This Is the Best Moment Yet for Peace in Syria—And Diplomacy Is the Only Solution

Charles Glass, longtime Middle East journalist, discusses the Syrian conflict and his friendship with Edward Said.

Eli Massey March 2, 2016

A view of Aleppo, Syria, before the conflict began. (Klaus Wagensonner / Flickr)

After over a decade of cov­er­ing the Mid­dle East, Charles Glass made inter­na­tion­al news in 1987: The New York Times head­line sim­ply read U.S. Jour­nal­ist Abduct­ed in Lebanon.” Glass, ABC News’ chief Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent dur­ing this time, was kid­napped and held by Hezbol­lah, a mil­i­tant Islamist orga­ni­za­tion, for 62 days. In his sprawl­ing work Tribes with Flags: A Dan­ger­ous Pas­sage Through the Chaos of the Mid­dle East, Glass recounts his trav­els through the region, his kid­nap­ping and dar­ing night­time escape.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as “the international community.” What you have is external powers who are divided.

Unde­terred by the inci­dent, he has returned to the Lev­ant many times since, report­ing on the region for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and has made a num­ber of doc­u­men­taries on the Mid­dle East. Glass’ lat­est book, Syr­ia Burn­ing, lays out the ori­gins of the Syr­i­an con­flict and where it’s head­ed. Cut­ting through the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion that plagues most media cov­er­age of the region, Glass clear­ly explains the cur­rent con­flict, draw­ing on his exten­sive report­ing expe­ri­ence in Syr­ia. Ulti­mate­ly, he argues that the Syr­i­an con­flict, with all its proxy wars and for­eign inter­ven­tions, demands a diplo­mat­ic settlement.

I spoke with Glass about the Syr­i­an con­flict, the geopol­i­tics of the region and his friend­ship with Edward Said. The inter­view was con­duct­ed on Feb­ru­ary 12, a day after diplo­mat­ic talks in Munich which lead to the present ceasefire.

Syr­ia Burn­ing pro­vides an overview of the Syr­i­an con­flict. What aspect of the con­flict do most peo­ple misunderstand?

I sus­pect, if I look at the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, they mis­un­der­stood the strength of the Syr­i­an régime. At the very begin­ning the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion under­es­ti­mat­ed the pow­er of the Syr­i­an secu­ri­ty forces and the mil­i­tary, as well as the degree of the sup­port that the régime had in cer­tain quar­ters of the country.

For exam­ple, the peo­ple in Dam­as­cus and Alep­po did not rise up against the régime as the admin­is­tra­tion had assumed they would. Act­ing on the belief that Hillary Clin­ton and oth­ers had that the régime would col­lapse if giv­en a slight push, the way Gaddafi col­lapsed; they began arm­ing the oppo­si­tion and encour­ag­ing [Jor­da­ni­ans, Turks, Saud­is, Qataris and jihadis from around the world] to come over to wage a civ­il war against the régime, which helped in large mea­sure to destroy the country.

It was a huge mis­take. One, on the mis­un­der­stand­ing of the strength of the régime, and two the arro­gant belief that it was up to them to decide the future of Syria.

Is it pos­si­ble to fight the Assad régime and ISIS at the same time, or do we have to sup­port Assad in order to defeat ISIS?

It depends on who you mean by we.” If you mean the Unit­ed States admin­is­tra­tion, it doesn’t make sense for it to have two ene­mies on the ground when it can bare­ly cope with one. If you want to choose which ene­my is more impor­tant to defeat, you have to make that choice. Is it the Assad régime or ISIS? Going after both will cer­tain­ly fail.

And if we” is the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, how should the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty proceed?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty.” What you have is exter­nal pow­ers who are divid­ed. You have the Rus­sians, the Ira­ni­ans and some oth­ers on the side of the Syr­i­an régime. You have the Unit­ed States, Britain, France, Turkey, Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar on the side of the rebels, who­ev­er they may be, and at one time they cer­tain­ly would have includ­ed some of the more fanat­ic jihadists. You can’t real­ly speak about an inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus because the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, as you call it, is itself divided.

This has been one of the prob­lems with the UN try­ing to resolve the issue. For exam­ple, Lakhdar Brahi­mi, for­mer UN Spe­cial Envoy to Syr­ia, who is a very good nego­tia­tor and a very com­pe­tent diplo­mat, sim­ply didn’t have the unit­ed sup­port of the Unit­ed States and the Rus­sians to bring an end to the con­flict, so he couldn’t. You real­ly need those two pow­ers to agree on a solu­tion for there to be a solution.

Recent­ly, in Munich, there was a slight glim­mer of hope that the Unit­ed States and Rus­sians may final­ly have come togeth­er; the U.S. accept­ing the régime is going to stay for a time, and the Rus­sians accept­ing that the U.S. will pur­sue its war against ISIS but not against the régime. We’ll see. I don’t know if any good will come of it, but it’s the first hope­ful sign I’ve seen in some time.

What are the prospects for peace?

