Syria 101 — The Basics on the Superpower Flashpoint

A Petri Dish Incubating All the World’s Conflicts

Syrian refugees, Russia, US, flags
Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Middle East has been a seething cauldron of conflict since 1918. Twice in the 20th century, in 1967 and 1973, it almost became a flashpoint for nuclear war. The region has always been a chessboard where great powers play out their strategies.

In today’s Syria, it’s the US vs. Russia vs. Jihadists plus Saudi Arabia vs. Israel plus Turkey vs. the Kurds, not to mention Iran and Syria vs. the rebels. No wonder the country has been devastated, leaving behind an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to longtime Middle East journalist Charles Glass, who has traveled extensively in the region covering conflict after conflict, and once spent 62 days as a prisoner of Shi’a militants during the Lebanon war.

He explains how the Syrian economy is shattered: agriculture barely functions, the medical system is nonexistent, and education is spotty at best. The rebuilding effort will be long and costly, and it’s not clear how many of the five million refugees who have left the country will ever come back.

For those that have returned, says Glass, the situation is often bleak. In some areas of Aleppo, returnees have pitched tents in the rubble, just to avoid losing their property rights.

As for chemical weapons, Glass is unsure whether the recent missile attack by the US, France, and Great Britain was justified. Since the action was launched without waiting for an on-site report from weapons inspectors, it was “like having an execution before a trial,” Glass tells Schechtman.  

Another topic of concern is the current role of the 2,000 US troops in the area, now that ISIS is no longer the main objective. As Glass tells it, the US focus is now on containing Iran: US troops have become part of Washington’s long game against Iran, particularly since President Bashar al-Assad has grown increasingly dependent on Iranian troops.

Glass emphasizes that the solution to the ongoing disaster does not lie with the Syrian groups that started the civil war, but rather with the US and Russia, which control the money and weapons that alone can determine the outcome.

Charles Glass is the author of Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe (Verso March 22, 2016); The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II (Penguin Press, June 13, 2013); Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation (Penguin Press, February 22, 2011).


