Heaven preserve us from ‘Middle East experts’
THE following is the first three pages of an article entitled “A violent sorting out”, published in Christian Century on May 13, 2015. I apologize for not covering “Middle East expert” Joshua Landis’ entire interview. I would have reproduced more of it here, if I hadn’t found it so profoundly exasperating. It’s a striking example of how Americans think, even after long contact with the Middle East. I have placed my comments on it in green. — Adil Ireland, June 7, 2015. Advertisements: (1) In case you’re interested in knowing more info on TenGenix, stop by http://supplementrant.com.
A violent sorting out
Middle East expert Joshua Landis
Apr 30, 2015 interview by Richard A. Kauffman
Joshua M. Landis, associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and director of its Center for Middle East Studies, has served as a consultant to the State Department on Middle East issues. He is president of the Syrian Studies Association and runs the blog Syria Comment.
How did you become an expert on Syria, of all places?
I lived in Beirut and in Saudi Arabia for the first ten years of my life. My father worked for Citibank. After college I got a teaching job rather serendipitously in Lebanon in 1979, when Lebanon was in the middle of a civil war. I started learning Arabic and trying to figure out why the Lebanese were shooting each other.
Two years later I got a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Damascus. I was there in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood took over the third-largest city in Syria. The regime smashed it, killing perhaps 20,000 people. Then I pursued Middle Eastern studies at Harvard and Princeton and wrote about Syria.
You saw early on the issues that were shaping Syria and Lebanon.
Right. And the civil war that I witnessed in Lebanon had similarities to what is going on today in Syria in that it was a sectarian struggle.
Can the war in Syria be described as a “civil war” pitting rebel Sunnis against regime Alawites, when (a) so many of the jihadis fighting the Syrian Arab Army are foreigners; (b) when so much funding for the jihadis comes from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere; (c) when Israel treats wounded jihadis in its hospitals, and then sends them back to the battlefield; (d) when most of the Syrian Army’s soldiers are Sunnis, and (e) when most Syrians, like most peoples in the Middle East, are not greatly concerned about sectarian differences? In connection with the last point, it should be noted that members of the different sects coexisted for generations, with relatively little friction, until (as in places like Bosnia and Iraq) neighbor was set against neighbor by those seeking to turn the subsequent bloodletting and ethnic cleansing to their political advantage. If you speak to people in the Middle East, now victims of entrenched “sectarian” conflict, about life in the “old days”, they will often tell you, “We didn’t even know what our neighbors were, and we certainly didn’t ask.” It is mainly in simplistic Western analysis that one encounters the “myth of ancient hatreds” — hatreds that, by and large, have never existed. Generally, people don’t hate each other for sectarian reasons, unless they are jihadis/takfiris. But as I have pointed out, many of the takfiris in Syria are outsiders; and those that aren’t are firmly in the grip of Wahhabi (Saudi) doctrine.
All the regimes in the Levant area of the Middle East were run by religious minorities: Lebanon by the Maronites, Iraq by the Sunnis, Syria by the Alawites. You could even say that the Jews were a minority in Palestine that turned themselves into a majority.
Again, this is too simplistic. Take Iraq, for example. The state was secular, under the rule of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party. The whole point of the Ba’ath Party, as originally conceived by Syrian Greek Orthodox Christian philosopher Michel Aflaq, was that it would embrace Arabs of all confessions and lead to an overall renaissance of Arab culture and power. (“Ba’ath” means “renaissance”.) The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was a Sunni, but how concerned was he, in reality, about matters of religion? If he tended to appoint Sunnis — and fellow Tikritis, in particular — to prominent positions, he clearly did so as a person whose power was based more on cronyism than on religion. This point is proved, I think, by the fact his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz (not his real name), was a Chaldean Catholic. It is only ignorant Westerners, analyzing the situation from the outside, who give preeminence to religion (or ethnicity), and who assume that, if the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds were represented at all levels of the Government/administration in numbers strictly proportionate to their respective demographics, all would be well. Acting on this assumption, as the Americans did during their occupation of Iraq, doesn’t lead to a lessening of any sectarian tension. On the contrary, it inevitably leads to considerable suspicion and resentment, especially when a job seems to go not to the most competent person but to the person with the “right” religious or ethnic credentials. (It should be noted, however, that many in the American administration were aware of this, but pursued the policy nevertheless as a divide-and-rule tactic. The policy is also in accord with the Yinon plan for the fragmentation of the nation states of the Middle East, which is mentioned below.)