The prospects for peace have nev­er been very good, and I don’t know that that’s changed now. Today [Feb­ru­ary 12, 2016], in the imme­di­ate wake of this agree­ment in Munich, it’s prob­a­bly the best moment I’ve seen since the Syr­i­an con­flict began that there might be a prospect of a settlement.

In the first six months of 2015, the Assad régime killed sev­en times more civil­ians than ISIS. This trend has, for the most part, con­tin­ued through­out the con­flict. Do you think you spend a dis­pro­por­tion­ate time on rebel vio­lence in your book?

I’m not sure that I did, but if I did, I didn’t mean to. The West­ern world, for whom I’m writ­ing, is very well aware of the régime crimes, and so I prob­a­bly didn’t have to empha­size them because they’re well known. I cer­tain­ly don’t mean to hush-up or hide any of the crimes that the régime com­mit­ted against the peo­ple both before this war began and dur­ing this war. I’ve been cov­er­ing Syr­ia since 1973, and I’ve nev­er hes­i­tat­ed to write about the crimes of the régime com­mit­ted against the peo­ple in Syr­ia, and also in Lebanon where they did hor­ri­ble things. Dur­ing the Syr­i­an occu­pa­tion of Lebanon I nev­er pulled my punch­es on that. I cer­tain­ly don’t mean to be pulling them now.

But the oppo­si­tion has not man­aged to get pop­u­lar sup­port. The régime has the secu­ri­ty ser­vices. It has a degree of sup­port among sec­u­lar­ists, among reli­gious minori­ties, among the mid­dle class. Where­as the oppo­si­tion has not gal­va­nized sup­port for fight­ing from any sec­tor of the soci­ety except those who have pro­found­ly reli­gious Sun­ni beliefs. That’s because they want to change Syr­ia from an Alaw­ite dic­ta­tor­ship to a Sun­ni dictatorship.

If peo­ple would want change, that’s not the change they want. They don’t want to go from one kind of dic­ta­tor­ship to anoth­er. They want to go from a dic­ta­tor­ship to a func­tion­ing democracy.

You ini­tial­ly rep­re­sent the pro­tes­tors as democ­rats. But through­out Syr­ia Burn­ing you use the term jiha­di” to describe rebel forces, not­ing as of 2013 jihadists increas­ing­ly dom­i­nate the oppo­si­tion.” Is it fair to use this rather undif­fer­en­ti­at­ing term jiha­di” to describe the rebels?

It was almost from the begin­ning that the armed rebel­lion, that the oppo­si­tion was using the lan­guage of Wah­habism. I’m not talk­ing about those demon­stra­tors in Dam­as­cus, in Homs, who were demo­c­ra­t­ic. I’m talk­ing about the peo­ple who took up arms and went into the field against the mil­i­tary. They called them­selves things like the sons of Khalid”; Khalid, who would cer­tain­ly be killing Shi­ites. They would use the lan­guage and the sym­bol­ism of Sun­ni theoc­ra­cy, and that is not democratic.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, one, because the Mus­lim Broth­ers, before this bat­tle began, were the main focus of oppo­si­tion to the régime and, two, because the fund­ing for the oppo­si­tion was com­ing from the Wah­habis of Sau­di Ara­bia, who were not going to give their mon­ey to the young peo­ple I saw demon­strat­ing in Dam­as­cus who want­ed to keep the sec­u­lar­ism and mul­ti-eth­nic, mul­ti-sec­tar­i­an nature of Syr­ia, but just want­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic change. That is cer­tain­ly not what Sau­di Ara­bia envi­sions for any coun­try in the Arab world, includ­ing itself.

What are the impli­ca­tions of the recent clash­es between Sau­di Ara­bia and Iran on the Syr­i­an conflict?

Sau­di Ara­bia and Iran now rep­re­sent two poles of Islam in the Mid­dle East, the Sun­ni and Shi­ite poles. But they have a great deal in com­mon. They’re both theoc­ra­cies. They both believe that their inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam should dom­i­nate all oth­ers, and they’re not any great believ­ers in sec­u­lar­ism or democ­ra­cy. But now they are vying for con­trol of Syr­ia. On anoth­er lev­el, they’re vying for con­trol in Lebanon. They’re also vying for con­trol in Bahrain and Yemen.

When the Syr­i­an war ends, and I hope it does end, that com­pe­ti­tion between the great Sun­ni pow­er of Sau­di Ara­bia and the Shi­ite pow­er of Iran is not going to stop; until there is democ­ra­cy in both coun­tries and they aban­don theoc­ra­cy. But I don’t know that that’s going to hap­pen soon.

Are we wit­ness­ing the unrav­el­ing of impe­r­i­al bor­ders formed dur­ing and imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing WWI in the Mid­dle East? For instance, Sykes Picot, an agree­ment made dur­ing WWI between the impe­r­i­al pow­ers defin­ing bor­ders through­out much of the Mid­dle East.

