After Eid I spent ten days in Syria, doing my best to collect as many individual impressions as I could. Everything about the trip was limited, but I was lucky enough to have many people share some part of their stories on what was ultimately a very fragmentary, kaleidoscopic, picaresque jag through government-controlled Syria on an itinerary and schedule largely not of my own design. And yet, the human stories seep through — even in these amateur snapshots I made with my phone. These images offer but a sliver of perspective. Yet still I believe they’re worth scanning through, to catch a glimpse of quotidian life.
Syria’s president paid a visit to Moscow this week, maybe to say thank you, maybe to pay fealty to a sponsor, maybe to hear some requests. Some compared the visit to the obligatory calls Lebanese presidents used to have to pay the Assads in Damascus. PRI’s The World talked to Neil McFarquhar about the visit, and then asked me about the lives of everyday Syrians I met on my visit to Syria earlier this month. You can listen here.
“There’s a sense of relief that the cavalry coming from Moscow is going to be much closer to the Syrian elite’s way of life than the Iranians who had been rescuing them until now,” Cambanis says.
For evidence of the comradery, consider the affectionate nickname Assad supporters have given Putin — “Abu Ali.”
“It’s a way of saying this guy is one of us, he’s going to be the godfather of our victory, and he’s a little bit of an old-fashioned strongman.” Cambanis says. “It’s sort of silly, propagandistic sycophancy. On the other hand, it reflects this thirst for an outside savior.”
I visited government-held Syria in October at a pivotal moment, gaining a rare glimpse into the part of the country still controlled by President Bashar al-Assad. The Century Foundation, where I am a fellow, asked about my impressions.
Q: What timing—the week you arrived, Russia unleashed its new military campaign. How did that change the outlook of the people you spoke with?
A: Russia came up in almost every conversation I had, whether with officials, fighters, or regular citizens. The war has dragged on for nearly five years, and whatever they claim, most people in Syria understand that it’s a stalemate that neither side is likely to win outright. For people living in government-controlled Syria, the Russian intervention has—for now—lifted the sense of fatalism. With Russia boldly on Bashar al-Assad’s side, the thinking goes, maybe the Syrian government can win outright. That’s created a palpable wave of optimism. Many people in the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia told me they thought the war would now end within a year.
Q: Do you think it can end so quickly?
A: I doubt it. Russia’s move has completely shifted the geopolitics of foreign intervention and imposed new constraints on the United States and its allies. But most of the Syrians fighting against the government consider themselves patriots and are fighting on their own home ground. Contrary to Syrian government propaganda, which paints the rebels as foreign fighters and mercenaries, most of them are actually locals who prefer to die rather than surrender. Even if the government can defeat them with the massive push it has received from Russia and Iran, it will take a long time—probably two to five years—before they can reconquer the main rebel strongholds. And the buoyancy among government supporters (or even those who just want the conflict to come to any sort of end) will fade when they see that the rebels fight back, and that foreign interventionists on the rebel side can keep the fight going for a long time just by maintaining supplies of money, ammunition, and weapons.
Q: You had not visited Syria since 2007. What were the biggest differences that you noticed?
Government-controlled Syria feels beleaguered and utterly militarized. Assad’s Syria was always a heavy-handed police state, with intelligence agents everywhere and a huge web of agencies that detained people, tortured them, and kept them in fear. Today, the government has lost a great deal of its resources, holding maybe one-third of the country’s territory and controlling half or less of its remaining population. Yet, it retains its old heavy-handed style, and the displaced people living in the government areas are terrified of saying anything that might be construed as subversive.
Damascus is a beautiful city, and it was clean and well-run in 2007. For all the shortages today, it’s still functioning, but there are constant power cuts and real shortages of personnel and certain imported goods. There are checkpoints everywhere, and most of the men under 40 are either in uniform or are off-duty fighters.
Q: What was most on people’s minds?
A: In addition to the Russians, almost everyone I met openly talked about emigrating. They were either saving up to take a smuggler’s boat to Europe, didn’t have enough money but were desperate to raise it, or had considered it and postponed their decision point because of family reasons. Some said outright that they saw no future in Syria even if and when the war resolves. “It will take ten years to end the war, and god knows how long afterward to restore the country,” one pro-government militiaman told me. Most the people who have either left Syria this summer or plan on leaving are young, with careers ahead of them, or have children for whom they see no prospects inside Syria. Many of the people who have remained in Syria by choice retain the option to flee anytime because they have money or a second a passport, or they already have sent their children abroad and have remained in Syria because of their jobs or businesses. Antique dealers in Old Damascus would ask me if I thought it was a good idea for them to sell their shops at fire-sale prices to smuggle their kids to Europe. Off-duty soldiers driving taxis at night asked me how much it costs to get from the island of Lesbos to Germany. Getting out is the ubiquitous fixation, more even than what will happen in the war.
Q: Why were you able to visit Syria now? How closely were you monitored?
A: The government slightly opened the door over the summer to Western reporters. Perhaps they think they have a good story to tell now, about a government that is secular and protects minority rights defending itself against rebels whose strongest contingent is dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Maybe they’re newly confident that they’re winning, with the support of their allies and the absence of meaningful American action.
When I traveled outside Damascus, a government official from the ministry of information accompanied us on our interviews. Sometimes there were also minders from the military or intelligence services, although some were vague about their affiliations. After working hours, I was free to move around Damascus unfettered.
Q: What’s the most important thing Americans should know about government-held Syria?
A: That’s a tough question because there is a lot that is important to know but impossible to assess, such as how deep the support for the government runs among the remaining population. But two key points surfaced again and again on this trip. First, Assad’s government has not changed any of its fundamental ways, in terms of how it runs the country, stifles dissent, and is completely uninterested in changing the nature of its system. And second, many Syrians who don’t particularly care for Assad’s way of running the country, who in fact fear the president, also fear the rebels on the other side, whose vision they find sectarian, intolerant or even nihilist. That middle ground of public opinion is still not free to speak on the regime side, but they could hold the key to a future Syria that reflects something freer and less corrupt than Assad’s government, and at the same time less sectarian and extreme than the jihadists on the opposition side. The war in Syria, sadly, looks like it might go on for another decade.
Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
DAMASCUS, Syria — Until civil war broke out in 2011, Iman enjoyed a comfortable life in Mezze, the center of middle-class Damascus and a popular neighborhood for Syrian government employees. The 39-year-old devoted herself to her two sons, never dreaming her family could ever slip out of the comfort that, after all, was an explicit promise of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist state.
Today, the endless grind of war has reduced Iman’s life to a constant state of anxiety. She keeps her sons in hiding, afraid they’ll be drafted by a government hungry for conscript soldiers or simply grabbed by militiamen, who have been known to arbitrarily arrest innocent civilians and hold them for ransom or even forget them in detention. Her psychologist husband quit his practice because he made better money driving a taxi — but then the war made the roads too deadly, and now he says he hasn’t left the house in months. Iman, meanwhile, cleans houses for $3 day — not enough to buy food — and begs her casual employers to pay her utility bills.
Sitting at a café popular with government supporters and members of the security service, she spoke openly about her fears and her desperation to find a path to Europe.
“I live in fear for my sons every day, that they will be drafted or disappeared. There is no solution for this crisis,” Iman said. She placed her tongue against her front teeth and made a long, low whistle. “It will be long, long, long.”
Iman’s plight is shared by thousands of Syrians living in today’s Damascus. Their stories all point to a central quandary facing Assad: How long can his beleaguered government keep its supporters engaged in the fight, as Syria struggles with colossal human losses and economic deprivation?
Few supporters of the government are switching sides to the opposition these days, but many are simply exhausted by the immense toll exacted by the war. Half the country’s people have been pushed from their original homes. The infrastructure is creaking. Even some supporters of Assad say they feel that government-held Syria is hollowing out, running on fumes.
In private, people discuss the point at which they’ll give up. One says they would flee if the road from Damascus to the coast were permanently cut. Another says the breaking point would come if the Islamic State entered central Damascus. For the Assad government, all this worry is driving the Russian- and Iranian-backed campaign initiated last month to save Syria’s urban heartland — a narrow belt of cities stretching from Damascus to the coast — even as the hinterland slips away from the government’s grasp.
The answer to whether Assad’s forces can keep that heartland lies with Syrians like Iman, who have chosen to remain in government-controlled areas and consider themselves neither rebel sympathizers nor government boosters. Iman is a Sunni who wears a headscarf, and some of her relatives are in prison — enough to make Iman herself suspect in these days of heightened sectarianism.
“My neighbors all work for the government, and as long as we walk straight, they leave us alone,” Iman said. “Unless someone writes a report about us.”
Her gripe, however, isn’t with the state or its leaders. She had no intention of leaving until the Syrian currency collapsed, along with her husband’s livelihood.
She dreams of Germany’s free medical care, which she hopes can treat her older son’s eye problems and younger son’s asthma. But she’s terrified that before she can amass the $6,000 she thinks it would cost to smuggle her family to Europe, her sons will be swallowed up by the Syrian military. With their health problems, she’s convinced they wouldn’t survive long in uniform.
Life during wartime
Over the course of a recent 10-day visit, Damascus residents said they feel less embattled than they did a year ago, but the war is still an inescapable reality of everyday life. Every night, dozens of mortars still land in the city center, sending wounded and sometimes dead civilians to Damascus General Hospital. From the city’s still-busy cafés, clients can hear the thuds of outgoing government guns and the rolling explosions of the barrel bombs dropped on the rebel-held suburb of Daraya.
Army and militia checkpoints litter the city. In some central areas, cars are stopped and searched every two blocks. Still, rebels manage to smuggle car bombs into the city center. According to residents, explosions occur every two or three weeks, but are rarely reported in the state media.
Workplaces across the country have emptied out over the summer, as Syrians with a few thousand dollars to spare risked the trip to Europe via Turkey and a boat ride to Greece, taking advantage of a newly permissive Syrian government policy to issue passports quickly and without question.
Employees in government offices, international aid organizations, and private Syrian corporations estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their coworkers left the country this summer.
“The government doesn’t care if people leave. It can’t stop them,” one middle-class Syrian, who has chosen so far to remain in Damascus, said of the exodus. “The war seems like it will go on forever. People see no future for their children. The only people who are staying are the ones who have it really good here or the ones who aren’t able to leave.”
Over the last year, the Syrian military has suffered a major manpower shortage, which Assad acknowledged this summer in a rare, frank public assessment of his vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Syria’s currency tumbled to one-sixth of its prewar value, causing an economic crisis for all but the wealthiest citizens. Rebels have made steady territorial gains throughout 2015, until the recent Russian military intervention threatened to turn momentum in the government’s favor.
Yet for all the danger signs, Assad’s government tries to project confidence. It has lost key territory in the north and east, but it still controls most of the important urban centers from Damascus to the coast, where anywhere from half to 80 percent of the population lives. Members of all of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian communities, including many from the Sunni Arab majority, continue to support the government.
The government showcases its readiness at Damascus General Hospital, whose emergency room treats the capital’s civilian casualties. Despite nationwide shortages and difficulties created by Western sanctions, hospital administrator Dr. Khaled Mansour said the hospital still strives to keep six months of supplies on hand.
“We are prepared to continue serving the population even in the case of a siege,” Mansour said. It has been tough to keep sophisticated machinery like scanners working, he said, and to maintain reserves of diesel and water. Imported medicines are more expensive after the currency collapse, and many pharmaceutical factories are located in areas now under rebel control.
It’s also hard to keep doctors from emigrating. According to Mansour, rebels have kidnapped some medical professionals and forced them into service, and Syria’s well-trained doctors find it relatively easy to emigrate. About 200 out of 650 doctors left the country over the summer, Mansour said, while adding that the hospital had more than enough “spare capacity.”
The brain drain, however, is evident in the examining rooms.
“We used to have the best doctors in Syria,” one patient said wistfully. Now, he said, quality was down; during a recent medical appointment, two young doctors had consulted Google on a smartphone to decide which medicine to prescribe.
Boomtown on the coast
If Damascus can feel like a city under siege, the Syrian coast resembles a booming war economy. Millions of Syrians fled the fighting early in the war and relocated to the safer coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The coastal cities are considered strongholds of the Alawite minority, of which the Assads are members. But they have sizable populations of Sunnis and other groups, and tensions have grown as displaced people, mainly Sunnis, have fled to the coast from war-torn parts of the country.
The displaced have driven up rents and strained the infrastructure, but they’ve also brought money, and many have reestablished their old businesses. The Ministry of Social Affairs has created dozens of new positions to employ displaced people. Down the street, Mohammed al-Heeb, a pastry shop owner originally from Aleppo, has created 30 extra jobs for displaced people, mostly make-work positions to help families in need. Despite the charity, he’s still turning a profit.
The fight has become an integral part of daily life, directly affecting almost every family from every type of background. Throughout the coast, photographs of the war’s casualties adorn every block. Each neighborhood has a wall of martyrs, some of them featuring hundreds of dead — part of an effort to build a martyrdom culture not unlike that which sustains loyalists of Iran’s ayatollahs and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of which provide key support to the Syrian government.
The government avidly pursues draft dodgers and, at the same time, has made a special effort to burnish the cultural cachet of the families making sacrifices to defend Assad’s state.
The sanctification of martyrs
In the hills above Tartus, the provincial governor in early October unveiled an art fair entitled “Tartus: Mother of Martyrs.” For the exposition, the governor commissioned 30 sculptors to build marble tributes to Syria’s fallen. Most of them included literal representations of mothers, along with local motifs encouraged by the governor, like Phoenician boats and a phoenix rising from ashes.
Hundreds of war-wounded and relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict gathered in the hilltop village of Naqib for the unveiling of the statues. Parents wept as a local official read the names of the fallen — nearly 180 just from the village and its environs, an area with a population of about 80,000 people, according to the mayor.
“This is our destiny,” said Ahmed Bilal, an Alawite cleric who was circulating in a shiny white robe and chatting with the assembled families. A long line of fighters predating the establishment of modern Syria had resisted foreign invaders, he said, and gave inspiration to today’s soldiers.
“Even if we lose one-third of our young men, we will still have the rest to live,” Bilal said. “They died so that the others should have life.”
Saada Shakouf, one of the bereaved mothers, sharpened her sense of Syrian identity after her son died fighting rebel forces in March in the battle of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The opposition victory, which was accomplished by a coalition that included the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front as well as U.S.-backed, Free Syrian Army-linked groups, created a sense of panic in government circles. From Jisr al-Shughour, the rebels had a gateway to the coast, allowing them to directly threaten strongholds like Latakia.
Shakouf’s son, Nabil, was 23 years old when he died along with his entire unit. He had been “stop-lossed,” a procedure for extending a soldier’s service beyond his or her time of enlistment, and was in his fourth year of military service. According to his mother, Nabil and his companions were burned to death in barrels. She didn’t know if they had hidden there — or if the rebels placed them in the barrels and set them on fire as a grisly form of execution.
Government forces are fighting for a model of coexistence and tolerance that is vanishing from the Arab world, Shakouf said. She had lost her enthusiasm for the pan-Arab cause that had once been so central to Syria’s political identity.
“We used to say the Arab nation was one, and we supported the rest of the Arabs against Israel. Where are those Arabs now? They are attacking us; they are attacking other Arabs,” Shakouf said with bitterness. “We don’t believe in the Arab nation anymore.”
An official from the Ministry of Information who was monitoring the interview interjected: “You can’t say that!”
Shakouf, however, refused to back down.
“We are only Syrians,” she insisted. “Syria can protect itself alone. We don’t need anybody to help us.”
Times could get much leaner than they are now in Tartus, and families like Shakouf’s will be called upon to continue to support the fight. Strained by dwindling resources, she said, the resolve of Syrian government loyalists would only grow. She promised that her surviving daughters and 15-year-old son said they would join the military if called.
“We fought the Ottoman Turks for 400 years,” Shakouf said. “There is no way we will fall. We have been fighting five years for our existence, and we will not lose.”
Syrian citizens stood near a burning truck that was destroyed by two cars bombs in the Jaramana neighborhood, a suburb of Damascus, in 2012. Photo: SANA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
DAMASCUS — THE GOVERNMENT militiaman named Noor leaned out from the narrow service balcony and pointed at the trees flanking the airport highway a hundred yards away.
“We are fighting in that area to keep them from entering our street,” he said. A few months earlier, Noor said, the situation “was critical. They were too close.” Now, he said, rebels have been pushed a few miles away.
The war in Syria is a war of neighborhoods. Foreign fighters and foreign intervention have fueled the conflict, but at its heart is an intimate civil war between neighbors and relatives. Noor, a retired soldier, was running a family store when Syria’s popular uprising rapidly transformed into a bitter nationwide battle four years ago. He quickly formed a neighborhood militia, which was eventually absorbed into the paramilitary National Defense Force, that fights for the Assad government and is funded and trained by Iran.
In recent years, his neighborhood, Jaramana, remained a leafy and sprawling suburb of Damascus crowded with schoolchildren and informal sidewalk cafes by day. At night, it was a battleground, as rebels in neighboring suburbs attacked the strategically critical airport highway and lobbed shells indiscriminately, mirroring the government’s own tactics.
Noor’s apartment building in Jaramana exudes middle-class respectability. Half its current residents have fled the fighting elsewhere in Syria, but they are well-heeled refugees, wealthier and more comfortable than many of the other 1.6 million newcomers to Jaramana. Those with money rent spacious apartments. Poorer displaced people rent basement rooms at inflated prices, and some squat in unfinished construction sites.
On the ground floor lives a judge who fled Raqqa when the Islamic State made the city into its Syrian capital. Upstairs from Noor lives a retired tax official and Baath Party member displaced in 2012 from Idlib province, who serves coffee and juice in an immaculate set of china and crystal.
The tax official’s son Ahmed al-Basha, 20, studies law, but in his free time he volunteers with Noor’s militia unit. At first, he would borrow his father’s pickup truck and deliver food to the fighters stationed on the edge of Jaramana, a harrowing but quick drive from his home.
“Now I know how to work a gun. I’ve experienced combat,” Ahmed said shyly, proud that despite his lack of military training he’s been able to help the government’s war effort.
His father, Mohamed Sharif al-Basha, 60, said that masked gunmen came to his home in northern Syria in 2012 and ordered him to quit his government job. When some of his colleagues were murdered, Mohamed filed a resignation letter and fled, eventually making his way to Jaramana. His sons work, and he collects a government pension.
He is well off and donates fuel and other supplies to the militiamen whose pro-government struggle, in his view, is an extension of his own personal desire to reclaim his house and job in Idlib province.
Syria’s war is often viewed through the prism of geopolitics, but from up close, the conflict appears intensely localized as well. Like dozens of other Syrians interviewed during a recent trip to the government-controlled portion of Syria, Noor and his neighbors were well-versed in the role of Russia and Iran and speeches of President Bashar Assad. Day to day, however, many government supporters aren’t off fighting ISIS, or to reclaim the half of the country’s territory that has slipped from Assad’s grasp. They are fighting for the blocks they live on or the roads that connect them to the city centers where they shop or work.
