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Rami Khouri: Syria’s Proxy War is Culmination of Last Century of Failed Arab State-Building

Web ExclusiveJuly 06, 2017
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As President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet in Hamburg on Friday, we speak to journalist Rami Khouri about what’s at stake in the Syrian conflict.

Watch Part 1 || Rami Khouri: In Rift with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE Want to Hold Back Waves of Change

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StoryJul 05, 2017Rami Khouri: In Rift with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE Want to Hold Back Waves of Change
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Diplomats from Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States are continuing a fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Rami Khouri is still with us, in Part 2 of our conversation. He’s professor of journalism and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, an internationally syndicated columnist, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Thanks so much for staying with us, Rami Khouri. Can you talk about what’s happening in Syria right now?

RAMI KHOURI: What’s happening in Syria right now is the most complex, violent proxy war probably in the modern history of the world. You’ve got every possible fighting force and political identity group working against each other inside Syria, including very local groups, national groups in Syria, the government, opposition groups, Islamist fighters, groups like al-Qaeda, regional powers—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others; Israel gets involved—and international powers—the U.S. and the Russian. And they’re all in there fighting, directly, with their armies, with their jet planes. It’s quite extraordinary, the free-for-all going on. And then you’ve got Kurdish groups, and you’ve got Turkish groups. Now, there’s about 10 different battles going on simultaneously. And this is why it’s so difficult to resolve this.

This is the culmination of the last century of chaos in terms of national self-determination and state-building in the Arab world, from world—the fall of the Ottoman Empire around World War I until now. We’ve had a hundred years of state-building, nationhood and citizenship that have largely not worked very well in most Arab countries. The exception are those few that have a lot of money, like in the Gulf, and therefore could provide for all their citizens’ needs. But even there, we don’t have any kind of genuine participatory self-determination and political accountability. So, we have states that don’t work very well. And Syria and Iraq and Libya and Yemen today—four countries—and Somalia, before them—five Arab countries—are the epitome of states that don’t work very well. Regional powers get involved. Foreign powers get involved. There’s a free-for-all. And we have war. We have cholera. We have refugees. We have terrorism. Every possible bad thing is happening. And Syria is the absolute high watermark of this kind of problem, and it’s not going to be easy to solve.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, President Trump will be meeting Vladimir Putin at the G20, and they’ll be having an official bilateral meeting. On the agenda is expected they’ll be speaking about Ukraine and Syria. What do you think should be the discussion about Syria between the president of the United States and Russia?

RAMI KHOURI: The discussion has to bring in other people besides the United States and Russia. You have to bring in Iran and Turkey, in particular, as well as other groups in the region. But the discussion should essentially be how to try to restore, first of all, a peaceful situation, to end the fighting. That should be number one: how to get a real ceasefire all across Syria.

Second of all, how to achieve a transition to a new government system in which the Syrian people have the majority say. That’s not easy to do, but it’s doable. I mean, it’s been done all over the world in similar situations of tension, like Northern Ireland, like South Africa, Colombia, other—Burma slowly. You have—we’ve achieved these kinds of things in other countries. Afghanistan has tried, on and off, not very successfully. So, that’s what they should be looking at.

Now, what that means is you’re going to have zones of—spheres of influence. The Americans essentially have to leave the Russians largely in control of what happens in Syria. And the Americans are going to want something in return, maybe in Eastern Europe. So, we’ll see how they work it out. But, essentially, it’s stopping the fighting, and trying to get to a transitional government arrangement in Syria.

