Brookings Experts on the Middle East’s “Arc of Crisis” from Beirut to Baghdad

Today, experts from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings examined the rising tensions and violence stemming from the Syrian civil war that are spilling into the broader region, from Beirut to Baghdad and beyond. Highlights from the three panelists’ opening remarks are below. Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for Foreign Policy, moderated the conversation and audience Q&A that followed. Full event audio is available on the event’s web page.

Until you start to see the dynamic on the ground, diplomacy is not going to be able to change or shift the actual trajectory of this conflict. Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center

When asked where the situation in Syria has gone in the last few months, Shaikh, who is based in Qatar and has visited with diplomats and other key players many times, answered that the situation in Syria cannot be managed, but must be resolved:

Over the last couple of years it’s gone from bad to worse. In the trajectory of where we are—in this space between the Mediterranean and the Gulf—is looking at potentially very difficult scenarios. The Syrian conflict has opened up a can of worms in this region. I was just in Lebanon … and I’ve never seen such a silent fear and insecurity as I felt there. …

With regards to Syria, what this tells us … the situation in Syria cannot be managed. Its effects cannot be managed—whether humanitarian, whether in terms of the human rights and other abuses, in terms of the killing, or in terms of the regional spillover—the situation in Syria has to be resolved. And in that respect, you need clear leadership. And the leadership, to a certain degree, has come from regional players. But I would say to you that’s not enough. This is where we have needed a much more active U.S. effort than the one that we’ve seen so far. …

We’re starting off a very fragile process which rests on a regime which doesn’t seem to want to talk, it may not even show up … and on the other side an opposition which has too narrow a base. I was told by one senior diplomat, the reason why the opposition did so well was because it was such a concentrated group. But that’s because it’s probably only representing a few hundred people at this point in time.

So, if that is the thrust of what we are hoping for, in order to be able to change the dynamics in the entire region, then I’m afraid we don’t have the right tools at our disposal right now.

Shaikh emphasized the importance of putting more pressure on the Assad regime:

There has to be a certain amount of pressure put on … the regime in particular, and that pressure just hasn’t been applied. Instead the regime has gone on this offensive in a number of areas including this barbaric practice of barrel-bombing places like Aleppo, and Daria, and others. … On the other side we have a still very disjointed, disunited effort between rebels and of course in-fighting between them. Until you start to see the dynamic on the ground, diplomacy is not going to be able to change or shift the actual trajectory of this conflict.

Asked whether the Geneva peace talks were even a good idea, Shaikh replied:

I said quite recently in a tweet and I stand by it, they’ve been ill-prepared, ill-conceived, and ill-timed. Now that they’ve started it, there is a process. And I guess the opposition has taken some heart, those who did come … and the regime has not really equipped itself that well.

Now, I would say that even with this process we have two narrow groups of constituencies. We have the regime and we have a part of the opposition. In of themselves, they don’t represent anywhere close to the majority of Syrians. And they certainly are not yet being able to encapsulate the views, the middle ground of what I think that majority wants … If the process is to go anywhere—and yes it’s very fragile and broadening it right now may not seem to be a very good idea to many, especially those who have tried to facilitate those discussions—in the medium term we are going to have to make sure that there are people who are getting involved who have much more influence, credibility, and presence on the ground who don’t necessarily come from either of those camps but who do want change in Syria and who do believe that the Assad-Makhlouf, the yoke of this regime, has to go away.

Shaikh spoke to bringing more Syrian communities into a dialogue process:  

… Syrians do have a collective national identity. And by and large, Syrians think like Syrians first. They have all these differences, but these are differences which they have learned to manage and to live with and to prosper from for many, many decades, many centuries in fact. And it’s that realization I think that we haven’t really built on.

When I talk about an intra-Syrian dialogue that brings in the middle ground, and interestingly brings in those who have stayed to one side, either out of fear or either hopelessness or because they feel that they cannot get involved because the right framework doesn’t exist, that’s precisely I think the job that’s ahead of us. In terms of trying to foster an intra-Syrian dialogue that is as inclusive as possible, that does bring in key constituencies and communities, the Alawi communities, the Christian community, the business elite, the urban bourgeois elite, will absolutely be needed if we are to stabilize Syria, and look at a more stable transition. The religious sheikhs, the tribal chiefs, especially in those important tribal areas in the north and the east, which are becoming to a certain degree safe havens for al Qaeda and linking up across the border with Iraq.

