founding director and senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He’s also a syndicated columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for one of the worst attacks to hit Beirut in years. On Thursday, at least 43 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a double suicide attack on a civilian neighborhood in Beirut. The bombers struck during rush hour in an apparent bid to maximize the civilian death toll. The blasts are seen as an ISIL attack against the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah. This marks the second time in two weeks the Islamic State has taken credit for targeting its enemies outside Syria with deadly attacks on civilians. ISIL’s Egypt affiliate says it was behind the downing of a Russian passenger plane that killed over 224 people in the Sinai last month. We are joined by Rami Khouri, columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin in Lebanon, where the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for one of the worst attacks to hit Beirut in years. On Thursday, at least 43 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a double suicide attack on a stronghold of the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah. The bombers struck during rush hour in an apparent bid to maximize the death toll.
AMY GOODMAN: This marks the second time in two weeks the Islamic State has taken credit for targeting its enemies outside Syria with deadly attacks on civilians. ISIL’s Egypt affiliate says it was behind the downing of the Russian passenger plane that killed over 224 people in the Sinai last month. Both Russia and Hezbollah back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who counts the Islamic State among his many foes.
For more on the Beirut bombings, we’re joined by Rami Khouri, founding director and senior policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He’s also a syndicated columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
Rami Khouri, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what took place yesterday?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, what took place yesterday is a continuation of a trend or a process that has been going on for some years now, and it has several different concentric circles. The most immediate one is the fighting in Syria between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and foes of Bashar al-Assad who are trying to bring him down, including Islamist groups like ISIS or like Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar ash-Sham and dozens and dozens of other militants, many of whom are Islamists, others are nationalists and secular Syrians. And Hezbollah in Lebanon has joined that fight to support Assad, as have the Iranians. And what you’re seeing is a continuation of battles between Hezbollah in Lebanon and also Hezbollah in Syria against some of these Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is linked to al-Qaeda, and others. And there have been tit-for-tat bombings and killings going on between these two groups for about the last two years, maybe more.
The troubling thing is that this is now coming back into the center of Beirut and in the area that is heavily Shiite in the southern suburbs of Beirut. This area had been traditionally a red zone, off limits for people to attack Hezbollah. But that was shattered about two years ago when several bombings in that area took place, including an attack on the Iranian Embassy. And there were tit-for-tat attacks then. People killed the Lebanese former minister, Mohamad Chatah, who was a close ally of the Hariri Future group in Lebanon. That killing was done in the heart of western Beirut. So, the symbolism two years ago was very clear, that no area in Lebanon is out of bounds, nobody is safe. Then there was an agreement in Lebanon which pretty much calmed things down for the last year and a half. And this is now a resumption of that process. So, the immediate issue is the Hezbollah versus the militant Islamists, ISIS and others, but the other concentric circles are the wider Syrian conflicts, the many different conflicts that converge in Syria.
And the third one, most troubling, is how ISIS apparently now is targeting targets outside of Syria and Iraq. Whether they brought down the Russian airplane in Sinai is possibly one issue we have to look at, now this bombing in Lebanon. So it’s possible that ISIS is looking to carry out more such attacks against targets. They’ve threatened to go after Russia now in a communiqué two days ago. And this is a troubling trend, because you have now al-Qaeda, a rejuvenated al-Qaeda, and ISIS, who are the two fastest-growing brand names in Islamic—Islamist militancy and terror in the region. They’re growing, with groups all over the place pledging allegiance to them. They’re gaining more territory. Al-Qaeda now has huge lands in South Yemen, in the southern parts of Yemen, and ISIS is established in Iraq and Syria.
So, you have to look at all of these things together. And the Russian involvement in Syria opens up new dimensions of ISIS’s retaliation against the Russians, against the Americans and French and British and others for their attacks against ISIS, against Hezbollah for its attacks against ISIS. So what we’re getting is more widespread warfare, using terror tactics. But this is targeted warfare, so they’re—people are bombing each other’s targets, like—it’s like Mafia warfare in Chicago years ago, where somebody would take out somebody, and somebody else would take them out in revenge. They haven’t reached the stage yet where they’re indiscriminately bombing hotels and beaches and places all over Lebanon, but that’s a fear that people have.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rami Khouri, what do you make of the increasing involvement of Russia in the region and in these conflicts? What’s been the reaction among the Lebanese, but also across the Arab world, from what you’ve been able to see?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, Lebanon and the entire Arab world are very pluralistic societies with a wide range of views. There is no single view. People have very ideological views, political views, that are linked to their positions within their own country or regionally and globally. So you have some people who are very happy that Russia is involved in supporting the Assad regime in Syria; other people are much more critical of that.
But the fascinating thing is that even traditional foes of Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, like, for instance, the Saudi Arabians or the Iranians or the Egyptians, are getting closer to Putin now. Putin just—it was announced, I think last night, that he’s going to make a visit to Iran. The Saudis, the Egyptians have been meeting regularly with Russian officials, high-level meetings at the foreign minister level and others. So the Russians clearly are trying to use Syria to expand their contacts, their leverage, their relationships all around the Middle East, in political, military and nuclear energy terms. And they’re using Syria because that’s the place where they have already a small foothold. They’ve been allies of the Syrians for 30, 40 years or so, and they want to leverage that.