Autocratic rule by a minority sets up a very unstable situation?
Yes, it is unstable. We’ve been seeing over the past 30 years the popular demand to get rid of these minority regimes. In Lebanon it took a 15-year civil war to do it.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was powerful enough not to be overthrown, despite many attempts, until the United States invaded and threw the Sunnis — who were 20 percent of the country — to the bottom of society and catapulted the Shi‘ites — the 60 percent majority — to the top. That unleashed an unholy sectarian war.
This confirms the assertion I made above. Missing, however, are two important points: (1) The Americans deliberately destroyed the secular state by (a) disbanding the Iraqi Army, (b) launching a callous “de-Ba’athification” program, and (c) reestablishing the state on a confessional-ethnic basis in line with the Yinon plan — the longstanding Israeli scheme to dismantle all the nation states of the Middle East and split them up into rival, confessional fiefdoms that pose no threat to Iraeli hegemony. (See ISIS: Made in Israel?) These moves deprived huge numbers of people of their livelihood, and led directly to the resistance to the occupation. (2) The jihadis/takfiris — de facto allies of the Americans as well as their putative enemies — then played their catalytic role by attacking Shia pilgrims and blowing up Shia mosques, principally the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006. Thus, all parties, while ostensibly pursuing their respective interests, were induced to act, by one means or another (think 9/11), in Israel’s interests. The whole process might be described as a practical application of the game theory popularized by John Nash.
How has Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad been able to stay in power so long?
In large measure because he’s been preparing for this sort of uprising for years. He placed Alawites, the Islamic sect he belongs to, in the top security positions in the military and in the intelligence agency so that they would not abandon him in a crisis. By contrast, the military in Egypt abandoned Mubarak and in Tunisia they abandoned Ben Ali. All through the Arab Spring countries the militaries turned against their dictators—but not in Syria, because the Alawite minority understood that they would be swept away were the president to fall. They also have strong allies in Iran and Russia and support from other minorities.
The system was in place long before Bashar, a former ophthalmologist in London, arrived on the scene.
Some Christians even support the Assad regime.
Christians make up perhaps 5 percent of Syria’s population. That figure used to be more like 14 percent, after World War II. And there are the Druze, the Ismailis, and the Kurds. But the Arab Sunnis are 70 percent of the population, by far the majority. There are quite a few Sunnis who support the regime, oddly enough, because over 40 years many people worked for the regime or are implicated in its rule. If the opposition were to take power, many of the Assad supporters would lose their jobs and probably their property as well.
Of course the Christians support the regime. And there is nothing “odd” about the support that Assad receives from Sunnis — most Sunnis, actually. Basically, anyone who doesn’t relish the prospect of living under Salafist/takfiri rule is (at least provisionally) for the state.
What interests do Western powers have in Syria?
Historically, very little. Certainly the United States has had limited interests. We’ve imposed sanctions on the country since the 1970s and have almost no trade with it. Our main interest is to not allow the chaos and violence in Syria to bring down friendly regimes in the neighborhood. And, of course, more recently our interest is in curbing ISIS and radicalism in the region.
