. Syria was an ally of Iran but the Saudis still had some hope of maybe drawing the Assad regime back into the Arab fold. The only place where Iran was dominant in the Mashriq at that time was Lebanon, right?
Now the situation, from the Saudi perspective, is extremely different because I think that the Saudis since 2005 have seen the rollback of Iranian influence in the region as their major goal and they’ve failed utterly. The only place where they think that they have a chance to accomplish that is Syria and so far, they’re failing.
Ghattas: Mona and Paul, can I get you to talk a little bit about how sectarianism fits into the regional power play between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and let’s say Qatar and the Emirates on the other? And, of course, the U.S. would be in that camp. Does it play off sectarianism? Does it feed sectarianism? Is it purely sectarian? Is it geopolitical? Is it a combination?
Yacoubian: Yes to everything that you just asked. I think it’s extraordinarily complex and I think what’s happened is Syria really has become the arena of competition between these regional powers that are both feeding into and feeding off of this sectarian dynamic that, again I would argue, has taken on a life of its own and is evolving in ways that state powers, in my opinion, simply cannot control.
So, you have, for example, the statement by Hassan Nasrallah yesterday: “We are in Syria. We will stay in Syria.” And, he defines it, frankly, in sectarian terms. He talks about the takfirist threat, which is, in my study of Hezbollah, this notion of takfirism as being a threat is relatively new in their rhetoric. If you look at Hezbollah as being, in some ways, I think it’s too simplistic to say a projection of Iran’s influence but certainly that side of the divide’s projection of power into Syria. By the same token we have documented evidence of the Gulf powers, whether as states or in private flows sending arms and men and finances, etc. to their clients, if you will, in Syria. From my perspective, it’s all the more reason why, I actually here agree with Mohsen, that we, the United States, I think, need to at some point begin to include Iran in discussions about Syria.
I would actually argue, if I could talk for just a second, about Geneva 2 which is still very much front and center and the U.S. is hoping that we get the Syrian protagonists around the table, perhaps by mid-December. My sense is that is premature and the real strategy, so that diplomacy does not fail in Syria, is to lower our sights a bit and have the great powers, the U.S. and Russia, together with key regional powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey - bring those key players around the table to talk about how to de-escalate the situation in Syria as a way of creating conditions on the ground that, going forward, will be more propitious for negotiations. I don’t think that Syrian parties are there yet but I do think it’s not too early to start de-escalating and I think in some ways this opening to Iran creates that possibility.
Ghattas: Paul, do you want to jump in and perhaps talk to us a little bit from your perspective, our perspective as people who lived through the conflict in Lebanon where, you know, conflict as Mona says often takes on a life of its own? Sectarianism is used by the people at the top but then it becomes a dynamic on the ground that is very difficult to stop and very often for a war to end unfortunately it has to play itself out. How do you see things developing in Syria and where does the regional rivalry between the Sunni monarchies and Iran fit into that? How do you bring them together?
Salem: Well, I think it’s very true that once blood begins to flow and people fear for their lives, community and hence simple forms of community which historically in our part of the world was sect or ethnic community or a tribe if you look at other parts of the Middle East, takes over because you’re simply trying to survive rather than try to promote a particular point of view.
But, I would also caution against the assumption that this part of the world in crisis will always revert to sectarianism. If we look at the major turning points whether it was World War I or World War II or post-Turkish and very historic moments in these societies, identities either were at some points very nationalistic or very much on the left-right spectrum so there are other possibilities.
Now, for several reasons,we might be passing through an unfortunate period in Middle East history. Maybe it has to do with world history, the demise of socialism, even the demise of nationalism as a great project that people fall back on sectarianism. But certainly for whatever set of reasons, we are currently in a highly sectarian period in the Levant. That’s partly because of domestic dynamics and sociology but a lot of it is because the two petro-powers are effectively sectarian states in the sense that that’s how they’re set up. They have an ideology which is religious and sectarian and they have a foreign policy that promotes it through finance, through guns, through media, through all kinds of modes. It’s also the fact that the players in the Levant who maybe previously would have gone to Washington or Moscow as their main supporters, as they did in the 50s and 60s, they still do marginally, but you can get much more in Tehran or much more in Riyadh than you can today in Moscow or Washington and that very much colors the situation. So, unfortunately, yes, we are in a fragmented Levant and as Greg said, I mean, what I was saying is that in order to solve it, these things have to happen. Am I optimistic that they are going to happen? No. I see this as a decades long crisis unfortunately.