It’s not going to be very easy now, because you’ve got so many other factors and people who are fighting for what they believe are their existential lives, like Kurds, like jihadi, militant opposition and terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda and ISIS and some of those groups. The Turks have existential fears in the north. They don’t want a Kurdish state to emerge. The Hezbollah in Lebanon has acted in Syria. The Iranians are active there. The Saudis and other conservative Arabs see a Syria that moves either towards Iran or towards Islamists as an existential threat to Sunni-dominated political orders in the region. So, everybody sees this as an existential threat, and that’s why they’re fighting to the bitter end, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Raqqa, what’s happening in Raqqa right now, the latest news, I mean, the U.N. saying that the U.S. airstrikes there have caused a staggering loss of civilian life, Rami Khouri?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, U.S. airstrikes have caused staggering losses of civilian lives for the last 25 years all over South Asia and the Middle East—under Obama, under Bush, under Clinton and now under Trump. This is nothing new. What’s different now is that the Americans are there with special forces on the ground, as well. And what’s different is you’ve got this free-for-all in north Syria. It’s like a cafeteria food fight, with the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, the Syrians, al-Qaeda, ISIS, Kurdish groups, Syrian opposition groups all fighting each other, shooting at each other, and sometimes shooting at friendly forces by mistake. So, I think they—the fact that civilians are being killed is a terrible tragedy and a crime, but it’s part of the warfare situation that exists. It’s also an inevitable consequence of major foreign armies traveling halfway around the world to bomb local targets, whether the Russians did it in Afghanistan, the Americans did it in Vietnam, the French did it in Algeria, the British did it in India. Doesn’t matter who’s doing the bombing and who’s the target, this is what happens when imperial armies go around the world and just fire away, not really knowing the terrain, not really knowing the players very well.

But Raqqa is—again, is the epicenter right now. Northeastern Syria, as a whole, now especially moving towards the Euphrates area on the border with Iraq, is now an incredibly contested zone of influence between local actors, regional actors like Iran, the Kurds and the Turks, and international actors like the U.S. and the Russians. And there is no happy military solution to this. Anybody who wins a military victory and defeats the other forces is going to come back in a hundred years, like we’re doing today, and look back a hundred years, as we do to 1918 and 1925, and say, “Look, a hundred years ago, we allowed military force to resolve the situation, and imperial instincts to create a new political order that satisfied the imperial heartland and the homeland. And these things don’t last.” We see it in Palestine. We’ve seen it in India and Pakistan. We see it everywhere around the world. And we’re seeing it right now before our eyes in Syria.

And that’s why these talks in Kazakhstan and Geneva, which have yielded nothing serious yet, possibly the beginning of some quiet zones, but these talks are very important, because the only way to resolve these conflicts is to get all the actors on the table and to negotiate some kind of transition that recognizes the balance of power on the ground. Now, some people will not have a permanent say, like ISIS and al-Qaeda probably won’t be long-term players. But all the other actors need to be acknowledged and have to be part of the negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the reports that the head of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in Raqqa. Iran has said this. The Russian deputy minister has said it’s highly likely that Baghdadi was killed in a Russian Air Force strike on Raqqa on May 28th. Both claims are being questioned by American officials. What is your sense of this? And how significant is this, Rami Khouri?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, we don’t know. Nobody knows, except for Baghdadi himself. And if it is true, it is significant at one technical level, at a logistical level, in the sense that he has to be replaced by another leader. But if you look at al-Qaeda in the last 25 years, al-Qaeda’s top leadership has been mostly decimated by American and other people attacking them and killing them in the last 25 years, and al-Qaeda is growing faster today around the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa. It’s growing faster than ever before. So, wiping out an individual leader doesn’t lead to a big change in these kinds of groups.

The problem with ISIS and how the West is fighting it and how Arab countries are fighting it is that I think people are mistaking the symptom, which is ISIS, for the problem. The problem is massive dysfunction in our societies, economic and social and political, environmental and other kinds of dysfunction, that have created hundreds of millions of distressed people, some of whom go and join ISIS, to create groups like ISIS. ISIS didn’t exist 20 years ago. Qaeda didn’t exist 30 years ago. They do today. They’re a function of modern history and dysfunction. And to defeat them, you have to hit them militarily in some cases, but you have to remove the underlying problems and dysfunctions that give rise to them.

So killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which will happen eventually, I expect, and driving them out of Raqqa and Mosul, which is happening right now, doesn’t do anything to the reality that there are 40 or 45 or 50 percent of young people in Arab primary and secondary schools across this region who are not learning anything. We know this from serious international studies. There’s probably 50, 60 million young people in primary, secondary school age who are either not in school or who are in school and learning nothing and will drop out. And so, you’re going to get another 50 million people who don’t know how to read and write, can’t do anything with serious intellectual or rational capabilities and work-wise, and will have to go out and figure out how to get $2 or $3 a day, the equivalent local currency, to just stay alive. And this kind of desperation is what is driving a lot of the stresses within Arab countries that have collapsed, in places like Yemen and Libya and Syria and Iraq and other places, Somalia. And it’s also driving the corruption and the militarism and the slow fragmentation of some countries, where the central state essentially falls away and power is redistributed among other groups—religious groups, tribal groups, ideological groups, military groups, criminal gangs—all kinds of groups—and many of them with foreign support. So that’s the problem. So, killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does zero to that.

In fact, it might make it even worse, because some people who follow ISIS do so because they see it as the only group that is standing up for the rights of Sunni Muslims, which, of course, most Sunni Muslims think is ridiculous. Most Sunni Muslims think that ISIS is a criminal group. But some members who follow it see it as a protector of Sunni Muslims in the face of Shiite growth, in the face of foreign expansion. And by killing the leader of ISIS, you might even get more people who get more desperate and say, “Ah, they won’t even let us have our own group to build our own society.” And you might get more recruits coming in. So, it’s a really hard challenge. Defeating ISIS and what ISIS represents is a really difficult challenge, because it requires addressing zillions of—not zillions, but, actually, in a book I’m writing now, I’ve identified about 60 different specific individual reasons why people in Arab countries look positively and some people look positively on ISIS. It’s a minority. Probably around between 5 and 8 percent of people in the Arab world say they think positively of ISIS. That’s—you’re talking about 30 million people, out of 400 million Arabs. And then that’s the people who will admit that they like ISIS. There’s others who might be sympathetic to it but won’t tell that to a pollster.

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri—

RAMI KHOURI: So, there’s the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, I wanted to ask you about Yemen. In Part 1 of our conversation, we were talking about Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, United Emirates now meeting in their diplomatic standoff with—in Cairo right now against Qatar. And I’m wondering two things about the situation overall, the horrendous situation, where people are dying either from the U.S.-backed Saudi bombing campaign or the cholera that’s come out of the just devastation of the infrastructure there. Last month, the Saudi King Salman deposed his nephew as crown prince and put in his son, who’s in charge of what’s happening in Yemen right now, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Can you talk about the significance of this? Does this whole shift relate to the attack on Qatar right now? And ultimately, of course, the casualties, the enormous casualties, are the people of Yemen.

RAMI KHOURI: Well, the change in leadership in Saudi Arabia started about three years ago, when King Salman became king, and then he made his son the deputy crown prince, and Prince Muhammad bin Nayef was crown prince. That’s been changed now, so his son, Mohammed bin Salman, is now the crown prince. That happened at a time when also, in the United Arab Emirates, the crown prince essentially was taking over power, unofficially—he was still crown prince—because the president was quite ill and wasn’t actually able to function very well. So you had new leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about three or four years ago started to take power.

And they actually—to their credit, to be fair to them, they actually said that they were going to be more decisive and take action to protect their interests. They felt threatened by so many things going on in the region—wars, refugees, terrorism, the growth of Iranian power, the Americans pivoting to Asia, Muslim Brothers winning elections in different countries, even the presidential election in Egypt at one point. There was a lot of things going on in the region that scared the Emiratis and the Saudis, and they decided to take action.