(1) If you’re talking only about trade, the US does have “limited interests” in Syria. But if you look at the big picture, you soon see that the US is keenly interested in the country. After all, it is situated roughly at the center of the Shia “arc of resistance” to Israel that runs from Tehran to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It has long been scheduled for destruction and dismemberment under the Yinon plan. It has also been seen as the final stop on the road to Tehran — the ultimate target of the Israeli campaign for total domination of the Middle East. (2) Is the US really interested in curbing ISIS and radicalism? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. Obviously, the US doesn’t want ISIS to overstep the mark. But having a “radical” Sunni “caliphate” sitting in the middle of the Shia “arc of resistance”, and breaking it up, is a dream come true for American foreign policy. The Israelis, too, are delighted by the development. The US is always happy to use jihadist groups, as it did in Libya, when interests coincide, even as it claims the jihadis pose such a threat to “Western civilization” that the US economy must be kept on a permanent war footing and the surveillance and control of American citizens (all of whom are potential enemies in the Orwellian security state) must be constantly tightened. Hence the militarization of American police forces, some of which now receive part of their training in Israel.
What can be done?
President Obama has made the assessment that it would be damaging to the United States to try to organize a full-scale occupation of Syria to disarm the radicals and construct a new government — the sort of thing we attempted in Iraq (and didn’t attempt in Libya). His aim is to pursue a very narrow policy of counterterrorism, which some Americans argue we’re good at. We can listen to the terrorists’ phone calls, track them, and keep them in databases. If they come to the West trying to kill Americans, we’ll kill them first.
Here we have a typical American’s exultation in his nation’s perceived omnipotence — its ability to kill anyone, anywhere, for any reason or no reason, without any reference to due process. Forget about Magna Carta and the rule of law painstakingly put in place in the centuries since then. If you continue to draw breath, you do so by kind permission of the prez of the “exceptional” and “indispensable” US — the self-appointed arbiter of all things. (See Washington’s Death Squads.)The other point to be made about the above paragraph is that any invasion and occupation of Syria by an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” would, of course, be illegal — just as the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal. It’s high time the US revisited the Nuremberg Principles it so loftily and self-righteously proclaimed after World War II.
The president thinks this is a much less expensive and more doable policy than trying to somehow fix Syria and sort out the ethnic hostilities, defuse Islamism, and construct a liberal government along the lines the West would like.
What? Is the “white man’s burden” a bit too much for Obama’s black back?
The president has spoken of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. Is that feasible?
I think the degrading is going on. Destroying ISIS is not feasible — not with the policies that are now being pursued.
President Bush wanted to destroy Islamic extremism and was willing to spend trillions of dollars to do it in Afghanistan and Iraq with an occupation. He believed that effort would lead to power sharing and the emergence of democratic governments that would have a domino effect in the Middle East—democracies breaking out all over.
No nation would spend trillions of dollars on such a quixotic enterprise. The US, like all great powers, pursues its perceived geopolitical interests (which may, in reality, be Israel’s interests in some cases). It seeks the “full-spectrum dominance” that was envisaged in Project for the New American Century, and hopes, eventually, to encircle, control, and neutralize Russia and China. To that end, it uses its military, or its jihadist proxies, to secure resource-rich areas, whose oil and minerals can then, if necessary, be denied to China. Hence the recent creation of the Africom military command, as a prelude to the takeover of much of the African continent. The US has to act in this way, because the military is the only effective tool of foreign policy it still has. It can’t compete with China on an economic level.
That didn’t work out.
Of course it didn’t. If Bush really believed that democracies would “break out all over”, he was delusional. Anyway, the US is primarily interested in securing subservience, not democracy. Saddam was Washington’s henchman in the Middle East — until he got stroppy, and indicated (as Gadaffi foolishly did) that he planned to stop trading oil in US dollars. Never underestimate the readiness of the US to go to war to preserve the petrodollar tyranny. This is the real basis of US power.
The United States spent a lot of money on the effort. It managed to put the Shi‘ites in power in Iraq, so we were partly successful. But that hasn’t brought liberalism to the Middle East, and it hasn’t been an antidote to extremist Islamism. In fact, it has inflamed Islamism. Al-Qaeda is now well ensconced in Iraq. ISIS, a breakaway group from al-Qaeda, now controls one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria. That is a direct by-product of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Well, at least you’ve got one thing right.
