Ziad Majed teaches Middle East studies and international affairs at the American University of Paris. He wrote his DEA on Syria, and his Ph.D. dissertation on the Lebanese political system. Two years ago, he published a book titled Syrie, La Révolution Orpheline, or “Syria, The Orphaned Revolution.” Majed was active in Lebanese politics as a co-founder, then vice president, of the Democratic Left Movement during the first years of the century, before moving to Paris in 2006.
Michael Young: We appear to have reached a turning point in Syria, with the siege of the eastern part of the city of Aleppo. If it falls to the Assad regime and its allies, they will have control over most major cities between Damascus and the Turkish border. How important a victory will this be?
ZM: It will definitely be an important victory, symbolically but also strategically. I think the Russians’ plan since their direct intervention, but even before, was to allow Assad to control the Daraa-Damascus-Homs-Hama axis and then try to reach Aleppo and of course the Mediterranean coast. In that sense they could say that he controlled most of the cities and that what remained of Syria was either controlled by the Islamic State in the east, by Kurdish militias in the north, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [formerly Jabhat al-Nusra] and its allies in Idlib. That way they could pretend that there was no serious military opposition to Assad anymore. The opposition today is isolated in areas that are besieged, whether in Homs, northern Hama, the Ghouta near Damascus, or in the governorate of Daraa, but without any territorial continuity between those areas. The only region that is larger is Idlib, and the Assad regime and its allies can justify bombing it by saying the region is controlled by a “terrorist organization.”
There is, however, a new parameter which is the Turkish intervention in the north. This may allow the Free Syrian Army to enlarge a zone of control around the Euphrates River.
So yes, taking the eastern half of Aleppo will be important, but at the same time it won’t mean that the regime will win and the conflict will end, because only 25–28 percent of Syria is under its control. There will always be possibilities to confront the regime, which will appear more and more dependent on direct foreign occupation and not only just on foreign support. Looking today at the foreign forces fighting for the regime in Syria, you see Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Iraqi Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, the Abu Fadhl al-Abbas brigade, the Asaeb Ahl al-Haq militia, the Afghan Hazaras’ Liwa Fatimiyun, Iranian officers, and the Russian Air Force. This is turning more and more into a foreign occupation. So the conflict will continue, maybe with a new balance of power, but it will not end.
MY: If the opposition is pushed increasingly into rural areas isolated from one another, it will be much more difficult for it to prevail. Can one contemplate a military solution in this new context?
ZM: It’s true that it will become more difficult for the opposition to claim to represent a serious alternative on the ground to Assad and the Islamic State. But at the same time, no one can contemplate Assad’s remaining in power without foreign occupation. And as long as you have this foreign occupation, with the confessional or sectarian dimension that it brings, it will feed into Sunni anger, helping radical Islamist groups on the other side. So we will have a new form of conflict, and I am not sure it will become a low-intensity conflict; it will remain intense and violent. But it’s true that it may become more rural, in increasingly isolated areas.
However, a major unknown is how the Turkish operation will develop and what will be the role of the Free Syrian Army in areas that are becoming de-facto Turkish-protected zones. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to the Islamic State and who’s going to take Raqqa for instance. That might become an alternative for the opposition, if the Turks push towards Raqqa.
MY: So is it no longer realistic to expect that Bashar al-Assad will leave office? And will this reality not find its way into diplomacy over Syria?
ZM: If they only take into consideration the current balance on the ground, yes, and that’s what the Russians wanted from the beginning—to say that there is no more justification for asking Assad to leave. But at the same time, there can be no solution in Syria with Assad in place. Imagining that Assad could, after all this, control 100 percent of Syria and impose once again “stability” by force is, for me, an illusion. He doesn’t have the human resources, unless he relies increasingly on foreign occupation, which will create, as we said, new conflicts later. The Assad state has collapsed and will need years to rebuild. Assad may stay for some time. But if we want a solution to end the conflict, then he cannot be part of it.
MY: Do you feel that, at some point, Iran and Russia will go in different directions over Syria?
ZM: I think it was wishful thinking by some regional actors, or even some Western states, to imagine that Moscow and Teheran from the beginning had divergent interests in Syria and could not remain allies. If it is true that they have different approaches, and they support the regime for different reasons, that will only appear in the long run. But for now I don’t think so.
MY: You’re very familiar with Syrian opposition efforts. What is the mood in the opposition with regard to the international community? Whom do they blame for the situation in which they find themselves?
ZM: If we’re talking about the opposition represented in the National Coalition and the High Negotiating Committee, I think most are displeased with the United States, which never stuck to its “red lines” on chemical weapons, and has never been firm and consistent in its Syria policy. The opposition considers that the lack of American support led to the current situation. If you continue threatening while doing nothing, there is no credibility in your threats. Meanwhile, Russia gained time through negotiations while modifying the balance on the ground.
Some in the opposition are also anxious about what Turkey is negotiating with Russia. They wonder whether there was a quid pro quo where Turkey agreed to sacrifice Aleppo in return for Russia’s accepting Turkish progress in some areas of Syria to hit the Kurds and the Islamic State. In these areas the Free Syrian Army would fight only the Kurds and the Islamic State but never the regime.