IN THE FIFTH YEAR of the war, the Syrian government has lost much of the country and is now primarily restricted to a corridor running from Damascus to the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The main highway leading north out of the city toward the coast is beset by rebels, and drivers have to bypass a stretch immediately north of the city that’s still being fought over. About one-third of the country’s population is displaced inside Syria, and 4 million have left the country altogether. Government-held Syria, encompassing what French colonial officials termed “useful Syria,” hugs the edge of the vast deserts in the interior, spanning approximately a third of the country’s territory and by some estimates only half its remaining population.
A spring rebel offensive in Idlib threatened the government’s safe zones along the coast, while the Russian intervention that began in September appears to have shifted the momentum in the government’s favor. At least that’s how supporters view it. “God willing, it’s just a matter of a year now, and we can go back to normal,” said one government fighter interviewed on the coast.
But parts of government-held Syria are encircled and besieged. Rebels regularly smuggle car bombs into Damascus, despite ubiquitous checkpoints. The overwhelming majority of men on the streets are uniformed fighters, and many in civilian clothes turn out to be off-duty soldiers making extra money with part-time work driving taxis or helping at shops.
The war punctuates daily life and divides families. In private, many Syrians talk about relatives fighting on several sides of the conflict — some with the government, some with the nationalist rebels in the Free Syrian Army, and some with the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group the Nusra Front.
One night over dinner in Damascus, a pro-rebel wife tangled with her pro-government husband over the conduct of the war.
“It’s inhumane,” the wife said of the vast number of civilians killed by the government.
“The terrorists are much worse,” her husband retorted.
An exploding barrel bomb in the nearby suburb of Deraya interrupted their argument. The sound is unmistakable — the steady beat of a helicopter’s blades and then for several seconds a low swelling boom.
“People are dying!” the wife exclaimed in tears.
“Not people,” her husband said. “Just fighters. All the people left Deraya long ago.”
Fear and combat long ago became normalized throughout Syria, where front lines are rarely far away. Around the capital, rebels in areas like Jobar, Deraya, and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk can lob mortars into the city of Damascus whenever they choose. Daily civilian casualties arrive in the city’s emergency rooms, victims of rebel shelling, doctors said — at a time when rebel shelling has been significantly restrained compared to the levels a year ago.
One of those casualties is Ashtar al Ahmed, a 23-year-old who was preparing for her final graduation project at Damascus University, where she studies graphic design, when a shell crashed onto her veranda in the Old City on Sept. 11.
“I saw a flash of light. I didn’t hear the bomb because I was in the center of the explosion,” Ahmed said. Her legs were shattered and she lost blood, but she was lucky. After a series of operations, her doctors said she would walk again and be able to go home after two to three months in the hospital.
The Ahmed family embodies the Damascene tradition of cosmopolitan coexistence. Ashtar and her twin brother speak English, French, and Arabic. Their mother is an academic who works for an international agency that protects Syrian folklore, and the twins frequent the Old City’s lively bar scene with a mix of friends less interested in sectarian background than in their ambitions to travel and launch careers. Both had options to leave Syria during the war but chose to stay to finish their university courses in Damascus.
“It happens every day in our neighborhood,” Ahmed said of the bombing. “We stay up late, we go out and party.”
“It’s normal life,” said her brother.
“If I had gone to a bar, maybe I’d be fine today,” she said.
She sees herself as a defender not of the Syrian government but of the Damascus way of life, which she believes doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.
“War cannot stop me from doing what I love and living where I live,” she said.
INTENSE FEELINGS AND propaganda color all sides of the fight. Syrian rebels interviewed this summer at their rear bases in Turkey said many of the government’s front-line soldiers fight lackadaisically. They believe Assad keeps his most competent soldiers in reserve to defend Damascus and other parts of the government’s strategic heartland.
Government propaganda, meanwhile, portrays the rebels as mercenaries without a cause. In the days immediately following the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign, Syrian government outlets spread unsourced and never confirmed reports that thousand of rebels, terrified by Russia’s might, had dropped their weapons and fled into Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.
On the government side, information remains as tightly controlled as it was before the war. State outlets focus almost exclusively on the statements of the president and a few top officials. Government supporters who want a little more information or context along with the official line turn to Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese network that supports Assad but provides a more rounded news diet.
Secret police monitor cafes and hotel lobbies, despite the government’s manpower shortage, and in private some regime supporters say their greatest fear isn’t rebel shells but unscrupulous pro-government militiamen who might shake them down or arbitrarily detain them at checkpoints.
Many casual boosters of the government harbor hopes for a quick finish, fanned by a rush of breathless official reports of unparalleled battlefield victories since the Russian offensive began. But veterans involved in the fight, like Noor, the government militiaman on the edge of Damascus, expect the fight to drag on for another 10 years.
An entire generation of young men on all sides of the conflict has grown up under arms. Many have committed atrocities or resorted to extortion, even on the government’s side, Noor admitted: “We’ll have to deal with them after we resolve the political conflict.”
Forgiveness is not high on anybody’s agenda. President Assad has offered amnesty to fighters who surrender their weapons, but there is little evidence that any rebels have successfully been pardoned and reintegrated into government-controlled Syria.
And if amnesty ever became a government policy, Syrian officials might have trouble getting their foot soldiers to embrace it.
“We wouldn’t accept even the guys who give up their weapons,” Noor said. “We refuse anyone who even sympathized with the revolutionaries. They killed our friends, and we buried them. We will not forgive them. We won’t take them back. If the government wants to forgive them, that is their problem. We won’t.”
I’m going through my notes and photographs from ten days in Syria, but I had the chance on the radio to process some of my impressions while they’re still swirling around in my head. My old friend Kelly McEvers at NPR asked me about the differences I noticed since my last previous visit in 2007. Marco Werman at PRI/The World wanted to know how supporters of Bashar al-Assad were reacting to the Russian intervention. These conversation are small unfiltered snapshots of my first take.
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
QARDAHA, Syria — The sonic boom of a fighter jet momentarily cut short the conversations at the hilltop mausoleum of former President Hafez al-Assad. The engineer in charge of enhancements to the manicured park and shiny marble shrine to the founder of Syria’s ruling dynasty broke out into a wide grin.
“The Russians!” said one visitor.
“The plane is Russian, but I bet the pilot is Syrian!” he said with a laugh.
Syria’s coastal cities were buzzing this week with anticipation that a muscular Russian contingent would alter the momentum of a war stretching into its fifth year, giving backers of the regime a catalytic push to victory.
Qardaha is the former president’s birthplace as well as his final resting place, and it symbolizes a Syrian regime whose Baathist and Arab nationalist ideology is inextricably intertwined with the ruling Assad family.
Syria’s leadership has staked its future on preserving its prewar ruling constituency. In almost every conversation here, fighters opposed to the government were called “terrorists” rather than rebels, and the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and has displaced 12 million others is still called “the crisis.”
The war’s grinding toll hasn’t dampened the optimistic rhetoric of government officials and supporters, like the shrine supervisor Maan Ibrahim.
With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other allies, he promised, Syria would prevail against its enemies. “War has been raging for five years,” Ibrahim said. “All these terrorists will meet their end here and now.”
Analysts have been trying all week to untangle the thicket of overlapping interests driving the Kremlin’s escalation in Syria. On the ground in the part of Syria still tightly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, the strategy was far clearer than would appear from the speeches and statements emanating from world capitals. Scores of interviews with regime supporters and local officials in the Alawite heartland could be summed up in a simple plan: no quarter, no compromise.
Whether it’s likely to succeed or not, the regime has persuaded its own constituents to support Assad’s blueprint, regardless of any ambivalence they might express in private.
The plain is straightforward: consolidate Damascus’s control over the axis that runs from the capital through the contested cities of Homs and Hama and to the coastal strongholds of Tartus and Latakia — an area that represents the bulk of Syria’s prewar population. Eliminate all armed rebels from that heartland, and then reconquer the economically critical city of Aleppo along with farther-flung districts that have fallen out of the government’s control.
Westerners have parsed the distinctions among the Islamic State, jihadis like the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army. Supporters of the regime, on the other hand, view all armed rebels as sectarian terrorists determined to wipe out or marginalize Syria’s religious minorities and therefore as equally deserving of whatever firepower Assad or his foreign allies are able to muster against them.
“The ones who accept President Assad’s amnesty can come back and be part of Syria,” said a pro-regime fighter relaxing at a cafe in the port city of Tartus. “The other traitors will stay abroad or fight until we kill them. They cannot return.”
The fighter, like many other government supporters, expressed a hope that with the new Russian engagement, the long conflict would come to an end quickly. “We’ll take back all the land in a year,” the fighter said. “After that we’ll only have to worry about sleeper cells.”
Syrian officials believe that the international tide is turning in their favor and that the question is no longer in what condition the regime will survive — but rather how long will it take for the regime to win outright.
That new confidence was on display as the governor of Tartus province received visitors in his ornately re-created Ottoman-style office, while smoking cigarettes and sipping an orange-flavored soft drink. An aide in the waiting room coyly avoided direct praise for the Russian involvement until he found an updated story on his smartphone from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
“It’s confirmed on SANA!” he said with excitement, and read aloud a long account of Russia’s first airstrikes.
The governor, Safwan Abu Saada, said it was only natural to feel optimistic. He had been in charge of the northern province of Idlib until a year ago, when the government’s losses forced him to move.
“Syria is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said.“We welcome the help of friendly countries, working with our invitation and under international law. I’m sure I will be visiting Idlib again soon.”
Answers to the many questions about how such a major shift would come about, however, still remain unclear. Assad’s regime already has been throwing all its resources into the conflict, with generous military and financial support from Iran and Russia. The new Russian intervention — fighter planes, anti-aircraft systems, and advisors — comes after a six-month period in which the regime lost ground in Idlib province, dangerously close to towns such as Qardaha and the strategic heart of the regime, where public support runs strongest.
Latakia, the largest of the coastal cities, embodies many of the challenges to the government’s strategy. The population of the city and its suburbs has nearly doubled over the course of the conflict to around 3 million people, according to Syrian officials. Displaced people from Aleppo and other provinces have flooded into the city, straining its infrastructure but also spurring an economic boom.
Almost every block is festooned with photographs of martyrs from the military or paramilitary units. Anxiety in Latakia spiked this spring when neighboring Idlib province fell to a rebel advance of a new coalition called the Army of Conquest, spearheaded by a coalition of jihadis including al-Nusra Front, fighting alongside Free Syrian Army units.
Pushing the rebels farther away from the coast is a much higher priority for regime supporters here in the Alawite heartland than the eradication of Islamic State strongholds in places like the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which lies hundreds of miles inland.
An off-duty army officer, recovering from an end-of-week lunch, said that Syria’s fundamentalist enemies “would pay for every drop of blood they had spilled, and every drop of whiskey.”
But he was less sanguine than some of his peers in his assessment of the Russians. “The Russians are part of the process, with their airstrikes, but it’s a little part,” said the officer. “In the end it is Syrians who are on the ground fighting.”
Getty Images/Globe Staff Photo Illustration
[Review of Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: ISIS for The Boston Globe.]
As its name makes clear, the Islamic State is after something far more permanent than its nihilistic, destructive methods might suggest. Over the past few years the movement has come terrifyingly close, confidently deploying modern tools of warfare and propaganda to establish a blood-soaked caliphate whose barbarity feels prehistoric. In his new book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick sets out to explain how a motley group of criminals considered too unruly by Al Qaeda transformed into the world’s most successful and savage jihadi group.
Warrick’s account centers as much on American missteps as it does on the jihadi long game to build capacity. He telegraphs his disgust with ISIS without turning his book into a two-dimensional jeremiad and takes pains to include accounts of the group’s thinking, evolution, and internal political disputes.
The Islamic State, better known here by the acronym, ISIS, swept into American consciousness about a year ago when it conquered northern Iraq and almost toppled the US-backed government in Baghdad. But ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. Inhabitants of the Arab heartland had followed the steady entrenchment of jihadi groups in the region.
Since Sept. 11, America’s counter-terror establishment has been obsessed with kill lists, personalizing Al Qaeda and its offshoots as the fiefdoms of a few easily demonized leaders.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Syria, and on computer screens around the world, a vast, well-funded network recruited legions of talented and capable individuals, learned from its setbacks, innovated, and built effective institutions to buttress a durable reign of horror.
“Black Flags” tries hard to explain how ISIS came of age and why so many supposedly moderate or conservative forces in the Arab world have been willing to stand with extremists.
Most bracing of all is Warrick’s historically-grounded corrective, which blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.
Warrick spends plenty of time on a riveting and detailed biographical account of the man who founded the group that became ISIS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug whose commitment to violent religious extremism was forged in jail. Blithe prison officials allowed jihadis free reign and then carelessly released them to curry political favor for the new king.
The US government made Zarqawi famous by naming him as the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, part of the spurious grounds to justify the Iraqi invasion. America’s mistakes were a bonanza for Zarqawi, who hired from the ranks of newly jobless soldiers and intelligence officials and capitalized on the disenfranchisement of Sunni tribes suddenly in need of a new protector.
Zarqawi reengineered the parameters of violence — no small feat in a neighborhood where despots like Saddam Hussein and the Assad dynasty in Syria already had spawned a vast torture complex. He personally beheaded civilians on video; directed suicide bombs at targets that other jihadis considered off limits like the UN, NGOs, and Arab embassies; and struck Shia religious targets with the ultimately successfully goal of provoking a destabilizing Sunni-Shia civil war. Even Al Qaeda thought he was going too far, Warrick notes, but Zarqawi’s methods proved to have enduring traction long after his death in 2006.
His successors built ISIS into an organization determined to go much further than Al Qaeda and implement a brutal caliphate immediately. Today ISIS runs oil fields, banks, and a formidable military. The group’s executions grab our attention, but ISIS applies equal zeal to tax collection, education, and indoctrination — all good reasons to suspect that it may remain part of the scene for years to come.
There are a few missing pieces in this otherwise fine book. Warrick neglects the rich context of torture, abuse, and extremism fed by Arab governments and international patrons, including the United States, in the decades before Al Qaeda and then ISIS came to maturity. He mentions but does not delve deeply into the widespread sympathy for hardline Islamist ideas among the Arabian peninsula monarchies and many supposedly mainstream Sunnis.
Also some big questions remain at the end of “Black Flags,’’ including the mystery of the group’s technical achievements. How did ISIS refine its training, military tactics, and administrative abilities so thoroughly that it could control a nation-sized swath of Syria and Iraq? Warrick’s account fills in important conceptual blanks, but doesn’t explain why this time around the same old cocktail of takfiri jihad, Gulf money, and impressionable testosterone-filled volunteers yielded an army and government-in-waiting more effective than any of its regional peers.
Overall, however, Warrick’s book might be the most thorough and nuanced account of the birth and growth of ISIS published so far. “Black Flags’’ is full of personalities, but it keeps its gaze carefully focused on the wider arc of history.
BLACK FLAGS: The Rise of ISIS
By Joby Warrick
Doubleday, 344 pp., illustrated, $28.95
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 28, on the heels of a shrewdly publicized deployment of new Russian troops and military equipment to Syria. Simultaneously—and not for the first time—the Kremlin has rolled out the prospect of a “Moscow Track” to peace in Syria, marketed as a pragmatic alternative to the failed U.S.-run Geneva Process.
Moscow’s latest moves have begun to shift the ground, and ultimately the United States will have to choose between two different, equally messy courses: standing aside and letting Russia and Iran shape the conflict unimpeded; or making a real diplomatic and military commitment in the hopes of influencing the Syrian civil war’s final disposition.
Already, a chorus of analysts and political actors is advocating a “hold-your-nose-and-make-a-deal with Russia” approach,1 claiming the United States must either sign on to Moscow’s plans against ISIS, or else plead guilty to promoting terrorism through American inaction.
But framing the choice as a binary one plays into the rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad and his sponsors, and ignores the fact that substantial American action can still reshape the dynamics and alter the outcome, just as surely as decisive Russian, Iranian, and Syrian moves could. The more time passes, however, the fewer options remain for the American camp.
Until President Obama decides to invest in a new Syria policy or else completely relinquish any stake in the conflict in the Levant, there’s little to discuss with Putin. Russia comes to the table with clear aims and a plan to achieve them; the United States needs its own goals and strategy before engaging in a conversation.
The most effective approach for the United States right now would be to quickly commit to a program that supports alternatives to Assad and opposes ISIS—while making clear that America would back peace talks that include all foreign sponsors and all domestic players in the conflict, with the exception of ISIS and other jihadis.2
This brief argues that such an approach is an essential precursor to any “Moscow Track” for Syria, and could well render it obsolete. It lays out where American and Russian interests in Syria overlap and where they diverge, and examines the limits of Russia’s going it alone. Finally, it outlines a course of U.S. action that would expand the options for the Syria crisis beyond the limited and troublesome alternative solutions currently under consideration.
Russia’s Interests—and America’s
Syria is Russia’s most solid foothold in the Arab world, and offers a strategic alliance, military contracts, and a critical naval base in Tartus. So, in the short term, Russia’s ramp-up is only an increase in the degree of Moscow’s long-running commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.3 Many foreign and domestic constituencies are also influencing the course of Syria’s war. Arab monarchies in the Gulf, along with Turkey, have kept alive a Sunni-dominated insurgency that has fought the regime and its backers to a stalemate. The fighting has catastrophically crippled the nation’s institutions and infrastructure.
If the United States does not respond to Russia’s latest move with a concrete shift in policy soon, it will effectively cede the theater to Damascus, and its patrons in Iran and Russia. Eventually, momentum could shift in the regime’s favor. If Russia solidifies its presence in Syria further and installs better air defenses, the United States will no longer be able to easily consider pivotal interventions, such as establishing a no-fly zone.
Not all of Russia’s interests and intentions in Syria conflict with those of the United States, however, and in fact several overlap:
- Moscow and Washington abhor jihadi extremists and are obsessed with protecting their homeland from terrorist attacks.
- Both fear “blowback” from movements they have fought abroad.
- Neither power likes a power vacuum in a strategically sensitive Middle East; despite Washington’s looser rhetoric, both powers are fundamentally conservative about regime change.
- Both want to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and keep its borders intact at the end of the current civil war. In fact, both powers are invested in the existing Arab state system and do not wish to see the emergence of new states or the redrawing of borders.
But a number of crucial differences separate the two powers:
- While Russia sees Bashar al-Assad as a solid partner, the United States sees him as a long-term strategic threat who cynically allowed jihadis to flourish in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
- Russia supports the Iran-Syria alliance and an arc of anti-American regimes and non-state actors from Tehran to the Mediterranean. For obvious reasons the United States sees that alliance as a threat to its hegemony in the region and to the rough alliance of U.S.-allied Arab states.
- Russia and the United States are at loggerheads elsewhere: over the Ukraine, energy supplies to Europe, and the Iranian nuclear program.
- The two powers exhibit vastly different levels of willingness and capacity to fight ISIS.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia has much more narrow and easier to fulfill strategic aims: shore up a local client dictator, preserve a military foothold, and dent jihadist capabilities. The United States on the other hand has a wide range of hard-to-reconcile regional aims; and for all its equivocation, Washington’s aim is to stabilize the region. It does not have the luxury and clarity of a spoiler’s agenda.
What Can Russia Actually Achieve?
