by Patrick Lawrence
Middle East correspondent Narwani sees a new era emerging in Asia, while Trump, Pompeo and Bolton bluster.
In part one of my exchange with Sharmine Narwani, the Beirut-based correspondent dissected the just-ended Syrian conflict as one of the very few journalists to witness it at ground level the whole of its eight years. As many readers wrote in to remark, Narwani’s account was a revelatory lifting of the lid. In the concluding part of our conversation, she takes a broader look at the post–Syria Middle East. Her insights are again original and her perspectives again thought-provoking. In Narwani’s view, the Middle East is poised at last to leave behind its long era of foreign interventions and Western dominance. “The region will now be led from within,” Narwani says. Syria, she argues persuasively, now stands as a case in point.
Once again, I have edited the transcript solely to manage its length.
Staying with this question of narratives, you once wrote about “just one too many lookalike mass protest movements that turn violent,” mentioning Syria, Egypt, Libya, Ukraine, Tunisia. Can you talk about your surmise concerning these “lookalikes”? I think I know just what you’re getting at but hope you can elaborate.
The four narratives that were utilized in undermining the Syrian state’s legitimacy and setting the stage for regime-change were: 1) The dictator is killing his own people, 2) the protesters are peaceful, 3) the opposition is unarmed, and 4) this is a popular revolution.
All four played off the themes of the preceding Arab uprisings that unseated leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. They became the pillars of the West’s propaganda against Syria, which meant anyone critically questioning them would be marginalized. Even today, after we know about the tens of thousands of ISIS and al–Qaida terrorists operating in Syria, and the thousands of tons of weapons shipped to Islamist extremists by the CIA, the Pentagon, the British, French, Saudis, Turks, Qataris, Emiratis and Israelis, we still hear things like “Assad killed 500,000 civilians.” Those numbers are all civilians, and no dead militants? Did ISIS or al–Qaida or Ahrar al–Sham or Jaysh al–Islam not kill anyone — at all — in this conflict, then?
“Peaceful protesters?” Yes, but who shot at them? Government forces — or foreign-backed gunmen who knew that Syrians must die for the population to rebel?
Was this a “revolution?” This one is always fascinating to me. What “popular revolution” has command centers in Jordan and Turkey and receives instructions from at least seven foreign capitals? … Once you know the details of what happened in Syria these past eight years, you can pick apart the four narratives fairly easily.
When I talk about lookalike movements, I am speaking specifically of foreign-backed regime-change operations. These protests, no matter where they take place, all use similar symbols, language and stunts. There are organizations, many Western-funded, that train young people around the world — particularly in countries where the U.S. would like to gain more influence — on how to delegitimize a government and overthrow it….
When protests do not lead to unseating a leader, however, the big guns come in and we see unidentified gunmen shooting into crowds of civilians. We found out about this in Ukraine because of a leaked phone call between the Estonian and EU foreign ministers. We saw this in Syria right at the beginning, too, in Daraa. Daraa residents reported “foreigners” who suddenly started appearing in the city before all the shooting started. … There are so many famous photos from Syria splashed across our newspapers, but I can assure you that most of these have long tales of deception behind them.
You made an especially good call — daring, too — in late 2013. You predicted the formation of a “security arc” from the Levant to the Persian Gulf — from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. And now there has been a meeting in Damascus of top military officials from three of these countries, leaving out Lebanon for some reason. The topic is precisely what you foresaw: how to combat terrorism.
Please talk about this, if you would. You suggested three objectives: territorial integrity, military and security cooperation, and a common worldview. Where is this project now and where’s it going?
It’s difficult to make predictions in this region because events, alliances and players change all the time. I decided to look at the long view of what was taking place in the region: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran were targets of the Sunni extremism that was being funded by the West and its regional allies. A main goal was to cripple Iran’s growing influence in the region, but also to dismantle the “resistance axis” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. In amassing these jihadist armies, Sunni monarchs and Western leaders miscalculated horribly. Instead of destroying Syria, isolating Iran, and re-establishing hegemony over Lebanon and Iraq, the terrorism onslaught galvanized these four very different states into prioritizing security above all else. The battle against NATO–trained and GCC–funded extremists became an existential moment for them, and they would have no other choice but to work with each other, pool resources, create a central command, coordinate military operations, share intelligence.
I believed the four states would weather the terror tsunami also because they had secured unusual great-power cover from Russia and China at the UN Security Council. These two powers were very vested in the outcome of the Syrian conflict, for different reasons, and had the West understood this at the outset, maybe the Syrian crisis would not have been pushed so far.
It may have sounded crazy back in 2013, but I could easily see Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon becoming an anchor of stability in this region. … Today, I see the “security arc” becoming a reality, though there are no declarations from their capitals. Certainly, the recent unprecedented meeting of the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi defense ministers to overtly coordinate against terrorism was a sign, but all four countries have already demonstrated their commitment to this vision in countless military and intelligence operations over the past few years. Most important, these four states have discovered they can handle terrorism on their own, from within the region.
