David Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, USA. He has had 16 books published, the most recent being Syria: A Modern History (Polity Books, 2019) and The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History (Oxford University Press, 2019). He talks to Ethnos.gr about the latest developments in and around Syria in light of the pandemic.
Just a few months ago, in an interview with Al-Monitor, Amr Moussa claimed that in two, three or five years maximum “you will not recognize the same Middle East or the same Arab world”. Do you see the Middle East changing?
The Middle East as a whole was undergoing profound change even before the Coronavirus pandemic occurred. The demographics were daunting, especially the youth bulge, where on average 60% of the populations in individual countries were below the age of 30. Typically, economic growth as measured in GDP was lower than annual population growth, a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future even if birth rates remain static or lowered. This creates a gap between mobilization and assimilation that was one of the primary causal factors in the so-called Arab spring that swept across the region beginning in 2010-2011. This gap is between the wants and needs of a rising and largely educated youth, who expect a certain level of jobs and income once they graduate from college--and therefore expecting opportunities to make a living and raise a family. But many have not and are not getting those jobs, or they are getting menial jobs that cannot pay the rent or support a family, i.e. they are not being assimilated into society. This "gap" generates frustration and disillusionment, and as they are for the most part not enfranchised into the political system in their respective countries with little to no ability to change politics peacefully through the ballot box, many took it upon themselves to rise up against the corrupt and failing state apparatuses across the Middle East. The repressive apparatus of the state fought back in many cases, allowing authoritarian systems to hang on to power for the time being.
What are the main drivers of change? Can the coronavirus pandemic affect change?
The overall socio-economic and political factors that caused the original protests and uprisings are still present and simmering. Add into this the inability of the state in many Middle East countries to deal with acute stresses such as the Coronavirus pandemic, lower oil prices, and the increasing deleterious effects of climate change, and I think you have an even more combustible mix moving forward that will periodically erupt from time to time over the next decade, perforce ushering in dramatic changes in the political and socio-economic landscape of the region.
Although this probably means there will be an uncomfortable level of instability in the region in the near future, especially for those populations having to deal with it up close and personal, we must remember that most of the countries in the Middle East are relatively young and are still going through the growing pains of national development. Just look at all of the convulsions that affected most of Europe throughout the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, before a semblance of stability and sustainable prosperity was achieved. It even took the United States well over a century, including a devastating civil war, to become a stable polity, and for the most part it was isolated from many of the challenges that befell other parts of the world.
The Middle East, on the other hand, has been a crossroads of civilization for millenia. While this has enriched the region in many ways, in the modern era it has led to covetous outside powers interfering in processes of national development, what with its strategic location as a transit area for trade, having the largest oil reserves in the world, and being the epicenter of three major religions. It was inevitable that the Middle East would be drawn into the maelstrom of international politics. All of this has stunted national growth in many ways and the development of national identities, especially considering the artificial nature in which many of these countries came into being following World War One.
Are there countries well positioned to lead the region into a new era? Which ones?
Because of the overall weakness of the state in terms of its repressive nature and/or its lack of legitimacy, many Middle Easterners, especially in the most ethnically and religiously diverse states such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, often retreat into their sub-national identities, be it defined by geography, ethnicity, class, or religion; of course, this is only exacerbated when the state fails and countries devolve into civil war. The countries that will eventually be most successful are those that are able to construct viable national identities, where the majority of the population freely buys into whatever new political and economic systems that may emerge on the other side of the current series of crises. Oftentimes, as in the United States following its own civil war or in Europe following two world wars, it takes a profound convulsion for a people and nation to develop a national identity and narrative of what it wants to be and look like moving forward. And these convulsions can, as one scholar put it, produce long term anti-fragility because of the historical memory that is created by the convulsion itself, i.e. the majority of people will compromise more in order to prevent that which led to such destruction in the recent past. If this anti-fragility is institutionalized through the establishment of democratic political systems and a certain level of economic opportunity and well-being, then long term stability is possible. If they do not, then there will simply be cycles of authoritarianism and unrest into the foreseeable future.
You’ve written extensively on Syria and the Assads. After nine years of war, is there a winner in Syria? The Assad regime seems to have survived but the situation still looks shaky (with Russians criticizing Assad, with Rami Makhlouf raising the stakes, with the Israelis hitting Iranian targets, with Turkish troops battling HTS fighters etc.).