The people—some people think the Russians want to maintain their military base in Tartus on the Mediterranean, in Syria. I think that’s pretty nonsensical, because I don’t see the Russians fighting naval battles across the Mediterranean with anybody. I think what the Russians want is to show that they’re good allies, help their ally Assad stay in power, maintain a foothold in Syria from which they can develop greater ties with other people, and basically, possibly, have some trade-offs with other issues in the region or internationally, for instance, with the Ukraine.
And finally, they are trying to—the Russians are trying to present themselves as effective leaders in fighting terror, unlike the United States, which has fought the global war on terror now for the last, I don’t know, 12, 15 years or something. And as the global war on terror continues, we’ve only seen the expansion of al-Qaeda and the birth and expansion of ISIS. So there’s something wrong with the American-led global war on terror, which is being fought with autocratic Arab allies, and the Russians are trying to present an alternative. Not very many people take them seriously, but this is an interesting political avenue that the Russians are opening in the region. And so—
AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, let me ask you about the Syrian talks that are supposed be taking place in Vienna this weekend. Russian documents circulated at the U.N. proposed a constitutional reform process in Syria lasting 18 months, to be followed by presidential elections. It’s unclear what that would mean for Assad. And in your view, does a long-term resolution to the Syria conflict involve Assad stepping down?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, I wouldn’t take Russian suggestions of constitutional reform very seriously. They don’t have a great track record of constitutionalism that is very respected around the world, unfortunately. They have a good track record on other things, but not constitutionalism.
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the Vienna talks or any political discussions that come out of it to move ahead with an agreement on Assad stepping down. It’s just impossible for him to do that. And I don’t think the Iranians and Russians, who are his strongest allies, would accept that. So I think there has to be some change in the balance of power on the ground, with the military forces fighting against Assad and those supporting him. He’s supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, primarily. Those are three very strong actors, very strong-willed, very capable militarily. They’ve been making some gains recently. They have just liberated an air base in the north of Syria. They’ve regained some territory around Aleppo. But so has ISIS made some gains in the north, as well. So, the movement on the ground is moving back and forth. Different people are gaining ground and losing ground. If there is no change in the balance of power on the military battleground, I don’t see any chance of a real political breakthrough in the negotiations.
The external drivers of the war—the U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, primarily—seem more willing to keep pumping money and guns and diplomatic support to their allies and proxies than they are willing to actually force their proxies to come to some kind of agreement. So it’s not a very good outlook for the resolution of the Syria conflicts in a peaceful manner. And I say "conflicts," because there’s about eight or 10 different battles going on in Syria between local, regional and international protagonists.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you make of the continued, growing influence of ISIS, especially in view of the fact that you’ve got these powers that normally would be or are competitors or antagonists of each other—Russia, Iran and the United States—all attempting to join with other local governments to squash ISIS?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, this is the critical step that has to be taken to defeat ISIS, which is collaboration and cooperation on the ground, as well as from the air, between the many different local forces in the region, whether they’re governments, like Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, or nongovernmental forces, like the various Kurdish—there’s three or four major Kurdish militia. You have the Iran-supported popular forces in Iraq, you have Hezbollah. So there’s—most of the fighting going on now is actually between nongovernmental military forces. So, when ISIS and the peshmerga—well, peshmerga is the Kurdish government, but the other Kurdish forces, the PKK and the YPG and others, or Hezbollah are fighting each other, or militias in Iran or Syria, these are nongovernmental groups, and they are the major protagonists now.
I don’t see any possibility of formal public collaboration between Iran, Russia, the U.S. and others to fight ISIS, but I think we absolutely will see informal, indirect cooperation, because everybody realizes now, especially with the downing of the plane in Sinai and the Beirut bombings, that this is a serious threat that has to be addressed. It’s not an existential threat. ISIS is a nuisance more than it is an existential threat to anybody. I mean, these guys are pretty much a bunch of amateurs and not very effective political governors, either. They only govern by military force and by threatening people and terrorizing them. But they’ve been able to gain ground mainly because of the weakness of the Syrian government, the Iraqi government, and the lack of will among all the other governments in the region, to the point where nobody was able to do anything when they started moving north a year and a half ago, until the Americans came in with their—with their Air Force.
So, I think the real story of ISIS is the incompetence, corruption, mismanagement and almost universal lack of political legitimacy among most of the political leaderships in the Arab countries, who are totally unable to do anything unless Washington comes in and does it for them. So that’s really the long-term issue in the region, which is reform of Arab political structures and power systems, as well as defeating ISIS militarily. The military defeat of ISIS is the easiest thing to do, if the local forces on the ground and foreign air forces work together. We saw it in Kobani. We’ve just seen it in Sinjar in the north. When local Kurdish forces and American and other air forces work together, ISIS pulls back and goes away, because these guys are a bunch of amateurs riding around on Toyota pickup trucks, and they just don’t have any serious military capability if they’re confronted.
AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, we want to thank you for being with us, founding director and senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, also a syndicated columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we speak with Nick Turse about special operations around the world, from Syria to Africa. His new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield. Stay with us.