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Russia-US Relations and the End of Syria

May 19, 2017

Jacob L. Shapiro and Xander Snyder discuss the future of Syria, the prospect of US-Russian cooperation in the Middle East, and whether ideology defines geopolitics or vice versa. Click here to sign up for free updates on topics like this.

Xander Snyder: Hi, and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures Podcast. I’m Xander Snyder. I’m an analyst here at Geopolitical Futures, and I’ll be chatting with Jacob Shapiro, the director of analysis here at Geopolitical Futures. How’s it going Jacob?

Jacob L. Shapiro: Nice to be back, we’ve been on hiatus it feels like for a couple weeks.

XS: Yeah, and today we’re going to dig into a subject that’s probably more on the forefront of people’s minds than many others in the world of international affairs. We’re going to be talking about the conflict in the Middle East and U.S. and Russian interests, and how they’re affected by what’s going on there now. So just for the sake of context, let’s lay out the current lay of the land for what’s going on in the Syrian civil war right now.

You can either just look at this as a single conflict, but really it’s more complicated than this and the nature of the fight is that there are multiple fronts or fights all built into one. How would you describe the nature of those different individual conflicts Jacob?

JLS: Yeah, it’s really difficult to talk about Syria and the conflict that’s going on there in the first place because Syria really doesn’t exist anymore, and we don’t really have the vocabulary for talking about what actually exists in its place because nothing has emerged. I don’t think that anything is really going to emerge.

I was looking into this for a research project lately, and I sort of knew this intuitively, but I think of Lebanon and Syria as together. I’ve always thought of them as part of the same sphere of influence and usually it was Syria always interfering in Lebanon, but you could also think of Lebanon as a model for what’s going to happen in Syria. And Lebanon is, it’s a much smaller country than Syria, and yet it fought a civil war for 15 years. So the idea that Syria is going to calm down and that Syria is going to remerge as a single country at some point in the near future seems to me to be mostly folly in the same way that thinking that Iraq is going to be able to pull itself back together is simply folly.

But in thinking about all the different sides that are in this fight – I mean, it started as an internal Syrian conflict and in some ways, it still is. It’s the Assad regime, which is the Syrian Alawites, and also a lot of Sunnis bought into the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds and the more secular opposition and then all the opposition groups that are various flavors in terms of Islam, some of which are more moderate in the way they want Islam to govern daily life and some of whom are like Islamic State, who are sort of on the religious totalitarianism end of the spectrum.

So there’s the local fight, there is the sectarian fight in general between Sunnis and Shiites for which Syria and especially Iraq have become huge battlegrounds. There’s the problem with Syria now being really a way for different powers in the region to position themselves. The Turks have their interests in Syria, the Iranians have their interests in Syria, Saudis have their interests in Syria, the Israelis have their interests in Syria, and then you zoom an even bigger step out and it seems like almost every Western power in the world is somehow participating in bombing Syria or attacking ISIS in some way. I mean, when you read down the list of countries that have actually participated in military actions in Syria, it’s a pretty impressive list.

So it started as an internal Syrian conflict, but as most conflicts in the Middle East go, it quickly morphed into all these different levels, and I think that’s one of the things that’s going to keep it going for a long time.

XS: Yeah, and part of the reason why it’s difficult to imagine any sort of coherent Syria, in the way that we’ve come to know it, emerging out of this is in part due to what Syria was defined as most of the 20th century anyways, right? You had a number of countries in this region that were drawn basically specifically to allow outside … powers to maintain some degree of influence over these countries. So just like it’s hard to imagine Syria with its borders before 2011 emerging again, it’s hard to imagine Iraq coming out of this with similar borders.

And what is it that has changed in the last 25 but also hundred years that has weakened the powers that existed in the 20th century that maintained these borders and has driven it to what it looks like today? I mean certainly, the rise of Islamism in the last 30, 40 years and the decline in the Soviet Union play some role in that. But what’s really sparked the deterioration of these borders?

JLS: I would say two things. First of all, it would’ve been better if the outside powers that carved up the Middle East had thought about it in terms of how are going to best control or influence these particular countries. I think it wasn’t even that thoughtful. I think it really was they were just carving up the region, and they thought of the region from a sort of, “what are the resources that I can access here or what does owning this particularly territory versus this particular territory give me for my power.” So they didn’t really think about where different local communities were, and how to divide things in such a way that these states would be more manageable.

