Syria, a Changing Middle East and the Construction of Arab Identity: A Conversation with Prof. Christopher Phillips

In an exclusive interview with InPEC, Christopher Phillips, Senior Lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University of London and Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa programme, discusses the Syrian civil war’s regional implications, its effect on the discourse of Arab identity, and the possibility for its resolution. He is the author of Everyday Arab Identity: The Daily Reproduction of the Arab World and, most recently, of The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. 


By InPEC editor Batul K. Sadliwala, 18th March, 2017

Batul K. Sadliwala (BKS): In your latest book, your argument is that the war in Syria is a byproduct and an accelerator of a shift in the regional order of the Middle East. What is the change taking place? What is this new order you describe?

Christopher Phillips (CP): The main argument that I’m making in the book is that it’s interrelated. It’s as you say, both the byproduct of the change in the system but it’s also reinforcing a change in the system. The change in the system came about primarily as a result of the 2003 Iraq War, which had quite a few unintended consequences, but it had a massive impact on what happened in Syria. One of the most important was a shift in the approach of the United States. The United States had since 1991 played the dominant role in the Middle East and it was a role it was seemingly willing and keen to play. The 2003 Iraq war exposed the limitations of military power to achieve political goals and also turned, to an extent, the US public against the idea of such large scale deployments, the idea that nation-building, of putting troops on the ground in large numbers for anything other than just counter terrorism efforts. On top of that we get the election of Barack Obama who is a more reluctant intervener anyway. So as a result what you get is the United States consciously stepping back from the Middle East. That’s one major shift.

The other almost related shift is that other powers, other regional powers, are stepping forward. The most important regional powers being Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, for a while Qatar, and more recently Russia. All of them see different opportunities in the United States stepping back for adding themselves moving forward. And that really comes to a fore and becomes the fore in Syria. You see this perceived vacuum left by the United States not wanting to get heavily involved and other states, either for or against President Asad, stepping forward. You see in Syria the reflection of those regional and international rivalries.

BKS: If Syria is a reflection of this changing order–considering several other ongoing conflicts in the Middle East including Yemen–is it in any way unique? Or is it a manifestation of this changing order?

CP: Good question. I mean all conflicts are unique. I don’t believe that you can ever have a complete proxy war. People fight for a cause, for a reason. And in Syria, they have the legitimate cause to fight their wars as they do in Yemen as well. But what ties both those conflicts together, along with the ones in Iraq and Libya to an extent, is that the external backers see these conflicts as part of a wider picture. And that is the regional shift. The commonality between Yemen and Syria is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran who are both backing different sides.

Again, Syria I suppose is different from Yemen, from really all of the conflicts in the region at the moment, in that it involves the most external powers. You know it’s not like you can say, “Oh this is really just a conflict between the allies of Russia and allies of the United States, or the allies of Saudi Arabia and the allies of Iran.” Actually, it’s multifaceted. You’ve got a lot of different external actors involved backing different factions, and of course not all the external actors involved are states. You also have non-state actors, most obviously, Al Qaeda, ISIS with their base in Iraq, and of course the PKK, Turkish-Kurdish separatists, all backing different groups, which is contributing to the conflict. So I suppose Syria is unique simply because of the number of external actors involved.

BKS: I see. Now backtracking a bit to your background. You’ve worked and lived in the region for several years. I’m wondering how has that perspective shaped the analysis you present in the current book versus the mainstream talking heads on CNN, BBC etc.?

CP: You know that’s a great question because it actually asks you to be reflective about your own background, which people rarely are. Firstly I don’t think anyone is without their biases. Everyone is a product of their environment. Having lived in Syria for two years on two separate occasions, 2004-5 and 2007-8, I am obviously informed by those experiences. And one of the reasons why I actually got involved in doing more media work– I am an academic but I’ve done more media work as a result of the conflict—is that I felt that the talking heads that you talk about were offering a very shallow interpretation that wasn’t really reflective of my experiences in Syria.

That said, I’m not going to claim that I have some profound insights that no one else could possibly have on Syria. I’m not Syrian which obviously means I have a different perspective, I came to Syria as an outsider. My view is that of an outsider. Syria’s a very large country, a very diverse country and I spent most of my time in Damascus, Aleppo and Leticia . I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the east of the country. so a lot of the issues that are taking place over there I’m not that familiar with firsthand. I’m aware of my own limitations and also very conscious, like a lot of people who spent time in Syria before the war, that I was mixing with a certain segment of society. I speak decent Arabic now but for a long time I didn’t. So for a long time I had to meet with people that were educated, who spoke English, which limited me to a certain section of society. As regards research in poorer areas, I didn’t live in poorer areas. You know one’s view of the country is skewed by one’s society.

