"It's Probably Too Late Now": Interview on Syria with Jonathan Spyer
A few days ago, Damian and I interviewed investigative journalist Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli who has slipped into Syria several times and reported back from the heart of the conflict. The interview was intended to be the next episode of International Edition with Levy & Counsell. When we spoke to Jonathan, he had just returned from Syria the day before. Unfortunately, we had what turned out to be insurmountable audio trouble, rendering the podcast un-postable. The content of the interview was too good to pass up, though, so I've transcribed it. (I've transcribed it verbatim; the few ellipses and brackets indicate unclear audio.)
Some quick background on Jonathan: he immigrated to Israel from Britain in 1991 with a doctorate in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He’s now senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Jonathan's columns appear everywhere, from The Guardian to Pajamas Media, and he’s the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict -- called by Barry Rubin the best book on Israel in thirty years. Jonathan served in a front-line unit of the IDF in 1992-3 and was a tank driver in the war with Lebanon in 2006.
ON REPORTING FROM SYRIA:
Judith: The reason your reporting on Syria is so gripping is that you regularly go into Syria and mix with the fighters. But you’re an Israeli citizen. You’re an ex-soldier. How are you doing this?
Jonathan: Well, I’m afraid I don’t really want to go into too much detail on working methods. I’ve been to Syria over the last year on three occasions. And what I’m happy to talk about, I'm happy to say in that regard, is that the latest trip was to Syrian Kurdistan, where I was hosted by Kurdish activists in the northeast of Syria. And with those people, and with the people who’ve been friends and colleagues of mine for quite some time, the relationship is extremely open, and they have no problem at all with hosting an Israeli. And indeed they themselves are quite friendly to Israel in many ways, certainly not hostile in any way. Of course, with the Arab rebels in the Arab part of the country, the situation is not like that and we would take precautions. But I don’t really want to go into huge detail about all that.
Judith: I understand. But in general, are most of the people that you’re talking to up there -- I understand that the Kurds do, but do most other people know you’re Israeli?
Jonathan: Oh, some do and some do not.
Judith: And what language are you speaking with them?
Jonathan: Well, a mixture of English and Arabic, really. I can speak Arabic and I can speak at a conversant level. When it comes to longer political interviews, deep political interviews, what I do is I hire a translator and then we do the interviews in English and use translation. But knowing some Arabic, it means even the relationship with your translator, and a translated interview, becomes very different. I can understand 60 to 70 percent of what’s said. Again, with the Kurdish situation it’s different because the Kurds know Arabic but prefer to speak the Kurdish language, of which I know about two or three words. So there, I become much more dependent on the translator.
THE CURRENT SITUATION IN SYRIA:
Judith: Now, you just got back yesterday, so let’s try to get an up-to-the-minute picture of the situation up there. At the end of January, you were writing that Assad’s regime was in retreat, with a big chunk of the north basically ceded to the rebels. You wrote that Assad was building a defensive line in the Orontes River valley, west of Homs and Hama which are Sunni cities. You saw Assad as trying to maintain strategic control over the west, which is Alawi-majority, and from which it will continue to fight the rebels if Damascus falls. Now, if Damascus does fall, this civil war is going to move into a new stage -- what you call an ethnic-sectarian battle between forces representing the Sunni Arab majority and the army of the former regime, which is going to be basically a militia, an Alawi militia. Is Syria now closer to this second stage of the civil war?
Jonathan: The answer is yes, but the incremental process is moving agonizingly slowly. That’s to say that the direction of events in Syria is clear. The rebels -- the rebellion -- is moving forward, but it’s gaining ground extremely slowly. Damascus is now in play, which for a long period of time over the last two years wasn’t the case. The rebels are now in some of the southeastern suburbs of the capital city. So the rebels are moving forward, but the rebels still lack the kind of weaponry and the kind of ability which will allow them to make rapid gains against the regime, and the Assad regime still possesses a significant number of people willing to put themselves on the line in its defense, and very very significant of course, military equipment, including aircraft, armor and long-range artillery that the rebels don’t have any access to.
Judith: Well, that was my next question. I mean Assad still has what you call the “Pretorian Guard-type units” of the Syrian Arab Army, the Republican Guard, special forces, chemical and biological weapons, and he’s also got Russia backing him up abroad and Iran backing him up close at hand. Could he win?