Those are the kinds of constituencies that we’ve got to be able to attract into a dialogue. And that, in my experience, is probably in the medium-term our best hope of trying to turn the tide.

Whether he’s thought it through this way or not, the president is following Sarah Palin’s advice on Syria. The Sarah Palin policy advice is, ‘Let Allah sort ’em out.’ Now, the president is a lot more nuanced in the way he says it … but the effect is exactly the same. We’re letting Allah sort it out. Michael Doran, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow

Doran, noting that he borrowed from Salman Shaikh, explained the alliance systems in the region:

Salman once said that in the region we’ve got two alliance systems: the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal is Iran, increasingly the Maliki government [in Iraq], Syria—Assad Syria—Hezbollah and sort of Hamas. And the vertical is the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and to a certain extent Turkey as well. And the two clash at Syria. And that increasingly is determining … the behavior of all the major actors across the board. So, I think we have to treat this whole area, this crescent from Beirut to Baghdad, as a whole. You have to have a policy toward the whole.

Any policy that you adopt is going to have contradictions in it, because the Iraqi arena is different from the Syria arena is different from the Lebanese. So you have to start with the big picture and then you have to manage the contradictions in the particular areas.

We are “tilting demonstrably toward Iran,” Doran added, explaining that:

Historically we have been the representative of the vertical powers. But since … the Iran nuke deal, and since the chemical weapons deal with Assad, we have titled toward Iran. Now I happen to actually think that’s strategy but I have to admit that the evidence is not entirely clear … But the effect regardless of intention, even if it’s just “ad hoc-ery” in each one of these individual arenas, the effect is that we’ve tilted toward Iran.

On the question about the Geneva peace talks, Doran also pointed to conditions on the ground:

I would answer your question about Geneva by saying that it is the substitution of process over policy. It is process completely disconnected from any policy that could affect the outcome on the ground. And the effect of that, of going for process only, has been to strengthen Assad, and the Russians, and the Iranians. And the same is true in Lebanon. In Lebanon we’re also tilting toward the Iranians now and toward Hezbollah.

Everybody in the region feels that. And to me that is the number one biggest mistake that we have made. Because it’s a zero sum game on the ground in Syria for everyone and we have decided either to sit on the fence with the effect of supporting Iran, or we have actually decided to support Iran and Assad. … 

The problem is … there’s a stalemate on the ground. Assad is barbaric. He’s not going to reform … there’s not going to be a responsive, more democratic system as long as he’s there. But we are unwilling to grab that problem by the nettles and do something about it.

Doran argued that one possibility in “trying to understand what the president is up to” is to look at Obama’s domestic goals:

Now, unfortunately this is bad foreign policy but it’s not bad domestic policy. Another possibility in terms of trying to understand what the president is up to is saying, he’s got one major goal: which is to get past 2014 without any problems in the Middle East. He also wants to make his Iran nuclear deal work. That’s the number one thing that he’s concerned about. So he doesn’t want a problem with Iran in Syria. So as long as there’s primarily a domestic concern and none of the problems that we’re seeing in the region become a domestic political problem for the president, then he can handle it.

But I think the number one thing we have to do is that we have to realize that we are sitting on the fence so we have demoralized our allies and we have given more and more confidence to Assad that he can wait us out and that he can win. Until we decide to come up with a policy that will actually change the balance on the ground, will actually change the calculation of Assad, we don’t have a chance.

Asked by O’Hanlon what are the fundamental stakes for the U.S. in Syria, Doran said:

For me the chemical weapons crisis in September should have been a wakeup call for the president. In other words, whether he’s thought it through this way or not, the president is following Sarah Palin’s advice on Syria. The Sarah Palin policy advice is, “Let Allah sort ’em out.” Now, the president is a lot more nuanced in the way he says it … but the effect is exactly the same. We’re letting Allah sort it out.

