A conversation with longtime Middle East correspondent Charles Glass.
We’ve all heard the admonishment that the best way to understand a place is to go there. Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist and broadcaster Charles Glass, takes that very seriously.
As a television reporter, he covered the civil war in Lebanon in 1973 and has since been on the scene for most major events in the Middle East, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean.
Talking to Jeff Schechtman from Italy, where we can hear the sound of church bells in the background, Glass explains the anti-US and anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey, and why the people there are more united behind President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than ever before, as a result of recent US actions.
Glass talks about the dramatic rise of Russian influence in the region and how the Saudis and Emiratis are suddenly listening to Putin. He touches on both the humanitarian and the political impact of the US pullback on the Kurds, how Iraq fits into the regional puzzle, and gives us a preview of growing conflicts in Lebanon.
Finally, he talks about his upcoming trip to Kashmir and why he thinks that land is still perhaps the ultimate tinderbox.
It’s a quick hopscotch around the most dangerous places on the planet, from a man who’s been to them all.
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Full Text Transcript:
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.
We’ve all heard the admonition given to reporters and pundits trying to understand the story, particularly ones in the far corners of the world, to go there. My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast Charles Glass has done exactly that. He has for many years and continues to report from all of the world’s hotspots, particularly in the Middle East. As such, he brings a unique awareness of current events, and it’s always my privilege to get his take on what’s going on. Charles is a broadcaster, journalist and writer.
|Jeff Schechtman:||He began his journalism career back in 1973 as a reporter for ABC in Beirut. He’s covered wars in Israel, Egypt and Syria, as well as the civil war in Lebanon. He was ABC’s Chief Middle East correspondent, and most recently has been a freelance writer covering the Middle East, the Balkans and Southeast Asia. He’s written and published several books including Syria Burning. It’s my pleasure to welcome Charles Glass back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast as he joins us today from Italy. Charles, thanks so much for being with us.|
|Charles Glass:||Thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Charles, you wrote an article back in July for Harper’s about the situation in Syria, which you entitled “Tell Me How This Ends.” It doesn’t seem that even then you could have anticipated how things would move in the direction they have today.|
|Charles Glass:||I expected Trump to pull the troops out of northeastern Iraq because he said some time ago that that was what he wanted to do, was just a matter of when and how, and he’s done it now in a rather interesting way. He appears to have ordered the special forces troops with the Kurds to dismantle their defenses, and to allow the Turkish army officers to come into their areas supposedly as a kind of liaison mission, but in fact a reconnaissance mission so that they could see everything that the Kurdish forces had before their invasion. So it was after the Kurds, trusting the US, dismantled their tunnels and defensive positions that Trump pulled the plug, pulled the troops out, and the Turks came in and smashed them.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Having been in the region in the past, having spent time there, having written about Syria, how do you think this is going to play out? How is this going to end?|
|Charles Glass:||It all depends on negotiations amongst Syria, Turkey and the US how things will play out, and it’s not clear yet what’s going to happen. Erdogan clearly doesn’t care about the United States sanctions. He believes that he and his economy will survive them. The move is very popular in Turkey. Even the people who are normally opposed to Erdogan are supporting this war, partly just out of anti-Kurdish sentiment, and partly out of pure opportunism because when people start wars, you don’t want to be seen as unpatriotic. A lot of Kurdish oppositions don’t want to be seen in that light so they support him. So the whole country’s rallying around Erdogan and this mission to basically to ethnically cleanse large sections of northeast Syria.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Where do the Russians fit into this equation?|
|Charles Glass:||The Russians have a dominant influence in Syria in the areas where the government is in control, which is the main population centers of the country. It is the force that saved Bashar al-Assad’s throne, so he has a lot of leeway. He’s also used his leverage in Syria to enhance his prestige and position in the Middle East as a whole. So now when no one used to listen to Russia, now they receive him in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. The Turks talk to them before they make any move. They checked on this operation with Putin. Erdogan’s just met with Putin in Sochi, and Putin doesn’t really mind if Erdogan disarms the Kurds because that was something that the Syrian army, had they gone in, and they are going into some of the areas, would probably like to do themselves.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Can we anticipate that any of this is going to have a broader destabilizing influence in the rest of the Middle East right now?|
|Charles Glass:||I think this will play out primarily in Syria. There isn’t any obvious impact in Lebanon or Israel. There is an impact already in Iraq because so many of the Kurdish refugees from Syria have fled into the northern part of Iraq, the Kurdish area of Iraq through what’s called the Kurdish Regional Government area. There are a lot of refugees that are living waiting to see if they can ever go home. So there is an impact, a humanitarian impact, political impact, probably not so great unless the Turkish Kurds in Syria – who are really the backbone of the Syrian Kurdish militia – use this setback as a way of attacking Turkish soldiers in an underground insurgency against their positions inside North East Syria, which would mean would lead to a long-term counterinsurgency war by the Turks in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad decides that he wants to participate in that too, which he might because he doesn’t want the Turks to occupy a large area of his country forever, then they’re going to be fighting a long, long war there.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Where and how does Iran fit into this jigsaw puzzle?|