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Over half a million people have already died in the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year. The refugee crisis, involving almost 12 million, is one of the great humanitarian crises of our time. The original civil war has become a proxy war that has now drawn in Turkey, Russia, Iran, Israel, ISIS, and the United States. There’s no reason to assume that the war will not continue for many years to come. Like the Lebanon Civil War, which raged for 15 years, there’ll be no good or conclusive outcome. Here to talk about all of this and to bring us up to date, I’m joined by Charles Glass.
Charles is a broadcaster, journalist, and writer. He began his journalism career in 1973 as a reporter for ABC in Beirut. He covered the October Arab-Israeli war on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He’s covered the civil war in Lebanon. He was ABC’s Chief Middle East Correspondent, from 1983 to 1993, and he’s most recently been a freelance writer covering the Middle East, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean region. He’s written and published several books, his most recent is Syria Burning, and it is my pleasure to welcome Charles Glass back to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Charles, thanks so much for joining us.
Charles Glass: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that certainly seems to be the case today is, and Syria is certainly a part of it, but the whole region seems to be more dangerous, more volatile today than it has been in a long time. Talk about your perception of that, first of all.
Charles Glass: The Middle East has always been a region of conflict. Since the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, there have been many, many wars in the region, some of which nearly led to nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, including in 1967 and 1973, when we almost had the world destroyed. It is a place of chronic conflict that always seems to involve the great powers when it gets out of hand.
Jeff Schechtman: And as you look at it today, how do you see the situation in terms of historical context?
Charles Glass: I think that the big problems at the moment are the international conflict between the US and Russia over who will control the Middle East and its resources, and also between on the one side, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and on the other Iran, over who will dominate the region. That is most clearly manifested in Syria where there’s a proxy war going on with people, with the Russians and the Iranians arming the Syrian army, and the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Britain, and France helping the rebels against the regime. That war goes on and on, and it doesn’t seem that anyone is getting a grip and making an agreement to bring it to an end.
Jeff Schechtman: There doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon to bring it to an end. It has the potential to drag on for as long as the Lebanon civil war did.
Charles Glass: The Lebanon war ended when the international powers that had been involved in Lebanon decided that it had outlived its usefulness, and so they forced an agreement called the Taif Agreement, for the town in Saudi Arabia, where the Lebanese warlords were brought, and they had to sign this accord, which Lebanon has had to live with ever since. The warlords didn’t like it, but Lebanon, internally, has been at peace ever since. It’s had some Israeli invasions, but the militias in Lebanon, for the most part, have ceased to exist except for Hezbollah. Lebanon is actually quite a pleasant place to live at the moment.
Syria could reach that stage, I suspect, if the United States and Russia decided enough was enough and they were not going to supply arms to either side, and they were going to bring those two sides to the table and force some kind of agreement. Because the government, the Syrian government, has more or less won the war in all the populous areas of the country, it would involve the US accepting that Bashar al-Assad will stay as president for the foreseeable future, and Russia might then have to make other concessions.
Jeff Schechtman: Where does the war that seems to be going on inside the war, with respect to the Turks and the Kurds, where does that stand? How does that play into this?
Charles Glass: Turkey invaded the pocket of Afrin in northwest Syria in January, and expelled the Kurdish militia there, the PYG, and has been threatening to take the main Kurdish area in the northeast, where the US has troops, from the Kurds, which is also along the Turkish border because the Turks … They don’t want the Kurds to have any kind of autonomy in Syria or anywhere else, because it would set a bad example for them, because they have a very, very large Kurdish population that would like a federal system or autonomy, and some would even prefer independence from Turkey.
The Turks, I think the only reason they haven’t gone into the northeast is the fact that the US has troops there … I don’t think they want a conflict between two NATO powers. But meanwhile, Afrin, which had been a peaceful area throughout the war under an understanding between the Kurdish forces and the Syrian government that there wouldn’t be any fighting there, has now been completely devastated by the Turkish army and the Jihadist militias that it used as vanguards in many of its attacks on the Kurdish areas.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the way in which the population has been hollowed out. Given how many refugees have left the country, and what that bodes for the future of the country.
Charles Glass: Syrian economy is completely shattered. Oil production is at a low. Syria didn’t produce much oil for export, but it did produce almost enough for its own domestic consumption. Its agriculture has been devastated. The medical system has been ruined. Education has suffered. Rebuilding, if the war ever ends, the rebuilding will be long and costly. In the meantime, those probably more than five million Syrians who have left the country, some have shown signs of coming back and some are waiting to see how it all plays out. And I suspect many won’t come back until they’re sure that it’s safe to raise their families again.
Jeff Schechtman: Even within the seven years of the war, it does seem like every time it begins to feel like there might be an end in sight or that the energy has gone out of it, it kind of gets another wind, a second wind, or a third wind. Talk about that.