That said, I do think it’s important for outsiders that are commenting or offering analysis on countries to have at least some engagement with the country they’re taking about. They shouldn’t claim to be experts or be offering the definitive view of a country. But i think having spent at least some time there and having spoken to some Syrians, you’ve got a slightly more informed perspective than those that are literally just looking at this in a completely detached manner as some commentators are.

BKS: This is a good segue-way bringing me to my next question about connecting the argument you make in your first book about Arab identity and how it’s reproduced in different forms within the narrative of the nation-state. How do you see that narrative being constructed in the context of the Syrian conflict? How is the Syrian conflict used, or not used, as a tool to recreate and reproduce Arab identity in Saudi Arabia or Qatar in their intervention?

CP: You’ve done your homework on my first book. That’s great. It’s a really interesting question because what I saw in the research I did for my first book, which was my PhD, was how identity in general is instrumentalized by elites. I’m not a complete top-down person. There’s an informed bottom-up component as well. But it’s about how elites’ attempts to manipulate and reproduce identity interact with what a population is receptive to. So it’s not a straightforward question of the elite deciding on a certain identity and the population just agreeing. That can’t work. What you’ve seen in the Syria conflict a notable shift from many actors in the kinds of identities that they want to deploy and focus on. So the Syrian government, as I noted in my first book, has for long tried to foster multiple identities, Yes, they wanted to focus on Arab identity, which is the area that I was interested in, but they also focused on Syrian nationalism. They also wanted to focus, in an unofficial way, on sub-state identities. They manipulated those a little bit.

And interestingly, throughout this conflict, the Asad regime has fallen back on those other identities, not Arab identity. They haven’t rejected Arab identity. They haven’t said that’s not true but it’s just consistent with their own discourse for them to, understandably in a civil way situation, emphasize national identity. So they’ve pushed a lot on the importance of being Syrian. What’s done unofficially is a little manipulation of those sub-state identities, noting for example, to Alawis what Sunni majority rule might lead to, likewise to Christians and the Druze.

What’s interesting at the same time is how those other state governments have changed their perspectives on identity promotion. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also been advocates of Arab identity, a different type of Arab identity, especially Saudi Arabia that’s been much more linked to Islam. That comes from the 1950s when it was a rival to Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, with Nasser’s secularist Arab nationalism being a threat to Saudi Arabia. So then they really played up the idea that being Arab equals being Muslim. Now that the threat is Iran rather than Egypt, what’s interesting is that Saudi Arabia has opted not to highlight the Arab-ness of identity as accounts to Iran, which they could do. You know Saddam Hussein did that, for example, saying “We’re Arabs. They’re Persians.” But instead they’ve focused on the sectarian side of things and emphasized the Sunni nature of Saudi identity against Shia Iran. And they’ve really tried to push this notion of Sunni-ness as being the binding identity that people in the region should look to. The role of Arab=ness within that Sunni-ness has diminished. I think it is still there but it’s more implicit than explicit.

However, I think in general we haven’t seen any state, that I’m aware of, that is actively rejecting any of these identities. They just emphasize one over the other. It’s a deliberate strategy of fostering multiple identities that you can emphasize at different times according to political context,

BKS: What do you think determines the focus of which identity the state mobilizes? Is it a purely political calculus or is it something grounded within the social context?

CP: Again, it’s the interaction of the two. I’m a modernist. I believe that identities aren’t perennial. They aren’t from forever. But I think that they [elites] are going to be more successful if people have a sense that they’ve been around for a long time. So you cannot just pull something out of the past and say, “This is who we are.” You need to work on those identities. You need to constantly reproduce them. If you go back to that issue of sectarianism, this idea of the Shia threat is something that’s been around and been promoted in the modern era since the Iranian revolution in 1979, when the Saudis especially were very concerned that a similar kind of popular Islamic revolution could overthrow them. They had to find a way of distinguishing themselves from the Iranians. So they really said, “Ah well they’re Shia. We’re Sunni. So we view things differently”. That idea didn’t get much credence in the Arab world and you saw this in the 2000s when Iran was actually incredibly popular. There was an interesting survey done in 2008 when the three most popular leaders in the Middle East at the time, mostly in the Sunni majority countries, were Bashar Al Asad, Hassan Nasrallah, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all of whom are Shia. So this idea of the Shia crescent threat did not have much traction in the 2000s, despite an attempt by Saudi Arabia and its allies to promote it.