Drawing closer in, what do you mean by a common worldview?
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah already shared an anti-imperialist, anti–Zionist view of the world that valued nonaligned, independent positions, rejected a Western-dominated liberal world order, and prioritized development and self-sufficiency. Iraq and Lebanon tended to be more Western-centric, although significant segments of their populations were aligned with the resistance axis. I think what has emerged on the back of the Syrian conflict is a major, global, balance-of-power shift that will force these two states to reassess their political orientation and draw closer to their direct neighbors, who really have been the only ones they could reliably count on.
As [neoliberal] globalism recedes, the world will become economically more regionalized, and multipolarity will redefine global institutions. You can already see the rebalancing of U.S. influence in the region in the Middle East’s rush to deal with Russia and China — even by very close U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. So a new worldview is very much emerging in this region — one that favors an Eastern outlook, regional cooperation and rising new centers of power.
We’ve now tipped into a prominent theme in your writing: an end to Western intervention. Middle Eastern solutions to Middle Eastern problems. In effect, you’re looking ahead to a post-imperial Middle East.
It’s a large thought. For the first time in — how long? — you say decades, I would say centuries, the region’s direction and destiny are to be led from within. That’s to say not by foreign powers but by Middle Eastern states, non-state social sectors, political parties, etc. Where are we with this? One must take care to avoid angélisme. Do you know this word? A favorite of mine, given how much there is around, meaning naïve extremes of idealism.
Thank you for adding to my vocabulary — no, I didn’t know the word. I do sometimes get accused of idealism in my analysis — projecting onto the world those things I desire. That’s a fair opinion. I think we can determine if I have done that by examining my predictions in the past decade. Many of these have come to pass, or are in progress. A British ambassador in the region, as he was leaving his post, told me: “What you were saying two years ago sounded ridiculous, but now we are all talking the same language.” It was the nicest compliment ever — because he wasn’t exactly onside, you know?
While the Western powers can no longer invade and occupy countries — they’re broke and war isn’t popular — I believe they will continue to try to intervene in this region because their irregular warfare methods are cheaper and less detectable. That’s not going to work with their main adversaries, though, because these states now know the game and have cover from the Russians and Chinese — who also know the game. The legacy of U.S. interventionism is that it has left in its wake some very smart and efficient adversaries.
I always say “efficiency” is the most important word that defines the post–American era in the Mideast. The Iranians, Syrians, Hezbollah defeated the combined efforts of NATO and the GCC — no mean feat. They can make their own missiles, develop their own centrifuges, produce pesticides, chemo drugs, drought-resistant wheat and Coca–Cola. That’s what I mean when I say the region will now be led from within. We have the brainpower, will and efficiency here now and are outsmarting the old oppressors in leaps and bounds.
At a certain point in your work you begin to use “we,” as against “they,” meaning Westerners, as you just did. So we’re into the question of identity, or identities. It seems quite important to you. One understands entirely, but again it also seems important to tread carefully. Don’t we want to push past the “we-they,” “self and other” discourses characteristic of the Western-dominated centuries — the Orientalist centuries, we might say?
I don’t think “we” and “they” amount to absolute identities. … I am both Eastern and Western, and I derive great strength from this. It gives me a broad perspective that I know others in my field lack. I am also not at all ideological — I prefer to cherry-pick ideas that make sense to me. So I have no inherent hatred of “the Other.”
If I use the word “West” to suggest an enemy, you can be sure I mean a minority political class that manufactures consent under false pretenses to execute acts of aggression. I can’t use any other word. This is a Western thing, specifically, born of centuries of Western colonialism, imperialism, hegemony and its accompanying arrogances. If anything, I’m being historically accurate.
I’ve said often that parity between West and non–West is an inevitable feature of our century. You seem to agree. You’ve written about the transformation of the global order by the non–West — the same thought in different language, if I understand you correctly. Can you expand on this?
Empires rise and fall. So do the power and economies of states and regions. … And now the world’s political and economic gravity is shifting. I often think about how this cycle never changes, and yet the powerful never learn this. When a country’s fortunes rise, it seems to take just a few generations for it to become fat, lazy, arrogant and lose its competitive edge. We see that on a micro-level with wealth and families all the time. Nobody learns, though.
East is not better than West in this regard. It just happens to be Asia’s time right now. All the ingredients for massive growth and transformation exist only in Asia today: money, vision, hunger, clout, essential alliances — and huge, underserved populations who lack critical infrastructure and networks. Think jobs, jobs, jobs. Economy has always driven political power, so we will also see a Western rush in Asia’s direction. The Europeans are quietly disregarding U.S. diktats on investing in China’s [Belt and Road] vision and will eventually do so with Russia as well. …
Historically, declining hegemons start to act like large dinosaurs — slow-moving, small-brained, unable to change their trajectories because of too much momentum and too little vision. You know, Trump was elected on a platform that promoted upgraded relations and more business with Russia and China. But the permanent state could not fathom or allow this: Russia and China had already been framed as America’s primary enemies. That’s a lack of vision. That’s a dead-end trajectory that will speed up American decline.