Much of Washington’s reaction to Russia’s surge has been devoid of context and long-term perspective. Of course, an injection of Russian fighters and equipment will change the dynamics of the fight; but there is no evidence that Russian intervention will have a conclusive impact. By way of comparison, a considerably larger U.S. occupation force in Iraq was unable to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor. And the Soviet Union’s attempt to decisively shore up a local partner against jihadi rebels—in Afghanistan in the 1980s—failed mightily.
Russia and Iran both benefit from an inflated reputation in Syria. Both powers have spent considerable funds and manpower to prop up a regime that has steadily lost ground during four years of war. Betting on the regime has been costly, and Russia’s decision to double down exposes it to still greater risks and costs. It will take time to see whether Russia is engaging in a limited and achievable intervention—striking ISIS while shoring up the regime’s heartland—or a more far-fetched all-out venture to win the war outright for Assad.
Syria’s dynamics are unique, of course, but there is no sound reason to predict Russia can wipe out the anti-Assad rebellion as it now stands. Foreign influence has shaped the Syrian war for years—through the limited impact of previous gambits in Syria by the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf monarchies—but has not been able to decide its outcome, underscoring the need for modest Russian expectations.
Russia and Iran together can probably assure that their local partner in Damascus remains in power over some portion of Syria, but it is less clear whether they can re-extend Assad’s ambit beyond the rump state he controls today. It is even less clear what will survive of Syria’s national institutions. And there will surely be blowback. Fighters from Chechnya and other former Soviet republics already are fighting with the Syrian rebels. Their ranks are almost guaranteed to swell now that Russia has publicly upped its ante in Syria.
How Should the United States Respond?
Until now the United States followed a wishy-washy course, typified by the “non-strike event” in the summer of 2013,4 when Washington backed down from its threat to intervene against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.5 Once America abandoned its fixed red lines,6Washington downgraded its already limited leverage over the conflict, while remaining vulnerable to its consequences. Ever since, the major players in Syria have vastly lowered their expectation of any U.S. involvement whatsoever, whether political, economic, or military.
The United States wants Assad gone, but has done little to hasten his fall because the available options to replace him are poor. Washington wants “moderate” rebels, but also does not want to get dragged into a civil war. As a result, it has not given any meaningful support to any militia that has a serious combat presence, and it has not exercised any political or military muscle that would change the balance of power on the ground.
At times, Washington has even appeared to believe that a quagmire in Syria would somehow serve U.S. interests by draining the resources of a gang of bad actors: Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Russia, the money men in the Arabian peninsula, ISIS, and Al Qaeda.7Counterterrorism officials seemed to believe that the threat from ISIS was local, and could be bottled up in the Levant without any blowback beyond Syria’s borders.
All the assumptions underlying American inaction, however, were blown apart by a series of cataclysmic events: the concurrent implosion of Syria and Iraq in 2014 at the hands of ISIS, followed by the entrenchment of a sustainable jihadist empire headquartered in Mosul, and finally a human wave of displaced people remaking the demographics of Syria’s neighbors and flowing through Europe. No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to contain, cauterize, or ignore the Syria war, its strategic ramifications continue to demand notice.
Putin’s showmanship has once again created a sense of urgency, just as the refugee crisis, the emergence of ISIS, and the use of chemical weapons did in early periods of the war. In response, some analysts and politicians in the United States have focused on the public relations fallout from Russia outmaneuvering Washington.8 In the case of Syria, that image reflects reality. Russia is achieving its admittedly simpler, Machiavellian goals far more successfully than the United States because Russia is far more committed, has dedicated far greater resources, and has a solid ally in power in Damascus.
If, after all the political calculations are made, the United States is unwilling to shoulder the risks of a heavier involvement in Syria, then it must make a clear case that inaction is a safer, smarter, and more responsible course than intervention. It must argue that any greater military involvement would make the human toll worse. And if it decides to pursue inaction and still wants to maintain some semblance of its role as a humanitarian world leader, the United States must also make a serious production of spending money and resources to contain the wider fallout of the conflict in terms of contagion and refugees. Washington has led international donations to the Syrian refugee response and insists it is a priority, but American contributions have been inadequate to address the crisis. United Nations appeals remain massively underfunded, and millions of refugees live without any secure status in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. If the United States decides to limit itself to addressing the humanitarian needs, it must immediately commit to resettling a number of refugees in the six figures, and ought to commit enough money to fully fund the UN’s Syrian refugee appeals.
A better course of action would be to get off the fence and aggressively pursue a plan that promotes an inclusive national solution to the Syrian conflict, one that would address core concerns about governance, corruption, and the disenfranchisement of many Sunnis.
Such a course would be fragile and full of risks, but the alternative is worse: a de facto alliance with Putin, Assad, and Tehran in shaping the future of Syria. In that scenario, the very same parties that drove Syria to collapse and green-lit the unfurling of a massive international jihadi wave would dictate the terms of a counter-jihad, with the United States playing a supporting role. An American junior partnership with Assad and Putin would be bad geopolitics for the United States—and it also would be unlikely to bring peace to Syria.
What would a more effective solution look like? The United States cannot wisely sign onto an anti-ISIS alliance composed solely of Assad, Russia, and Tehran. A genuine anti-ISIS campaign must have support from Syrian Sunnis if it is to have any chance of success. A national coalition backed by all the major non-jihadi players would be the only viable vehicle for fighting ISIS and stabilizing Syria as a whole. It would be a long shot—and it would become a possibility only if the United States decided to provide a significant counterweight to the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran alliance.
That position would entail a serious and major U.S. commitment, including a no-fly zone and safe havens, and partnerships with any non-jihadi militias willing to rhetorically embrace basic values of pluralism and shared governance.
Crucially, this American involvement must be accompanied by a new diplomatic initiative from Washington, inviting all the conflict’s foreign sponsors and all its domestic stakeholders—except for the jihadis—to take part in designing and supporting a transitional government. Assad and his circle would have to be part of that negotiation.
Talking to Putin about Syria will not make America look more ineffectual and disconnected than it already does. On the other hand, there is no reason to start a dialogue unless the White House has something to say. Articulating and putting resources behind a regional strategy to resolve the Syrian problem would be a good opening statement in any conversation with Russia.
1. Dmitri Trenin, “Like It or Not, America and Russia Need to Cooperate in Syria,” Carnegie Moscow Center, September 17, 2015,http://carnegie.ru/2015/09/17/like-it-or-not-america-and-russia-need-to-cooperate-in-syria/ihuf.
2. Thanassis Cambanis, “A Plan for Syria,” The Century Foundation. July 28, 2015, http://tcf.org/work/foreign_policy/detail/a-plan-for-syria.
3. Borzou Daragahi and Max Seddon, “This Is What’s Behind Russia’s Push Into Syria,” BuzzFeed News. September 16, 2015,http://buzzfeed.com/borzoudaragahi/this-is-whats-behind-russias-push-into-syria?utm_term=.hxEzEKAKj5#.am50r2PlPE.
4. Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, May 25, 2015,http://pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/obama-at-war/the-president-blinked-why-obama-changed-course-on-the-red-line-in-syria/.
5. Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Delays Syria Strike to Focus on a Russian Plan,” New York Times, September 10, 2013, http://nytimes.com/2013/09/11/world/middleeast/syrian-chemical-arsenal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
6. Josh Rogin, “Syria Crosses Obama’s New Red Line,” Bloomberg View, March 19, 2015,http://bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-19/syria-s-chemical-attacks-cross-obama-s-new-red-line.
7. Thanassis Cambanis, “How Do You Say ‘Quagmire’ in Farsi?” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/13/how-do-you-say-quagmire-in-farsi; and Thanassis Cambanis, “Should America let Syria fight on?” Boston Globe, April 7, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/04/06/should-america-let-syria-fight/UUtDpctZYyeymgSjgRSBWK/story.html.
8. Jonathan Broder, “Can Putin Save Assad in Syria?” Newsweek, September 16, 2015, http://newsweek.com/russia-syria-isis-putin-obama-assad-372864.
This BBC NewsHour segment features Eugene Rogan and me discussing what would happen if the West tried to partner with Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. Rogan suggests it’s unpalatable option but the only viable way to preserve a Syrian state while curtailing ISIS. I argue that history suggests Western governments would be naive to count on Assad, especially given Assad’s role in catalyzing the collapse of Syria and the rise of ISIS.
Photos: Youmna El-Khattam/Collage: by Nermine El-Sherif
[Published in the Carnegie Reporter. Preview available on Carnegie Corporation website.]
Research on the edge
Even in the early days of Syria’s uprising, it was nearly impossible to do independent research. From early on in the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, which began in 2000, very little leeway was allowed for any work that might challenge the regime. Academics, journalists, political activists, even humanitarian workers were subject to harsh measures of control. The situation worsened after peaceful protests erupted across the country in 2011. Nonviolent activists were imprisoned, exiled, or killed, and armed insurgents took their place. From the start, the conflict restricted movement around the country. Even worse, authorities on the government side and later among rebels wanted to manipulate any research or reporting from their tenuous zones of control. Analysts began to call Syria a “black box,” an unruly place off-limits to credible researchers.
Into this confusion stepped two Syrian-born academics: Omar Dahi, an economist at Hampshire College, and Yasser Munif, a sociologist at Emerson College. They practiced traditional disciplines at reputable research institutions, but they wanted to conduct unconventional research. How were Syrians adapting to the transformation of their society and the disintegration of an old order? Dahi and Munif wanted to bring systematic rigor to studying the experiences of the thousands, eventually millions, of Syrians who were building new modes of self-governance, beyond Assad’s control, or who were adapting to new lives and identities in the maelstrom of exile. They believed they could conduct meaningful social science in the “black box.”
“Most of the research about Syria revolved around geopolitical conflict and strategies, interested in a top-down perspective,” Munif said. “I was interested in the other way around. I wanted to understand participatory democracy, the different ways people were conducting politics after the collapse of the state.”
Like other radical developments that accompanied the Arab uprisings and government backlash, Syria’s crisis demanded sustained scholarly attention. And research in a rapidly evolving war zone, in turn, required support from a flexible and imaginative institution. Dahi and Munif found their backer in the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, a quietly transformative venture that’s been midwifing a network of Arab scholars to more confidently practice a new brand of social science that rises directly from the concerns of a region in turmoil.
Dahi and Munif applied in the fall of 2012 for the first batch of funding offered by the grantmaking organization, known by its acronym, the ACSS. Dahi wanted to study the survival strategies of refugees. By the time his grant had been approved and he began research, the number of refugees had swollen from a few hundred thousand to nearly two million. He partnered with researchers and activists in the region who were devoting much of their time to the urgent needs of resettling refugees and defending their rights. Munif wanted to study the way local people took charge of their own lives and governed themselves. He chose a provincial city called Manbij, in northeastern Syria. By the time he began his field research, government troops had been driven from the city, leaving it in the hands of local civil society groups and rebels.
By 2014, Munif had to interrupt his own work prematurely when Islamic State rebels conquered Manbij. “Without the ACSS, I wouldn’t have been able to do this type of work. They funded the entire project from A to Z,” Munif said. “ACSS is willing to experiment with new types of research, new methodology. With the Arab revolts they are funding some interesting projects that would not get funding from traditional sources.”
Arab social science
It’s worth pausing for a minute to look at the research that came out of Munif and Dahi’s loose collaboration, because it conveys a sense of what a different kind of social science looks like—in the terms of ACSS, a “new paradigm” that addresses questions of concern to people who live in the Middle East and North Africa.
In his work among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, Dahi identified ways that humanitarian aid manipulated the politics of the refugees, in some cases fostering deeper sectarian division, and in others strengthening a more inclusive kind of citizenship. At the same time, Dahi helped to build an online portal that will serve as a data resource for other scholars. He found many willing collaborators within the active community of regional researchers, advocates, and activists. Munif has already published extensively on the local governance and decision-making structures he discovered in Manbij, and he’s currently working on a book that counters “the dominant narrative about Syria,” which in his view “reduces the Syrian uprising to violence, chaos, and nihilism.”
This project is but one of dozens supported by the ACSS since it set up shop in 2010 with a tiny staff but grand ambitions to foment change in intellectual life in the Arab world. Formally, the Arab Council incorporated in October 2010 but only hired staff and began operations from its Beirut headquarters in August 2012. The experiment is still young, but after two major conferences to present research, two business meetings of its general assembly, and the third cycle of grants underway, ACSS is moving from its organizational infancy into adolescence.
Still, some might see its mission as exceedingly quixotic: to foster a standing network of engaged activist intellectuals who set a critical agenda and use the best tools of social science to address burning contemporary questions. And all this ambition comes against the backdrop of a region governed by despots for whom academic freedom is in the best cases a low priority, and in the worst, anathema. “We’re enabling conversations that hadn’t taken place,” said Seteney Shami, the founding director of the ACSS. “It’s too soon to say how we’ve affected social science production, but we have created new spaces. I think we have made a difference.”
The method is as straightforward as the idea is bold. Solicit proposals, especially from researchers who aren’t already part of well-funded and established networks, or who are working on different questions than the mainstream Western academy, which still dominates the research landscape. Invite researchers (ACSS-funded or not) from the region to join the ACSS as voting members who ultimately control its policies and agenda. See what happens.
Since doling out its first grants in 2013, the ACSS has awarded $1.162 million to 108 people. Its annual budget has grown from $800,000 in 2012 to close to $3 million in 2015. The first round of research has been completed, and voting members of the Council’s general assembly this year elected a new board of trustees. (There are 58 voting members out of a total of 137 in the general assembly, according to Shami.) It’s been a dizzying journey for a small organization that supports a type of research criminalized throughout much of the region.
The founders and original funders were determined to promote regional scholarship. Carnegie Corporation in particular has aimed much of its funding in the region toward local scholars, with the intention of stimulating and enabling local knowledge production. The Arab Council complements a number of other efforts in the region to strengthen research and social science. New universities, think tanks, and research centers are emerging in the Arabian Peninsula. Arab and Western academics have formed partnerships, sometimes individually and sometimes at the level of academic departments or entire universities. The magnitude of the ACSS’s impact will only become clear in the context of a wide web of related ventures—all of them taking shape at a time of enormous change and pressure.
All across the Middle East and North Africa, academic researchers face daunting obstacles. There are bright spots, like the active intellectual communities in the universities in Morocco and Algeria. But some of the oldest intellectual centers, like Egypt, struggle under aggressive security and police forces as well as university leaders whose top concern is to ferret out political dissent. War has disrupted intellectual life in places like Syria and Iraq. Government money has poured into the education sector in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but the lack of academic freedom has dulled its luster.
“The Council was conceived at a time when repression was high but the red lines were clear,” Shami said, referring to the years before the uprisings, when the ACSS was in its planning phase. The current logistical challenges underscore the difficulty of the changing conditions for researchers in the Arab region. An organization dedicated to free inquiry, the ACSS chose to incorporate in Lebanon, where it could operate without governmental restrictions and draw on a vibrant local academic community. Even that location is an imperfect choice.
Members from Egypt, for example, now face new restrictions when they want to visit Lebanon. So far it’s not impossible for Arab scholars to travel around the region, but it’s getting harder. Lebanon’s excessive red tape has thrown up numerous hurdles. For example, the ACSS is currently seeking special permission from the government of Lebanon to allow its international members to vote online on internal policy questions. Equally important, according to Shami, is that work permits for non-Lebanese people are becoming more difficult to obtain, which makes it challenging for the ACSS to hire staff from different parts of the region.
Many resources other regions take for granted don’t exist in the Arab region, where governments restrict access to even the most mundane archives. Data about everything from the economy to food production to the population is treated as a state secret. Permits are difficult to secure. Until the ACSS compiled one, there wasn’t even a comprehensive list of the existing universities in the region. It was these challenges that the founders of the ACSS had in mind, but by the time the organization incorporated in borrowed space in Beirut, the ground had begun to shift. Tunisia’s popular uprising in December 2010 began years of political upheaval across the region. The horizons of possibility briefly opened up, until the old repressive regimes returned in full force almost everywhere except Tunisia.
“We started off at a moment of heightened expectations about the role social sciences could play in the public sphere,” Shami said. “Now we’re in a situation that is far worse in every possible way. These are all big shocks for a young institution. But so far, so good. People are saying it’s impossible to work, but the evidence is that they’re still producing.”
Everything all at once
The ACSS put a lot of balls into the air from the start. Its founders wanted to create a standing network for scholars from the region and who work in the region. Their goal was to empower new voices, connect them with established academics, and nurture the relationships over a long term. That way, even scholars at out-of-the-way institutions, or smaller countries traditionally ignored by the global academic elite, might get a hearing. The Council also wanted to integrate Balkanized research communities, bringing together scholars who often published and collaborated exclusively in Arabic, English, or French.
Other long-term goals factor into the project’s design. Some of the grant categories, like the working groups and research grants, explicitly aim to change the discourse in academic social science. Others, like the “new paradigms factory,” intend to bring activists and public intellectuals into conversation with academics. The ACSS is a membership organization; each grantee can choose to become a permanent member with voting privileges—a sort of institutional democracy and accountability in action that the Council hopes will filter into other institutions in the region.
Finally, this summer (2015) the Council will publish its first in-house work, the Arab Social Science Report, a comprehensive survey of the existing institutions teaching and doing research in the social sciences in the region. The ACSS has established theArab Social Science Monitor as a permanent observatory of research and training in the region and hopes to produce a new report on a different theme every two years, in keeping with its role as a custodian as well as mentor of the Arab social science community.
The inaugural survey demanded an unexpected amount of sleuthing, said Mohammed A. Bamyeh, the University of Pittsburgh sociologist who was the lead author on the report and helped oversee the team that produced it. In some cases it was impossible to obtain basic data such as the number of faculty at a university or their salaries. “If you call them, they will never tell you,” Bamyeh said. “For some reason, it’s a secret.”
In the end, however, a year’s worth of legwork produced a surprisingly thorough snapshot of social science in the region. Researchers identified many more academics and other researchers than they expected, and a wider range of periodicals and institutions. Freedom of research turned out to be a better predictor of quality than funding did, Bamyeh said. The quality varied widely, but Bamyeh said social science in the region is “mushrooming.” We may not have appreciated this growth because we don’t have an Arab social science community,” he said. “We have a lot of individuals doing individual research but they are not connected to each other.”
Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut, has studied knowledge production in the Arab world and is intimately familiar with the paucity of quality peer-reviewed journals, professional associations, and the unseen scaffolding that supports top-notch research. He was one of the founding members of the ACSS and currently sits on its board, but he is pointed about the bitter challenges impeding research in the region.
“Social science in the Arab world is in crisis,” Hanafi said. “Social sciences are totally delegitimized in the Arab world.” Repressive states wanted only intellectuals they could control, he maintains, so they starved institutions that could produce the large-scale research teams required for any serious, sustained research. The problem has been compounded, Hanafi said, by ideologues and clerics who want to fulfill the role that social science should rightfully play: providing data, assessing policy options, and generating dissent and criticism.