Now, that assumes that we actually don’t have vital interests in Syria … this conflict can go this way, it can go that way, we don’t care. Obviously that’s not true. And we can see it’s not true. Because in September all of a sudden the president said, oh wait, we do have vital interests in Syria. Then, they were all taken care of with the chemical weapons and we don’t have any more vital interests anymore. Now since the failure of Geneva, they’ve ramped up the messaging very, very noticeably to say, hey there’s a major al Qaeda threat in Syria. I’m actually suspicious of that by the way because I’m waiting for the next shoe to drop and I think the next shoe to drop is going to be, oh, there’s a major al Qaeda threat in Syria, we have to work with Iran to take care of it. …

What I hear is, hey we have a vital interest there. So sooner or later it is going to become something that we’re going to have to deal with and so we should be putting together the alliance now that can work with us to solve the problem so we don’t end up having to do it unilaterally.

What we have got going on the region today is a combination of sui generis problems in each of the countries coupled with overarching problems that link all of them and span all of them but aren’t limited to any of them. And I think that it’s a huge mistake to try to understand what is going on in the region without reference to both of those problems. Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow

This was the first of Pollack’s four points. He pointed to Iraq as an example of this, where “the problems of Iraq’s politics are structural, not personal.”

His second point concerned the “pronounced impact” of the spillover from the Syrian civil war:

The spillover from the Syrian civil war is very problematic. It is very problematic in Iraq. … It’s also having a very important effect everywhere else. It’s having a very important effect in Lebanon; we don’t talk enough about what’s going on in Lebanon, with the violence creeping back into Lebanon and the potential for renewed civil war there. Look at what’s going on in Turkey. Again, Turkey’s own crises are also innate to Turkey, about Turkish politics, they’re also to a certain extent wrapped up in the structure of Turkish politics and the personalities involved, but they’re also being heavily influenced by what is going on in Syria. …

Pollack’s third point had to do with the absence of the U.S. in the region compared to the period of its involvement in Iraq, particularly during Iraq’s civil war in 2005-07. Pollack noted that “Iraq is a far more important Arab country than Syria is and yet the spillover from Iraq did not have quite the same impact as the spillover from Syria” largely due to the U.S. presence there.

In 2005-2006, the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis were furious about Iraq. Furious at the Bush Administration for invading, creating a power vacuum, and allowing the civil war to occur. But their feeling was, you have 160,000 troops in the country, you are committing hundreds of billions of dollars, you need to clean up this mess and you will. And they felt quite good about actually leaving it up to us to clean up. And one of the things that was always striking about the Iraqi civil war was that you didn’t have more involvement from the Sunni states. The Iranians were in there all over the place in full force. But the Saudis, the other Gulf States, the Turks, the Jordanians provided a little bit of support , but it was actually quite striking how little they were providing.

And so much of that was because we were there. Not the case in Syria where they see the United States as entirely absent. And they believe that they are directly having to fight Iran and they can’t rely on the Americans to do it for them.

Pollack’s final point was that the two alliances that Doran described earlier “are waging war all across the region”:

And that is how they see it. When you talk to Saudis, the Saudis talk about what’s going on in the region. They talk Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian, Iranian-Saudi as if those were all synonyms for each other. They don’t make distinctions among them. They see this as a region-wide war. And they are pissed at us because they see exactly what Mike does [referencing Doran’s comments about the U.S. sitting on the fence, whose interpretation Pollack disagreed with somewhat].

This is part of that fear, that sense that we are not there to fight the Iranians on their behalf and so they have got to do it themselves. And it’s important to keep in mind that the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have never backed down on a fight with Iran. In fact, typically our problems have been that they are too aggressive with the Iranians. … The Saudis and the Gulf States are terrified of Iran. They see an Iran unconstrained by the United States. They feel the need to take it on directly. And as a result, we’re getting Saudi-Iranian, or Arab-Persian if you want to think about it in those terms, or as we tend to like to see it, Sunni-Shia, conflict all across the region stemming from this basic issue.

Before and during the audience Q&A, the conversation turned to what can be done in this arc of crisis, whether to supply lethal weaponry or enact a no-fly zone in Syria, what the Russians are doing, and more. Listen to the complete event from the audio on the event’s page

Get more research and commentary about the Middle East from the topic page and also the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.