And one of the things they did was they launched this reckless, destructive war in Yemen. Recently, they’ve now taken this action against Qatar. These are two of other—several other things they’ve done, which is support militant groups around the region, to get involved militarily in Libya. There’s other things that they have done, including trying to try to, you know, influence or buy off much of the media across the region, as well as many of the think tanks and research centers in Washington. So, this is part of a process that has been going on for a few years. From the Saudi and Emirati perspective, they see this as in their self-interest. Most of the rest of the world finds that it’s actually not a very constructive process. This is destructive. It’s not leading to anything good. And, in fact, it’s counterproductive. One of the aims of the Saudis is to push back the Iranians. What they’ve done is given the Iranians much more influence in Qatar, in Yemen, in Syria and other places.

So, I think the Saudi policies have to be reassessed by the Saudis themselves. They need to look at what they’ve done, ask if it is actually in their best interest. If they’ve made mistakes, they should be mature enough to admit that and make corrections, in the same way that, for instance, the United States changed its policy towards Iran and negotiated with Iran and came up with a pretty good agreement on nuclear issues in Iran that respected Iran’s rights and respected the international concerns about Iran. So, the Saudis, I think, need to take a lesson from the Americans about political maturity, about statecraft, about constructive diplomacy, and think again about what they’re doing, because Yemen is going to have consequences for decades to come in terms of state-building, poverty, economic development, refugeehood, terrorism. You’ve got huge pockets of control in Yemen now under al-Qaeda. ISIS tried to set up shop, but al-Qaeda beat them to it. And anyway, al-Qaeda and ISIS might slowly merge into one bigger movement. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen. So, yes, there is a direct link between Yemen and the Qatari policies, and they’re mostly negative.

AMY GOODMAN: And the implications of the massive weapons sale, historic weapons sale, from the United States under Trump to Saudi Arabia, well over $110 billion, and then, even with the isolation of Qatar, though Trump first endorsed it, said he was responsible for it, then Rex Tillerson was pulling him back, the U.S. agreeing to sell $12 billion worth of U.S.-manufactured F-15 fighter jets to Qatar? The level of weapons in the region?

RAMI KHOURI: The United States’s policy in the Middle East and South Asia has largely been anchored in militarism in the last 30 years or so, 35 years. It started by fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, helping the people like al-Qaeda initially to fight the Soviets, and then continued to spread all around the region. It became the war on terror. And it has largely not worked very well, by and large. You know, Islamist movements have continued to—peaceful Islamist movements, like Muslim Brothers and others, have expanded all around the Arab world and in many other countries. And militant terror groups, like ISIS and Qaeda and a few others like them, have also expanded, continue to expand in areas. And you have these armed rebel groups in Syria, jihadi, takfiri, Salafi groups, like Ahrar al-Sham and dozens and dozens of others. They’ve now made Syria the center of gravity of the global jihadi movement, which used to be anchored in the Afghan-Pakistan area. So, all of this is a consequence of the failure of an American-directed global war on terror largely anchored in military responses without looking at the underlying socioeconomic, political and human dignity drivers of the dysfunction and discontent in these societies that has caused so many of them to become so violent.

You know, most of our societies were not like this 30 years ago, 40 years ago. If you had come to the Arab world in the 1960s, you didn’t have these huge flows of refugees, except for the Palestinian refugees, of course. But the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a separate issue that has to be looked at separately but also in relation to what’s going on now. But you didn’t have these refugee flows. You didn’t have these terror movements all over the region. You didn’t have crumbling governments. You had significant human development between the '40s and the ’80s. The Arab world was a leader in human development, women's education, health systems. There was incredibly positive things going on all across our region.

