No Obvious, Clear-Cut Answer in Syria: An Interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel
No Obvious, Clear-Cut Answer in Syria: An Interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel
By Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi
As carnage continues to rampage in Syria and Western states ponder their next move on the world stage, Iran Wire thought it urgent to speak to two regional experts who know both Iran and Syria intimately and who have been following events in both countries very closely. Dr. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, both at the University of Denver's Center for Middle East Studies, recently published their book The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013), a collection of essays by leading scholars and experts on how to solve the conflict. In this interview conducted via email they address the regional dynamics of the conflict and describe how a nonsectarian and peaceful protest movement transformed into a putatively sectarian civil war with 100,000 dead and counting. They also consider Iran’s role in the imbroglio and respond to whether its inclusion in any potential diplomatic process would actually cause more harm than good.
While none of the Arab uprisings since January 2011 have proven smooth or free of bloodshed, why has the Syrian quagmire proven to be the most bloody, intractable and devastating of them all? Is it because we’re seeing a regional and greater power proxy war at work?
Yes, the regional dimension of the conflict explains the prolongation of the war in Syria. This conflict has morphed into a major battleground and proxy war primarily between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and its allies.
In contrast to the other Arab Spring revolts, the bloodshed and violence is far greater in Syria primarily due to merciless brutality of the House of Assad. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East differ – Syria under the Assads is at the extreme end of the spectrum of repression (arguably only Saddam’s Iraq was worse). In thinking about the nature of this regime, the late Eqbal Ahmad’s concept of a “neofascist state” comes to mind.
In response to overwhelmingly peaceful protests during the first six to eight months of the Syrian revolt, Assad unleashed an orgy of violence that was characterized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Special Commission of Inquiry as a state-sanctioned policy of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The cynical manipulation of sectarian identity also explains why the conflict persists and is so bloody.
Beyond the regional dimension of this war there are also important geopolitical dimensions, but the domestic dimension is the most important in my view. No serious discussion on Syria should take place without reference to the domestic origins of this conflict.
What can he possibly hope to achieve by means of a limited bombing campaign? Isn’t such a strategy more about reinstating “US credibility” and the deterrent power of its military might in the region, rather than any real humanitarian concern?
Obama’s new policy on Syria that involves a limited air or missile strike seems more about saving face than saving lives. Moreover, it would likely embolden Assad rather than weaken him. This is why we oppose it. Ending the colossal human suffering in Syria should be a priority for the international community and this can only happen if the one side that is primarily responsible for perpetuating this suffering is stopped.
Beyond stopping Assad’s killing machine the conflict in Syria cries out for a political solution that allows the people of Syria – after 43 brutal years of one-family rule – to exercise their right to self-determination. This political solution must contain a plan for the protection of minority rights, along with a plan for post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. We think the June 2012 UN-backed Geneva II plan is good starting point and blueprint to work from.
What is Iran’s exact role in the conflict and what are the key motivations regarding the Islamic Republic’s policies in Syria?
Iran is deeply implicated and involved in this conflict. The leadership of the Islamic Republic has very little moral ground to stand on given its support for a regime that has been perpetrating (according to the UN and Amnesty International) war crimes and crimes against humanity on its own people. The Islamic Republic is arguably Assad’s biggest supporter in the world. We don’t know the full story of Iran’s involvement because both Iran and Syria are closed societies without much of a paper trail. But in February of this year, Mehdi Taeb, a senior clerical leader, revealed the depth and extent of Iran’s attachment to the Assad regime when he said that “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us.” This view accurately reflects the sentiment of Iran’s national security establishment and is supported by the office of the Supreme Leader and by most hardline factions.
It is clear, however, that President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are trying to chart a difference course, routed in a diplomatic solution to the conflict and reflecting the views of Iranian reformists and pragmatists associated with the Rafsanjani camp. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. I’m skeptical because at the end of the day, on matters of national security, Khamenei has the final word, and abandoning Assad without getting something in return is not in the interests of the Islamic Republic.
How much influence would you say the Iranian leadership really has on Bashar al-Assad? Has Iranian influence been exaggerated by some Western analysts?
A revealing incident on January 9, 2013 speaks directly to this question. Forty-eight Iranian hostages held by the Free Syrian Army and widely believed to be part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were exchanged for 2,130 Syrian opposition activists/fighters. Why would the Assad regime accept such an unbalanced prisoner exchange and not demand the return of its own soldiers instead? The only plausible answer is that the Islamic Republic wanted its men back and given the extremely close ties and influence between the two regimes, this was facilitated. The fact that Assad had to pay a high price from a public relations perspective for exchanging 48 Iranians for 2,130 Syrians – a point seized upon by the Syrian opposition to damage the legitimacy of Assad regime – highlights the influence of Tehran on Damascus.
In short, the longer this conflict drags out and the more Assad becomes isolated and under international pressure, the more he relies on his most trusted friends and allies, at which the Islamic Republic stands a top the list.
In your view, has the sectarian rhetoric in Syria become a self-fulfilling prophecy and if so, what have been its regional ramifications and who is primarily responsible for such rhetoric gaining ground?