Jonathan: I don’t think so, if we define winning for Assad as reestablishing his control and rule over the entirety of Syria in the way which existed in, you know, February of 2011 so to speak, just prior to the uprising. I think that is extremely unlikely. But at the same time, if we define winning for Assad as surviving for a long period of time, or at least for Assad’s side, the Alawi side of the conflict, as holding onto a presence, a physical foothold, a presence in the country, specifically in the west of the country...then the answer is yes. They could hold on there for a long time, and potentially, in terms of the establishment of an Alawi homeland so to speak, or quasi-state in the west of the country, the potential [is they could hold on] for the foreseeable future.
Damian: Now, one of the things that strikes somebody who’s an outsider who’s watched this slow retreat and seen the defections that we’ve seen on the news -- the question that keeps coming back to me is, what hold does Assad have? Of those people who are remaining loyal, how is he retaining their loyalty? What motivates them, given that everybody outside can see the writing on the wall?
Jonathan: Well, the issue is that Assad has managed to involve a large number of people in the crimes committed by his regime over the last two years and longer, and further back. Which means that there are a great many people implicated in the actions of the regime, and it means that those people understand that they in a certain sense have nowhere else to go but to stay with Assad until the end. It’s gone too far now for them to be able to seek some kind of reconciliation with the rebellion. The rebellion itself has become much more extremist, much more dominated by extreme Islamist elements. Which means that for a certain section of the former regime, there’s just nowhere else to go. This is the first important aspect of it.
The second important aspect is the ethnic and sectarian aspect. Unlike similar regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the Assad regime rules over a very ethnically -- a country deeply divided by ethnicity and sect. And the regime itself rests for its core loyalty on the Alawi minority, 12% minority in Syria. That’s a very deep type of loyalty. As we know, ethnic and sectarian loyalties are in a sense some of the most fundamental types of loyalty and can hold fast for a very long time, especially when you enter into what Syria is now entering into, a situation in which the dynamic of ethnic and sectarian difference is the key dynamic taking place. In other words, if ethnic and sectarian identity become the key markers of political loyalty, and people who formally supported Assad understand they’re facing a Sunni Muslim Arab rebellion that sees them as its natural enemy, they will have more of an incentive to remain loyal to their own ethnic and sectarian leadership. Which is, in this case, the Assad regime. And that’s what I think is now taking place, and that’s the reason why this core loyalty [exists] in key units of the Syrian military, and also [why] sections of the Alawi civilian population of Syria remain staunchly behind Assad.
THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION:
Judith: Let’s talk a little, Jonathan, about the opposition. There’s a lot of talk abroad about the pros and cons of arming them. But in the commendable zeal to alleviate civilian suffering there’s much glossing over of who these people actually are. Now, as I understand it, there is a unified rebel command with Western support, but about two-thirds of them are Muslim Brotherhood and their allies. Interestingly, the secular nationalist commanders who built the Free Syria Army have been shut out of command.
Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?
Jonathan: Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now -- and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy. The United States clearly wanted to stay out of the whole issue of the Syrian revolution and then the Syrian civil war. What it hoped to do, what it has done, is to effectively contract out the job of arming and supporting the Syrian insurgency to regional players, specifically the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. It’s not surprising, then, that if you contract out the arming of the insurgency to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, what you will get will be an Islamist insurgency. Those will be the kinds of elements which those countries will feel most inclined to support. And that is indeed what they have done, with the result that the insurgency is now very much dominated by Islamists and it’s hard to see, if the rebellion wins, any result other than the emergence of an Islamist Syria of one type or another.
I want to stress that that’s only part of the picture. I don’t want to say that only outside forces have brought this about. Because we must understand I think also that we are living through a particular historical moment in which Sunni Islamism is having its day in country after country across the region. In Egypt, and Tunisia; among the Palestinians, and also in Syria. To a certain extent there’s sort of a bottom -- a from-below dynamic here as well. The Islamists have proved to be the most determined fighters. They’ve proved to be the ones most willing to make sacrifices, and they’ve also proved to be among the most honest and non-corrupt of the fighting elements. And as a result of all that, plus the money from outside, both organizations and individuals have gravitated towards them. With the result that the Islamists now very much dominate the military scene among the rebels, and also the political scene.