To look for a bit of silver lining and to push a bit on the issue of what if the Rouhani government and the Saudi government have a bit of a rapprochement themselves regardless of what happens with the U.S., those could be silver linings. Lebanon co-existed throughout the 90s and up until 2005 with major Saudi and Iranian power co-existing in the country reasonably well. Without going into the details, the resolution of some of the crises in Lebanon in 2008 - it was Qatar who had good relations with Iran and okay relations with Saudi Arabia that put together a deal that brought a brief period of conflict to an end. What I mean is that the diseases there, this region is fragmented, the main petro-states that are projecting power in the region really are not supporting the nation-states in any of these cases but are supporting sub-national actors, that is why this region will probably not stabilize or heal. However, to find temporary endings or patchwork to the Syrian, what could be, a Syrian crisis which could be livable is now an open-ended civil war, displacing millions, killing hundreds of thousands. With patchwork you can reduce the cost, you can reduce the conflict, more deals could be made over Iraq.
So, their system is broken but we could stumble through this period if Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite their systemic destabilization, could have agreements that could keep Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria at least limping along without killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Ghattas: And very briefly, Paul - then I want to wrap up with a question for each one of you and we’ll start taking questions from the audience, if you want to start getting ready with that -I know it sounds perhaps counter-intuitive because Lebanon has so many of its own problems but is there anything to learn from Lebanon’s experience for the region? When the war started in Lebanon, the Sunni community still wanted to be part of Syria, for example. By the end of the war I think peace was tenuous but there was one thing that everybody could agree with - is that they actually wanted to be part of Lebanon. They didn’t want to be part of any other country any more. And, we have learned difficult lessons of coexistence even though we remain a deeply sectarian society. What are the lessons there, perhaps?
Salem: Well, I think what’s happening in Syria and Iraq really is not contesting the borders. It’s contesting the condition of citizens and so on in Syria and Iraq and the role of the situation of different communities on another level. Lebanon went through the communal issue. Lebanon always sort of had a high level of freedom and so we didn’t have a problem with authoritarian rule but we had a problem with communal power sharing.
I think the lesson that can be learned from Lebanon is nobody wins a civil war. Everybody loses a civil war and that even though you might distrust and might continue to distrust and maybe dislike the other community - I’m not saying you should, I’m saying people do - that you can share power, you can coexist, and you can move forward. It’s not a very stable or successful model but it beats massive civil war, which we went through. We had that experience of trying to win a civil war or trying to take advantage in that way which Syria’s going through now, which Iraq in different forms is still, in a way, going through. But, the Lebanese communities, people, some of the leaders did realize that nobody’s going to win this and let’s be part of the pie rather than trying to break it apart. I think those are some lessons that could be useful to Syria.
Ghattas: Very briefly starting with Greg and then coming back to Paul. Very briefly. Thirty seconds. How you overcome sectarianism at this stage in the region and avoid the prospect of Balkanization, depending on how you define it and whether you agree or not that it is a prospect? Let’s focus on how do you overcome sectarianism at this stage. Greg?
Gause: Short-term, it does require agreement by outside powers as difficult as that is. Long-term, you build states.
Milani: I think he said it all. I can’t add anything here now and I’m very sad about that but I can’t add anything.
Yacoubian: I can embellish. Basically, I think Syria right now is the fulcrum of this sectarian tension. Therefore, it is incumbent on those in the region and the global powers to first come together and make a decision that the stalemate that prevails in Syria, which is what it is, is not tenable over a long period of time given the humanitarian catastrophe, given the rise of jihadism and foreign fighters in the country and given the very disproportionate and negative spillover economically on Lebanon and Jordan, in particular. I think it absolutely has to be a decision by regional and global powers.
Then ultimately, I think the Levant must come upon a formula, a way to understand how to contend with its plural and diverse societies, which I believe ultimately are an asset not a liability. But the region through its Ottoman period, colonial period and, in the case of Syria, authoritarian period has never happened upon how to do that.
Ghattas: Paul? Fifteen seconds.
Salem: I agree with what Greg said and my other colleagues said.
Just to make a link to the first panel. Some people in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere did look to Egypt. Egypt doesn’t have a lot of geostrategic power and money and guns to pull out but had Egypt elaborated a successful new Arab model of governance which was somewhat democratic and so on, it might have had some kind of pull in terms of a model. But, given its current failure or stumbling that reinforces sectarianism all the more.
Ghattas: Before we go to questions, Mohsen you wanted to make a last point.