It’s a general trend of homogenization, right? Even if you look at a place like Eastern Europe today, Eastern Europe is now a collection of states with a lot more homogenized populations than they were even a century ago. You had large pockets of minorities in these different states, and that’s less so. That’s also true of the Middle East, the Turks are now in Turkey. Well, you can’t really speak about Iran because Iran is such a cluster of different things, but people are self-segregating themselves into their little groups and the previous multinational way of dealing with things has sort of broken down. The Ottoman Empire was a multinational empire, there was no real nationalist impulse there.

And this gets to the second question that you posed, which is: What has changed? And I think that the thing to think about there is to remember a lot of the ideas that led to the political ideologies that created nationalism – and not just nationalism in Europe but helped organize Europe into the nation-states that exist today – I mean, those started bubbling up around the Enlightenment, right? So we’re talking really even by the 1600 and 1700s, a lot of those things are beginning to develop.

They didn’t come to the Middle East really until the Ottoman Empire collapsed. So the Middle East really encountered the Enlightenment and modernity and nationalism and all of these ideas when the Ottoman Empire fell apart after World War I. And they had to integrate these new ideas with their traditional notion of how things should be governed, and Islam was obviously a big part of that. There was a big rush at first in the embrace of nationalism, and you had all different kinds of nationalism flourishing in the Middle East in the 20th century. You had Turkish nationalism, Iran rose as a national power, certainly Israel is an example of that, Zionism is just a fancy word for Jewish nationalism. And then you had Arab nationalism. And Arab nationalism I guess we would say didn’t quite work.

You know, there was a sense that the Arabs are a group as a whole, but then they also created these subidentities. Egypt was one that made more sense because Egypt has always been sort of separate and unto itself. But especially Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – these were countries that were really trying to create a national identity essentially out of nothing, and it worked for a while. It was seductive for a while, Nasserism and Baathism and all these things certainly gave a lot of these countries meaning.

But in the long term, they were viewed as bankrupt by the populations. They didn’t bring economic prosperity to the region. They didn’t bring greater choice in representation to the region. They sidelined Islam to a great extent because they were afraid that Islam was a threat to their power. And they couldn’t defeat Israel. Israel was one of the major political issues for these Arab nationalist powers, and I mean, to be frank, they got their butts kicked every time they tried to engage with Israel. So I think all of those things led people to look somewhere else and the only real organizing principle that has ever worked in bringing the peoples of the Middle East, the Arab people of the Middle East, together has been Islam. Besides Islam, there’s never been a unifying sense of what’s going on.

So in that sense, it’s a reversion to the previous organizing principle of the region. Now, the problem is that you have people using Islam for their own political purposes, and everybody’s arguing that they have the one true path, and they all have to fight each other.

XS: As an American and someone who’s obviously observed how U.S. media and U.S. society has attempted to interpret the events in the Middle East over the last six years – you know, you mentioned a moment ago how the ideas of Enlightenment didn’t really even get there until the early 20th century, and it seems like so much of American identity is defined by our relationship to Enlightenment principles.

And it seems to me that part of the reason that a lot of folks here didn’t really truly understand what was going on during what’s come to be called the Arab Spring, is just this sense of optimism that, you know, the rest of the world is finally going to come around to this idea of democracy, and this kind of led a lot of commentators and analysts to really miss what was going on there, right?

It wasn’t that you had huge percentages of these protestors ascribing to liberal ideas or philosophies. The more powerful subgroups within them turned out to be or many of them turned out to be jihadi. Is there more to it than just optimism? Why did so many people miss the nature of the uprisings that began in 2011?

JLS: Well, I understand why people wanted to interpret the events of 2011 in that way. There was some reason for it. First of all, the vanguard of the protestors, there were liberals among them. There were people who wanted greater political representation, and they were certainly at the forefront, especially in Egypt. I mean, it wasn’t by any means even a majority of the protestors probably, but there was a significant contingent that wanted real reform.

But when you think about how things set off in Tunisia, that wasn’t a result of any kind of democratic rising. That was a vegetable salesman who couldn’t make ends meet, and he got accosted by a female police officer, and he felt humiliated and embarrassed, and it set off a bunch of protests. We’ve got more protests in Tunisia now, the military has actually now intervened, which is a little out of character for Tunisia because the military has never played that big a role. But I am getting a little off track in answering your question.

I’ve written before about what people got wrong when they were dissecting the Arab Spring. I don’t blame people for getting it wrong. There’s a reason to hope that these things would happen. What I think happened though was a complete lack of self-awareness because even in Europe, even in a place like the United States that has this allegiance to the principles that you talked about, it took many hundreds of years and a great deal of bloodshed before the present-day reality emerged, and these things certainly aren’t perfect. There are Enlightenment principles, and there are nationalist principles, and in Europe those two things combined together to create World War I and World War II and some of the greatest horrors the world had ever seen.