Quality research anywhere in the world depends on money, intellectual resources, and the support of society and the state, according to Hanafi. “In the Arab world, this pact is still very fragile,” he said. “You don’t have a strong trust in the virtue of science.” He hopes that the ACSS can play a part in a wider revival, in which social scientists reclaim their influence and beat back the encroachment from clerics and authoritarian states. “The mission and vocation of social science in this region is to connect itself to society and to decision makers,” Hanafi said. He believes the Arab world needs stronger institutions of its own, including independent universities, governments sincerely committed to funding independent research, and professional associations for researchers. Efforts like the Arab Council can help pave the way.
Participants at the ACSS conferences are encouraged to present and publish in Arabic. The Council also emphasizes the value of its members as a collective network. Pascale Ghazaleh, a historian at the American University of Cairo, said it was “mindblowing” to meet scholars she’d never heard from around the region at the the ACSS annual meeting in Beirut in March 2015. She said she was moved to hear her colleagues discussing their work in their own language. “It was the first time that I’d been surrounded by people who were unselfconsciously using social science terminology in Arabic,” Ghazaleh said. “It’s something to be proud of.”
The language is part of an intentional long-term strategy to anchor the Council and its social science agenda in the region. Although many of its founders have at least one foot in a Western institution, Shami said that “we see ourselves as fully homegrown and firmly based in the region but interacting with the diaspora as well.” The majority of the trustees, for instance, are based in Arab countries.
“It is an ongoing conversation as to who decides the main questions of research for social sciences,” Bamyeh said. “Can there be something like an indigenous social science that has its own methods? It is essential for social sciences in the Arab world to develop a strong sense of their own identity.” As an example he cites an Egyptian sociologist in the 1960s who discovered at the post office a bag of unaddressed letters, most of them containing prayers and pleas for help from the poor written to a popular folk saint. A clerk was about to throw them away. The sociologist took them home and produced a seminal study of Egyptian attitudes and mentality.
That’s the sort of approach that Bamyeh said he hoped to see employed after the Arab revolts. Instead, he was disappointed to find many American sociologists trying to apply existing Western models to the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. “It was an opportunity to acquire new knowledge,” Bamyeh said. “We need an independent Arab social science that feels its own right to ask questions, questions not asked by the European and American academy. It’s not nationalistic, although it might sound that way. It’s really a question of a scientific approach that comes out of a local embeddedness.”
The architects of the ACSS have embraced that quest, encouraging research that springs from local problems, and supporting work from outsiders and nonacademics. In Beirut, the ACSS supported an atypical multidisciplinary research team that explored the misuse of public space and the confiscation of people’s homes. As a result of that research project, Abir Saksouk, an architect and urban planner without an institutional home of her own, launched an ongoing public campaign to save the last major tract of undeveloped coastline in Beirut.
Today she is spearheading one of the most dynamic and visible grassroots social initiatives in Lebanon: the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche. The Dalieh is the name of the grassy spit of rock that flanks Beirut’s iconic pigeon rocks. Cliff divers used to perform death-defying Acapulco-style style leaps from the Dalieh’s cliffs until last year, when developers suddenly fenced off the last publicly accessible green open space in Beirut. The campaign that Saksouk helped initiate wants to stop the Dalieh from being transformed into a high-end entertainment and residential complex.
“ACSS was a huge push forward,” Saksouk said. It wasn’t the money, she said, so much as the people with whom it connected her. She was mentored by academics, given a platform to publish in Arabic, and introduced to other people thinking about ways to engage with their city. “My activism on the ground informed what I wanted to focus on in my research, and the paper I wrote for the ACSS informed my activism,” Saksouk said.
The Civil Campaign has started a contest, soliciting alternative, public-minded proposals for the Dalieh peninsula. The point, Saksouk said, is to energize a social movement and change the way Beirutis think about their city’s public space. Her research collaborator, Nadine Bekdache, studied the history of evictions, and together the pair explored the concepts of public space and private property. These are theoretical concepts with explosive implications, especially in a place like Beirut where a few powerful families dominate the government as well as the economy.
“A lot of people are sympathetic but don’t think they can change anything,” Saksouk said. “We’re accumulating experiences and knowledge. All this will lead to change.”
Egypt: In the shadows of a police state
In contrast, the clock has turned backward on the prospects for reform and innovation in Egypt, long considered a center of gravity for Arab intellectual life. Egypt has some of the region’s oldest and biggest universities, and historically has generated some of the most important thinking and research in the Arab world. But Egypt’s academy has suffered a long, slow decline as successive dictatorships suppressed academic life, fearing it would breed political dissent.
In the two-year period of openness that began after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, university faculty members won the right to elect their own deans and expel secret police from their position of dominance inside research institutions. Creative research projects proliferated. The ACSS was just one of many players during what turned out to be a short renaissance. A May 2015 U.S. State Department report on Egypt’s political situation found “a series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process.”
At least one well-known the ACSS grant winner, the public intellectual and blogging pioneer Alaa Abdel Fattah, languishes in jail; he was detained before he could complete the paperwork to start his research. Officials even took away his access to pen, paper, and books after his prison letters won a wide following.
Universities have seen a severe decline in academic freedom and some researchers have stopped working or have fled. Outspoken academics like Khaled Fahmy, a historian who has been a critic of military rule and also a spokesman for freer archival access, are waiting out the current turmoil abroad. Political scientist Emad Shahin (who left Egypt and now teaches at Georgetown University) was sentenced to death along with more than a hundred others in May 2015 in a show trial. Some Egypt-based researchers have left since 2013, many grantees remain. The ACSS continues to receive applications from Egypt, and has become all the more vital to that country’s scholars.
Cairo native and historian Alia Mossallam used her research grant to hold an open workshop about writing revolutionary history. As protests roiled the capital, Mossallam quietly organized a workshop that drew 20 people, some from the academic world, some activists, and some professionals and workers who were intrigued by her proposal to study the historiography of “people who are written out of histories of social movements and revolutions.”
Tucked away on an island in the Nile in Upper Egypt, Mossallam’s workshop brought professional historians together with amateur participants. They studied the history of Egyptian folk music and architecture, they looked at archives and newspaper clippings, and then the students used their new skills to produce historical research of their own. Mossallam carefully avoided politics in her open call for workshop participants, but any inquiry into the history of revolution and social movements at Egypt’s present juncture is by nature risky.
Contemporary politics might be a third rail, but in her workshop the Egyptian participants could talk openly about past events like the uprising and burning of Cairo in 1952, or the displacement of Nubians to build the Aswan High Dam. At a time when political speech has been banned, history offers a safer way to talk about revolution. “These workshops are a search for a new language to describe the past as well as the present,” Mossallam said. “Watch out for how you’re being narrated. A lot of the things the participants wrote engaged with that fear, the struggle to maintain a critical consciousness of a revolution while it’s happening.”
Her project wouldn’t have been possible without the Arab Council’s forbearance. The Council encouraged her to find creative ways to engage as wide an audience as possible and gave her extra time to recalibrate her project as conditions in Egypt changed. No other Arab body gives comparable support to Arab scholars, Mossallam said. “They ask, are we asking questions that really matter?” she said. “Are we trying to reach a wider public?”
Can it last?
Sustainability remains an open question. Although the ACSS is registered as a foreign, regional association under Lebanese law and considers itself a regional entity, the organization currently depends on four funders from outside the Arab world for its budget: Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the International Development Research Centre of Canada, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. If at some point in the future those funders turn their attention elsewhere, the ACSS, for all its promise, could quickly reach a dead end. According to Shami, “It’s as sustainable as any other NGO that depends on grants.”
While it’s politically tricky for an Arab institution to take Western money, funds from various regional sources can come with strings attached. Ideally, Shami said, the ACSS would like to find acceptable funding sources from within the region.
The Arab Council’s accelerated launch has attracted wide interest, creating new challenges as the organization matures. “We’ve built up a lot of expectations. People think we have unlimited resources,” Shami said. “We might be coming up against hard times. We might be starting to disappoint people.” Just as important as money is the political structure of the region. Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco remain the only relatively free operating environments for intellectual work in the region, and that freedom is always under threat from militant movements, authoritarian parties, and regional wars.
Deana Arsenian, Carnegie’s vice president for international programs, attended the March 2015 meeting and was impressed by the enthusiasm of the several hundred participants, whose optimism for research far exceeded their expectations for their region’s political future. “The act of creating a network across multiple countries is in and of itself a major feat, given the realities of the region,” Arsenian said. “While it’s a work in progress and many aspects of the association have to be worked out, the interest among the members in making it succeed seems very strong.”
ACSS came at a moment of great change and opening in the Middle East, and was rooted in a region that needs to be heard from. From the beginning the ACSS has intentionally included all those who reside in the Arab region regardless of ethnic or linguistic origins, as well as those in the diaspora. As it moves past the startup phase, the Arab Council’s scholars will have to decide whether their aim is to increase the visibility in the wider world of scholars of the region, or whether it’s to create a parallel universe. It will also have to grapple with its definition: what is an “Arab” council? Shami herself is of Circassian origin, and there are plenty of other non-Arab ethnicities and language groups in the region: Kurds, Berbers, and so on. Many of the early success stories in the ACSS are geographical hybrids, trained by or based at Western institutions, which she points out reflects the global hierarchies of knowledge production.
The Council might also have to refine the scope of work it supports. So far, in the interest of transparency and interdisciplinary research, the ACSS has been very flexible and open to all communities of scholars, knowing that as a result the work of its grantees will be uneven. Another question is whether, once the novelty wears off, the ACSS conference will become a genuine source of scholarly prestige for social scientists. Its second annual conference, in March of this year, attracted four applicants for every presentation slot. Almost nobody who was invited to present dropped out.
Arab Council has already identified a greater breadth of existing scholarship in the region than its founders expected. Over time, it will gauge the quality and rigor of that work. “It’s too early to see the dividends or the fruits, because these fruits depend on how social science is professionalized or institutionalized,” Hanafi said.
Dahi, the economist from Hampshire College who researched Syrian refugees, has stayed involved with the ACSS, helping to organize its second conference this year. Regional research has grown harder, he said, because of the “climate of fear” in places like Egypt and the impossibility of doing any research at all today in most of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. “The carpet is shifting under our feet in ways that academics don’t like,” Dahi said. “Academics like a stable subject to study.”
He believes the Council will face a major test over the next years as it shifts from dispersing grants to pursuing its own research agenda, like other research councils around the world. “The key challenge will be this next step, because you need to create this tradition of quality production of knowledge,” Dahi said. “I’m optimistic. Supply creates its own demand. I don’t believe that in economics, but I do believe it in knowledge production.”
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
The Arab world can’t feed itself, and that’s how the region’s dictators like it.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets.
So far, the bakeries haven’t run out of loaves in two of the region’s biggest bread battlegrounds, Egypt and Syria. But the sense of plenty is only an illusion. Food is expensive, people are poor, and repressive regimes rely on imported wheat financed through foreign aid. It’s an unsustainable and volatile cocktail.
“You have a system where access to food is a primary mechanism of social control,” said journalist Annia Ciezadlo, author of the book “Day of Honey,” who has written extensively about food subsidies, unrest, and the use of food as a weapon in the Middle East. “The moment something happens to that supply of subsidized food, everything can go out of control.”
THE ARAB UPRISINGS of 2010 and 2011 offered only the most recent glimpse of what it would look like if people got hit where it hurts the most: at the dinner table.
In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt managed a feat that had been considered impossible when he broke with the entire Arab world and initiated a peace process with Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem to address the Knesset. The bread conundrum, on the other hand, proved much more intractable.
Sadat tried in January 1977 to cancel Egypt’s expensive wheat subsidy at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Riots swept nearly every major city, and in two days Sadat caved. He restored the bread subsidy that has remained in place ever since, and the Egyptian military took control of many crucial bakeries to ensure that the government could control the bread supply in a crisis. That awkward status quo prevails to this day. The government’s bread economy is inefficient, unstable, and nearly entirely dependent on foreign imports. But any attempt to tinker with bread prices or subsidies still terrifies the country’s rulers and enrages its citizens.
Regimes took heed. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, extolled peasants in his rhetoric and made food independence a central pillar of his regime. For decades, Syrian officials constantly bragged they didn’t need to import wheat.
Dictators in the Arab world learned that one of the best routes to dominance runs through the bakery. Rulers the world round usually deploy some variant of pocketbook politics, rewarding their loyalists with perks like community centers, jobs, and payola — and punishing opposition areas by scrimping on their basic services like roads and schools. In many Middle Eastern countries, the level of control was more basic: Without the government, citizens would starve.
The brittle, undemocratic regimes had, however, no mechanism of oversight and little resilience to withstand outside shocks. So distant events like a bad crop on the Black Sea or low rainfall in Canada could quickly translate into a political crisis in the Levant or North Africa. In 2008, world food prices spiked, and, once again, bread riots broke out across the Middle East. Regimes scrambled to cover the shortfall with handouts and subsidies, on the assumption that their populations might tolerate repression but not hunger.
Indeed, rising commodity prices were one of the triggers in the 2010 to 2011 uprisings. Protesters in Tunisia brandished baguettes. In Egypt, many of the revolutionary chants talked about food, and a central demand was for “bread, freedom, social justice” (it rhymes in Arabic).
The first Syrians to rise up against Bashar Assad included many poor farmers who had been displaced by drought and the government’s neoliberal disinvestment from agriculture. Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., argue that a series of droughts in Syria from 2006 to 2010 created the preconditions for the uprisings — crop failures drove farmers off their land and raised the level of desperation until Syrians directly challenged their ruler.
Saudi Arabia’s ultrarich monarchy calculated that it could survive any challenge from political dissidents critical of the country’s lack of rights and freedoms — as long as it could keep its citizens in material comfort. The king quickly increased handouts to citizens, and after a brief rumble, Saudi Arabians sat out the regional wave of protests that swept through nearly every other Arab state.
Yet the obsession with food sovereignty and security remains close to the region’s despots. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in fertile water-rich countries like Ethiopia in order to secure its food supply.
In Syria, unscrupulous combatants on all sides have made food one of the war’s central battlegrounds. The regime blocks delivery of food aid to rebellious regions; its blockade of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus has also kept out truckloads of UN food aid, causing years of famine in the camp. Further afield, the regime routinely bombs bakeries in areas that fall under rebel control, in a method colloquially referred to as “starve-or-surrender.”
The Islamic State, for its part, has made control of the food supply a basic part of its blueprint for power, starting with the bakeries and wheat warehouses, and even facilitating the international aid deliveries that have kept some parts of northern Syria from suffering the same fate as Yarmouk.
THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.
In the Middle East, that means conditions are still ripe for a tempest. “At the end of the day, we can explain the crisis in terms of political economy: corruption, crony networks favored over rural populations. Droughts don’t cause civil war in Los Angeles,” said Woertz, who studies food and security at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, a think tank.
And it can’t be ignored that droughts have been a fact of life in the arid Arab world as long as there has been agriculture, and bread riots on their own have yet to transform a dictatorship into a democracy. That’s because the problem is much larger: People in the Arab world have been kept poorer than they should be by corrupt repressive governments that hog national wealth for a tiny elite. Until that changes, hunger and food insecurity will remain yet another symptom of the region’s terrible governance.
With the Iran nuclear negotiations concluded, attention ought to shift to a political solution for the troubling war in Syria, which has killed about a quarter-million people (estimates range from 230,000 to 320,0001), while displacing 4 million refugees into the Levant and Turkey.2
The United States remains an indispensable source of influence in the Middle East—when it chooses to get involved. It can shift the dynamics of the Syrian civil war by taking two steps. First, Washington should pour a new, higher level of support into the northern front of the civil war, in coordination with key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Second, it should continue to promote an end to the war through political negotiations that include all the key domestic and international actors in the conflict and exclude only the most extreme jihadist rebels.
A sustained intervention through proxies on Syria’s northern front would be a messy and inconclusive affair, but if carefully tailored, with pragmatic expectations, it could completely shift the political horizon for the Syrian civil war. No foreign intervention can create an idealistic group of democratic, secular rebels ready to take over the entire country of Syria and replace the regime. With international support, however, it is possible to create a coalition of nationalist rebels capable of making gains against both the regime in Damascus and jihadist extremists, including ISIS, the Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. An invigorated nationalist opposition could provide the final incentive needed to bring Syria’s combatants into a productive negotiating process.
The conflict is newly ripe for a diplomatic resolution, requiring only a catalyst. Russia, focused on the Ukraine crisis, would entertain an end to the war that preserved its status quo security interests in the Levant. The political and economic windfall from the nuclear deal in Vienna could prompt Iran to increase its aggressive involvement in Syria,3 but it might simultaneously make Iran more open to discussions of a settlement.4 An insecure and aggrieved Saudi Arabia will need to be wooed, as its leaders are irritated by the prospect of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.5 Yet, the rise of entrenched jihadis and the civilian bloodletting in Syria is equally troubling for the Saudis.6 Turkey is increasingly facing the risk of a spillover effect from the conflict in Syria, and would benefit from a calming of the crisis along its borders.7
All these factors suggest that a well-designed U.S. initiative, coupled with a concerted push to shift the military balance of power on the northern front, could trigger a genuine effort to negotiate an end to the war in Syria.
Existing Intervention: A Sorry Mess
Currently, the Damascus regime and its Iranian backers have encountered little resistance to their maximalist, often criminal tactics. The regime appears to continue to use chemical weapons with little consequence.8 Its armed forces and semiofficial militias have massacred tens of thousands of civilians by dropping barrel bombs, naval mines, and other indiscriminate explosives on neighborhoods under rebel control.9 Yet, the international community has raised no meaningful objections.
American involvement in Syria has been desultory. More than a year ago, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) expanded its dominion in Syria and Iraq and captured the city of Mosul, Washington vowed to do something; it would no longer consider the war in Syria a strategically inconsequential problem that could be ignored. But a year later, the United States has lagged on its promise to train and equip Syrian rebels. The latest venture, approved a year ago with a $500 million budget, just sent its first class of recruits into the field in July—a paltry contingent of sixty.10 The Pentagon is hamstrung by its obsession with vetting fighters, and its standards are so impractical and unrealistic that they disqualify most credible commanders. The train-and-equip program is further hampered by the insistence that its graduates only fight Islamist jihadists rather than the regime in Damascus.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has not even decided what kind of support to give to the soldiers it has dispatched into northern Syria under the latest iteration of train-and-equip. “I think we have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a congressional committee. “They know that we will provide support to them.” But he could not specify what that support would entail: “We have not told them yet,” Carter said the week the newly trained fighters were deployed.11
The U.S. air campaign against ISIS has struck limited targets. With few trusted local proxies on the ground, the U.S. Air Force can have only minimal impact. For now, the only local proxy with fighters on the ground that can regularly ask for U.S. air strikes is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).12 The YPG has successfully taken some territory from ISIS, but is anathema to Turkey. Whenever the YPG is too successful, as in June when it captured the border crossing of Tal Abyad between Turkey and Syria,13 the Turks become alarmed and resentful. Ankara considers the YPG as indistinguishable from the PKK, militant Kurdish separatists who have waged an on-again off-again violent campaign in Turkey. The Turkish government will never support an anti-ISIS or anti-Assad campaign dominated by the YPG Kurds.