The earlier phases of the Syrian revolt were decidedly non-sectarian. The Syrian opposition emphasized that their vision of a post-Assad Syria would be based on equal citizenship and protection of minority rights. This is still the official position of the Syrian National Coalition. Sensing a major challenge to its authority and stranglehold on power, the Assad regime cynically manipulated sectarianism. Assad has played the roles of both arsonist and fireman to perpetuate his rule. The presence of Jabhat al Nusra and other hardline Salafi groups in Syria has played into the propaganda narrative of the regime, which is echoed by the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia, however, is fundamentally to blame for the fanning of sectarian hatred across the region. It is the ideological home of the most retrograde and puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam and where anti-Shi’ism has been developed into an art form. I’m exaggerating of course but only slightly. Until and unless Saudi Arabia decides to change policy, this problem will continue to infect the politics of the entire Islamic world.
Should the United States bring Iran into multi-lateral negotiations with other regional actors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in a bid to find a regional-diplomatic solution?
Yes, in part because any long term solution to the crisis in Syria must include regional leaders who could play a spoiler role. There is some discussion and hope that perhaps negotiations between Iran and US over Syria could lead to a reduction in conflict and tension between Iran and the West. This is all speculation at this point and I’m not holding my breath given that Iran and Assad believe they have the upper hand in this war. Depending on the outcome of Obama’s new policy shift toward Syria, new opportunities might emerge.
Given that British MPs have voted against joining any future U.S.-led strike against Syria, what do you hold to be America's endgame vis-à-vis the Assad regime? Is the US really hell-bent on regime change as some commentators suggest?
The idea that the US is hell-bent on toppling the Assad regime is truly preposterous. It simply flies in the face of reality. For two-and-a-half years, as Assad’s forces butchered thousands of civilians, committed crimes against humanity, and the body count rose steadily, now surpassing 100,000, the Obama administration did essentially nothing. In his intricate account of the behind-the-scenes battles over Obama’s Syria policy, published in May, Dexter Filkins revealed that the two camps within Obama’s foreign policy team – broadly speaking, cautious realists and liberal interventionists – essentially cancel each other out, leading to two-and-a-half-years of US inaction on the issue. They represent the two sides of Obama’s own thinking, which is why he put them all there. He has long been divided between the humanitarian-interventionism of Samantha Power (US Ambassador to the UN, whose book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide influenced him deeply) and the centrist-realism of Chuck Hagel (US Secretary of Defense, whose nomination was anathema to the neocons and broader belligerati).
The apparent chemical weapons attack in August occasioned a shift in Obama’s posture. (It’s highly debatable whether that should have been the “red line” on Syria – but that’s another matter.) Wherever one stands on Obama’s current position/policy – which is shifting daily in response to the highly fluid geopolitical equation – it’s pretzel logic to contend that Obama has been spoiling for a fight or looking for a pretext to attack Syria. Tell that to the Syrians who have been pleading for the international community to stop Assad’s killing machine and see what they make of that thesis. The anti-interventionists who make this argument are stuck in a paradigm that simply doesn’t fit the Syrian case. It’s the Iraq model. Iraq was indeed a war that the Bush administration and the neocons had wanted to launch well in advance and were looking for a pretext to do it – and spun an elaborate web of lies to sell it. Syria is almost the exact opposite on every count. Yet Iraq has cast a long shadow over the Syria debate, not only among anti-interventionists and leftists but the international community and Western citizenries, as the British Parliament’s vote, the debate in US Congress and indeed public opinion polls, attest.
Finally, your book The Syria Dilemma has just been published in the US and is due to be published soon in the UK. Please tell us a little about the book and the ambition behind this edited collection of diverse and wide-ranging essays.
From pretty early in the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011, we were corresponding and consulting about the horrific repression the Assad regime unleashed on the (then) largely nonviolent protest movement. When our Center for Middle East Studies was established at the University of Denver last autumn, the very first thing we set out to do was convene a major international conference on the Syria crisis. We read everything we could on the subject and resolved to bring leading scholars and experts not only on Syria (Joshua Landis, Thomas Pierret) but on the geopolitics of the region (Mohammad Ayoob), as well as Syrian civil society activists (Rafif Jouejati, Radwan Ziadeh), human rights voices (Kenneth Roth, Richard Falk), and policymakers (Ambassador Christopher Hill, Michael Ignatieff). The book is drawn partly from that conference but also includes essays by others (Mary Kaldor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Vali Nasr, Marc Lynch, Charles Glass, Afra Jalabi, Shadi Hamid, Stephen Zunes, Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana).
The book is focused on a single question: What is the solution to the nightmare in Syria? There’s a wide range of positions among the contributors. Some favor military intervention on humanitarian grounds – some oppose it; some argue for arming the Syrian rebels – some argue against doing so; some advocate an aggressive diplomatic strategy; some explore the path of nonviolence; and some express deep ambivalence about what is to be done. Thus the title The Syria Dilemma. The animating impulse behind the book is our conviction that the complexity and ambiguity of the Syrian conflict poses profound and difficult problems to which there is no obvious, clear-cut answer. We assembled the essays that we found the most thoughtful, probing, and compelling. It’s the only book of its kind, a volume addressed directly to the ethical and political quandary at the core of the Syria crisis. It goes to the heart of the matter, but with contending arguments that are all, in our view, enormously valuable.
Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Islam,Secularism and Liberalism Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, 2009), co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement andthe Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011) and co-editor of The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013).
Danny Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is the author of Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2006). He is co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011) and co-editor of The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013).
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a final year doctoral candidate at Queen’s College, University of Oxford, focusing on modern Iranian intellectual and political history.