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.
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.