Meanwhile, as U.S. efforts have floundered, ISIS continues to deepen its state structures, military capacity, and territorial control, and it looks more like an established entity with each passing day.14
With all this bad news and so many unreliable partners on the ground, it’s no wonder that President Obama has kept his distance. Rebels willing to do business with the CIA, DOD and other government agencies have proven a mixed bag. In 2014, for instance, the United States invested considerable resources in Jamal Maarouf’s secular nationalist Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), which then took control of much of Idlib province. U.S. involvement initially was viewed as a success; a modest amount of money, along with anti-tank missiles, had shifted the battle in favor of “moderate” rebels. In practice, the rebels proved not so moderate, and the success was short lived. The SRF’s governance of Idlib was capricious and riddled with corruption. Civilians in Idlib came to resent the inconsistency and predatory abuses of their liberators. The province suffered punishing regime air strikes, as do all areas liberated by rebels. Eventually, Islamists took over the province and roundly defeated the SRF, which then collapsed.15
Today, the liberated areas of Idlib province are controlled mostly by the Nusra Front (Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate), and Ahrar el-Sham, a jihadi group that has won plaudits for being more homegrown and nationalist than ISIS and Nusra, but which in practice shares their extreme views, which are incompatible with a pluralistic or secular state. The areas of Idlib province controlled by secular nationalists under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) survive as timid oases of relative moderation. FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli said they do not even try to control local governance, the economy, or social services (as Islamist militias do in their domains), and they admit that they must surrender some share of their resources and weapons to the Islamists who control the FSA’s access to Idlib. They rely on the black market for fuel, sometimes indirectly buying the diesel for their tanks and vehicles from ISIS.
The good news is that there are still plenty of commanders willing to fight under the banner of the FSA, do business with the United States, and espouse political principles and talking points that make them palatable to mainstream Syrians. A recent visit to the Turkish-Syrian border showed a growing group of commanders who control boots on the ground, have a nationalist, rather than Islamist style, and have demonstrated an ability to learn politically.
“At the end we will support any government that gives all Syrians their rights,” Colonel Fares Bayyoush, an army defector who commands an FSA brigade in Idlib province, said in an interview at his headquarters in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “From our side, we are going to behave like Syrians. . .If we in the FSA get power, we will protect coexistence.” Half a dozen FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli and Gaziantep voiced the same refrain: they want a resolution to the Syrian war that protects all sects and ethnicities, and they want to eliminate the jihadist groups while reintegrating their supporters into society. They have demonstrated a history of coordinating military operations with Kurds and with Islamist fighters. They express a willingness to negotiate with elements of the regime, and they claim to include Christians, Druze and Alawites among the ranks of their fighters.
Much of this sentiment is probably tailored for Western consumption, but it also marks a considerable shift compared to a year ago. Interviews in the same border towns with the same groups in the summer of 2014 had revealed a propensity for grandstanding, Sunni triumphalism, and petulant demands that the U.S. military intervene directly and win the war for the opposition. Today, the same commanders have learned a new political language. The rhetoric of rights and national unity in the hands of pragmatic fighters signals the beginnings of a national accord that could lead Syria out of its fratricidal war.
So long as the United States is looking for a functional alliance and not for idealized founding fathers, it can find what it needs to shift the Syrian dynamic among the grab-bag of Syrian nationalists clamoring for American money and weapons on the northern front.
The framework for forming this alliance already exists. The United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other aligned players dispense military aid and cash to their preferred rebels through coordinating bodies—known colloquially among fighters as “military operations rooms”—in Reyhanli, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria. Some powers are believed also to fund favored proxies independently on the sly, but the operations rooms were founded with the stated goal of streamlining and unifying the funding of anti-Assad rebels.
And there is evidence to support this approach. Whenever the major outside powers work together to direct their weapons, funding, and intelligence in tandem, there are considerable gains on the ground as witnessed in the regime losses in Idlib and Aleppo provinces over the last year.16 When foreign powers work at loggerheads, fractiousness increases, along with infighting within and between the nationalist FSA, the Islamists, the Kurds, and the regime.
Changing the Dynamic on the Ground
The groups seeking aid through the operations rooms have proven their elasticity. Some, like the Noureddin Zinki Brigades, temporarily lost American backing when some of their weapons ended up in the hands of jihadists.17 Much of this leakage is unavoidable. For example, in Idlib province, the secular nationalist FSA brigades desperate to keep American support still operate at the pleasure of the militarily dominant Islamists.
This is a dynamic that the United States can change. First, it must make some tough choices in tandem with key allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and perhaps other regional players such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. There are at least a dozen rebel groups well known to foreign governments. The foreign backers of the anti-Assad forces must agree on a small number of commanders and groups acceptable to all
Perfection will be the enemy of progress. None of the FSA militias are ideal, but most of them have nationalist roots and agree on the key points that inform long-term U.S. goals: preservation of Syria’s borders, a pluralistic state that safeguards the rights of all ethnic and sectarian communities, and an end to foreign domination of the state. Saudi Arabia will dislike Muslim Brotherhood militias. Turkey will prefer groups with a Sunni Islamic flavor and will seek to minimize the role of the Kurdish YPG militias. The United States will want a commander who pays lip service to America’s political vision for Syria. These lowest-common denominator characteristics can be found in a single militia.
The nationalist groups whose long term goal is to hold power in Syria also have come to understand that it’s not feasible to massacre members of minority groups, dictate terms to foreign powers, or transform Syria into an Islamic republic. A year ago, many FSA commanders interviewed in the border region were not willing to openly espouse nationalist political goal, or did not understand the type of political language that would enable them to win international support. Today, many of them have learned an entirely new vocabulary. FSA battalions have united in a coherent communications structure, which is ripe for sustained international backing.
An effective strategy would have to follow a long-term plan that includes, at a minimum, the following elements:
1. Coordinated backing of a single commander, or small number of commanders. The United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia would have to direct their resources in harmony to selected groups and exclude funding and weapons for all others. As has occurred throughout the Syrian conflict whenever funding shifted, fighters would abandon atrophying brigades and join the well-funded and well-armed groups.
2. Effective governance of rebel areas. The foreign backers, led by the United States, would have to keep their proxies on a short leash, forcing rather than trusting them to behave well. That means long-term funding and arming that is dispensed in weekly bursts and carefully monitored. If a proxy group mistreats minorities, or engages in black market fuel trade, or extorts money from civilians, it will forfeit its weekly cash payment. The United States and others will also have to send huge amounts of nonmilitary aid to enable effective governance in liberated areas, which would require a full buy-in from Turkey.
3. Security in liberated areas. Unless liberated areas are safe for civilians, the regime will win even when it loses. There are many options, but all of them require an end to the Damascus regime’s unfettered control of Syria’s airspace. Curtailing the Syrian regime’s sovereignty would entail a significant change in U.S. commitment, which will require a change of position by the White House and political legwork domestically to win approval. The most maximal option is a no-fly zone supported by the United States and Turkey. In a less dramatic move, the United States could back a no-fly zone enforced by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It could politically support a middle option whereby Turkey would shoot down regime bombers and helicopters using land-based systems in Turkey. Or, at the most minimal, international teams of special forces (from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey or the United States) could sporadically shoot down regime bombers using portable surface-to-air missiles. This last option would introduce enough risk and uncertainty for the regime that it would be forced to reduce its indiscriminate bombing. One reasonable objection is that most liberated areas are currently controlled by Islamist extremists: Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra, and ISIS. The United States understandably does not want to be seen acting as Al Qaeda’s air force, which is why it’s crucial that air cover evolves in tandem with backing for nationalist, non-jihadi rebels. Air cover and an internationally backed safe zone should be extended as a start over any area held by non-jihadi rebels.
4. Shifting the political and military balance of power. Gains by nationalist rebels would weaken the Islamists (ISIS, Nusra, and Ahrar) and would also weaken the regime. It is crucial that nationalist rebels, backed by the United States and others, win support and trust from fence-sitters, tribes, and rural religious Sunni Arabs who currently tilt toward Islamist groups or the regime. The U.S.-backed rebels would have to avoid sectarian massacres or Sunni triumphalism. They would have to continue showing an ability to work with all Syrian sects and ethnicities and continue espousing a commitment to a secular nationalist governing ideology that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and opposes Islamist extremists. Such a position would make the rebels palatable to mainstream Syrians as well as to political actors with whom the opposition will ultimately have to reconcile in a negotiated settlement: quiescent members of the business class from every ethnic and sectarian background, the ruling elite, and its international backers.
5. A peace process. U.S.-orchestrated intervention on Syria’s northern front can feed a process of negotiating a political settlement. Rebels cannot win outright; neither can the regime or the Islamists. But a consolidated front of nationalist rebels can make peace with a subset of the regime and begin the arduous process of reconstituting the Syrian state. For a new strategy to succeed, the United States would have to regularly renew its invitation and commitment to support an inclusive political negotiating process to end the war.
A Long Haul
The United States has been mysteriously AWOL in Syria, even since “declaring war on ISIS” a year ago and undertaking a desultory bombing campaign. Now, with the peril of Iran’s nuclear program apparently contained, the United States ought to ramp up its diplomatic and indirect military engagement in Syria, with the intention of forcing a fair political settlement.
A concerted and sustained U.S.-orchestrated campaign to empower one faction of nationalist rebels could do wonders to change the dynamics of the fitful negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war. There’s nothing the United States could do to make the anti-Assad rebels win, even if it wanted to. But by placing its thumb on the scale with a vigor that it has so far avoided, the United States could propel its preferred faction to dominance within the fractured milieu of anti-Assad forces.
The United States could alter the dynamic of the war and the position of key outside sponsors of the conflict—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—with a sustained political and military commitment to nationalist rebels who express a commitment to a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Syria within its current borders and based on an inclusive definition of citizenship.
Such a partnership is feasible, so long as it has realistic aims: not to win the war for one faction or hope to eliminate jihadist extremists overnight, but to make all parties to the civil war realize that a political compromise will leave them better off than a continued war.
The mechanics are clear. First, the United States must acknowledge that a resolution in Syria will require the involvement of all the parties to the conflict, including Washington’s unsavory allies and its persistent rivals. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will have to be at the negotiating table. So will some unseemly Islamist rebel factions. Any party excluded from negotiations, like ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, must be instead roundly defeated with military force. It is not possible to ignore the extremist groups and yet concede them the territory under their control.
Any new approach could still take years to change the overall direction of Syria’s war. A shift in the U.S. approach to the northern front would require considerable diplomatic work with Turkey and Arab allies. But a pragmatic plan could get the key players onside and frame the goals for the conflict in a more realistic way. Nothing will change as long as each group of combatants thinks it can achieve total victory. But the political dynamics will change as the balance of power on the ground shifts, and the only proven force that has affected the course of the conflict to date has been the sustained flow of money, weapons, and foreign political attention.
At worst, the United States will fail to persuade all its allies to fully cooperate with the strategy and will end up with a few tighter partnerships among the rebels, but no major strategic yield. At best, the United States will convince the other sponsors of the Syrian conflict that they no longer have free access to run killing fields and that they will have to pay a much higher price to stick with the status quo—or else will have to look for political compromises.
1 Estimates from the United Nations and Western news agencies place the minimum death toll at 230,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates a minimum death toll of 320,000.
2 In addition to the 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, nearly 8 million internally displaced people have been forced from their homes but still live in the country. See Nick Cummings-Bruce, “Number of Syrian Refugees Climbs to More Than 4 Million,” New York Times, July 9, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/09/world/middleeast/number-of-syrian-refugees-climbs-to-more-than-4-million.html?_r=0.
3 Sean D. Naylor, “Will Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat Boost Its Proxies?” Foreign Policy, July 20, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/20/will-curbing-irans-nuclear-threat-boost-its-proxies/.
4 Jessica Schulberg, “Obama: No End to War in Syria Without ‘Buy-In’ From Iran,” Huffington Post, July 20, 2015,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/15/obama-iran-deal_n_7802768.html.
5 Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand,” Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/12/its-time-to-stop-holding-saudi-arabias-hand-gcc-summit-camp-david/.
6 David Gardner, “The Toxic Rivalry of Saudi Arabia and ISIS,” Financial Times, July 16, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/8bba2ab4-2b00-11e5-8613-e7aedbb7bdb7.html#axzz3gdqpeelg.
7 Semih Idiz, “Turkey Needs to Drop Its Dead-End Foreign Policy,” Al-Monitor, July 21, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/turkey-west-european-union-us-time-to-readjust-compass.html.
8 Adam Entous, “Assad Chemical Threat Mounts,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/assad-chemical-threat-mounts-1435535977.
9 Lucy Westcott, “United Nations: Assad’s Barrel Bombs Continue to Kill Syrian Civilians,” Newsweek, June 27, 2015,http://www.newsweek.com/united-nations-assads-barrel-bombs-continue-kill-syrian-civilians-347782.
10 Jennifer Rizzo, “Carter: U.S. Trains Only 60 Syrian Rebels,” CNN, July 7, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/07/politics/united-states-training-syrian-rebels-ashton-carter/.
11 See Roy Gutman, “First contingent of U.S.-trained fighters enters Syria,” McClatchy, July 16, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article27446395.html, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters,” Washington Post, July 15, 2015,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/first-us-trained-syrian-fighters-reenter-their-country/2015/07/15/6e6c0551-353d-4e17-961b-98995321576c_story.html.
12 See Denise Natali, “The Coalition’s quagmire with Syrian Kurds,” Al Monitor, July 14, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/coalition-quagmire-syrian-kurds.html#. See also Roy Gutman, “U.S Moves Its Syrian Air Campaign to the West,” McClatchy, June 30, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article25909303.html.
13 Thomas Seibert, “ISIS is Losing in Northern Syria, but Ankara is Unhappy,” Daily Beast, June 16, 2015,http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/16/isis-is-losing-in-northern-syria-but-ankara-is-unhappy.html.
14Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as a Tool” New York Times, July 21, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/middleeast/isis-transforming-into-functioning-state-that-uses-terror-as-tool.html.
15 See Liz Sly, “U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, November 2, 2014,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-backed-syria-rebels-routed-by-fighters-linked-to-al-qaeda/2014/11/02/7a8b1351-8fb7-4f7e-a477-66ec0a0aaf34_story.html. Zack Beauchamp, “American strategy in Syria is collapsing,” Vox, November 4, 2014,http://www.vox.com/2014/11/4/7150473/american-strategy-in-syria-is-collapsing. A similar collapse struck another U.S. favorite, the Hazm movement; see Ian Black, “US Syria policy in tatters after favoured ‘moderate’ rebels disband,” Guardian, March 2, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/us-syria-policy-tatters-moderate-rebels-disband.
16 Firas abi Ali, “Syrian Opposition Success in Idlib Province Likely to Threaten Aleppo, Latakia, and Assad’s Hold on Power,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, April 27, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/51012/syrian-opposition-success-in-idlib-province-likely-to-threaten-aleppo-latakia-and-assad-s-hold-on-power.
17 Author interview with Noureddin Zinki Brigades official, Antakya, Turkey, June 2015.
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
“The World Has Changed,” trumpeted the front-page headline of the Iranian reformist daily Etemaad on July 15, the day after Iran signed a nuclear deal with the six world powers. But as U.S. President Barack Obama attempts to build on this agreement, he will find that changing the destructive dynamics of the Middle East is far more difficult than any negotiation in Vienna.
For years, U.S. leaders have staked their hopes for calming decades of sectarian war, insurgency, and tension in the Middle East on rehabilitating Iran, a bête noire in the eyes of Washington and its allies. But if there’s any hope of changing these dynamics, the United States is going to have to dive quickly and deeply into the region’s feuds. Wars have spiraled out of control in four Arab countries, and Iran is only partly to blame. A more cooperative Tehran — which may or may not materialize after the nuclear agreement sinks in — could open the door to calming the bloodshed in Syria, where Iran is a lead player. But the roots of the wars in Iraq and Yemen go deeper than Tehran’s machinations, and Iran has almost no role in the Libyan conflict.
After the deal, like before, U.S. interests will be challenged by clever and aggressive foes, but also by ruthless allies. If the United States wants to alter the dynamic, it will have to give up its linear approach and play what Joseph Nye describes as “three-dimensional chess.” Until now, Washington has insisted on taking on one crisis at a time, meaning that a pileup of disasters has festered while the White House looked only at the Iran nuclear deal.
That mindset won’t work. It will take far more than a change in Iran to end the Syrian civil war. Same for Yemen.
So, what will work?
First, the United States will have to engage Iran and other bad actors in each of the region’s hot spots. Obama has already expressed the intention of doing so: At his press conference on July 15, he spoke of “[jump-starting] a process to resolve the civil war in Syria” and that “it’s important for [Iran] to be part of that conversation.”
Second, at the same time Washington tries to engage diplomatically with Tehran, it will also need to raise the costs for Iran of continuing to do business in the same bloody way it has across the region. With billions of dollars flowing back into the country after the lifting of sanctions, there’s a risk that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will intensify its expansionist approach and investment in proxy wars. A direct war with Iran isn’t a wise option, but ignoring its machinations has left it free reign to expand its dominion in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The only remaining option is to engage in messy proxy warfare as well, giving sustained military and political backing to anti-Iranian proxies, which will make it expensive for Iran to meddle around the Arab world. This will give the United States a new card in the negotiations to come: It can offer to restrain its proxy militias if Iran does the same.
Third, the United States will face the challenging task of getting its recalcitrant allies onto the same page. In the Syria conflict, that will mean butting heads with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have poured money into rival rebel factions, allowed a free-for-all in the border zones, and paved the way for the entrenchment of hard-line Islamists within the uprising. Washington will need to convince its partners to pick a single rebel coalition to back and then endow it with real and sustained support. That’s the only way to tilt the balance inside Syria and increase the likelihood of a political solution that empowers nationalist rebels at the expense of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the radical Islamists.
After years of myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the United States will have to take an unsentimental and cleareyed inventory of its dysfunctional allies. It can only expect so much from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey — but with these sorts of friends, it behooves Washington to lower its expectations and take a more transactional approach to enlisting cooperation, whenever possible, on a single issue or subsets of issues. A disappointed Saudi Arabia, for instance, might play ball with the United States on Syria — even as it opposes Washington’s policy in Iraq. Turkey could be convinced to better police its border in exchange for a U.S. policy shift on the Kurds, who have made rapid gains in northern Syria.
The biggest benefit of the Iran deal is the diplomatic process it created. The intense relationships that evolved over the course the negotiations can now be used to open conversations on other issues. Whether those conversations bear fruit is another matter — but history teaches us that personal trust among diplomats can change the direction on the ground.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of this agreement as an inflection point akin to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, which completely shifted the dynamics of the Middle East conflict. The Iran nuclear talks are more like the Madrid process, the breakthrough that lead to the Oslo Accords: a first diplomatic step that could, in turn, lead to other diplomatic steps. And like the Oslo Accords, it could still ultimately fail to accomplish any of its stated goals.
So let’s not overstate the impact of the agreement just yet. The agreement hasn’t yet given the world any tangible achievements, in the form of abated extremism or disarmed militants. What’s more, the Middle East remains on course for another decade of murderous warfare, deepening sectarian feuds, and destabilizing polarization. These are grim phenomena with inescapable and dangerous strategic consequences for Middle Eastern countries, global energy markets, and the security interests of the United States.