Milani: A one-minute intervention.
Since you corrected our colleagues about the drawing of the map of the Middle East and when it happened, let me just see if I can ask you whether you were accurate to say that Iraq has become a client state of Iran. I’m not a fan of Mr. Maliki but I think to call Iraq a client state of Iran is an exaggeration and I just want to make one central point about Iraq, which I think people do not pay enough attention to. The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran - the real animosity started after U.S. troops liberated Iraq. From that moment, I think Saudi Arabia lost its most important ally in containing so-called Persian expansionism. I submit to you that Syria is not the center of gravity in the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria is important for Iran not because Syria is important. It’s important because through Syria, Iran can empower Hezbollah. Hezbollah is Iran’s king in the game of chess but the most important country for Iran, right now, is Iraq because Iraq is the second most important producer of oil and a political alliance between Iran and Iraq is going to undermine Saudi Arabia in a way that no other two countries can undermine it.
Ghattas: So, perhaps not a client state but definitely more Iranian influence than American influence inside Iraq.
Milani: I’m not willing to say that. All I can say is that Iran has become a major player in Iraq.
Ghattas: That’s the status of the Middle East relationship - everything is complicated.
Gause: Everything is complicated but Nouri al-Maliki is Prime Minister of Iraq because of Iran.
Ghattas: All right, let’s go to questions. We have two microphones on either side of the room and we’ll start on this side because you’re already lined up nicely. If you could please introduce yourself, make sure you address the question to someone on the panel if you want to do so and keep it brief. Go ahead.
Question: I’m Peter Humphrey, a former diplomat and current intelligence analyst.
I want to challenge the whole panel basically. Sudan and Yugoslavia suggest that the vector of human history is self-determination and there will not be peace until there is a routine process for people to stand up, demand a plebiscite, and have the world respect the results of that plebiscite. That is the vector of human history. How can we live in a situation in which there are four or five times more Kurds in the world than Palestinians but the Palestinians deserve a state and the Kurds don’t? That’s insane.
Ghattas: Who wants to take that? All of you? (Laughter.)
Salem: I agree that the Kurdish issue is for them a Kurdish national independence issue and I personally agree with all of that and I think that is a dynamic that will continue on the vector towards attempts at independence. But, what I think we were commenting on in the sectarian issues in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, for those who are conducting these sectarian groups and conflicts, they’re not demanding a new border for their sect. They’re demanding a role in the state that exists for better or for worse. I think the Kurdish national issue is exactly as you described it but the Sunni and Shi’a and Christian wars and problems are not wars for national independence. They’re wars for other things.
Ghattas: But, Peter introduces an interesting point which is the interference of players abroad and at what point does the region say this is how we are going to solve our own problems and we’re not going to call on the U.S. or on Russia to come and sort it out for us.
Gause: I look forward to that day.
Ghattas: Me too. Do you want to tackle the Kurdish issue?
Gause: No. I think my guess is that the Kurds in a free vote would of course vote for self-determination and I think they would vote for it in the KRG. They would vote for it in a broader Kurdish referendum that crosses borders. There’s no international support for that. The Kurdish leadership in Irbil realizes and they play this very prudent game. My guess is that if you had votes in Lebanon, Arab Iraq, and Syria, you got a free vote, no one would vote to secede.
Ghattas: And, of course, South Sudan got a lot of support from the U.S - that was one of the driving forces.
Gause: And, no one cares about South Sudan. I mean there’s no international interest in South Sudan the way there is in…
Milani: I agree with you but I would add one other element. Whether the Kurds deserve to have a state or not is one thing. Whether they are going to have it or not is entirely different. I don’t think they’re going to have it for a foreseeable future, not because the international players are not that interested but much more importantly, the three major countries where Kurds are major players - Syria, Iran, and Turkey - especially Iran and Turkey will not allow it , will not allow it - this is the red line for Iran, it’s a red line for Turkey and I want to see what international power is willing to take a chance, to alienate both Iran as well as a member of NATO to give sovereignty to the Kurds.
Ghattas: I’m going to stick to this side because they were standing there first. Please go ahead, sir.
Question: My name is Dan Kohanski and I’m with the State Department.
My question is directed to the whole panel because it seems to me that the panel as a whole has tiptoed around talking about one of the major regional players in the Levant and that, of course, is Israel. And while Israel probably cannot force an agreement or suggest an agreement, they certainly have the power to sabotage an agreement and they have legitimate interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war. How do you propose to bring Israel or at least Israel’s concerns to the table in a way that will keep Israel from sabotaging any such agreement without at the same time alienating the other people?