So I understand that there was this sense of optimism and that, you know, the Middle East was ready, and I think also there might have been some residual guilt on behalf of the parties that had been colonial powers in the region and had really not set them up for success. They wanted them to succeed, and there’s nothing really wrong with wanting them to succeed. But when you got down to it, there was really no deep tradition, not even tradition but there was no real political organization for the ideas that we’re talking about right now in the Middle East.

The groups that were the best organized were the Islamic groups, whether that was offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood or different ones because they were able to speak directly to the people to engage them. And over time, they were able to come to dominate a lot of these protest movements which we’ve seen, Syria is a great example.

The initial protests in Syria were a result of, you know, there had been a big drought, and the government had not been providing the level of goods and services necessary. And the people looked out and saw that things were changing ostensibly in Egypt and changing in Tunisia, and they asked for more. Assad did not do what his father did in similar situations and just completely crack down, but he tried to sort of give them what they wanted piece meal, and it wasn’t enough. And you had a bunch of different groups with a bunch of different interests, and eventually the ones that were able to carry the day were the Islamist ones because they were the best organized, and they were most willing to die for the things that they were pushing for.

So I guess I don’t know if that actually answers your question Xander, but that’s sort of how I see how we got the wrong impression of what was going on there.

XS: Do you think that if there was any optimism involved in the misinterpretation of these events, has that optimism been beaten out of us? Is the U.S. beginning to look at the world less from the perspective of spreading democracy and more in terms of what’s good for us?

I mean, when I was growing up, you know I was younger during the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example, and I remember this idea of “spreading democracy” not really being debated too much, at least in the mainstream. I mean, it was somewhat taken for granted that this was a foreign policy goal worth achieving, worth exerting forces on achieving. Now it seems more taken for granted, at least by many that this just isn’t a tenable model for forming U.S. foreign policy strategy.

Have we lost this optimism? The last six years of events in the Middle East, is this pushing us to change how we look at the world or was this change in ideology inevitable?

JLS: Well it’s funny, and it’s a good question because and I’ve written about this before. I don’t remember the last time I wrote about it for GPF, but you know, after the Cold War ended and the U.S. emerged as the really only dominant global power in the world, there was the Clinton presidency, but after that came the Bush presidency, and they were the ones that had to respond to 9/11 and also carried out the 2003 Iraq invasion. They were neoconservatives, and this was a political ideology, which basically equated the national interests of the United States with ideological goals. So the spread of things like democracy and human rights came to be identified directly with the national interest. And then the other important part of neoconservativism was that the U.S. would intervene when it needed to, to promote those values because that was in the national interest.

The funny thing that people often forget is that, in that sense, neoconservatism really is a cousin of liberal internationalism because liberal internationalism says the same thing. It also equates the national interest of the United States with the spread of particular liberal principles. The main difference between the two is that neoconservatism is willing to have the United States unilaterally intervene in different countries to push those principles, whereas liberal internationalists would rather do it through the U.N. or other multilateral institutions.

So this has always been part of the United States, the spread of American values has always been embedded within U.S. ideology and U.S. foreign policy frameworks. And certainly coming out of World War II, there was a real sense that liberal internationalism the way Roosevelt defined it was the way to help make the world better and also make the world safer from the prospective of the United States.

As the Cold War really ratcheted up, that all fell aside and realism and pragmatism, which I have always argued are the great American philosophies, asserted themselves, and you had people dealing not so much with the ideologies – although they certainly dress them up in the guise of those things – but there was a larger enemy to defeat. And those ideological concerns had to be subordinated to the goal of defeating the Soviet Union.

So what I am saying there is I think the United States goes back and forth depending on how powerful it is, and when the U.S. is feeling particularly powerful, and its challengers are particularly weak, the United States has the luxury of saying, “well yeah, we should push our values because that’s what’s best for the world and that’s what’s best for the United States.” When you enter a situation as the U.S. did after really the failure of the Iraq intervention, you get into a place not only where there’s political fatigue in the United States with those ideas but where the United States is spread too thin.

There’s no one power that is challenging U.S. dominance in the world right now, but there are so many smaller conflicts, all of which seem to require U.S. attention that the United States is spread too thin and it can’t think in terms of making the world a better place and convincing itself that that is what’s going to be best for United States policy. It has to define a clear set of objectives and then pursue them and have a larger goal but deal with the people you have to deal with no matter what your ideological differences are with them.

So I definitely think the U.S. has moved more towards a realist view of the world, and I would note that this shift happened under the Obama administration, the administration that from a rhetorical point of view was probably more hopeful and more internationalist than many previous administrations. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize because the Europeans were so happy that somebody who spoke their language got into office. But he got into office and the challenges were laid in front of him, and then he had to make compromises. And that’s where we are today.