However, now the Syrian civil war has occurred, that idea has got some traction and I know a lot of people in the Sunni world who are completely against the Iranians and Shiism and so on. So what I’m trying to say is that that’s only possible because of the groundwork that has been done over several years, even decades, of vilifying the Iranians. But it’s only when the Syrian civil war comes along, that actually people seem to see that as relevant to them and then it becomes a factor.

BKS: Moving on a little bit to, you mentioned earlier the US’ strategy shifting in the Middle East. It’s probably a question you get asked a lot, but what do you think is going to happen now with the Trump administration, which doesn’t really seem to have a Syria policy?

CP: And that’s the problem. It’s literally just trying to work out what the Trump administration wants to do in any regard. let alone specifically Syria or the Middle East, which is very difficult. We’ve been getting a sense of a few things coming out; two things that have been said so far are of relevance. One is the anti-ISIS campaign. We’re seeing Mattis propose upping the anti-ISIS campaign. Although it does look like it will be a continuation of what Obama did plus something, which might involve more special forces, it might involve arming Syria’s Kurds against ISIS. But there’s clearly a commitment by Trump as an individual to increase the anti-ISIS campaign, build on his promise to eradicate ISIS. That would suggest incidentally that we won’t see a major departure from what we saw under Obama. We won’t see any wading into the Syrian civil war proper and attempting to take on Asad or anything like that. That’s entirely unlikely.

The other thing that we’ve seen from Trump thus far is a suggestion of safe zones for refugees, which again has been put forward as an idea. i think that that as an idea ironically comes more from his anti-immigration, anti-refugee approach than it does from any kind of humanitarian issue. It’s more about keeping the refugees out in Syria rather than providing security and safety for them. But again, what we’ll probably see with that is the same difficulties that the Obama administration found when it flirted the idea of doing this sort of thing, which is that logistically, with the Russians over the airspace in Syria, it’s very difficult to create any kind of no-fly zone, any kind of no-bomb zone, without Russian agreement, So if it does happen, it must be seen as an agreement or as part of an embracing-Russia strategy, rather than as any kind of stepping-up by the Trump administration against Asad or against Russia.

BKS: Lastly, with this conflict, since 2011, it’s always been, “Okay this conflict is going to last another year, another 3 years, another 4 years.” How do you see this conflict playing out in the long term and what would be the prerequisites for any kind of end to it?

CP: Well I’ve certainly never been one of those people who’ve said the conflict is going to end next year. It goes back to my initial point about the shifting regional dynamics. It means that sadly as soon as you created a situation in which inside actors in Syria were inviting outside actors to get involved, you created a dynamic which makes it incredibly difficult to end conflict. What you’ve effectively got is the outsourcing of this war. Most civil wars and theories that have looked at civil war argue that you reach a point of hurting stalemate whereby the actors involved in Syria would recognize that they have more to gain through negotiation than through continuing the war. That normally happens when your resources have been exhausted so your economy can no longer feed its people, can no longer pay your soldiers. Your manpower, your ability to get them to the field is diminished.

The problem with Syria is that the war has been outsourced and most of those issues, especially money and–on the side of the regime–soldiers and fighters, are coming from outside. So, you’re not at a point where the outside actors are at a hurting statement. In fact, for Russia, for Iran, for Saudi Arabia, the situation isn’t untenable. They can keep doing this for quite a few years yet. Turkey and the West, especially the Europeans with regard to the migrant crisis and the Americans with regard to terror attacks, are hurting a bit. But again, it’s probably not all at the same level, so that there’s not that much incentive for any of the actors to dramatically shift their position right now.

But to answer your question, that is what is required. Look again at civil wars that have had externally involvement: Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, elsewhere. As a starting point, you need external actors to reach some kind of consensus, some kind of agreement that they’re not going to keep fueling the war. Once you’ve done that, once that outer layer has been agreed upon, then it’s a question of getting the internal players to actually agree on something. And that’s by no means guaranteed. They might still have these strong disagreements, especially if they know that Asad’s going to win. The prospect that the opposition will just accept that looks highly unlikely. But if the outside actors are still refusing to accept the idea of a peace deal, they have the opportunity to play spoiler. They can activate groups within Syria to reject any kind of agreement. So, you need to have an outside-in approach. First you’ve got to get some kind of consensus from the external actors and then they’ve got to try–it will be difficult –to persuade local allies to actually bring about a deal. That’s been the case since 2012. We haven’t even reached stage one yet. So it’s not very surprising at all that the internal actors are also still not in position to negotiate.

BKS: I see. That’s all. Thank you so much for your time.

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