Charles Glass: That seems to be because the outside powers, who still have a vested interest in trying to reverse the trend of the war, have reasserted themselves. It looked for a time, Trump announced that he was going to pull out and that Syria … He was going to pull out the 2,000 troops to the northeast and that Syria was none of America’s business. It looks as if he’s changed his mind about that, which gives the green light to America’s allies, Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, to go on arming the Jihadi and other militias to continue to fight. Most of them now are concentrated in several zones. Most of them in the province of Idlib, where there are tens of thousands of militants still with great firepower. If the government wants to take that back, it will be a very bloody battle.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the physical devastation to the country.
Charles Glass: That varies from region to region. I was recently down in Suwayda, which is in the Druze Mountain in the south, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. That area has been relatively peaceful and the capital of the province, which is called Suwayda, is untouched by the war. Afrin was untouched by the war until the Turkish invasion in January. The coastal area where many Alawites live, the two ports of Latakia and Tartus, had suffered some shelling but not much damage. If you go further inland to major cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama, you see massive devastation. Particularly in Aleppo and Homs. More than half of Homs is now completely leveled and while many people in Homs have taken refuge in the coast and would like to come back, there’s really nothing for them to come back to until someone can help them to clear all that concrete and rebuild their houses.
Something similar is happening in eastern Aleppo, which had been held by the rebels for years, and the government took back in December of 2016. Some rebuilding is going on, and some people have moved even into the rubble and erected tents so that they don’t lose their property rights and when the houses are rebuilt, that they’ll be able to stay where they were before. There is a little bit of business going on in Aleppo, which was the commerce capital of Syria. More people are probably going back to Aleppo than to Homs. Hama, quite badly damaged.
Damascus, the main part of Damascus, the capital and the most popular city in the country, the major part of the city is slightly damaged. Not much harm done, but the suburbs where the rebels were, have been leveled. Muadamiyat, Darayya, Duma, these places where the rebels took over and then faced the onslaught of the government, including the Russian Air Force, those areas will have to be completely rebuilt and I suspect, given what happened, the government may not want all of those people to come back and may want to resettle them elsewhere.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the chemical weapons issue, the recent missile attacks by the United States, Britain, and France, and whether or not, 1) the attacks made any difference at all; and what we really know about the degree of these chemical weapons attacks.
Charles Glass: The chemical weapons issue has been raised several times during the war, but usually for political propaganda purposes. The United States, as you know, drew a red line around chemical weapons under President Obama, and then when chemical weapons were used in the suburbs of Damascus and eastern Ghouta, they say that Obama backed down and didn’t bomb when he should have. But in fact, Obama was calling for the Syrians to permit UN weapons inspectors from the OPCW, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, to go and inspect, and he agreed to that, and he agreed to the destruction of his chemical weapons stockpile. In a way, you could say that Obama achieved his objective without bombing.
In the case of the most recent alleged or real use, I don’t really know, of chemical weapons in Duma, I don’t know why the United States, Britain, and France did not wait for the chemical weapons inspectors to conduct their investigation and then decide what they were going to do about it. Instead, they bombed in advance. It’s a bit like having the execution before the trial. They acted, they bombed, they gave the Russians a week to evacuate areas that might be bombed so that Russians wouldn’t be killed by US airpower, which could really raise the stakes.
Has it changed much? Probably not. Both sides in the war have used chemical weapons to some degree. Each side blames the other in every instance. You have to remember that there’s a huge psychological warfare campaign, costing millions of dollars on both sides, for each side to blame the other for everything bad that happens in the country. It’s very hard to believe almost anything you hear.
Jeff Schechtman: The 2,000 US troops that are there, what are they accomplishing?
Charles Glass: Originally, they were there to help the Kurds and some of the Arab tribes in the northeast eliminate the ISIS, Islamic State, presence in that part of Syria, which they did. They took Raqqa, which was the ISIS capital in Syria, just as on the other side of the border and with the Kurds but also with the Baghdad government, they eliminated ISIS’s territorial base there. In theory, what they intended to do, they have done. Now, they’re staying and the policy is not clear, because originally, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the 2,000 troops would stay to help the Kurds and those few Arab tribes that are working with the Kurds, but more importantly, to keep Iran from enjoying its victory in Syria, and to contain, what they call contain, Iran. Although Iran isn’t in those areas. They won’t want any Iranians or Hezbollah to go into those areas. It’s part of a long game against Iran, not so much about Syria itself.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about where Iran is in this conflict, and where Israel is in it, in terms of that proxy war that’s going on there as well.
Charles Glass: Iran has been a strategic ally of Syria since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Hafez al-Assad, who was then president of Syria, decided to go with the Iranians because he, unlike the United States at the time, had a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein and what Saddam Hussein was doing in Iraq and Saddam’s occasional interference in Syria’s internal affairs, so he sided with the Iranians. He gave them diplomatic and political support during the war with Iraq, which lasted from 1982 to … 1989, and in that period, Hafez al-Assad became very unpopular with the rest of the Arab world, who were supporting Saddam Hussein, and also unpopular with the United States, which was supporting Saddam Hussein.