Where do you locate the center of gravity on this question — in the Middle East? In the Sino–Russian relationship? China, Russia, Iran, India, maybe?
There’s no question the Sino–Russian relationship is the transformative one ushering in this new era. The West has always sought, as a key foreign policy objective, to keep these two behemoths from forming a cooperative relationship. I recall watching Obama’s 2014 trip to the Far East with horrified fascination. The U.S. president was literally flipping off China during visits to Japan, Philippines, South Korea — challenging China’s geopolitical influence and territorial claims in its own neighborhood — all while, during the same trip, blasting the Russians with sanctions threats. I mean, really? What net result did he expect from that smooth move?
This was about a year before Iran agreed to a nuclear deal with the U.S. and other Security Council permanent members, so Obama was also ratcheting up threats and pushing levers against Iran. At the same time, Iran, Russia and China had been “discovering” each other over the Syrian conflict. The U.S. really helped these three Eurasian countries find common cause amidst a hailstorm of American threats and bluster.
What Iran, Russia and China also discovered during this process is that they share critical similarities: These are three states that believe in realpolitik despite their differing ideologies, influences and histories. They all act in their own self-interest, believe that cleaving to international law benefits them, prefer soft power over hard, agree that international institutions and networks need a fundamental overhaul, and believe that U.S. behaviors constitute a grave danger to global peace and stability. … They’re looking to make economies grow, secure their neighborhoods and maintain domestic stability—within a multipolar framework. …
In short, the main center of gravity in this global transformation — in my view — is Iran, Russia, China. There are, of course, other countries that impact this in Asia, specifically the Koreas and India/Pakistan. Resolving those two conflicts will more seamlessly pave the way to a prosperous Asian century. Also, watch for a fundamental pivot in German–Russian relations. This event will be what ultimately ties Europe’s fortune to Asia’s rise.
I have to add that we also have to reckon with the West’s resistance to its loss of dominance, its relative loss of influence. It’ll be very formidable, messy and prolonged, don’t you think? The decades ahead seem to hold a ferocious fight.
Yes, nobody is expecting a “surrender” of any sort. The old hegemons will go down fighting, and that’s a real danger to us all. They have an opportunity here to recognize the natural order of things, the changes that are inevitable — then adapt and participate meaningfully with the new economies and political centers. But that would require some common sense and foresight, and I don’t see that in Washington, London or Paris today, unfortunately. If anything, they’re picking more fights — Venezuela, Ukraine, Iran — and clinging to old constructs like NATO that thrive on conflict.
There’s a very real possibility that we will see some catastrophic wars break out. As horrible as this sounds, since 2013 I have found myself sometimes wondering if a full-on war in the Middle East wouldn’t be a good thing, because I believe it would be over very quickly. The drawn-out bloodletting of the last eight years [in Syria] seems to me to be the worst possible scenario — one that, I believe, really suits the old powers. Oddly enough, they don’t yet seem to recognize that the bloodletting goes both ways, and what Americans have hemorrhaged in money, credibility and influence will never be regained.
It’s as if Washington is doing all it can to encourage alliances and cooperation among non–Western nations. The American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, and then the re-imposition of sanctions — on two occasions now — are two good examples among many. How can one explain miscalculations of this magnitude?
I honestly don’t know how to answer this. U.S. actions defy logic. Every time the U.S. makes a move in this region, it shoots itself in the foot. For instance, Trump recently recognized Israel’s sovereignty over Golan in complete defiance of global opinion and international law. He thought he was boosting an ally, Netanyahu, before an Israeli election and showing the world who’s boss. But you know what else he did? Trump boosted regional players who fiercely oppose Syrian–Israeli negotiations and any compromise with Israel. There will be military repercussions for Israel because of this. And now every Arab leader will hightail it to Moscow because the U.S. is no longer viewed as an honest, reliable broker. Very stupid move in terms of Washington’s interests. Excellent long-term benefits for its foes.
In all the years I have covered the Mideast, I have never seen U.S. adversaries this confident. While they remain very concerned about the potential for further U.S. military adventurism, they also understand that the U.S. has never been more isolated. Washington has managed to push the Europeans, Russians and Chinese into Iran’s corner over the nuclear deal. Imagine that.
The trans–Atlantic rift is getting very serious, as you’ve already suggested. How far do you think this might go? Do you see ahead of us an historic realignment in “the Atlantic world,” with — as you’ve suggested — Germany in the lead?
We’re not looking just at a trans–Atlantic rift. We’re also witnessing trans–European rifts, as populations and governments question unsuccessful or mediocre alliances in a fast-changing world. I was looking through a publicly available U.S. intelligence report some years ago, one of those five-year, trend-projection things. Two of its global trend projections interested me most: poor governance and the breaking up of states into more autonomous entities. We are watching those predictions play out throughout Europe, most still at relatively nascent stages.
You can read this interesting interview (full) at Salon, with provided link.
NOTE: This article first appeared at Salon.