If the Obama administration hopes to change this reality, it will need to pressure every major player — both allies and adversaries — to shift course. Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah could be emboldened by the deal and tempted to double down on their current maximalist bets. Troublesome friends such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, meanwhile, have continually undermined U.S. aims in the Middle East and will do so with even more boldness as they try to derail the nuclear deal.
Washington is going to need to change the calculations of both groups, and it’s not going to be easy. The Obama administration will have to manage petulant allies enraged by the deal and persuade drifting fence-sitters like Turkey and Egypt to play a more constructive role in breaking regional stalemates.
It will also have to defy recent history by rolling back Iranian influence at a time when Tehran will be motivated to try to expand its reach. Iran, after all, already successfully expanded its reach through militant proxies and tightened relations with key Arab allies even during the period when sanctions crippled its economy. With a deal concluded, Tehran won’t walk away from its achievements. If the nuclear negotiations were grueling, imagine how hard it will be to pressure Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to sacrifice a material alliance with Syria, Iraq, or Hezbollah.
For years, Obama administration insiders have quietly spread the word that the president wasn’t tuned out on the Middle East. Instead, they argued, he was following a strategic order of operations. The first step was trying to seal a nuclear deal with Iran, the regional tiger, and then systematically deal with the region’s instability, proxy wars, and sectarian strife.
The coming months will test that claim. If Obama does in fact have a plan to use an Iran deal as the cornerstone of a new regional order, the real work begins now, and it will be messy. The dirty business of superpower realpolitik, a combination of muscle and diplomatic savvy, comes next. It’s what the United States should have been doing all along. The Iran deal gives it a chance to reboot and get it right.
[Published in The New York Times.]
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The worst day on the set of “Banned in Syria,” the actors agreed, was when the sniper struck in June. A location scout was preparing for the day’s filming when a single bullet killed him instantly.
The cast and crew continued undeterred. That is the bargain when you sign up to produce a rebel television series in the wartime Syrian city of Aleppo with little pay, no insurance and militias that want you dead.
During a marathon filming in June to rush this season’s episodes to air in time for Ramadan, the producers of “Banned in Syria” overcame obstacles from the lethal to the prosaic. A second crew member was wounded in crossfire and died several days later. Barrel bombs and shells derailed scenes. Out of respect, filming also paused during the frequent passing funerals. At the end of each day, the technicians struggled with the painfully slow Internet connections as they uploaded footage to film editors at the office just across the border here in Gaziantep.
Credit: Lamba Productions
The creators of “Banned in Syria,” a show that parodies all sides in Syria’s civil war, are desperate for their work to succeed as profitable entertainment — and as political satire.
Most of the scenes take place in the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo or in damaged buildings. The show skewers President Bashar al-Assad and his government, as well as the religious groups that have taken over much of the uprising. It even mocks the rebels in the Free Syrian Army, who provide security when the show is filmed on location.
“We make fun of the way they treat civilians, but they have no choice but to protect us,” said Yamen Nour, one of the stars of the show. Mr. Nour, 37, a painter and actor who led demonstrations in 2011, considers his theater and television work a continuation of the revolution by other means.
“We want to show people that we are still living,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make people smile during war. We want them to forget the war for a moment.”
Tony el-Taieb, 24, the producer of the series, said he and the 55 or so actors and crew members who work for his company, Lamba Productions, believed that Syria’s original revolutionaries must establish cultural alternatives to those generated by the government in Damascus.
“Our videos drive the regime crazy, because we show the reality,” Mr. Taieb said. “We can’t leave the field of drama to the regime.”
The political ethos of “Banned in Syria” and of Lamba is quintessentially urban and cosmopolitan — the spirit of the original nonviolent uprising in 2011 against Mr. Assad that preceded the civil war. The idea was to broach every taboo subject big and small: the fawning respect accorded to military officers, family feuds and even religion.
To minimize danger, Lamba does editing and postproduction in an apartment here, but Mr. Taieb insisted that filming, theater production and most radio broadcasting take place in Aleppo, a divided city that was once Syria’s economic powerhouse and now symbolizes the society’s intractable divisions and the wanton destruction of the four-year war.
“Banned in Syria” airs on Aleppo Today, a channel for revolutionaries, but Mr. Taieb said the serial gets most of its views on YouTube. He has received messages from friends and relatives of officials about recent episodes, and the comments on YouTube and Facebook suggest that government stalwarts and active-duty soldiers are among the fans of the series.
“We’re talking about everything you can’t discuss in Damascus, because there the walls have ears,” Mr. Taieb said.
A lawyer and activist from a wealthy Sunni Muslim family in Aleppo, Mr. Taieb, whose real name is Qusai Hayani, adopted a Christian nom de guerre when the uprising began in the hopes of persuading minority friends to join the revolution.
While rebel militia ranks are overwhelmingly Sunni, Lamba Productions reflects Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity, with team members representing Alawites, Christians, Druse and Kurds.
Authenticity is important to the producers, but then so is staying on budget. The cast and crew members said they supported filming the series inside what they considered “liberated Syria,” but they also realized they could not afford multiple takes.
The resulting complications are visible in “Genie, Genie,” one of this season’s most popular episodes, featuring a dimwitted djinn fielding poignant but comical wishes from the denizens of an apocalyptic Aleppo.
“The passport you gave me was fake!” complains the hapless Syrian, played by Jihad Saka Abu Joud, 32, who found a magic lamp in the ruins of his home.
“Sorry,” replies the genie, played by Mr. Nour. “My supplier is a jerk.”
A real-life shell explodes in the background, a puff of smoke visible in the frame. The ersatz genie delivers his next line without missing a beat. Mr. Abu Joud flinches then recovers. The take rolls on.
Mr. Abu Joud can mug like the British character Mr. Bean, but he has gained notoriety for another talent: singing ballads. During breaks, Mr. Abu Joud regaled the crew with revolutionary songs, though he feared Aleppo residents would resent them or consider them frivolous. He discovered the opposite, however.
In an encounter captured on video, Mr. Abu Joud stops singing as a funeral procession approaches. The father of the deceased orders Mr. Abu Joud to resume and dances as his grieving family intermingles with the “Banned in Syria” crew.
“This support gives us a lot of power,” Mr. Abu Joud said.
The last episodes were still being edited during the first week of Ramadan, in the middle of June, in a fevered rush. After midnight during one of those sessions, some of the actors and Mr. Taieb gathered around a monitor to admire the genie episode. The unpacked bags of equipment from the filming in Aleppo were still piled in a jumble by the door.
Although the team is mostly secular and includes several non-Muslims, it refrained from eating and smoking in the common areas of the office during the Ramadan fast. After sunset, though, the Bohemian air returned. Coffee cups littered the tables and a haze of cigarette smoke reduced visibility across the room.
Most of the actors are wanted by the government. Mr. Taieb’s father was held for nearly a year, and the brother of another player, Zakaria Abdelkafi, remains in prison.
For all the risk and the weighty mission, the actors and producers seem to be having a good time. As the crew finished the postproduction work for “Banned in Syria,” they were already developing a concept for a 24-minute drama about a journalist covering Syria’s war and future comedic pieces.
And while filming during a civil war is less than ideal, there is at least one production benefit.
“If there were no war, our work would take much longer,” Mr. Nour said.
Others on the team agreed.
“Can you imagine how long it would take to build the set of a destroyed building?” Mr. Abu Joud said. “Thanks to the war, it’s all ready to go.”
PHOTO: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A woman and a child left a Syrian shop in Mersin in March.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas]
MERSIN, Turkey — WHEN MARWAN MUNIR left Syria three years ago, he only intended to stay away from home a short while, like most of the refugees he knows. Munir worked as a trainer at the local professional soccer club in Lattakia, a coastal city known for its fair Mediterranean climate and its boisterous waterfront cafes.
Today, Munir is the founder and head coach of a new Syrian national soccer team made up of rebels in exile, which hopes to displace the regime-backed soccer team in Damascus. He has found a home in Mersin, Turkey, a sort of doppelganger just around a bend in the Mediterranean from his hometown. After practice, Munir and his players repair to teahouses along the sea where Syrian expatriates refresh the coals on the water pipes and Arabic competes with Turkish as the lingua franca.
“I don’t want to learn Turkish,” Munir said. “I don’t want to admit that we might stay here.” But he has proven quite adept at learning the ways of the country where he now lives with his wife and three daughters, along with approximately 1.7 million other displaced Syrians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Munir has skillfully negotiated with the local mayor’s office to find a top-notch training facility in this resort town that’s a three-hour drive and a cultural world away from the Syrian frontier.
Some of the refugees in Turkey cluster just over the border, ready to slip back home as soon as they feel it’s safe. But many others, like Munir, have migrated deeper into Turkey and further from home, establishing bases and communities that hint at a long time horizon — and though it’s politically toxic to say so, at permanence. “It might take 10 years for the war to end,” said the coach.
He’s loath to consider the possibility that the regime could survive and the rebellion could end in complete failure, but he admits it’s a possibility. “If our side loses, then we’ll stay in Turkey forever,” he said.
IN THE MIDDLE EAST, Palestinians have long been synonymous with permanent diaspora. Waves of refugees remade the region after wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967, destabilizing neighboring governments in Jordan and Lebanon, while bringing with them established fortunes and businesses. Palestinian culture and politics provided a vital injection of dynamism to public life in the nations that hosted refugees. But the never-ending refugee presence also brought tension and periodic crises that continue to flare generations after the first Palestinian refugees arrived.
Arab governments vowed never to repeat the same mistakes. When millions fled Iraq after the civil war provoked by the 2003 US invasion, many were allowed to make temporary homes in neighboring Jordan and Syria, but entirely on a short-term, provisional basis. Governments made it very difficult for refugees to get papers and settle down. As the worst fighting subsided, they were encouraged or even pushed to return home.
Syria’s civil war has now dragged on far longer than the bloodiest period in Iraq, and the two biggest hosts of Syrian refugees — Turkey and Lebanon — are starting to see what it looks like when a long-term emergency ages into the new normal.
There are about 4 million Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR, and nearly twice as many displaced from their homes but still inside Syria. No precise numbers can track the human and societal toll, but the migration does take a disproportionate toll on certain groups.
Doctors, for instance, fled the city of Aleppo en masse early in the war after a concerted campaign of violence against them. Aleppo’s industrialists and skilled workers, who formed the backbone of the country’s manufacturing base, have also disproportionately moved elsewhere, sometimes reopening their old factories and workshops in Turkish cities like Gaziantep.
Syrian laborers and professionals have flooded into Turkey and Lebanon, sometimes displacing local workers and meeting with resentment. They gather at Syrian restaurants, usually reincarnations of establishments in abandoned, now war-torn, neighborhoods back home in Syria.
In Lebanon, the 1.2 million registered refugees represent about a quarter of the country’s entire population. The actual number of unregistered Syrians is probably significantly higher. Since the beginning of 2015, Lebanon has enforced a policy of limited welcome, after years of effectively leaving the border open. Now Syrians need a visa or proof of a certain amount of wealth before entering Lebanon. They’re more carefully tracked, after six months or a year many are forced to leave the country.
IN TURKEY, HOWEVER, signs of a permanent diaspora are emerging. Turkey has officially embraced displaced Syrians as part of its active support of the rebellion. Turkey’s government was among the first to call for the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has placed its considerable political resources behind the uprising. A shared Sunni Islamist ideology unites many of the anti-Assad militants with Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some Turkish institutions, notably the more risk-averse military, have warned against getting too deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. But Erdogan has plunged ahead, allowing rebels to set up bases in Turkey, providing the most reliable staging ground for humanitarian relief to beleaguered northern Syria, and effectively keeping the opposition alive by providing a secure rear area for refugees and combatants.
Most of the time, Syrians cross the border freely, without officials keeping any record. Even when Turkish officials close the border for weeks or a month, as they did during clashes in June, they allow wounded Syrians to enter Turkey. Vetted Syrian rebels can cross the border freely even when it’s closed to civilians.
Those who intend to return home stay close to the frontier, like filmmaker Muhannad Najjar. He lives in Kilis, directly on the border, where dozens of new concrete apartment blocks and compounds have sprung up in the last two years, as the sleepy way-station has swelled into a sizable city-in-waiting, its new ranks populated almost entirely by people like Najjar who don’t intend to stay long.
Najjar visits his village near Aleppo whenever the crossing is open. He has registered his newborn daughter in Turkey, and until recently he had an official Turkish identity card that allowed him to access free health care and other Turkish government services. The last time he came back from Syria, he said, the card was confiscated without explanation.
“They don’t want to make it too easy for us,” he said. “But I feel safe here.”
There is a booming border economy fueled by the war in Syria, mostly centered on trade, smuggling, and humanitarian aid. International aid groups run massive operations along the border. Syrian and foreign companies that work inside Syria often have headquarters, training, and back-end facilities in Turkey where it’s less dangerous. But all this border activity will cease as soon as the war ends, or even sooner, if the rebels can secure some of the areas they control from regime bombing.
But hundreds of thousands of Syrians have moved further afield into Turkey, severing themselves from the conflict economy. Skilled workers have flocked to Bursa, on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul, for jobs in mills and factories.
The Fethiye quarter, a few tram stops from Topkapi Palace and Istanbul’s premier tourist attractions, has become an almost entirely Arabic-speaking neighborhood. Syrian rebel groups have set up political offices in nondescript apartment blocks. Young refugees study in intensive Turkish language programs.
Like Istanbul, Mersin is a decidedly Turkish place, not some border town. It’s a popular beach destination, and enjoys a reliable Mediterranean breeze all the way into the green hills overlooking the city.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have settled down here, drawn by the cheaper rents and the sense of stability. In border towns like Kilis, speculators have doubled rents for tiny flats. Mersin, in contrast, welcomes newcomers to its steady port economy.
THE NEW NATIONAL Syrian soccer team trains every evening, when the summer sunshine has subsided. Manager Anas Ammo and the coach, Munir, recruited players to defect from clubs inside Syria, and held tryouts along the border. The full squad only came together in May, and expects to play its first exhibition matches in the fall.
“We represent the Syrian people,” said Ammo. “The regime’s team represents the military, politicians, and the Ba’ath Party.”
More than anything else, however, the soccer team is an acknowledgment that many of the millions of Syrians who have taken up residence inside Turkey don’t plan to go home. Nearly a hundred years ago, millions were displaced at the end of the war between Turkey and Greece. One of the first things the refugees did in their new homes was re-create a memory of their old communities through football clubs, usually named for the town from which they fled.
“My dream is to go back home. If I can’t, then my second dream is to play on the Syrian national team, even here,” said Omar Hajj Mohammed, 23, a star midfielder from Lattakia who is one of the new team’s prized recruits. He played on a junior club team in Syria as a teenager before he was drafted into the regime’s military at the start of the uprising. He defected to the Free Syrian Army after 10 months. Eventually, he quit the fighting, working first as a construction worker in a Turkish border town and later at the fish market in Mersin.
None of the founding members of the exiled Syrian football team like the idea that their idealistic efforts will cement their position in the diaspora. But they said that after years of active resistance, their return to football marks a turn away from war and toward a future, even one far from home.
Their familiarity with the waterfront neighborhoods, the local Turkish sports officials, even the passing workers laying a new promenade by the sea, bespeak a growing rootedness. It’s too early to say whether the Syrians, like the Palestinians, will remain refugees for generations. But most of them come from communities so thoroughly destroyed they will take decades to rebuild. They’ve been away so long, it’s hard for them to imagine what return would look like.
Smuggler boats leave daily for Europe from Mersin, but Hajj Mohammed has decided he’d found a place he could stay. “I don’t want to be any further way from my family than here,” he said. “If I can’t be with my family, I might as well return to soccer.”
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
BEIRUT — Fadi Hallisso and his colleagues have taken on a nearly impossible task. In the fifth year of the war that is ravaging his homeland, Syria, his small team is cobbling together programs to help fellow refugees who have been left homeless and stateless by the conflict.
But the very same grassroots style that has made Hallisso’s group, Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an icon among humanitarians has also exacerbated its funding difficulties. Most of the grants that Basmeh & Zeitooneh won from international funders in the first years of the crisis have run out, leaving it with the ability to cover only about a third of its budget.
“Compassion and the sense of emergency faded about a year ago,” Hallisso said. “We’re trying to prepare people to rebuild Syria in the future. But we don’t know what we’ll be able to continue doing next month.”
Money problems are now afflicting every organization trying to help Syrians. Interest in the grinding conflict has flagged; sporadic political attention and media coverage mostly focus on the Islamic State, while fewer and fewer governments respond to the United Nations’ “urgent appeals” for aid. According to the latest U.N. figures, only about one-fourth of the needed money for Syria has been pledged this year.
For a sense of what that looks like at the street level, there’s no better place to look than Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which Hallisso and a group of friends established in 2012. The group has done everything right — rising out of the community it serves, responding quickly to new local needs, delivering help with minimum funds wasted on costly overhead — yet it faces a worse funding shortfall than its bigger, more lumbering counterparts.
As a result, it has been forced to shutter successful initiatives. This spring, it had to close five programs, including a vocational training initiative that had established several refugee women as small-business owners. Its school only has a month’s funding left, and it has had to stop paying some of its 100-plus staff members, almost all of whom are refugees themselves.
Even international funding for strictly emergency aid, such as food, has completely dried up.
“If a hungry man shows up at our center, we can’t tell him, ‘We can’t give you food, but you are welcome to come to our arts and culture center,’” Hallisso said.
These struggles are par for the course for the overall aid effort. The numbersare staggering: 4 million Syrians have left the country, and another 7.6 million are internally displaced. Tens of thousands have been newly displaced from their homes in fighting in the month of June. According to UNOCHA, the U.N. agency that tracks the overall effort to respond to Syrian needs, there’s a $5.6 billion funding shortfall this year.
Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s story parallels the rise and fall of interest in Syria’s plight. In the fall of 2012, Hallisso and his group of friends collected $15,000 from private donors, mostly wealthy Syrians, and used it to bring winter gear to freezing refugees. In the process of responding to requests for help, they discovered that many of the needs of the refugee population were being unmet. In response, they decided to launch Basmeh & Zeitooneh in the Palestinian camp of Shatila, a ramshackle neighborhood in south Beirut that has long been a bastion of official neglect.
Hallisso, 37, began his professional life as a computer programmer and steward of his family’s engineering business in Aleppo. The work, however, left him with “an emptiness, a lack of meaning,” he said. He found more fulfillment running youth scouting programs, and eventually he quit a lucrative business career to enter the Jesuit priesthood.
He changed course once again in 2011, after Syrians rose up peacefully against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “I felt my prayers had been answered. People were fighting for their dignity,” he said. “The first months we were drunk with joy.”
Most international humanitarian groups don’t set foot in Shatila, where Basmeh & Zeitooneh established its base, because doing so is considered a security risk. There were no international groups working with the new Syrian arrivals in the camp or with the long-standing Palestinian population. But Basmeh & Zeitooneh dove right in, opening a community center on an upper floor of a narrow apartment building.
The approach was simple and small in scale. It started with a few programs, such as emergency resettlement aid, rent subsidies, women’s workshops, and lessons for children, delivering everything out of a single space that was located in the middle of the neighborhood where the refugees lived. The founders had noticed that other “women’s centers” set up by NGOs languished because they were hard to reach and because they weren’t child-friendly. So Basmeh & Zeitooneh laid out an intimate space where women could attend training while their kids played in the room next door, in the care of a trusted neighbor.