THE KURDISH EQUATION AND THE OVERALL OUTLOOK:
Judith: So this must be ominous, then, for the Kurds who you were just with. The whole element of the Kurds up there is murky and hard to understand. Last month, you wrote that the second chapter in the Syrian civil war will be marked by the existence of an additional enclave in the country maintained by Kurdish militias. But how is it that the Assad regime allowed Kurdish militias to remain up there? Was this just a matter of being overstretched, or was there some kind of strategic logic to this from Assad’s point of view?
Jonathan: Very much so. Assad's army withdrew from, or largely withdrew from, the Kurdish-majority northeast of Syria last summer, around August. That was at precisely the same moment that the rebels were launching their assaults, or beginning their assaults, on Aleppo city and on the capital, Damascus. Assad’s strategy clearly at that point was to try to draw, or to narrow his lines, so to speak -- to reduce the amount of territory which his military forces were required to hold in order to better enable them to hold those areas of land which they were determined to keep. And the desire of the Kurds, clearly, has been throughout -- as it’s been expressed to me also over the course of the last week -- has been to remain outside of the Syrian civil war. That’s to say, to be neither pro-regime nor pro-rebellion. They have their own self-governing area.
From the regime’s point of view, then, that’s not so terrible. That’s to say, of course the regime would prefer to run the entirety of the country itself, but if it needs to draw its lines in and only concentrate on those areas where it absolutely has to hold, then the prospect of a self-governing Kurdish area in the northeast that is neither with the rebels nor with the regime is, in a certain sense, palatable. And Assad appears to have chosen to go with that, withdrawing his forces largely -- although not completely -- from the northeast, and opening the space into which Kurdish militias and Kurdish organizations could then become the effective, de facto government in those areas.
Judith: Okay. So if Damascus falls, we’re going to have Alawi Assad loyalists in the west, Kurds in the northeast, and rebels everywhere else -- rebels who are determined to crush the remaining Alawis, and to reconquer the Kurdish enclave. So the fall of the house of Assad, if it happens, is not going to be the end of the battle at all. It’s just the beginning, it seems.
Jonathan: I think so, yeah. It’s going to be the opening curtain, so to speak, for a new phase of civil war in Syria, almost certainly. And to the picture which you very accurately just presented, one needs to add that of course the rebels, the Sunni Arab rebels themselves, are not united. So one would have an Alawi enclave in the west, a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, and then a whole series, potentially, of sort of emirates controlled by local Sunni Islamist leaders from the rebellion.
I want to add that in a visit to Syria last September, I interviewed one of the leaders of one of the largest Sunni Islamist forces in Aleppo, Hadji al-Bab, and he was very specific when asked this question about the Kurds. That, you know, the rebellion, and his brigade, were determined to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria. If that meant challenging Kurdish forces, then they would do so. And indeed, in the subsequent months, the al-Bab brigade has been involved in a number of military clashes with Kurdish forces in Kurdish-majority neighborhoods of Aleppo and further afield in Syria.
THE IRAN FACTOR
Judith: Now let’s pull back a bit and look at this from a wider vantage point. This is a proxy war. This is Assad against his people, but it’s really Shiite Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey. Can you outline for us why Syria is such a critical battleground for Iran?
Jonathan: Yeah. The Iranians have sought, ever since their revolution in 1979, to build proxies and allies in the Arab world. The Iranians see themselves as the natural leaders of the Middle Eastern -- of the Muslim world as a whole. This hasn’t been all that successful a project of outreach, given it’s now been going for more than thirty years. The fruits have been somewhat meager. The Iranians of course have effective control in a sense over Lebanon now through their proxy organization, Hezbollah. But the only major Arab state that has been aligned with the Iranians since the start, or pretty well since the moment of the revolution with a formal alliance since 1980, was Assad’s Syria. So it seems absolutely crucial from an Iranian point of view to hold onto that asset. Clearly that’s what they have in the Arab world since their revolution. This is firstly.