I don’t think they’re unrav­el­ing at all. The only bor­der which has dis­ap­peared for the moment is the one between Iraq and Syr­ia, which prob­a­bly would have exist­ed even with­out Sykes Picot. There’s nev­er been much uni­ty between Iraq and Syr­ia. There’s a great desert between them. Sykes Picot, first of all, drew a very dif­fer­ent map than the one that emerged at the end of the First World War. But it did estab­lish the prin­ci­ple that the British and the French would decide the nature of those bor­ders. Mosul, for exam­ple, was meant to be in Syr­ia. It end­ed up in Iraq. There were var­i­ous move­ments back and forth between the British and the French that end­ed up set­tling the bor­ders. You had the Lau­sanne con­fer­ence, the San Remo con­fer­ence, the Ver­sailles con­fer­ence, so forth. It kept mov­ing things about.

We end­ed up by 1923 with Greater Syr­ia divid­ed into Lebanon, Syr­ia, Pales­tine and Tran­sjor­dan, and the Mesopotami­an provinces of the Ottoman Empire being unit­ed, which they had not been before, into one place called Iraq. In nei­ther coun­try were these bor­ders ever accept­ed, internally.

But at the moment, I don’t see them going away. The caliphate has wiped away the bor­der between Iraq and Syr­ia, for the time being, but when ISIS dis­ap­pears, the bor­der will be rein­stat­ed. No one is sug­gest­ing that Syr­ia — the mod­ern Syr­ia we know, not Greater Syr­ia — should be fur­ther divid­ed. As the Rus­sians are help­ing the régime to take back Alep­po and prob­a­bly restore state sov­er­eign­ty over most of the rest of Syr­ia, the coun­try will stay united.

Elab­o­rate on the role colo­nial inter­ven­tion has played in exac­er­bat­ing sec­tar­i­an con­flict. The ramp­ing up of sec­tar­i­an ten­sions between Shi­ite and Sun­ni is a rel­a­tive­ly recent devel­op­ment, no?

There’s always been a dif­fer­ence between Sun­ni Islam and Shi­ite Islam. Since the 7th cen­tu­ry, it hasn’t been as vio­lent as it became after the Amer­i­can inva­sion of Iraq. You have this phe­nom­e­non of the Amer­i­cans installing a Shi­ite régime that ignored the Sun­nis — in fact, ter­ror­ized the Sun­nis. And that real­ly did set in place a major vio­lent con­flict between Sun­nis and Shias in Iraq. The ethos of it now has spread to Syria.

In 1987, while in Lebanon, you were cap­tured by Hezbol­lah, mirac­u­lous­ly escap­ing 62 days lat­er. Most peo­ple would quit while they’re still ahead. Why do you keep com­ing back to the Mid­dle East?

It was an unfor­tu­nate inci­dent, but you don’t want to stay away for­ev­er. I like the area very much. I have fam­i­ly and friends there. I’m very attached to it. I did stay away from Beirut for ten years, because I wasn’t cer­tain that Hezbol­lah wouldn’t take me again if I went back. When I final­ly did go back ten years lat­er, they’d giv­en up the kid­nap­ping busi­ness, so it was per­fect­ly safe again.

You were friends with Edward Said and con­duct­ed his last inter­view. When did you first meet?

I first met him in Beirut in 1972 or 3. He was on sab­bat­i­cal from Colum­bia. He was giv­ing some lec­tures in Beirut, and he actu­al­ly taught me about Fou­cault … He also gave a talk at what was then called Beirut Col­lege for Women. He was in a debate on the mer­its of a book that a lot of young Ori­en­tal­ists loved called The Alexan­dria Quar­tet. And he just shred­ded The Alexan­dria Quar­tet as one of the most glar­ing exam­ples of ori­en­tal­ist nov­el writ­ing. It was real­ly won­der­ful. I had not read The Alexan­dria Quar­tet. I start­ed to read it then after his take on it. I found it laugh­able. I might not have if I had not heard what he had to say about it before.

In lat­er years, I used to see him in New York and Lon­don. And in Lon­don I dis­cov­ered that Edward, for all of his intel­lec­tu­al rig­or, was actu­al­ly a dandy. He loved get­ting hand­made shirts in Jermyn Street. He loved expen­sive clothes. He loved it when I took him to a men’s club. He liked the good life.” He was a great char­ac­ter but a mul­ti-faceted char­ac­ter, and one of those facets was an extreme­ly well-dressed, impec­ca­ble gentleman.

I went with him to some shop in Jermyn Street where he was buy­ing some rather expen­sive clothes, and, just to keep up, I bought a pair of socks. The socks were actu­al­ly the most expen­sive socks I’d ever bought in my life. They cost more than what I usu­al­ly spend on a shirt.

But there was a lot more to Edward than that, fab­u­lous lit­er­ary crit­ic, writer, musi­cian and founder with Daniel Baren­boim of the West-East­ern Divan Orches­tra of young Arab and Israeli musi­cians. He did much for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans while nev­er aban­don­ing the Pales­tini­ans’ right to self-deter­mi­na­tion. You had to love him.

Eli Massey is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Cur­rent Affairs, Jacobin, Mon­doweiss, and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly was an intern at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies where he worked on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. Fol­low him at @EliJMassey
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