XS: I think that raises sort of an interesting question that’s really at the core of any sort of social studies, which is trying to understand the direction of causality – what leads to another thing, right? I think it’s almost common sense that ideology influences a society in a state’s actions and that just makes sense because what someone thinks influences what they do. But to a degree, it seems like ideology is also influenced by the constraints that a state finds itself in at any given time.

For example, with the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was essentially supremely powerful I think. It was the global superpower, so to an extent it could afford to think that neoconservatism in that constant global intervention was in its national interest because it could make the mistakes essentially that the U.S. has made over the last 25 years without having its core fundamental interests threatened in a way that a state with a lower margin of error would encounter. How do you think about causality in this context?

JLS: Yeah in this sense – and you and I have argued about this before – I am on the side of saying that reality determines ideology and that ideology very rarely goes the other way. I use the term ideology very broadly. So we were just talking about neoconservative ideology – neoconservative ideology is a product of the Cold War, the way the Cold War ended, U.S. military economic power in the 1990s. You can’t have neoconservative ideology, be a convincing ideology, if you don’t have all of those other things first.

Islam is a really interesting example of this question. Is Islam an ideology? What are the factors that have led to this birth of Islamism throughout the Middle East, and is it the factors there that led to Islamism or is Islamism driving regional actors to their current situation? You know, if I’m going to stick to my guns then I really have to say that, no, I think that there are actually hard objective political and social realities that then lead people towards embracing Islam and its various manifestations.

One of the things that I get asked often is, is it even possible for a Muslim country to be a liberal democracy? Can Islam coexist with liberal democracy? Does it make any sense to want these types of political regimes in the Middle East? And I would say that just in terms of principles, there’s no reason that Islam can’t coexist with liberal democracy, there’s no reason that Christianity or Judaism can’t coexist with liberal democracy.

The problem comes in understanding the objective political realities, and there, to have the types of regimes that the United States wants, there has to be a certain level of wealth, a certain tradition of rights. And if it’s not there, you can’t just create it. So the U.S. found that out in Iraq when it tried to engage in state building there. And in some ways, I am not sure that U.S. policymakers have learned the lesson because when they talk about what they want after the fighting in Syria ends, whenever that’s going to happen, they think about reconstituting some sort of federalist system in Syria and a federalist system in Iraq, and as I said at the beginning, Syria doesn’t exist anymore, Iraq doesn’t exist anymore.

These countries are not going to get put back together, and trying to put them back together and believing that federalist principles or the right separation of powers in the government is going to achieve that to me is really wishful thinking. If you want to engage with the reality on the ground, you have to engage with the fact that you live in a world where people want to take care of their own and identify with their own and trust their own and they are going to fight and die for their own. You can’t put people who hate each other and who have a history of hating each other in the same country and expect that overnight they are going to sign a piece of paper and going to trust each other.

Again, there’s nothing really that outside powers can do in a situation like Syria and Iraq, there’s the illusion that the United States or the illusion that Russia, in its talks in Astana and wherever else it’s having its talks, that they’re going to be able to accomplish something at the diplomatic level that will fix things in a place like Syria. It just won’t. It doesn’t matter what ideology you have, it doesn’t matter what people say far away from the conflict, this is a civil war. And it’s a civil war that nobody can win except the actors that are in it, and they’re going to have to fight it out. Most countries in the world have gone through these upheavals. I think it’s hard to see yourself in other parts of the world, but it’s something that should be better understood.

XS: So how then have the U.S. and Russia been engaging in these difficult or thorny, prickly realities that they’re encountering in the Middle East? Is there room for overlap of interests between the global superpower and the European regional power, Russia, or are our interests fundamentally divergent in the Middle East or can we find and have we found ways to cooperate with Russia?

JLS: I was listening to George give a speech a couple weeks ago, and one of the things he said was that he wrote his book “The Next 100 Years” – and if you go back and read “The Next 100 Years”, it’s pretty incredible how accurate George was in a lot of the predictions that he made. But he said in the speech the one thing that he really got wrong, was he really got the Middle East wrong. He didn’t realize that Islamism was going to be a force and that jihadism was going to be a force and that the U.S. was going to have to commit so much energy and so many resources to the region. He really thought that there was going to be a pullback on the part of the United States and that it would be focusing on other parts of the world.