Secondly, there is a larger Iranian strategic goal of maintaining a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states all the way from the western borders of Iran itself to the Mediterranean Sea. And this is a geostrategic issue. Persian empires have been trying to reach the Mediterranean Sea one way or another for centuries, and this is also the goal of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now, the Iranians now dominating are closely aligned with the governing authority in Iraq. And as I said, they also dominate Lebanon, and they are aligned with Syria. So that contiguous line of states all the way to the sea currently exists. But if Assad were to fall, it would cease to exist. Assad’s a key link in that chain. So for that reason, too, the Iranians are determined to keep him in power, have defined it as a strategic goal of keeping him in power, and indeed have mobilized many of the most important of their other regional assets in the fight to keep Assad in power.
Judith: Iran has been publicly urging Assad to negotiate with the opposition. So presumably this is just a public posture?
Jonathan: Yeah, I think so. I mean I think the key issue is whether Assad stays in power or not. And if the proposed negotiations [require] that Assad will stay in power in the process of negotiation -- clearly that’s not going to be good enough for the rebels, who are going to say well no, we want a guarantee that he’s going to leave power before we even start talking. This is a dynamic which we’re familiar with from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the way in which sides can posture in order to give the impression of being ready for negotiation but at the same time can present positions which quite obviously will be rejected by the other side, and if that takes place, then what we’re in the midst of is a public relations exercise.
THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES AND CONSEQUENCES FOR THE WEST:
Damian: Reading your work, I was reassured that you don’t fall into the post-colonial theory trap of a lot of the people who maybe have attended the schools that you have. And as you’ve been saying earlier today, your analysis is very much one of: this is an ethnic conflict, this is a civil conflict that’s taking place on the ground within a country whose borders were defined a long time ago by external powers. But the reality is a lot more complicated than most Westerners would like to paint it for the sake of making some political point or ideological point. You’ve just now given us a summary of the strategic implications of what’s going on, especially from the point of view of Iran. If we pull back even further, to the point of course that obsesses a lot of people outside, why hasn’t, in your opinion, the United States become more involved in something that clearly has implications for its dealings with probably its biggest irritant in the region?
Jonathan:Well, the Obama administration is notably extremely cautious and skeptical regarding the conventional American military commitments in the region, in the Middle East. And it’s not hard to see why. Obama came into power inheriting what was largely seen as two failed American conventional military interventions into the Middle East/South Asia, first of course in Afghanistan; secondly into Iraq. So it’s in the core DNA of the Obama administration -- it wants to draw down American conventional involvement in the region. Certainly not increase it. If we look at Obama’s security policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere, we can see that there is a desire to rely on small, focused forces against the enemy, and if possible from the air, not involving the messy business of US troops getting mixed up in local disputes and local conflicts. That very much...is what Obama’s foreign policy is about. If we understand his Syrian policy from that point of view, things start to look clearer. There was a determination not to get physically involved on the ground. There was even a very deeply felt skepticism towards arming the rebels. We now know that a proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which she approved of, for arming the rebels didn’t take place because other elements in the administration opposed it. So there’s a very, very deep skepticism, an unwillingness there, and that has been the key reason for America’s non-involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Damian: And do you think the United States and the world will pay a price for this non-involvement?
Jonathan: Yeah. I think it’s probably too late now, to be honest with you. I think options exist for a certain period of time in the real world and then reality moves on, so to speak. And I think if we look at the situation in which the Syrian rebellion is now in, if we look at the forces that are now leading it and dominating it, it’s very hard to identify any important elements in the rebellion which would be the appropriate recipients of Western aid. So, tragically, perhaps, it’s now been allowed to reach a point where I at least no longer believe that greater involvement and intervention would lead to anything good. Perhaps at an earlier stage the situation was different. At this stage, that’s where we are at.
Will the West pay a price for this? The West will pay a price for it. The people of the region will pay a price also, for the triumph of Sunni Islamism in context after context across the region. And Syria is one of those contexts right now. Sunni Islamists are not going to be able to address any of the absolutely core developmental issues that are underlying so much of the Middle East political reality. They’re clearly not going to have the solution to the issue of widespread illiteracy, they're not going to have the solution to the issue of developing open societies and civil societies and organizations of the kind that form the basis for a successful society. They don’t have answers to any of this. The fact that they've triumphed in context after context in country after country in the region I think bodes ill for the region itself, and as a result of that, we’ll have a knock-on effect for Westerners. Western countries will also, I think, pay a price for that.