Moujfa al-Ali, 40, fled with her seven children to Beirut a year and a half ago from a small town outside Damascus. Her kids study in Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s school, while she went through a vocational training class and subsequently opened a clothing shop across the street from the NGO. For the first time in her life she has a job, and she’s now the family’s primary breadwinner.
She credits Basmeh & Zeitooneh for enabling her family to make progress amid the mayhem. “The war happened, and we must overcome obstacles,” she said. “We have accomplished something that we must not lose.”
Basmeh & Zeitooneh grew quickly. Individuals gave it cash donations, and then bigger NGOs and donors, like the U.S. Office of Transition Initiatives, directed more than $1 million in grants to the group. It opened community centers in Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley, and another Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.
But the organization quickly found itself hemmed in. Major donors don’t give grants to local groups, preferring to work with major nonprofits that run massive multicountry programs. When Basmeh & Zeitooneh staffers approached the United Nations for grants, they were told to pitch projects bigger than $5 million. If they proposed a $5 million project, Hallisso said, they were told they didn’t have the capacity.
Bigger aid groups prefer to do projects themselves, Hallisso said, resorting to partnerships with local groups like Basmeh & Zeitooneh only when their more expensive, often foreign, employees can’t get access to “beneficiaries.”
“In Tripoli, they only started looking for local partners when their employees started getting kidnapped,” Hallisso said. “This is insulting. This talk about building local Syrian capacity is BS. We are only there to take the risks for you.”
An emergency without visible end might still be an emergency, but Syria’s crisis has passed the point where the world is able to respond to it in crisis mode. In June, Basmeh & Zeitooneh won an unexpected reprieve with a 350,000-euro grant from Irish Aid. It has also started an online campaign on the regional fundraising platform Zoomaal. But the larger concerns about funding remain.
“It’s inevitable after four years that it’s hard for people to remain engaged in the massive need and the crisis,” said James Sadri, who heads The Syria Campaign, an effort to refocus Western interest on the crisis.
Sadri’s organization represents 300 organizations that work inside Syria or with Syrian refugees. The campaign’s goal is to mobilize Western public interest around action items that arise from a Syrian agenda, like expanding the amount of aid or ending barrel bombing. People can still have impact, Sadri said, by supporting the hundreds of individual groups working at great risk on the ground in Syria or by pressuring Western governments to shift policy. Yet it’s difficult, he said, to convince people that anything they do as individuals can make a difference or that there is a way forward in a complicated conflict like Syria’s with messy, violent politics.
“This agenda shouldn’t be defined by Western NGOs or Westerners. It should be defined by Syrians,” Sadri said. “If we’re serious about putting Syrians at the heart of what Western NGOs do, then we have to listen to them.”
For now, Basmeh & Zeitooneh is — like the Syrians it serves — simply trying to survive. As Lebanon has tightened restrictions on Syrians and on NGOs, Hallisso’s colleagues have opened an office in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. The top managers work for a fraction of the salaries they’ve been offered at other NGOs. When they travel outside Lebanon, they’re never sure whether they’ll be allowed back in — just one of the many pitfalls of having refugees run a refugee aid organization.
Whether operating on generous donations or on a shoestring budget, Hallisso and his colleagues plan to continue their work.
“Abandonment and despair are dangerous,” Hallisso said. “When you show people solidarity, it will give them hope.… We are building the daily capacity within our community. We cannot wait until the war ends to start.”
The war unfolding in Yemen has created a humanitarian and political catastrophe.1 Since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war at the end of March, the conflict has spiraled into an open, multiplayer regional war that has killed more than 2,000 people. For long stretches, Yemen’s seaports have been blockaded, threatening the food supply of an estimated half of the population of 24 million. Meanwhile, the number of displaced has lurched upward to 1 million.2
The conflict in Yemen marks yet another unfortunate escalation in the region that will exacerbate security problems and political divisions. This time around, Arab governments and the United States should do everything they can to calm the conflict before it becomes another intractable killing field. Washington already recognized Yemen’s strategic importance and for years has targeted terrorist operatives there with drone strikes. Now, the United States and its allies have the opportunity to learn from recent missteps in the region and take advantage of the halting negotiations that opened recently in Genevabetween the warring parties.3
The next few months offer a narrow window to prioritize diplomacy over military action in a bid to shift worsening dynamics across the Middle East. Regional governments and multilateral organizations ought to take every conceivable diplomatic step available today, even in the face of likely failure or obstruction, to address the Yemen crisis. Otherwise, it could quickly turn into another Syria, an intractable, grinding conflict that destroys one nation, while implicating a raft of others in a conflict that has no good possible outcomes.
This brief will assess the interests of outside powers that are playing a significant role in the Yemeni civil war and try to identify points of entry for diplomacy and de-escalation, with the long-term goal of creating new forums for dialogue between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other governments. The riskier internationalized phase of the war in Yemen is only three months old, and it has dragged in many key players in the region, including the United States. Military action is unlikely to resolve the conflict there, but an effective political process—which depends on international support—might reverse a dangerous escalation.
A Complex Conflict—and Its Consequences
In Yemen today, two amorphous and loosely allied coalitions are battling each other, with one roughly grouped behind Saudi Arabia and the other behind Iran. The dynamics and identities of these groupings are fluid and malleable. And as with the three other hot wars currently being fought in the Arab world—in Syria, Iraq, and Libya—the Yemen conflict is marked by a considerable degree of external interference. The stakes are high for the foreign interventionists: Saudi Arabia and its allies believe their stance in Yemen denotes a line of departure in a belated, but essential, campaign to check Iran’s influence, while Iran sees Yemen as yet another battleground on which it can pressure its regional rivals while maintaining a plausibly deniable degree of involvement. 4,5
Foreign support has emboldened militias on both sides of the conflict, and almost all sides are already pursuing military options.6 While Yemen’s competing factions fight, Al Qaeda inthe Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been entirely spared foreign military strikes and is enjoying renewed latitude to operate.7
The Yemen crisis poses many dangers. The most obvious lie in Yemen itself, where starvation could become endemic and an avoidable escalation of civil war could lead to a mass humanitarian tragedy. Security blowback is an equally intense strategic concern. AQAP has been one of the most active groups plotting international terrorist attacks, including against the United States. The disruption of U.S.-allied counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, and now the collapse of any central state authority, directly empower AQAP and increase the threat to the United States.8 The coalition led by the Houthis, a group with a distinct tribal and sectarian identity inside Yemen, which is currently supported by Iran and by deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has grievances mostly rooted in the local sharing of power and resources.9 It is impossible to assess whether Iran views the interests of the Houthi alliance as close to Iran’s core interests, or whether it tactically views the Houthis as another chit to deploy in a region-wide strategy that seeks to maximize Iranian footholds that can be used to project power or can be traded away in negotiations.
The Yemen war also has clear ramifications for its direct neighbors. Rightly or wrongly,Saudi Arabia always has considered Yemen a core national security interest,10 often trying to manage Yemen’s affairs as if it were another Saudi province. The tightly intertwined business elites of the two countries11 and a hard-to-police shared border12 make it hard for Riyadh to ignore developments to the south. Since March of this year, Saudi Arabia, acting out of genuine fear of Iran’s expanding influence, has embarked on a coalition air war that has no discernible end game.13 While Saudi perceptions might be exaggerated, developments in Yemen are indeed linked to Iranian efforts to deepen their partnership with the Houthis. Critics paint the Saudi intervention as impulsive and slipshod and point out that King Salman could not persuade long-time Saudi beneficiaries such as Pakistan and Egypt to contribute troops for a potential ground operation.14 But Saudi Arabia’s concerns are real, and they cannot be wished away by governments that do not share them. Any broader strategic rapprochement in the region will require a clear understanding of the concerns of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies and measures to restore their sense of security and confidence.
Doubtless, the humanitarian emergency in Yemen will strain an already bad security climate. But it also provides an opportunity to engage the full array of problematic and recalcitrant regional governments with an eye toward assuaging their insecurities and creating diplomatic avenues through which they can explore more enduring fixes to regional problems. The current historical moment, while high risk, offers an opportunity for outside powers to deploy diplomatic influence in a concerted and sustained manner. It is worthwhile in its own right to try to limit the war in Yemen and to calm tensions between the complex web of combatants. But equally importantly, any well-designed initiative—even one that fails—could amount to a major accomplishment if it began to fill the void of regional mechanisms through which rival states can directly negotiate.
What would such an initiative look like, and why should there be any hope that it will work any better than the plethora of failed diplomatic initiatives around the Syrian civil war?
Formulating a Response
The cascade of events that escalated the civil war in Yemen signals a repositioning by key regional powers. Indeed the conflict brings into sharp relief some of the perceived and actual interests at stake for key players, including the Sunni Arab monarchies in the Arabian Gulf, the rulers of Iran, and outside guarantors like Russia and the United States. But this volatile and vulnerable period has an upside: by laying bare some of the fears and ambitions of key regional actors, the turmoil invites governments with the potential for good offices to organize several different diplomatic initiatives. At worst, they will amount to a little more talk in a region that does not experience enough, at least between adversaries. At best, multilateral and bilateral diplomatic initiatives can serve as life-saving palliatives for the immediate catastrophe in Yemen and also potentially as vehicles to curtail the conflict and begin a long process (with admittedly long odds) of creating a nonmilitary forum to resolve regional tensions.
Absent a sharp change of direction soon, the war in Yemen risks following the same course as Syria’s: devolving into an unwinnable and destabilizing stalemate, shredding national well-being for Yemen and prestige for outsiders who thought they could determine the conflict’s course.15 Because the regional external stakeholders in the Yemen war are concurrently implicated in Syria’s, it is worth trying to persuade them to change course in Yemen before it is too late. Paradoxically, some of the same players that have been ineffective or malignant in Syria could play a positive role in calming tensions in Yemen, perhaps because their own prestige is not yet on the line. The United States, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations are obvious candidates to serve as early diplomatic brokers.
Existing diplomatic outreach has reaped some benefits. The UN appointed a new envoy on April 25 and helped negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire in May.16 The United States government has met with both sides of the conflict inside Yemen, and it has been adept at simultaneously managing multiple aspects of the diplomatic crisis. The talks in Geneva that begin on June 14 hold some basic promise but fail to include all the necessary actors.17 A concerted diplomatic push could be catalyzed by comparatively level-headed players, such as the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Nations, and could make use of problematic but potentially useful forums such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab League. The aim would be to begin a diplomatic process that would include, even at a remove, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and which would have at least a prospect of serving as an avenue to address the bedrock security concerns undermining regional security and driving the Yemen war. Any diplomatic effort to reduce tension between those two nations must take into account their stakes throughout the region.
Iran is enjoying a moment of expanding regional influence, but one that it perceives as under constant threat. It has made headway in negotiating a nuclear framework agreement with the United States and Europe, but it has suffered extensive economic isolation under sanctions.18 Iran has outsized influence over Iraq’s government, but that government has porous control over its own territory and can barely maintain a fiction of national sovereignty over Kurdish and Sunni areas.
The Syrian regime has been a tight client of Iran, but at great cost to Tehran—perhaps as much as $60 billion in financial support and a hard-to-measure, but deep, commitment of military and political resources.19 Iran and its partner, Hezbollah, have kept the Syrian regime afloat, but they have found the Syrian sponsees brittle and unresponsive to the political requests of their paymasters, who have unsuccessfully counseled the regime to experiment with political conciliation to end the civil war. Meanwhile, the ISIS proto-state in Iraq and Syria entails a direct and violent challenge to Iranian designs, interests, and legitimacy in the Arab and Islamic world.
Engaging Iran on the issue of Yemen while all these factors are in play could yield multiple benefits. Internal competition inside Iran between the military-revolutionary guard complex and the clerical-merchant elite raises the possibility of exploitable differences of opinion within the Iranian government. Yemen talks might also be an avenue to gauge whether Iran has changed its position on other issues in the wake of the nuclear framework accord negotiations. It is also possible that Iran does not see Yemen as a core interest and might even desire a de-escalation there, even as it appears to ramp up its military commitment in Syria. All these factors suggest that, while Iran seems ascendant, its concerns and internal dynamics open the possibility for a wider spectrum of diplomatic engagement.20
Yemen talks allow for a narrow focus, but all the players are aware of the wider context. Iran and the United States are on the verge of a major shift as a result of the nuclear negotiations. Arab governments are nervous that Washington will tilt away from them and toward Iran. It is important to manage the exaggerated fears and expectations; any U.S. shift on Iran is likely to be incremental, and a diplomatic process can help calm insecurities that can produce destabilizing violence like the war in Yemen. There is alo an economic component to discussions with Iran that could provide significant leverage to increase security. If and when sanctions on Iran are loosened, the Western sponsors of the nuclear talks could wisely direct a sizable share of their proceeds from the resulting economic boom to the very same Sunni Arab countries most worried about Iran. If Arabian Peninsula economies profit from Iran’s opening—through trade, the funneling of Western investment via Arab entrepôts in the Gulf, or even through direct investments of their own—the long-term prospects for peace and stability increase. 21
The mechanics of such an economic windfall might be complicated. New private investment in Iran will not be driven by the diplomatic priorities of Western governments. But it is very possible that some of the biggest new, or renewed, foreign economic partnerships with Iran will come from companies that are traditional partners of government policy, like U.S. defense contractors and engineering conglomerates or European chemical and automobile manufacturers.22 The goal for diplomats would be to encourage investors to allow some of the post-sanctions Iran bonanza to pass through the Arab world, perhaps through creative partnerships between Western corporations and financial and technical partners in the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. An imperfect but useful analogy can be found in Iraq’s Kurdish north, where the Kurdistan Regional Government and its predecessors opened the borders to massive, profitable Turkish investments. The Turkish stake (and profits) in Kurdish Iraq have created enduring shared interests and reduced long-running tensions, despite real political disagreements. 23
Saudi Arabia in March used the Arab League to launch its entrance into the Yemen war, and it has tried to rally pan-Arab support against what it describes as foreign Iranian aggression.24 The rhetoric of the March summit had overtones of Sunni Arab Nationalist grievance against a Shia and Persian-inflected conspiracy.25 There were also overt notes of triumphalist return of the established conservative political order after a period of experimentation ushered in by the period of popular uprisings.
Any sense of a restoration, or a new Pax Arabicus, is premature, however, and will quickly fade. Saudi Arabia already is seeing the difficulty of imposing a clean solution on Yemen and is reportedly considering a partition of the country.26 Riyadh is also well aware of the intractability of the Syria conflict, and it has begun to see the drawbacks of the ally it enlisted by helping install Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Egypt’s ruler.
King Salman is experienced, but he is new in his role as king and is heavily reliant on his approximately thirty-year-old son to shape policy.27 Transition periods allow for flux and also for adaptation. If Salman can be persuaded that it will protect Saudi’s core security interests, he could probably accept some shifts in policy on Yemen, or perhaps even on the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
The new administration in Saudi Arabia is experimenting with a new approach to foreign policy. It is a ripe moment to establish new mechanisms with Saudi Arabia because the kingdom’s top officials, and its policy orientations, are changing. King Salman has openly reconsidered the kingdom’s outright hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood;28 he has taken a step back from his predecessor’s tight embrace of the dictator Saudi helped install in Egypt;29 he has taken new initiative to invigorate Sunni rebels in Syria;30 and he hassuggested in a range of leaks and public statements that Riyadh is willing to strike out on a policy course independent from Washington.31 However, that last position might be bluster, since Saudi and the United States have close, intertwined policy interests, including limiting the reach of Al Qaeda, maintaining a free flow of oil to global energy markets, and trying to check Iranian regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. security umbrella, and the United States depends on Saudi’s willingness to adjust the amount of oil it pumps to maintain world supplies in the face of geopolitical disruptions caused by events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the embargo on Iranian oil, and the sporadic disruption of Libyan oil supplies since 2011. There is not likely to be a divorce, but Saudi Arabia is looking for supplementary partners and has made clear that it feels the U.S. is inadequately committed to Arab regional security.32 Regional discussions might offer an opportunity for Washington to emphasize its long-term investments in the region and its commitment to stability.
A (Limited) U.S. Role
Somewhat by accident, the United States has found itself in a position where it can negotiate along a complimentary line of diplomatic inducements. And Washington has taken this opportunity with more alacrity than it has at other junctures since the Arab uprisings began.
While finalizing the nuclear framework agreement with Iran, the United States simultaneously signed on to an explicitly anti-Iran war in Yemen33 and withheld military support in Iraq until Iran-backed militias took a backseat in the battle for Tikrit.34 The United States showed that it could keep its eyes on many parts of the map at the same time and that it would play hardball with Iran on other issues, even while making compromises in the interest of limiting its nuclear program.
The United States can do the same with its allies as well. It can assist the Saudi campaign in Yemen in the short-term, while counseling the development of an exit strategy. It can also volunteer to coordinate complementary, if not identical, positions for Egypt, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh is unlikely to embrace a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, but it might effectively shelf its opposition in exchange for a symbolic increase in U.S. security guarantees for the Arabian Peninsula.
Creative diplomacy can explore other pathways to reassure allies and convince them to accept otherwise unpalatable tradeoffs. An example of the kind of innovative, small-scale problem solving that could evolve in the framework of regional talks involves nuclear power. Arab states are dissatisfied that they lack nuclear programs while Israel maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal and Iran appears to be on the verge of winning international approval for a robust research program that will leave it only a few steps away from a weapons program. The United States could look for ways to alleviate this dissatisfaction, for example by taking the lead in sponsoring nuclear power plants in the Gulf and its Arab allies, such as Egypt and Jordan. U.S. companies have already been making inroads—Westinghouse is part of the coalition that is currently building nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Official backing behind such a strategy, however, would also signal commitment and perhaps act as a salve for local energy problems and symbolic compensation for a perceived technology and support gap. Nuclear power is just one example of a secondary area that could be channeled in the Yemen talks to prompt progress on a wider scale.
Enabling Regional Dialogue
At the moment, there is no forum in which Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia regularly sit together to air regional concerns. Nor is there a meaningful forum where the full range of regional actors who actually affect developments on the ground regularly meet. If regional dialogue is to have a place in cooling down Yemen—as well as the other wars in the Arab world at the moment—such a forum would have to include the Arab States, Iran, Turkey, and probably Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. The path to such a structure is long and would probably have to begin piecemeal, but a genuine Yemen contact group would be a fine place to start.
The crisis in Yemen is in early enough stages to enjoy the potential for amelioration. Furthermore, all the key players have in front of them Libya and Syria, vivid examples of what happens in an entrenched war zone in which the combatants and sponsors refuse to engage in diplomacy. The first step would require the United States and Russia to set an example and show that, even while confronting one another over the crisis in Ukraine, they can agree to support a dialogue, even a tense one, over a second issue, in this case Yemen. The United Nations talks in Geneva could be expanded upon, or even moved to a neutral location closer to the region like Nairobi, Athens, or Istanbul. The first agenda could focus simply on humanitarian relief and access, but all players would have to be invited, including Iran.