So I say all that to say that when I heard George making that point that one of the things that stood out to me was he was still thinking about the Middle East through a Cold War prism. And the Middle East was one of the real main battlegrounds between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Middle East had a great share of global oil production, it’s less so today and the proxy conflicts that were happening in places like the Middle East had a lot more, there was a lot more at stake in them then there currently is today.

We talked a little bit about ideology. I actually think that inertia is a more difficult thing for both the United States and Russia to overcome in their relations when it comes to the Middle East than any ideological things. There’s no capitalism versus communism anymore, it’s really Russian nationalism versus United States national interests. So the place where Russia and the United States can get bogged down in a place like the Middle East is to get used to dealing with each other as if they’re adversaries.

When you look at what the actual hard interests are in the Middle East, the United States and Russia first of all share some general interests, and second of all, this region is of little importance to both of them honestly. Russia has much bigger fish to fry in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and Central Asia. It has real differences with the United States in a lot of these regions, particularly in Eastern Europe. That was part of the reason that Russia intervened in Syria in the first place, to try and create some leverage with the United States with the Ukraine crisis.

And for the part of the United States, it has been trying unsuccessfully to get out of Iraq really since 2007. The surge that Bush administration put through was one strategy to try and finish off the conflict and get out, that didn’t work. Obama just tried to pull everything out and hope that everything was going to be fine, that didn’t work. Trump seems to be going back to more of a surge kind of mentality of, you know, let’s commit a couple more forces now and knock out these ISIS guys, and then we’ll finally leave.

At the end of the day, what do the United States and Russia share in common in the Middle East? Neither one of them has any interest in ISIS being a powerful force. It’s a lot closer to home for Russia, there are a lot of Chechens fighting in the Syrian civil war, and the Caucasus is a fertile ground for the types of radical Islamist ideologies that have developed in the Middle East. So Russia has that in mind.

And I think the other thing that Russia has to think about is containing Turkey. I know that everybody sees that Putin and Erdogan seem to have buried the hatchet, but Russia and Turkey are historical enemies. And Russia is a declining power, and Turkey is a rising power, and Turkey is historically a U.S. ally, but it is also beginning to have problems with the United States that we’ve seen in recent weeks really become clear.

So for Russia, it’s really about containing radical Islam and then making sure that a country like Turkey or a coalition of powers with Turkey at the head can threaten Russian interests in places that are more important to them like in the Caucasus or the Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe.

The United States shares a similar concern with ISIS. It can’t tolerate ISIS mostly because I think when the United States looks at ISIS, it worries about – is this or could this be some kind of unifying Sunni Arab state that would be completely hostile to the United States? That’s the fear.

And then the second part is that the United States is trying to build a balance of power. The United States wrecked the balance of power when it invaded Iraq in 2003. The Iraq-Iran standoff was a major part of that balance of power. The United States has been trying to restore some order to it ever since, so in that sense, the United States also doesn’t want Turkey to become too powerful. Certainly, the United States would like Turkey to take a greater role in managing ISIS.

But at the same time, as Turkey becomes more powerful, you are going to see more and more clashes between the United States and Turkey, and in that sense, this weird U.S.-Russia-Turkey triangle is going to be a constant maneuvering of different sides against each other.

So I think that overall the Middle East is not that important to Russia and the United States, but they both find themselves there, and they both share some tactical goals there. We’ve said in our 2017 forecast that we expected that the U.S. and Russia would find some quiet ways to cooperate and coordinate their activities in the Middle East. I still expect that to be the case. I don’t necessarily expect it to be friendly or even cordial, but I do think that when you look just at the hard interests and you put away the baggage and when you put away the history and when you put away the ideology and you just look at what both countries want in the Middle East, there is some room for cooperation.

XS: Right and at Geopolitical Futures, this is really how we try to interpret and analyze what’s going on in the world, right? It’s not so much what one country says, its rhetoric or even what it wants but rather what’s in the realm of possibility. And at least as it relates to U.S. and Russian overlaps of interests in the Middle East, I mean there are places for cooperation despite the tension between the two countries that probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

We’ve written a good deal about both U.S.-Russian relations as well as their role in the Middle East and the developments in the Middle East on our website http://geopoliticalfutures.com. Check it out, you can navigate directly to analyses by region if you are interested in learning a little bit more about our net assessment on any particular region. We’ve written large-scale long-term forecasts, and we update these regularly with our Reality Checks and Deep Dives, so if anything on this episode interests you, go to http://geopoliticalfutures.com and you can learn more there. Thanks for chatting today Jacob.

JLS: My pleasure, and if folks out there have comments, please also we love comments so let us know how we’re doing. If you even have suggestions for topics, we’re here, we’re listening.

XS: And you can reach us at comments@geopoliticalfutures.com Thanks everyone for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

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