Fifteen of the top 20 officers under Caliph al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, are former members of the Baathist Party in Iraq who were thrown out of power when the United States overthrew Saddam, and most of them spent long periods of time in American prisons.
Are you saying there’s a revenge factor for these ISIS leaders?
They don’t like America, but their main goal is to rule the Middle East and not to be ruled by the Shi‘ites who were put in power by the United States in Iraq and who pushed the Baathists out of government in the country.
No, it was the Americans who got rid of the Ba’athists.
You have said elsewhere that military intervention by the United States in Syria would be a disaster. Why?
Theoretically, if you had NATO and international support, lots of money, and a willingness to stay for 20 or 30 years, you could rearrange Syrian society, rebuild its economy, provide people with education, and build a middle class and a new government. Obviously, the United States is not going to do that because we have had almost no interest in Syria.
More “white-man’s-burden” rubbish. These were sophisticated societies with good education systems before the US designated them for “regime change” and systematically wrecked everything. In Libya, it even destroyed the water infrastructure. The only things that thrive there now are squalor and chaos.
Throwing arms into the area in the hope that somehow good people are going to end up on top is a very risky policy and one that’s leading to the breakdown of Syrian society and the growth of jihadism.
But the US is the creator and sponsor of jihadism, remember? It was the US that let the genie out of the bottle — in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Since then, as I have said, Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have been both US ally and perpetual casus belli. As Nafeez Ahmed has pointed out, “Islamic terrorism” is not an extraneous phenomenon; it is an intrinsic part of the “system” that the US has instituted. In the philosophy of Leo Strauss, who taught some of the budding neocons at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, there must always an enemy — a “bad guy” wearing a black hat — lurking somewhere out there if society is to be amenable to manipulation and to be given direction and focus. The “Islamic terrorist”, both savage and inscrutable, fits the bill perfectly. He’s the ideal bogeyman.
Is there anything that the United States can do or should do?
It should spend a lot more money on helping and educating the refugees. The United States needs to set a clear agenda for the regional powers that are supporting the radicals. Turkey, for example, has been allowing al-Qaeda and ISIS to move back and forth across its territory. And Arabs in the Persian Gulf states have been pouring money into all kinds of jihadist groups.
Others can also play your double game, Uncle Sam.
You’ve talked in other places about a great “sorting out” happening in the Middle East. What do you mean?
What’s going on in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Iraq—the entire Levant—is a nation-building process. It’s similar to what happened at the end of World War I when major empires were destroyed.
No, it’s not a nation-building process; it’s the exact opposite. All the nations of the Middle East are to be either co-opted by USrael or destroyed. That is how the Empire works.
POSTSCRIPT: Two good articles about Syria, published while I was writing my comments on the above piece, are:
1. Obama’s Big Lie on Syria: “Despite the risk that Syria’s Christians, Alawites and Shiites will be slaughtered by Sunni extremists, the Obama administration is backing the Saudi-Israeli demand for “regime change” in Damascus, including tweeting bogus accusations linking Syria’s secular regime to ISIS, writes Daniel Lazare.” Read the rest of the article at http://islamnz.tumblr.com/post/121094312115/obamas-big-lie-on-syria
2. Sleepwalking to Another Mideast Disaster: “Denied crucial information about Syria, the American people are being led toward the precipice of another Middle East war, guided by neocons and liberal hawks who are set on ‘regime change’ even if that means a likely victory for Sunni terrorists,” writes Robert Parry. Read the rest of the article at http://islamnz.tumblr.com/post/121095040905/sleepwalking-to-another-mideast-disaster
SEE ALSO: Pentagon report predicted West’s support for Islamist rebels would create ISIS, by Nafeez Ahmed: “A declassified secret US government document obtained by the conservative public interest law firm, Judicial Watch, shows that Western governments deliberately allied with al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups to topple Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad… the Pentagon foresaw the likely rise of the ‘Islamic State’ as a direct consequence of this strategy, and warned that it could destabilize Iraq.” The rest of the article is at https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/secret-pentagon-report-reveals-west-saw-isis-as-strategic-asset-b99ad7a29092