December 5, 2013
“Syria is not about the Arab uprisings,” said Rami Khouri, speaking earlier this week at the Columbia Global Center in Amman: “It’s about the biggest proxy wars of modern times.”
Khouri, who directs the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, suggests that Syria has become a staging ground for 10 distinct but interrelated conflicts, ranging from the last vestiges of the Cold War to the region-wide struggle between secular and religious nationalism. The result, he argued in a lecture called “Battleground Syria: How the greatest proxy war of modern times will reshape the Middle East” 2, is a war that “brings together every single conflict of the modern Middle East and touches on every single dimension of life.”
In addition to his position at AUB, Khouri is Editor-at-Large of the Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star.
During his opening remarks, Khouri touched on the pivotal role that outside actors are currently playing in perpetuating the Syrian conflict:
“It’s possible that the Assad regime may fall or that the opposition may give up and splinter. It’s possible, but unlikely, given the amount of resources that are being poured into the Syrian dragon and the vehemence with which these different actors are actually engaged in the battle. And it’s clear that external supporters, countries within the region as well as countries farther away, are prepared to do this for a long time. They are not feeling the pain of the refugee flows, they are not feeling the pain of the Syrians themselves, they are not feeling any of the direct consequences right away.
“Possibly one side will gain a little bit of an advantage over the other, but if that happens the other side is going to put forward massive support in terms of arms and men and money and other things.”
In the question-and-answer session, Khouri touched on a wide range of issues, including the growing role of jihadists and the conflict’s regional fallout. Alex Simon, Gioia Forster and Abdulrahman al-Masri share highlights of Khouri’s lecture, including why he believes a Kurdish region would be “a natural state” and why the Syrian war has delayed democratization elsewhere in the Middle East.
Q: What do you think will be the effect on Jordan if the Syrian civil war spreads?
A: The threats that Jordan is feeling are very, very serious, but they’re not existential. Jordan is a very strong, well-run state, that has its internal vulnerabilities and its weaknesses and problems, but it’s not a state that’s going to suffer the fate of a Somalia or a Lebanon or a Yemen.
I don’t think these problems are existential, but they’re very serious because they create deep resentments in society when you have hundreds of thousands of refugees, stresses on the water, stresses on the education system, jobs become more difficult, wages go down.
There’s a lot of survey evidence coming out of Lebanon and Jordan suggesting that local populations are turning against the refugees. When refugee populations stay a long time in a certain country, they become easy targets for local resentment and accusations.
Q: What is drawing people to join jihadist groups in Syria?
A: These are movements that mostly attract “de-territorialized” young men, young men who are pulled out of their natural environments, who don’t have access to their own societies, who are loners, who are misfits, who are feeling that they don’t have anything to do in their lives. They’re looking for a cause, for a group to belong to, for something that gives meaning to their lives.
Al-Qaeda understood very well that there was a way to attract people to these kinds of movements using the language of religious nationalism. Of course the most important thing is that almost all the Muslims in the world totally reject this ridiculous ideology, they totally reject it as criminal, as alien to them, as totally senseless, and it’s only small numbers of people that join these groups. And the fact that they’ve increased recently is probably a reflection of the deteriorating conditions all across the Arab world.
Q: What do you think of speculation that Syria could break up into three states, one each for Sunnis, Alawites, and Kurds?
A: I don’t think Syria’s going to break up into three states, I think the idea of an Alawite state is pure fiction. A Kurdish region is more realistic, the Kurds have more national legitimacy than many of the existing countries in the Middle East and Africa and Asia—they are a natural state, they should have a state, but modern history has dealt them a bad hand.
So I think the Kurds will have more autonomy. And I think that decentralization is definitely in the cards everywhere in the Arab world, it’s one of the intermediate steps to more democratic citizen participation, you do it at the local level and then you build up, and the Syrians I think will also have a decentralized system.
Q: Does what’s happening in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world detract from the Arab Spring’s message of pluralism and democracy?
A: The events in Syria have terrified people all around the Arab world, and understandably so. People are saying—wait a minute, if democracy is going to bring me this, I don’t want it. That’s a perfectly natural, human response. It’s also slightly irrational. Because Syria is not about the Arab uprisings, it’s about the biggest proxy wars of modern times, it’s something of a different scale.
Syria is in a world of its own, there’s nothing like it, there’s never been anything like it in modern times, let alone in the Arab world. So it’s not fair to compare Syria to Tunisia and Egypt, though it’s natural for people to do so. Syria will be seen as the aberration and not the norm.