Hopes for a diplomatic initiative on Yemen should be muted. The habits of bluster, confrontation, and proxy warfare are deeply engrained, and normalized relations have eluded key Middle East actors for nearly half a century. The United States has contributed to this culture by its support for an often moribund Israel-Palestine negotiating framework and by regularly backing diplomatic initiatives, like the Geneva process on Syria, that are meaningless from the start because they exclude key actors in the conflict.
In the event of a strong push from international and regional diplomats, key actors, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, might respond with recalcitrance or even outright rejectionism. But if the initial agenda focuses on humanitarian matters and battlefield access for neutral parties, and possibly on communications channels for battlefield deconfliction that could prove useful to all parties, it will be easier over time to persuade Tehran and Riyadh to take part.
The key is to attract the full range of players. The initial agenda can revolve around comparatively easy matters, such as opening ports to more regular food deliveries, increasing battlefield access for internationally recognized humanitarian aid workers, and the creation of some kind of emergency communications channel to reduce the risk of an unintentional international escalation of the war. Little is lost if the entire process amounts to a failed diplomatic initiative. Any resulting political embarrassment for supporting governments can be managed. The conflict in Yemen, however, is too important to simply be allowed to unfold at the mercies of regional powers acting in the grip of uncertainty and perceived threat. And a new diplomatic approach carries the possibility, however slim, of creating a useful new forum where adversaries can talk to each other in a conflict-ridden region that sorely lacks one.
1. Stephanie Nebehay, “Yemen faces humanitarian catastrophe without vital supplies: Red Cross,” Reuters, May 27, 2015,http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/27/us-yemen-security-redcross-idUSKBN0OC1W720150527.
2. See UNOCHA Yemen page for overview of latest statistics on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen: “Yemen,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2015, http://www.unocha.org/yemen, accessed June 9, 2015.
3. “In Geneva, Ban says international community has ‘obligation to act’ for Yemen peace,” UN News Centre, June 15, 2015,http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51153#.VX7_IflVhBd.
4. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen and the ‘Saudi-Iranian Cold War,’” Chatham House, February 18, 2015.http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150218YemenIranSaudi.pdf.
5. Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Game in Yemen: Why Iran Is Not to Blame for the Civil War,” Foreign Affairs, April 19, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2015-04-19/irans-game-yemen.
6. Some photographs of the conflict have been collected on The Atlantic website: Alan Taylor, “The Saudi Arabia-Yemen War of 2015,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/05/the-saudi-arabia-yemen-war-of-2015/392687/.
7. Hugh Naylor, “Quietly, al-Qaeda offshoots grow in Yemen and Syria,” Washington Post, June 4, 2015,http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/quietly-al-qaeda-offshoots-expand-in-yemen-and-syria/2015/06/04/9575a240-0873-11e5-951e-8e15090d64ae_story.html.
8. Azmet Khan, “Understanding Yemen’s Al-Qaeda Threat,” PBS NewsHour, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/al-qaeda-in-yemen/understanding-yemens-al-qaeda-threat/.
9. Khaled Fattah, “Yemen: Sectarianism and he Politics of Regime Survival,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, ed. Lawrence G. Potter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 223.
10. Ginny Hill and Gerd Nonneman, “Yemen, Saudi Arabic and the Gulf States: Elite Politics, Street Protests and Regional Diplomacy” Chatham House Briefing Paper,https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Middle%20East/0511yemen_gulfbp.pdf.
11. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen’s Economy: Oil, Imports and Elites,” Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Paper 2011/02, 9–12.
12. Anthony H, Cordesman, “Saudi Arabia’s Changing Strategic Dynamics” in Saudi Arabic: Security in A Troubled Region (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), 31–32.
13. Bruce Riedel, “Why Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War is Not Producing Victory” Al-Monitor, March 26, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/yemen-war-escalates-stakes-raise-saudi-princes.html.
14. Mark Perry, “US Generals: Saudi Intervention in Yemen a ‘Bad Idea,’” Al Jazeera, April 17, 2015,http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/17/us-generals-think-saudi-strikes-in-yemen-a-bad-idea.html;Kenneth Pollack, “The Dangers of the Arab Intervention in Yemen,” Markaz: Middle East Politics & Policy, March 26, 2015,http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2015/03/26-pollack-saudi-air-strikes-yemen; and Frederic Wehrey, “Into the Maelstrom: The Saudi-Led Misadventure in Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 26, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59500.
15. Peter Salisbury, “Is Yemen Becoming the Next Syria?” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/06/is-yemen-becoming-the-next-syria/.
16. “Secretary-General Appoints Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania as His Special Envoy for Yemen,” UN announcement,http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sga1563.doc.htm.
17. Economist editorial offers minimal expectations for the June 14 “consultations”: “No end in sight,” The Economist, June 13, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21654077-start-peace-talks-raises-little-hope-fighting-yemen-will?fsrc=rss%7Cmea.Humanitarians call for a permanent ceasefire: “Aid agencies: Permanent Yemen ceasefire needed now to save millions,” International Rescue Committee, June 11, 2015, http://www.rescue.org/press-releases/aid-agencies-permanent-yemen-ceasefire-needed-now-save-millions-24975.
18. US State Department page on Iran sanctions: “Iran Sanctions,” U.S. Department of State,http://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/index.htm, accessed June 15, 2015.
19. Eli Lake, “Iran Spends Billions to Prop Up Assad,” Bloomberg View, June 09, 2015.http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-09/iran-spends-billions-to-prop-up-assad/.
20. Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s Failed Foreign Policy: Dealing from a Position of Weakness,” Middle East Institute, May 01, 2015.http://www.mei.edu/content/article/iran%E2%80%99s-failed-foreign-policy-dealing-position-weakness.
21. Andrew Torchia, “Billions for Grabs if Nuclear Deal Opens Iran’s Economy,” Reuters, April 05, 2015.http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/03/iran-nuclear-economy-idUSL6N0X003P20150403.
22. Martin Hesse, Susanne Koelbl and Michael Sauga, “An Eye to Iran: European Businesses Prepare for Life after Sanctions,”Der Spiegel, May 18, 2015. http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/european-business-prepare-for-lifting-of-iran-sanctions-a-1034240.html and Jeremy Kahn, “Iran Lures Investors Seeing Nuclear Deal Ending Sanctions”, Bloomberg, August 17, 2014.http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-17/iran-lures-investors-seeing-nuclear-deal-ending-sanctions.
23. PKK guerilla fighters have never given up their base of operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and have apparently organized attacks inside Turkey from their base in the KRG. But Turkey has exhibited patience and understanding with the KRG, not holding them responsible for the militants on their soil, perhaps because of the thriving economic relationship that the KRG has invited. See Denise Natali, “Turkey’s Kurdish Client-State,” Al-Monitor, November 14, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-krg-client-state.html# and Soner Cagaptay, Christina Bache Fidan and Ege Cansu Sacikara, “Turkey and the KRG: An Undeclared Economic Commonwealth,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch No. 2387, March 16, 2015 http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkey-and-the-krg-an-undeclared-economic-commonwealth.
24. James Stavridis, “The Arab NATO,” Foreign Policy, April 09, 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/09/the-arab-nato-saudi-arabia-iraq-yemen-iran/.
25. Thanassis Cambanis, “Iran Is Winning the War for Dominance of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, April 14, 2015.http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/14/yemen-iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east/.
26. David B. Ottaway, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War Unravels,” The National Interest, May 11, 2015.http://nationalinterest.org/feature/saudi-arabias-yemen-war-unravels-12853.
27. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Surprising Saudi Rises as a Prince Among Princes,” New York Times, June 06, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/world/middleeast/surprising-saudi-rises-as-a-prince-among-princes.html?_r=0.
28. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Warn to Muslim Brotherhood, Seeking Unity in Yemen”, The Wall Street Journal, April 02, 2015.http://www.wsj.com/articles/saudis-warm-to-muslim-brotherhood-seeking-sunni-unity-on-yemen-1427967884.
29. H.A. Hellyer, “The New Saudi King, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood”, Al-Monitor, March 24, 2015. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/saudi-arabia-new-egypt-muslim-brotherhood.html.
30. Erika Solomon and Simeon Kerr, “Syria’s Rebels Heartened by the Healing of Sunni Arab Rift” Financial Times, April 13, 2015. http://www.ft.com/intl/.cms/s/0/16a10034-df6c-11e4-b6da-00144feab7de.html#axzz3chSsxTTY.
31. Ray Takeyh, “The New Saudi Foreign Policy” Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief, April 17, 2015.http://www.cfr.org/saudi-arabia/new-saudi-foreign-policy/p36456.
32. Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand” Foreign Policy, February 12, 2015http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/12/its-time-to-stop-holding-saudi-arabias-hand-gcc-summit-camp-david/.
33. Micah Zenko, “Make No Mistake—the United States is at War in Yemen,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2015.http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/30/make-no-mistake-the-united-states-is-at-war-in-yemen-saudi-arabia-iran/.
34. Rod Nordland and Helene Cooper, “US Airstrikes on ISIS in Tikrit Prompt Boycott by Shiite Fighters,” New York Times, March 27, 2015,. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/27/world/middleeast/iraq-us-air-raids-islamic-state-isis.html.
AP AND GETTY IMAGES PHOTOS; GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford met in Helsinki at the All European Conference on Security and Cooperation in July 1975.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS AGO this summer, King John and a group of feudal barons gathered at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames River. There he agreed to the Magna Carta, which for the first time limited the absolute power of the monarch and established a contract between ruler and ruled. The mother of modern treaties and law, the Magna Carta began a global conversation about the responsibility of the powerful toward people under their control.
A scant four decades ago, also this summer, another gathering in the Finnish capital of Helsinki produced a second series of accords. While far less well known, the signing of the Helsinki Accords was a critical juncture in the long struggle of the individual against state authority. Building on some of the same ideas that undergirded the Magna Carta, the Helsinki Accords codified a broad set of individual liberties, human rights, and state responsibilities, which remain strikingly relevant today, whether the subject is China’s Internet policy, the Islamic State’s latest outrage, or the American “war on terror.” The language of human rights has become the lingua franca for criticizing misbehavior by states or quasi-governments.
Today, most governments have signed on to the United Nations’ definition of universal human rights, only disagreeing about whether their own transgressions run afoul of them. Rights groups are ubiquitous, criticizing the treatment of American prisoners, Chinese sweatshop workers, Iranian dissidents, and other groups whose rights are abridged.
Yet for the widespread agreement that human rights represent shared, universal values, it’s still hard to predict when a campaign based on moral accusation can change the actions of a state. Indeed, the question is no longer whether human rights can make a difference, it’s whether they will in any particular case.
It wasn’t always so. Until recently, human rights were hardly part of the realpolitik discourse and were certainly not considered an effective cudgel against powerful regimes. That changed 40 years ago, when powers from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Final Act and unwittingly ushered in the era of the human rights group.
Solidarity in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and the Moscow Helsinki Group played key roles in the fall of the Soviet Union. They galvanized public dissatisfaction at home, embarrassed their governments abroad, and catalyzed the Soviet bloc’s loss of legitimacy. Many historians now believe that the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the human rights movement they engendered played a pivotal role in ending the Cold War, far exceeding the humble expectations of the diplomats who brokered the agreement.
“The most important legacy of the Helsinki Final Act today is that citizens have the right to monitor and report on the human rights records in their own country,” said Sarah Snyder, a historian at American University who has written a book called “Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War.” Prior to 1975, groups like Amnesty International tried to create international pressure with letter-writing campaigns, usually from outside the country where an injustice was occurring. Snyder believes that Helsinki created a new paradigm of human rights and a global slate of organizations that pursued them, with lasting impact — all the more impressive, Snyder said, because Helsinki wasn’t a legally binding treaty. “The only way it was binding was morally,” she said.
Academics have given a name to the idea that human rights advocacy can change facts on the ground: “The Helsinki Effect,” also the title of a 2001 book by political scientist Daniel Thomas, which popularized the argument that human rights trumped geopolitics and economics in resolving the Cold War.
How did a nonbinding, lumbering bureaucratic agreement reached four decades ago spawn the modern human rights movement? And what’s left of the legacy of Helsinki?
Members of the Polish trade union, Solidarity, on strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980.
AT THE HEIGHT of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was a closed and inaccessible society. Many people who lived behind the Iron Curtain weren’t allowed to leave, and outsiders were permitted only tightly controlled, limited glimpses at life inside. The specter of cataclysmic conflict hung over East and West, with both sides brandishing thermonuclear and conventional arsenals that were unthinkably vast and destructive.
Throughout the Cold War, there were points of tension followed by periods of accommodation. The Helsinki Accords marked one of the latter. Relations across Europe had become so strained and so dangerous that Moscow, Washington, and all the capitals in between agreed there had to be some degree of relaxation. Both sides wanted to avoid a continental war between the superpowers. Both sides sought to end what they saw as belligerent expansion by the other.
They gathered in Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975, to sign an agreement that turned out to be a seminal breakthrough — although not in the way that either side expected. The agreement signed by 35 states, including the United States and the USSR, focused for the most part on reestablishing respect for borders, national sovereignty, and peaceful resolution for future disputes between states. It also included a clause recognizing universal human rights, including freedoms of thought, conscience, and belief.
President Gerald Ford was castigated by his domestic critics for signing away the farm, because he had acknowledged Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviets trumpeted Helsinki as a tremendous victory, enshrining their sphere of influence and providing international legitimacy to their repression of citizens and governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. They were so unconcerned about the human rights provisions that they published the Helsinki Final Act in full in the pages of the state newspaper, Pravda.
Western diplomats had modest hopes that the personal freedoms enumerated at Helsinki would ease the way for Eastern Bloc spouses married to Westerners, and for cultural and academic exchanges that promoted international dialogue.
But the importance of Principle Seven became evident almost before the ink was dry. Civic groups sprung up across the Eastern Bloc, determined to exercise their right to monitor their own governments’ compliance with Helsinki. Andrei Sakharov, the famous Soviet dissident, oversaw the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group at his apartment in 1976. Activist playwright Vaclav Havel helped set up Charter 77 in Prague the following year. A Helsinki watch group opened in Poland in 1979.
The watch groups became very public thorns in the side of Communist governments. Their leaders were well known domestically and had contacts in the West, particularly in the press. They mobilized global attention to the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union and its client dictators.
And when governments subjected the watch groups to withering pressure, the activists asked their supporters outside the Iron Curtain to establish a unified organization that could defend the Helsinki Watch monitors. Human Rights Watch, perhaps the best-known and farthest-reaching global rights advocacy group today, originated with the Helsinki Watch group founded in 1978.
A brilliant, if perhaps unintended, enforcement system was built into Helsinki. All the signatory nations agreed to reconvene regularly, and the 10-point document contained many items of great political and security import to the Soviet Union. If the Soviets wanted to keep the benefits of Helsinki, they’d have to put up with attacks on their human rights record at the follow-up meetings.
“Without this follow-up mechanism, I think there would have been a big celebration after the signing, and we never would have heard of the Helsinki Final Agreement again,” Snyder said.
Instead, a panoply of Eastern Bloc activists and their Western supporters flooded diplomatic confabs at Belgrade, Madrid, and Vienna with details about oppression and abuses. Often, the Helsinki monitors became celebrities themselves, drawing widespread attention when they were persecuted and detained by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.
The Helsinki-inspired human rights movements put a face on government oppression and placed rights atop the Cold War agenda alongside arms control. To the frustration of Soviet leaders, the world became absorbed by the plight of jailed activists and refuseniks denied exit visas.
By time Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, he couldn’t sidestep human rights concerns when he began to negotiate a full détente.
THE NAMING AND SHAMING techniques pioneered by the Helsinki monitors run deep in the DNA of contemporary human rights groups. “The mechanisms that were so essential to Helsinki remain a key tool of the human rights movement today,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “How does the human rights movement get anything done? By shaming, and by enlisting powerful governments to act on behalf of victims of human rights violations.”
For decades after the ratification of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights remained largely an abstract concept in world politics. Most governments agreed with the principle but comfortably ignored human rights in practice.
The crumbling of the Soviet empire gave the human rights movement both experience and legitimacy. The Berlin Wall came down, and Eastern Bloc countries toppled their homegrown dictators. Lech Walesa, head of the Solidarity trade union, was elected president of Poland. Vaclav Havel, a playwright and signatory of Charter 77, won the presidency of Czechoslovakia and worldwide renown as a highly cultured philosopher-king. A generation after the Helsinki monitors came to prominence as victims of tyranny, they had become the face of a new democratic political elite.
The changing values that elevated them have become part of the world’s political orthodoxy; even governments that routinely violate human rights still pay them lip service.
“Even North Korea is pretending to accept human rights,” Roth said. “Governments care about their reputation and don’t want to be seen as violating human rights norms.”
Authoritarian backlash is another legacy of the Helsinki era. Dictators have also studied the rise of the civic monitors, and concluded that groups like Human Rights Watch really could cause them problems. A common result has been to strike hard and quickly against human rights groups, especially when they are run by locals who have moral authority. Vladimir Putin’s rise to power has been accompanied by the silencing and killing of many credible rights monitors. Iran’s ayatollahs deployed maximal force to destroy the “Green Revolution” of 2009. Egypt’s dictatorship rails against any criticism of its human rights record as meddling and foreign interference, and prosecutes domestic rights group with the same zeal that it pursues armed antigovernment insurgents. Despotic regimes have made it common practice to starve rights groups of funding and deny them permits to operate.
Given the success of authoritarian regimes, not everyone is convinced that the Helsinki effect is as pronounced as its champions claim. Among the many commemorations scheduled for the 40th anniversary year, a group of scholars is gathering at the Sorbonne in Paris this December to explore how much the agreement and the human rights movements it created really were responsible for social and political change.
“My feeling is that we really don’t know that much, beyond generalities, that is, in terms of how the ‘Helsinki effect’ effectively operated by way of changing East European societies from within,” one of the organizers, Frédéric Bozo, a historian the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, wrote in an e-mail. He’s also not sure whether anything about the Helsinki era applies to today’s thorny nexus of human rights and political power — another area he said is ripe for further inquiry.
Skeptics of the narrative of human rights triumphalism point out that the US government always paid more attention to transgressions committed by its rivals than by its friends. That pattern continues today in Washington, with pointed human rights criticism of China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran. There’s far less enthusiasm in the West for documenting human rights abuses by allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel — or for that matter, addressing the plight of those held without trial at Guantanamo Bay or killed in drone strikes.
In some ways, the world was more binary during the Helsinki era. Two major superpowers dominated the world; if they agreed, most other nations fell into place. Nonstate actors hadn’t assumed their central role in international politics, with their destabilizing penchant for asymmetric warfare.
Even pessimists like Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, admit that Helsinki produced an enduring change. Le Gloannec believes the world is headed for dark times, with resentment driving an anti-Western wave led by tyrannical demagogues like Russia’s Putin. The war in Ukraine could spread farther into Europe, she believes, and human rights norms won’t do anything to calm tensions.
Despite her grim forecast, Le Gloannec belives that civic and human rights are here to stay — thanks to Helsinki. “We have a new paradigm,” she said. “People have the right to defend their rights, to fight for their rights.” However fragile, it’s a paradigm that for the first time placed individuals, rather than nation states, at the center of international relations.