But starting about 30 years ago, which more or less coincides with the getting close to the end of the Cold War and then after the end of the Cold War, and this recent legacy of American-led military action as the primary policy response to the challenges of our region, this is what we have. And people in the Gulf countries that have a lot of money, they’ve spent several trillion dollars on arms over the last 30, 40 years. I mean, it’s extraordinary what the Arab world has spent. And I don’t know the exact figure, but it’s massive amounts of money on armaments, which have not brought security or stability or social justice to our region. So, there has to be a serious regional rethink by the people of our region about the patterns of the last 30, 40 years. And the United States, the Europeans, the Russians, external actors, also need to be involved. Now you’ve got the Iranians and the Turks, two big regional powers, who are militarily inside our countries. The Turks just opened a military base in Qatar, which they had agreed upon a while ago. There’s all kinds of French, American, British bases all over the Gulf, in UAE, in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait and other places. And the Iranians are in Syria and Iraq, very close with Hezbollah in Lebanon. So you’ve got all these external, powerful regional forces and global forces physically, militarily based in Arab countries and actively engaged in military or political warfare.

So, it’s in that context that one has to ask about American military sales. You know, they might bring some jobs to people in Kansas and North Carolina. And God bless them, they should all have jobs in every one of those American states. But if selling armaments, that are only going to create more tensions and warfare and refugees and broken states and terrorists in our region, is going to be the policy prescription, then the majority of people in our region are going to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and they’re going to fight back. And this is exactly what’s happening.

And the story of the last 20, 25 years is the American government’s policies in our region are neither feared nor respected, neither feared nor respected, by the vast majority of actors in our region. And we’ve seen this from Arab countries, from Iran, from Turkey, from Israel. So many times, they’ve pushed back against the United States. When the United States tries to tell them to do something or even pressure them, they push back and say, “We don’t care. Do what you want. Attack us. Occupy us. Cut off our money. Whatever.” And so, the United States is in a really, really difficult position as a consequence of its own poor policies going back about 30 years. And militarism is really the fulcrum of those poor policies that have to be seriously reconsidered.

The super irony, the tragic super irony, is that the overwhelming majority of people in the Arab countries and Iran and Turkey and Israel all want to be close friends with the United States. They’d rather live like Americans live than like, say, you know, Russians or Chinese live. They like the openness of the U.S. They like the pluralism. They like the personal liberties and dignities that apply to most Americans. And they have a natural inclination in this region to be close to the United States. Here at the American University of Beirut, we have this extraordinary example of—the greatest example of American soft power in the history of the United States. There’s never been an example of soft power like the American University of Beirut. And the American University of Beirut has been copied all over the Middle East. There’s American University of Kuwait, of Jordan, of Kurdistan, of Sharjah, of Cairo. There’s American Universities everywhere in the Middle East, because people admire those values, and they would like to emulate them.

And so, that’s what the American government really should start thinking about in terms of engaging with people across this region, addressing some of the problems of the conflicts that are going on, and to look at options other than perpetual militarism and threats and punishments and bombing as options that could achieve the stability of this region and close friendships with the United States and the rights of all people, including Turks, Israelis, Iranians, Arabs, everybody, Kurds. Everybody else in this region should have their rights recognized. So this is—this is a big, tall order, but it’s doable. Americans can do this if they want. They just have never seen the desire or the will to try to do it in the Middle East. It’s a lot easier to sell arms to rich oil countries or to sell other things, and then don’t worry about what happens over here. And because what happens over here, essentially, is a problem for the Middle East.

You know, the—my conclusion, I would say, is, anybody who looks at this situation has to look at the Middle East and say the United States seems to be able to live with the consequences of its policies in the region over the last 30 years—the chaos, the warfare, the refugees, the terror, etc. These are big problems for the Middle East. They don’t seem to be big problems for the United States, that this is an acceptable situation. It’s not ideal, but the U.S. can live with this. And that’s why it perpetuates these policies. I don’t know how long that could go on. It’s possible that things could get out of hand, and the U.S. might end up paying a price. But we don’t want to reach that point. So, that’s a long answer to your question about, you know, military sales.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Rami Khouri, professor of journalism, senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut. He’s also an internationally syndicated columnist and a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon. This is Democracy Now!, To see Part 1 of our conversation with Rami Khouri, you can go to Thanks so much for joining us.

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