Ghattas: Are you talking about the Iran - U.S. nuclear agreement or…?
Question: No. I’m talking about the Syrian civil war. We can talk about the Iran-U.S. lack of agreement but that’s not the question.
Ghattas: Mona, do you want to take that?
Yacoubian: My sense is that the Israelis have been very clear about signaling that they have no interest in inserting themselves into the complexity of the Syrian civil war. What they have indicated through their actions as much as through what they say is that they have some very clear lines that are defined by Israeli security concerns and those lines largely are defined by the transfer of sophisticated weaponry from the Syrian regime to Hezbollah and whenever they believe that that red line is crossed, they act. They’ve done it, I think, five times thus far this year. Personally, my sense is that I don’t think the Israelis have any interest or desire to insert themselves into an eventual agreement in Syria. I think, for them, what would be more important is to ensure that whatever the end game is in Syria, Israel’s security concerns are respected.
Ghattas: Next question please.
Question: Jenab Tutunji, George Washington University.
I want to thank the panel for a very intelligent discussion but I would suggest perhaps that the word sectarianism is being used a bit flippantly. There’s a distinction between ethno genesis and ethnic conflict. We’re talking about ethnic conflict. We’re not talking about how these different entities came to form political interests and political rivalries. For instance, if you look at Iraq, you want to analyze the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, you can go back to 1920, you can go back to the wars of 1935, you can go back to the revolts after the first Gulf War, etc. Lebanon, there’s a long history going back at least to the 19th century of different sectarian, ethnic formations taking place. I would suggest perhaps one question we should ask is: we seem to be focusing on Syria as a model for understanding sectarian conflict and we’re talking about state interest, strategic interest motivating sectarian conflict. Is Syria a unique case or is it the model that applies to others?
Ghattas: Greg, go ahead.
Gause: Thanks. I don’t really have an answer to that because in this context we can’t get into the deep histories of any of these places. I think everybody on this panel pretty much knows that history but also knows that we can’t get into it here.
A Syria model? No. Each of these entities is unique and the politics of it is going to work out in different ways. Are there commonalities that might give us some comparative leverage? Yes. I think there are commonalities among the states whose regimes have been shaken or fallen by the events of the winter of Arab discontent in 2011 that can fruitfully be compared. The way that these states have broken down is not always sectarian. Libya, I think, is a place also without a state. I think it’s really interesting that in the first panel we talked a lot about the army in Egypt, right, and the army in Tunisia less so but we talked about that. You cannot talk about an army anymore in Libya, in Syria. In Iraq they’re rebuilding one but is it a national army or is it an army of a particular party or regime? And, in Lebanon, of course, the army is maybe third or fourth in terms of military might in the regime. Well, at least it’s not first. Maybe it’s second. I think that it’s useful to be able to compare these entities and the political processes that are working themselves out, recognizing that each one of them has unique details. I think that’s all I can say about that.
Ghattas: Paul, do you want to say something?
Salem: Just that we talk about the Syrian situation as a sectarian conflict and now it is, perhaps, in large measure but as you said, Kim, at the beginning, it didn’t start out as one and the main dynamic was not a sectarian conflict. This was the dynamic of a population demanding something quite reasonable. If you look at Hezbollah, Hezbollah is a deterrent for Iran in its geostrategic function. I sometimes call it the aircraft carrier. The U.S. can park an aircraft carrier in the Gulf to threaten Iran. Iran can park Hezbollah on the border of Northern Israel to deter. Now, it happens to be Shi’ite and they use that mobilization. So, the cores of these conflicts are not sectarian; the tools often are.
Ghattas: Because sectarianism or your religious identity in the Middle East is more about communal identity sometimes and less about how deeply you believe in your faith, is that higher?
Salem: Identity is not a problem. Problems are problems. Aggression is a problem. War is a problem. Poverty is a problem. Identity is your identity and what’s happened in the Middle East is that - take the Syrian case. The Syrian regime did everything it could including facilitating the rise of Jabhat al Nusra and others to make sure that they change the discussion from governance, poverty, social justice, accountability to some crazy jihadis are going to come kill us all so we have to fight. They put a lot of effort.
Ghattas: And, we are better than the jihadis so keep us in power.
Salem: Well, it’s not hard to be better than the jihadists, perhaps. (Laughter.)
Ghattas: But that’s the argument they make, right?