Later, he mended his fences with the US, but his son is now … has kept that strategic alliance, which the United States would like to break the back of. For seven years, they’ve been trying to break the back of it, and all they’ve been able to do, actually, is strengthen it because in 2011, before the war began, while Bashar al-Assad had this understanding with Iran, he wasn’t dependent on Iran. Now, because his own army has been very badly mauled in the war, he is relying on Hezbollah and Iran to stay in position. He’s more tightly bound to them than ever before.
Jeff Schechtman: What could transpire, what might transpire, that would lower the temperature, that might at least be a few first steps to bringing this to some kind of conclusion?
Charles Glass: It’s no longer an internal Syrian issue. If all the Syrian parties on both sides got together, they probably wouldn’t agree on much of anything, but they could get some talks going. The people who pay them, the people who supply them with weapons, have to decide that they’re going to tell the locals that the war is over and if they don’t accept an agreement that is dictated by the United States and Russia, that they won’t be getting any more money and any more weapons. That’s pretty much what did it in Lebanon. It would probably do the same in Syria.
Jeff Schechtman: What about Jihadist groups there? You mentioned, and we’ve certainly heard repeatedly that ISIS has been more or less wiped out there. What other Jihadist groups are still operating within Syria?
Charles Glass: ISIS is still operating in Syria. It has a small pocket in part of Damascus, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. It has some positions near Daraa, which is on the border with Jordan, where the revolution began in 2011. It has people in Idlib as well. It often fights against the other Jihadists. There are various groups, and probably several hundred Jihadist groups, all with different names, Jaysh al-Islam, Army of Islam, and so forth, and Jabhat al-Nusra was the biggest. It’s changed its name several times to try and make itself more acceptable to get more weapons from the west, and it occasionally fights against ISIS, but its ideology is identical.
There are personality problems between the two groups. I think that in the long term, the Turks, and the United States and the Russians will have to agree on some method of disarming them and getting them out of Syria. Failing that, then the Syrian Army with Russian airpower and possibly the help of Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon, will go into Idlib Province and we’ll see destruction like we saw in eastern Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, and in Homs.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the way in which this war is being covered, and how much coverage there is, what the coverage looks like in Europe versus what you understand it to be here in the US, and talk a little bit about the inside baseball aspect it is, if you will.
Charles Glass: The coverage has been episodic. At the beginning, the narrative was that Syria was part of the Arab Spring and that the demonstrations and the few rifle shots would overthrow the dictator of Syria, the way the dictator of Egypt and the dictator of Libya, and the dictator of Tunisia were all overthrown, but that didn’t work out. As the momentum of the war gathered pace, the people who did the best fighting against the government, who were the best armed because they were getting their weapons and their money from fundamentalist Sunni Muslim states, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were … came to dominate the entire revolution. And those people who thought of themselves as secular and democratic were pushed aside by them, and it became largely a war of Jihadis versus the army of the dictatorship.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about your own experience covering the war there.
Charles Glass: I go as often as I can. It’s not always easy to obtain a visa, but when I get a visa, then it’s very easy. I take a taxi from Beirut to Damascus, check into a hotel, and go and start talking to people. If I’m able to go to Aleppo, as I have many times, or to Homs or to Hama or to Suwayda, or different parts of the country, then I’ll go without getting myself killed. I have not crossed the lines into the rebel areas. 1) because it’s impossible from the government’s side to go through the checkpoints and get to the rebel areas, and 2) if I went in from Turkey with the rebels, I would, like many of my colleagues, risk being kidnapped by Jihadis and beheaded.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do other events in the Middle East right now impact what’s happening in Syria?
Charles Glass: Syria is part of a larger struggle that includes Yemen, where the Saudis and to some degree, the Iranians, are fighting a war that is devastating that once beautiful and peaceful country. There’s also the conflict in Iraq against ISIS, and their continuing simmering animosity between Sunnis and Shiites plays into that. In that struggle, the Saudis would like to represent all the Sunnis of the Arab world, and keep the Shia down, and Iran would like to represent all the Shia of the Arab world and keep the Sunnis out of power, at least in Syria, and in Yemen.
It’s a very vicious game on all sides, and the Arab world is suffering for it. At the same time that this is going on, of course, Israel is devastating the lives of people in Gaza. Gaza is, it’s often been said, the world’s largest open air prison, which is regularly bombed. Children … All suffering mental traumas from years of bombardment and confinement, because neither Egypt nor Israel will let these people go out to travel or import basic necessities, or export anything. Their lives are absolute hell, so the Arab world, which should be paying some attention to the suffering of these Palestinians in Gaza, is so busy tearing itself apart that it’s ignoring them completely.
Jeff Schechtman: Who is paying attention? Is there any attention being paid at the United Nations, in Europe? Anywhere?
Charles Glass: You could say that NGO is a thing. The United Nations, Unicef, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme. They’re all in Syria, they’re all in Yemen. They’re all trying to ameliorate the suffering of the Syrian populations that are dying and their health is suffering and so forth. However, the problem really isn’t humanitarian. The consequence is humanitarian, the problem is political.
Jeff Schechtman: Charles Glass, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Charles Glass: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do, by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (President of the Russian Federation / Wikimedia – CC BY 4.0), Middle East map (W123 / Wikimedia), and Syrian Presidents (Wikimedia).

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