May 13, 2017


The Syrian War : Adam Shatz talks to Joshua Landis (London Review of Books, 4/21/17)

In this episode of the LRB podcast, Adam Shatz talks to Joshua Landis about Syria. Joshua Landis is the Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and his blog, Syria Comment, has long been an indispensable guide to a country that has never been easy to see, both because of the nature of the Assad regime and because of the fog of war since the uprising began there in 2011. [...]

AS: It's rather striking, Josh, that in Syria a minority sect, the Alawites, rather like the Sunni minority in Iraq, created a state, or dominated a state, based on a superficially universalist ideology - the ideology of pan-Arabism. Syria, of course, was known as the beating heart of pan-Arabism during the Cold War. And I think what you're suggesting is that in Syria as in Iraq or, for that matter, a country like Yugoslavia, where Yugoslav identity was most passionately embraced by a minority, the Serbs, that this universal ideology essentially became a fig-leaf for what were a network of familial and clan interests.

JL: Absolutely. And we see that right across the Middle East, where Arab Nationalism was the presiding ideology, from the successful struggle against colonialism that ends at the end of World War II, when both Britain and France retreat from the Middle East. Now, that's partly ... not because of the success of Arab nationalism - it's largely because Europe was in its own civil war, the thirty years' war between World War I and II, and it weakened itself so severely that it had to withdraw from the Middle East. But Arab Nationalism became the prevailing ideology right up until ... it's been ... the Iranian Revolution, where Islamism successfully challenged it there, but then continued to build Islamist parties around the Middle East. And today Arab Nationalism is really a very weak reed - you know, Arafat gone in Palestine; Boumédiène; Ben Ali; Saddam Hussein. In many ways, Assad is the last of these.

AS: So was Arab Nationalism particularly attractive to minority groups, such as the Alawites or the Sunnis in Iraq, because it was a way for them to transcend their minority status, submerge themselves in something larger, and also, in a sense, conceal themselves within a kind of larger community of interests?

JL: Absolutely. It was a way to safety for minorities. They embraced Arab Nationalism more heartily than Sunni Arabs. Now, of course, there was an elite of Sunni Arabs who also embraced it - it was very important that there were these sort of cross-cutting alliances between minorities and a Sunni elite, all of whom saw Arab Nationalism as the way to bind together these very fragmented societies, and to build the foundations for a new state - I mean, people bought nationalism after World War I, it was the growing ideology. But because the nationalist governments turned out to be, in fact, hijacked by minorities ... it's important to understand that minorities were able to come to power, and to grab authority in the state, in every one of the Levantine countries after World War II, and this is largely because of the colonial occupation. The colonial powers, Britain and France, used minorities to divide and conquer and to keep their power in all these countries, and this meant that minorities were able to grab the state once colonial powers left - this is true for the Maronites of Lebanon, the Catholic Christians of Lebanon; the Alawites of Syria, who are about 12 per cent of the population; the Sunnis of Iraq, 20 per cent of the population; and also the Jews of Palestine, who were a third of the population by the time the British withdrew in 1948 and they got independence.

AS: To some extent that was also true of the Kabyles of Algeria, who were, at one and the same time, disproportionately influential and intermittently persecuted and forced to repress their ethnic identity.

JL: Well, and it's true of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan as well, which in some ways was a foreign implant in Jordan - not that foreign, because it's only from Arabia, the Hejaz, and it has Islamic legitimacy; but in all of them, they've been challenged - these minoritarian states. Now, the Jews were able to become a majority - they're the only minority that were able to become a majority in numerical population, because ... through war, and because two-thirds of the Palestinians either fled or were driven out of Palestine. And, of course, the process is not an easy one - the Palestinians are still trying to get a hunk of the state; but their fortunes seem to diminish with every year.

AS: In a sense, you're almost arguing that what we're seeing now in Iraq and Syria are latter-day Nakbas?

JL: Yes, we are. Because the majority population is trying to get rid of minoritarian rule. And that begins in 1975 in Lebanon, with the Lebanese civil war, which was driven, at the most simplistic level, by the Muslim population, which had grown to be 60-65 per cent - 60 per cent perhaps, 66 per cent - it was a majority of the Lebanese population; and it looked up at the Maronites and Christians that were presiding ... had a lion's share of power, and said, Why should you rule? One man, one vote. And it used democracy, and the call for democracy, to challenge the supremacy of the Christians. The Christians, of course, were terrified. They thought, If we lose power, we're going to be driven out, in the same way that Armenians had been driven out of Turkey and so forth. So they clung on to power, they fought bitterly ...

AS: Of course, in all the cases that you're describing - Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria - not a single one of these conflicts has been a pure internal struggle; in each of these cases the borders of the state have been porous and permeable, and powerful outside actors have profoundly shaped and made more violent the dynamics of the conflict. In Lebanon, for example, the Israel-Palestine conflict exerted a very significant influence, since you had a large Palestinian refugee community and the PLO was based there, etc. And now, with both Iraq and Syria, we see no less intense dynamics of external meddling both by regional powers and by international powers.

JL: Absolutely. All these wars turned into regional wars. And not just regional wars, but also ... international powers, because they pulled in the Cold War Russia and America, which were competing. Today, of course, the dynamic is Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Shi'ites versus Sunnis. Those are the fault lines in the Middle East; but Russia, of course, has sided with the Shi'ites, and America has sided with the Sunnis, by and large. And so, those divisions go right up onto an international level - they're very geostrategic; they're not just about religion, they're being driven by geostrategic struggle for balance of power.

AS: That actually brings me to another question that I wanted to ask you about Iran's proxy force in the Syrian conflict - Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia political and military organisation led by its General Secretary, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has played a critical role in protecting the Assad regime, and it's made two claims about its support - one made early by Nasrallah in the conflict is that Hezbollah is fighting against taqfiris - against extreme jihadists. The other claim is that it is fighting to defend Shia shrines in Syria. Hezbollah hasn't spoken much about its major reason for entering the conflict, or what some believe to be its major reason - protecting its supply line, so that Iran can continue to provide it with weapons. Josh, can you assess Hezbollah's relationship to the Assad regime and its long-term project in Syria. I'm also wondering, if Hezbollah is successful in protecting the regime, how might this affect Israeli-Syrian relations, as Hezbollah potentially acquires power inside of Syria - is there a greater chance that Israel might be tempted to get drawn into the war?

JL: Yes. We do have to see this as a regional war, which is what you're outlining. In a sense, there is a super-struggle going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunnis and Shi'ites, for authority, influence and dominance in the Middle East. And what we're seeing happen in the northern Middle East - that's Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - is that ... Shi'ite minorities in Lebanon - Hezbollah; Syria - the Assad regime, the Alawites; and of course a Shi'ite majority in Iraq - which has been brought to power by the United States and really ... un-clinched this regional war, and allowed for a reshuffling of the balance of power, and allowed for Iran to see a way to dominate the entire northern Arab world.

Posted by at May 13, 2017 5:43 PM