Salem: Absolutely. What I mean is that these are being turned into the language of identity politics but there’s no problem with being a Sunni because indeed, except for some radical Islamist groups, the major conflict is not out to proselytize. It’s not a religious move. It’s geostrategic, political, economic conflicts that use these identity markers to mobilize people and fight for interests.
Ghattas: If I may, just before I take the next question, Mohsen, I actually want to bring you in. How does it look like from the Iranian perspective? This sort of Sunni-Shi’a divide.
Milani: Before I answer this, I think the point that you made is absolutely accurate about Syria. The Syrian conflict did not start because the Sunnis and the Alawites or Christians didn’t get along. It started because of the demand for dignity and democracy but then as the state was weakened, these ethnic groups began to compete.
Iran today is a country of about 80 million people. About 51% is Persian. The other 49% belong to different ethnic groups but there is no tension today - there is a little bit - but not serious tension. Now, if tomorrow for some reason there is the breakdown of the authority in Tehran, then you’re going to see ethnic uprisings all over. Then, historians can begin to discuss, “Was that the cause of the breakdown?” I would say no. It’s the consequence of the breakdown. Sectarianism is the consequence of the breakdown of the state. Now, how does Iran look at the Sunni-Shi’ite? I have to tell you I don’t think Iran is that interested in pushing for this sectarian war not because they are good guys but because they are too damn ambitious. They think if they play the card of sectarianism they can only influence 20% of the Islamic world.
Ghattas: They’re a minority nation.
Milani: They want to influence 100%. Therefore, it is not to their interest to push this whereas, for Saudi Arabia, it is to their interest to push this one. So, for Iran, they’re going to do everything they can to try to lower the level of sectarianism. This is why they have provided huge support to the two Sunni rejectionist Palestinian groups - Hamas and Jihad. These are not Shi’ites. These are Sunni groups and that is an important point to make about Iranian perspective.
Ghattas: There is, also, in the context of the Syrian war, a slight breakdown in that relationship between Iran and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Next question please. Go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Nizar Farzakh from the Project on Middle East Democracy.
I’m glad that the discussion came to this point. I would like the panelists to elaborate a bit and be a bit more specific about what I perceive as the source - you seem to be very confident that the sectarianism that we’re seeing is not going to be sustained ultimately and things are going to revert somehow to a pluralistic society and I’m wondering what is the source of that confidence?
When you have actors like Hezbollah who are having generations of people act in a way that is obviously very sectarian where they’re fighting for their sect and not necessarily for what is good for their country - Tunisians fighting in Syria rather than establishing the government in Tunis. Palestinians, we do not have Shi’ite in Palestine and one of the ways where Fatah was trying to undermine or delegitimize Hamas, was saying that they are Shi’a, right?
I think the challenge is not in the powers that are manipulating the sectarianism but in fact in the people that are buying into it. So, the fact that people are starting to identify in those sectarian terms and feeling maybe that was what was wrong in the first place that we should have all along have identified our sect and in our sect is the best place for us to save ourselves. My question is to the panel: if you can elaborate more on why do you think that there is no staying power for that identification in the populace and not by the regional powers?
Ghattas: Who would like to take that? Greg, you look thoughtful.
Gause: I was keeping my eyes down so you wouldn’t look at me. (Laughter.)
Look, sectarianism is not going away in the Middle East. It’s not going away in the United States of America. It’s not going away in Europe. It’s not going away anywhere. It’s a question of how salient that identity is for your political life and that salience goes up and down.
We’re in a situation, I think Mona is right, where things that might have happened from the top have now kind of taken root in a way from the bottom up that is extremely dangerous and extremely violent and makes it difficult to imagine how you get beyond that to the kinds of deals that could stabilize political life. But, we do have evidence that it can happen in Lebanon, right? The reconstruction of Lebanese order was, and I’ll let Paul and Kim talk about this because they know it better than I, it was imperfect but at least people stopped killing each other. And then, once you get people to start killing each other maybe then something else can happen but I’m not optimistic that it happens in the short term.
Ghattas: Mona, would you want to weigh in?
Yacoubian: I would agree. My sense is, again as I’ve said, I think this is a self-perpetuating dynamic and therefore in the short-term I think more likely than not we’re going to see a deepening of sectarianism. Frankly, I think it’s going to shape various trajectories in the region, perhaps in ways that we can’t even foresee at this point.