In Syria, even though there are still pockets of resistance, most notably in the province of Idlib, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has already essentially won the civil war, aided by timely Russian assistance that began in September 2015. However, socio-economically, Syria is in terrible shape, primarily due to the destruction of the war itself accompanied by the international isolation of the Syrian government. But the Syrian economy is in even more desperate shape over the last six months due to the political and economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, on which the Syrian economy--especially during the war--depends so much, as well as currently the growing Coronavirus pandemic amid a public health system in Syria that is in tatters and thus severely ill-equipped to handle the situation.
Assad is definitely still in charge despite articles appearing in Russian publications expressing dissatisfaction with him as well as the internal bickering with his cousin, Rami Makhlouf. In fact, Rami's desperate attempts to maintain his financial empire and relevance in Syria is, in my opinion, more a sign of Assad consolidating his control and turning more toward Russia and away from Iran, his two main external allies in the civil war.
There really is no other alternative in Syria than Assad from the perspective of Moscow, but the Kremlin certainly seems to be exerting some pressure by expressing its frustration in order to get the Syrian leader to adopt certain policies the Russians have been trying to get him to implement in terms of the awarding of reconstruction contracts to Russian companies, making concessions on political reform and constitutional matters that might produce a final political settlement to the war, and reducing the footprint of Iran.
How do you see the situation unfolding for Bashar al Assad?
There are many challenges that lie ahead for Damascus, however. First, the intricate patronage network the Assad family carefully constructed over the past five decades has been shattered by the war. Assad and his supporters have to establish a new clientele network reflecting the many changes that occurred during the conflict. I think one of the problems the Syrian leadership has is that they do not necessarily recognize how far the Syrian population, even those who remained loyal during the war, has moved away from them, having been empowered by living without the state for almost a decade. They have developed their own political and economic micro systems at the municipal level, and, despite overall war weariness, their expectations for life moving forward are considerably different than what they were prior to the civil war. The Syrian government has to recognize this and make the necessary adjustments or else they may face a new round of uprisings soon enough. In addition to the material reconstruction of the country, which will require several hundred billion dollars amid still existing international sanctions, maybe even more important over the long run is the emotional reconstruction of the state.
One of my colleagues often says that when a war formally ends, the conflict really begins, i.e. the fracturing of society, avenging the blood spilt on all sides, the mental trauma of war, and the new sinecures of power of what has become a warlord economy, all have to be addressed in order to establish long term stability and societal harmony. This will require a lot of work, especially with reconciliation panels and the like in order to begin to bring people together through expressions of shared suffering. But first and foremost the Syrian government--Bashar al-Assad--must take the lead in doing something akin to what US President Abraham Lincoln did at the end of the American civil war in his remarkable second inauguration speech when he said, "with malice toward none and charity for all." It set the tone for healing following a brutal war. How you treat the defeated is vital to rebuilding the state, and Assad needs to find the strength to do this--and mean it.
Could the US change course in the Middle East under a new president after the coming elections?
The United States can certainly re-engage with the Middle East if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the next presidential election; however, a lot of damage has already been done to the US position in the region during the last two administrations. Remember, the Obama administration wanted to "pivot" toward East and Southeast Asia and away from potential quagmires in the Middle East. The Arab spring compelled Obama to reluctantly re-engage in the region, but with mixed results. The Trump administration's "America First" policies as well as his notable support for Israel and confrontational policy toward Iran has in many ways complicated US policies in the region. Taken against Russia's foreign policy resurgence in the Middle East, a number of countries in the area have begun to question the reliability of the US as an interested partner. If Trump wins re-election this will most likely continue, with the US only involving itself inconsistently and episodically as events warrant.
Is the Middle East still as relevant as it used to be? Does it affect the world order the way it used to?
The relatively low price of oil, even before the crash in prices that occurred due to the Coronavirus pandemic, has, indeed, reduced the importance of the Middle East in the global oil economy--and in the eyes of Washington. With new technologies, such as fracking, that have diversified sources of oil in addition to the fact that oil is really no longer seen as an exhaustible resource, the oil powers in the Middle East have lost some of their luster. But, oil is the region generates the most economic rent per barrel because it remains the cheapest to produce, so despite recent oil trends, the Middle East will continue to be geo-strategically relevant. And as long as it remains the central nodal point for three great religions, it will still fan the passions of millions of devoted followers, which can always further complicate an already complicated Middle East matrix.