|Charles Glass:||Iran backs Bashar al-Assad. Iran is backing the government in Baghdad, the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Iran is watching what’s happening, but they are not participating in any way on behalf of the Kurds in Northeast Syria. They don’t have a relationship with the Kurds of Northeast Syria. They have a relationship with some of the Kurds in Northern Iraq, but the PKK is not a concern of theirs, nor is the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There seems to be civil uprising going on in Lebanon right now. You talked about Lebanon a few moments ago. Give us a brief update on what’s at the core of these recent demonstrations.|
|Charles Glass:||Well, there’ve been public demonstrations against the introduction of a tax on WhatsApp calls, and the Lebanese public I think is so fed up with the corruption of their politicians that they know that some of those politicians own the cell phone networks in Lebanon, which by the way charge about the highest prices per call in the world. When people were avoiding paying those high costs by using WhatsApp for free, the politicians turned around and decided they would tax it so they get some of that money back. It was just blatant theft by the politicians. The Lebanese who still don’t have in most of Lebanon 24 hours of electricity, terrible rubbish collection, lots of pollution, a deteriorating educational system, a deteriorating healthcare system, all because of the corruption of politicians, and the highest per capita national debt in the world, the people are just fed up.|
|Charles Glass:||They’re in the streets protesting. How long they’ll carry on, and what concessions the government will make, it’s not clear. It looks like the government is going to drop the tax on the WhatsApp calls because that was just a step too far. But whether they’ll deal with these other structural problems, it’s just not clear. Whether the public will continue the way that people in Hong Kong have continued once some of their original demands were met continue to ask for more, it’s just, it’s not clear.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Does the situation in Lebanon have the potential to escalate to a more dangerous stage?|
|Charles Glass:||Any situation has a potential to escalate, but the only non-state armed group in Lebanon is Hezbbollah, which is part of the government, and unless Hezbollah decides to take on the Lebanese security forces, nothing’s going to happen, but Hezbollah is now part of Lebanese system, so I doubt that they will do that. The Lebanese themselves having had 15 years of civil war are unlikely to rearm, and take to the streets, and start at war all over again.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What do you see as the greatest danger in the region right now given the actions of the US, and what we can anticipate with respect to ongoing US policy under Trump?|
|Charles Glass:||Well, the US has shown itself to be an unreliable ally, which is something that has registered in the eyes of other people in the Middle East and which is why Turkey for example is buying air defense systems from Russia while the Saudis are considering buying weapons from Russia, and having a backup position because there’s always the possibility that the US will let them down the way President Trump has seriously not only let down but betrayed the Kurd.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In some of your writing recently, you’ve expressed concern about the situation in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Talk a little bit about that, and your plans to cover it.|
|Charles Glass:||I’m planning, if all goes well, to go to Pakistan into Pakistani Kashmir to see what’s happening there given what Prime Minister Modi of India has done in depriving the Kashmiris on the Indian side of their autonomy, and putting them under a lockdown, basically mass open air prison, to see what’s going to happen, and what the potential is for conflict between Pakistan and India, two nuclear powered nations.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||To what extent does the Kashmir situation really have the potential to ignite into a much larger problem as some have written about?|
|Charles Glass:||The Kashmiris basically have been under a very bad Indian system. They were promised a referendum at independence on where they wanted to be, whether part of India, Pakistan or independent. Part one third Kashmir is occupied by Pakistan, two thirds of Kashmir occupied by India, they’ve had wars in the past about it. Previous wars, however, were at times when neither country had nuclear weapons. If a war started over that, and over the egregious human rights violations by India in the part of Kashmir that they control, then it could spiral out of control. It would take serious international diplomacy and intervention by responsible actors, and I don’t think those backers exist at the moment to make sure that that doesn’t happen. The danger is always there. There’s some major incident that sparks a war along what’s called the line of control between the Indian side and the Pakistani side, the war could escalate, and if one side is losing it, it would probably be the Pakistani side that the nuclear option would become viable.|
|Charles Glass:||That’s something that everyone should be concerned about. So the other area of course is, the other area of potential serious conflict is in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the US because of President Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear agreement and the heightened hostilities there. There’s always the danger that those extra troops that President Trump has sent to Saudi Arabia will be deployed against Iran, and there’ll be an Iranian versus a US war in the Persian Gulf, which basically neither side could win, but it would certainly be very destructive.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Does the prospect of a new government in Israel have any potential impact on any of the Middle East issues we’ve been talking about?|
|Charles Glass:||It’s highly unlikely because all Israeli governments, whether Labor, Likud, or other parties always agree on the continuing colonization of the West Bank and the sequestration of the Gaza Strip. So the settlements program goes on, the confiscation of Palestinian land goes on, the arrest of Palestinian demonstrators goes on, and that doesn’t matter who is in charge. So those are the things that touch people in the region most directly, and no, they don’t change no matter who’s in charge.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Charles Glass, his most recent book is They Fought Alone. Charles, thank you so much for spending some time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.|
|Charles Glass:||Yeah, thank you. It’s always 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 liked 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.|
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