Ghattas: Where does education fit in? And, I’m thinking of Syria where until this civil war broke out there was very little mention of sectarianism. It was all about coexistence. It was all about how no one thought that they were Sunni vs. Alawite vs. Christian. The government put a lot of emphasis on that and in the end, we must remember that the majority in Syria is Sunni. I think 80%. So, how does that work?
Yacoubian: I think education and frankly what will happen to what is now being termed a lost generation in Syria is going to be critical. Beyond the suffering of children in Syria, one million of whom are refugees, and the schools having been closed down, etc., you now do have the specter of Islamist extremist groups, jihadist groups, Salafist groups imposing various types of education and their ideology in schools on the young children. I think that in many ways can shape where this goes. Again, that’s why I’m saying I think it’s inordinately more complicated to roll this back. It’s going to be quite difficult.
Ghattas: Mohsen wants to say something and then we’ll take the next question
Milani: I think the single greatest case that has been interpreted in the West as victory for sectarianism was when Twelver Shi’ism became state religion in Iran in 1501. Now the conventional wisdom is that this was a sectarian war between the Ottoman-Sunnis and the Persian-Shi’ites. Well, this is not accurate. Yes, the Safavid used Shi’ism to push their agenda but theological differences between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites had nothing to do with this. In fact, at that time Iran was a predominantly Sunni country. It was so predominantly Sunni that the Persian kings had to go to Southern Lebanon - hence the importance of Southern Lebanon for Iran – to bring to Iran Arab clerics who didn’t even speak Persian.
So, the point I’m trying to make is sectarianism not seen in the context of power struggle for the supremacy of a state is not that important. It is in that context that it becomes important.
Ghattas: Please, sir, go ahead.
Question: My name is Aaron Reese from the Institute for the Study of War. We’ve talked a little bit about state collapse inside of borders and that no one’s going to really have any interests in changing the legal borders. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to, for the whole panel but maybe Dr. Gause and Paul, about what happens when states lose control of those borders and there are those who are trying to establish de facto, if not de jure, borders? I’m thinking in particular of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams which has sort of spread itself across Eastern Iraq, Western Syria… no I’m sorry, Western Iraq and Eastern Syria and established if not borders, nominal control in the areas where the ISF can’t control in Iraq and where there’s no regime presence in Syria.
Salem: I think in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the reality we are in and we will be probably for the foreseeable future is sectarian and ethnic zones that are at various levels of self-rule – yes, without much formalization neither international borders nor, except rarely like the KRG, in some official federal system. I think they will continue to be linked to regional proxy wars, sectarian, ethnic, and so on.
The best that can be hoped for, I think realistically, I’d hope for lovely things, but realistically is to manage this mosaic and the case of Lebanon is instructive. We had 16 years of civil war and were killing each other very vigorously but we’ve had 23 years after that still not forming a nation-state that’s sovereign, however, it’s been peaceful. Life has gone on for citizens. The economy has progressed; we’ve rebuilt. It’s a way of muddling through.
Iraq has not gotten there. There’s still - whether it’s from the Maliki government or others - an attempt to use force and power to battle your way through. Obviously, Syria is not there at all. I think we will be for the next few decades in this not Balkanized but maybe balkanized with a small ‘b’ - a patchwork zone in which the regional powers should help manage and tamp down conflict until deeper changes might take place. I think sectarianism is with us for this generation and the next but history also moves. The U.S. enslaved African Americans and then somehow elected an African American President. It took a long time but history also moves in mysterious ways. We’re not jaded. The president of Syria in the 20s was a Christian for a moment. Nobody remarked about it. It wasn’t an issue. It has become an issue now. Perhaps in 50 years, but it’ll be a hell of a long time, perhaps it won’t be an issue.
Ghattas: Greg, do you want to say something?
Gause: No. I think that’s it.
Ghattas: Let’s take a question from this side please.
Question: My name is Alexis Sobchenko. I am a private citizen. I apologize for repeating the questions which were asked before me.
The topic of this panel was Balkanization of Levant and very quickly the panel unanimously came to the conclusion that this is not a plausible scenario. I would like to go back for the sake of worst-case scenario. What will the Syrian Christians, Alawites, Shi’ites, Druzes do if Al-Qa’eda and pro-Al-Qa’eda forces like Al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria take the upper hand in the Sunni areas? What will these non-Sunni actors do? Thank you.
Ghattas: Mona, why don’t you take that, please?
Yacoubian: Again, I think that the disposition of minorities in Syria is a big concern. It doesn’t to my mind though portend the re-drawing of borders in the sense of the term Balkanization but I think we’re already seeing several trends. One is we’re seeing - not just from Syria and the Levant but much more broadly from the Arab world - we’re seeing Christians leaving the region because I think for many of them the Arab uprisings have not boded well for them. That’s one trend.
The second is I think we’re seeing in Syria ways in which minority communities are closing in upon themselves. I think the Druze are an excellent example of that in Syria where they are very much solidified in the Jabal Druze and the Souaida in the Southern areas, south of Damascus. I think this is kind of along the lines of what Paul was describing - this idea of a patchwork of enclaves, which was also the case in Lebanon for some years. I think that that’s unfortunately where Syria is headed. But not the creation of statelets. These are not entities that are self-sufficient and you’re not going to have a Alawi’stan with its own capital and flag nor will you have a Jabal Druze that’s it own separate sovereign entity that - I just don’t think it’s feasible.
Ghattas: Yet when articles talking about the redrawing of maps are published in the Western press it is seen back in the region as proof that there is a plot to divide the region which then feeds its own dynamic and that’s quite, quite interesting.
Let’s take the last two questions together so that we can wrap up and get a little bit from everyone on the panel.
Question: My name is Anthony Ody. I’m a consultant for World Bank. Dr. Milani started the ball rolling on discussion of a potential U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. I wondered if we could imagine playing the ball a bit further down the field. Which issues potentially on the table might we expect some progress, whether it’s substantive or lower in temperatures, and which issues are really, really stubborn and difficult for them to get anywhere with?
Ghattas: Are you talking specifically about the nuclear agreement?
Question: No, I’m talking about in general, issues on the table. Let’s suppose we make progress with nuclear, where else could we go? Where might we not go?
Question: My name is Safei Hamed. I’m a professor with Chatham University. I’d like to thank the panel for very intriguing and diverse opinions and views.
I have some reservations or a point to raise about the use of terminology. The term which has been used several times, “the jihadi,” and since we are in a very scholarly stage here, I guess any educated Muslim around the Muslim world would look at the word “jihadi” not as a dirty word but it is actually a very noble word. While, of course, the mass media probably has since September 11 stereotyped this word. I would like to ask the question. I’m trying to avoid creating the myth and following it so all our calculations and our policies and studies will be distorted or tainted by the myth we created ourselves.
To many scholars of Islam, jihadi is a spectrum of activism. Starts with maybe speaking or writing and ending up with social welfare work all over the place and at the end of the spectrum, there is military resistance but the way I felt hearing it in this panel that it is the boogeyman. That if we don’t find solutions for sectarianism, we will end up with jihadists taking over and I would take an issue with that. Thanks.
Ghattas: Sectarianism is on all sides, of course. We have sectarianism being used by Christian right-wing groups in Lebanon as well. So, I will ask Mohsen to answer the question about Iran and what issues the U.S. and Iran might make progress on and what might be the sticking points if you could keep a little bit brief. We’re going to try to get both answers in before the end of the panel.
Milani: I can think of four very specific and concrete areas where the two countries can collaborate and have mutual benefit.
First is in Afghanistan - especially with the withdrawal of American troops starting next December. I think the two countries do have a common goal of preventing Al Qa’eda and the Taliban from having a strong presence in Afghanistan. I think the second regional area is on Iraq. The two countries have a great deal of commonality about the future of Iraq and I think they can work together and if it works in Iraq, it takes us to the third area and that is oil and gas, especially gas. Iran has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Iran is involved in having a number of pipelines going from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan and another going to the Mediterranean through Iraq. The U.S. can get involved in this and the two can work collaboratively and I think that is a very important development in terms of energy security.
Finally, I think on Syria the two countries despite their disagreements share two common objectives. One. Neither one wants to see the complete breakdown of the Syrian state. I am not sure if other players in the Persian Gulf see it the same way. Secondly, I think the two countries want to oppose the jihadists - and I’m using the word that is being used in the literature here - the extremists and the Al-Qa’eda affiliated groups that have become empowered in Syria. Both countries can work together to eliminate the region from the danger of these extremist groups.
Ghattas: Mohsen, Hezbollah? The key sticking point, yes or no?
Milani: I think the question of Hezbollah - for Iran because it is the most important issue - Iran would be willing to discuss it only after they have built quite a bit of confidence with the U.S. At this time, I don’t think it’s on the table.
Ghattas: Paul, you wanted to say something on this as well?
Salem: I think there could be a link between maybe what the U.S. and Iran may or may not agree on and what really destabilizes the Middle East. The fact of the matter is Iran today supports an exclusionary regime in Baghdad, which after the U.S. withdrawal has done its best to effectively exclude a major community. In Syria, they are standing fast by a sadistic regime, which has butchered its population and completely ruined Syria and is an open-ended butchery. In Lebanon, they happily support a non-state actor, which completely dominates the state, has no respect for the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people, and so on.
Now all of this has been done previously with the justification that Iran is under threat, the revolution is under threat from the U.S. and Israel so this is a defensive. Hezbollah is there to deter. Syria is there as a deterrence and an ally and this and that. This links back to what has aggravated the Arab world, the Sunni world, and so on. Iran definitely has outstretched itself illegitimately in ways that are clear, that are unacceptable by normal standards and if nuclear talks are an opportunity for Iran to rethink, recalibrate, retreat effectively from these very aggressive and unjustifiable in a normal context, that is a way to begin to repair Iranian-Arab relations. But, the way it is now and these three states and Iran’s clear policies - I agree that there is an Iranian thinking, the wish that if we could only reach out to the whole Muslim world. After the 2006 war, there that was a time and indeed Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah were the most popular leaders in the Sunni world, according to all. But, it’s a fact that when push came to shove, they stood with the sect in Iraq, the sect in Syria, and the sect in Lebanon and they’re responsible for those policies and for the blowback against those policies.
Ghattas: Mona, would you like to address this but also I wanted to have an answer for the gentleman who talked about the term jihadis and perhaps you could expand a little bit and talk about whether there are preconceived ideas in the West about what people are depending on what they look like. I remember that there was a lot of alarm looking at fighters in Syria and thinking, “well, they have beards, they must be Islamists. They must be radical. They’re not liberal. They’re not like us.” Is that justified? Is it not? Do you think that the word “jihadi” is being misused?
Yacoubian: I think jihadi is often thrown around loosely and I certainly take the questioner’s point about the fact that jihadist encompasses a spectrum that can be spiritual all the way up to violent and I do think for sure and it has been said that there are many rebel groups, rebels, who may take on the appearance - whether it’s the beards, whether it’s the dress, whatever it is - of a Salafist or a more radical Islamist that may by part and parcel of the sea in which they swim rather than an indication of some sort of deep ideological attachment to the idea of violent jihad.
Ghattas: Christian fighters in Lebanon in the middle of the war didn’t look that different actually.
Yacoubian: But that said, I think there absolutely is a violent jihadist element operating in Syria today that espouses an ideology that is transnational in scope, that looks to reestablish a sort of Caliphate which one really can’t ignore - particularly if we understand that we are actually seeing an increase in the number of foreign fighters who espouse this ideology coming to Syria. I think that absolutely can’t be ignored and potentially has implications going forward.
Ghattas: We’re going to wrap up the panel. I’m going to ask one last question and I want thirty- second answers from each one of you. Your favorite way of ending a panel.
Ten years from now what does the Levant look like? Greg? You can do it.
Gause: I have no idea but the international borders will be the same as they are today.
Milani: I am not going to make a fool out of myself. (Laughter.)
Yacoubian: And neither am I. I would actually parrot exactly what Greg said. We just don’t know.
Ghattas: Continued strife?
Salem: Of course, we can’t know that but to attempt to be useful in the way, I think that the likely scenario is, as we’ve been all saying, a fractured both ethnically and sectarianly - and ten years is not a long time. Ten years is a few months basically strung together. (Laughter.)
I don’t see any major changes from Iran or Saudi Arabia or the international community. Hence, I see probably that Iraq, Syria, Lebanon remain fragmented and troubled. I hope and I expect that perhaps the level of enormous conflict would have been damped down. That perhaps like in Lebanon - the Lebanese Civil War - the first two years we really went at it and then we cooled it for sixteen years but it still was an on and off civil war but not a lot of people were being killed. I hope that at least we would calm the present mess.
Ghattas: Greg has come up with an answer.
Gause: I do think that if there’s one place ten years from now that might look better in terms of having a more coherent state and a state that is more inclusive in terms of citizenship, I think it might be Iraq because Iraq has the money to build, it has the potential for money to build that state and I think that state institutions in Iraq, the bureaucratic state is being somewhat reconstructed. I’m not talking about the KRG, just Arab Iraq. But, I think that if there’s one place in ten years that might look better than it does today, it might be Iraq.
Ghattas: All right. Greg, Mohsen, Mona, and Paul, thank you very much for your interventions and thank you all for joining us for this panel. Thank you very much.