As for the intellectuals, while many regard America as being as responsible as Russia for the Syrian tragedy, they lament that the United Nations and the international community itself is paralyzed. To them, Syria is a mirror of the fact that the international system is to be questioned after its disastrous failures in Syria.
MY: Let’s speak of the regional order. Do you feel we’re at a fundamentally new moment in terms of the United States’ role in the Middle East? Or do you feel that Barack Obama’s policy of disengagement was just an interregnum?
ZM: I think there is something very new, and I’m not sure it will change now that the election is over. Bush was extremely interventionist in the region. Some consider that the Iraqi disaster partly resulted from that. And then Obama came in with a contrary policy. He withdrew from the region and the withdrawal also led to a disaster. So, many on the American side would say: If we intervene, you blame us and if we withdraw you blame us.
I believe this is a false formula, however, because, when it came to Syria, no one asked Obama to send the U.S. military to occupy the country. From the beginning it was about imposing a no-fly zone. Such a zone, even before the regime started using its air force, was for many Syrians the best way to encourage army units to desert, because they would not have been threatened by aerial bombing.
Second, the opposition in late 2011 and into 2012 (when the regime started using its air force) was still closer to a democratic movement, before the rise of Islamist groups and long before the Islamic State. There was no laboratory of freedom possible in liberated zones when they were being bombed by regime aircraft. If they had allowed these areas to be managed by the opposition to show that it was capable of governing, and had developed the Free Syrian Army in those areas, we would have been in a completely different situation today.
The same goes for anti-aircraft missiles. Allowing these could have neutralized part of the regime’s air force. So I think there was another form of intervention possible, one that would have required negotiating in a much more consistent manner with the Russians, showing them that while there was a need for a political solution, the opposition remained strong on the ground and would not accept a regime victory or a Russian victory. And by the way, this could have largely decreased the number of civilian victims and the number of refugees.
That did not happen. It may be tied to the mood among Americans. They’re tired of the Middle East. Economically, they don’t want to pay more money for overseas military efforts. Obama once claimed that the conflicts in the region, such as that between Sunnis and Shia, had existed for centuries. There was a form of cultural determinism in this that was nonsensical. We know the conflict in Syria is in every way a contemporary conflict, without deep roots in history.
So I am not sure that any president, after what happened in Syria, would return to the Bush method of interventionism. This probably represents a crucial moment when it comes to the global order and to the American position in the Middle East. The fact that a country like Turkey is now turning more towards Russia is also a message the Turks are sending, that they trust America less and are looking for other partners. Many Arab countries might feel the same way. I don’t know whether this will last long, or whether there will be some review of the American approach, but I don’t think we’ll return to many of the traits of the pre-Obama era.
MY: Speaking of the Arabs, in the past five years we’ve seen a breakdown of the Arab state order. Who would you describe as the biggest loser of the Syrian conflict among the Arab states?
ZM: I think Saudi Arabia is among the big losers. They thought that they could be a decisive actor, whether in the Syrian conflict or in Yemen, and they appear more and more isolated on the Arab scene. Even President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, whom they helped come to power and assisted economically, is taking his distance from the Saudis on Syria. Cairo recently received Syrian intelligence official Ali Mamlouk, and there were even talks about inviting Bashar al-Assad. So I think that Saudi Arabia appears less influential in the Arab League, with many countries being clear about their disagreement with the Saudis over Syria—including Algeria, Egypt, and of course Iraq—but also on Yemen and other places. Most of the Saudi weapons to and support for the Syrian opposition passed through Jordan. But the Jordanian border is now closed, it seems, following coordination between Amman and Washington, and this also is not allowing the Saudis to remain as influential as they once were.
MY: The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has become the elephant in the living room in the Middle East, affecting most conflicts. Where do you see this rivalry going? Do you believe that Iran is attempting to impose regional hegemony?
ZM: Since 2011 we have been living a founding moment in the region. If we look back at modern Middle Eastern history, there have been five founding moments since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: The Sykes-Picot agreement a century ago, followed by the Balfour Declaration, and then the series of postwar conferences that defined the region. The second moment was 1947–1948, with the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel and all the dynamics that ensued from that, including military coups in many Arab countries. The third moment was October 1973, because this was the last state-to-state war between the Arabs and Israel, leading to Egypt’s withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise of Saudi Arabia following the oil shock, and also the rise of political Islam. The fourth moment was 1979, with the Iranian Revolution and the export of this revolution through militant Shiism. And at the same time you had the jihad in Afghanistan, allowing another actor, the jihadis, to emerge as a significant force.
The Arab uprisings in 2011 were the fifth moment, when Arab societies started to show aspirations for change. The region—due to counterrevolutions, but also weaknesses within Arab societies, sectarian and other cleavages, and foreign interventions—faced new uncertainty, with an important demographic change. Some 6 million Syrians, most of them Sunnis, are now outside Syria. In Iraq, there are over 3 million internally displaced refugees, mainly for sectarian reasons.
And if we view the rise of Iran in this context, then yes I think Iran is pursuing a certain hegemony—stretching from Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. That’s why Syria is important because it has a Sunni majority at the center of a Shia axis, if you want to call it that. Saudi Arabia has been incapable of defining a strategy to block the Iranians or defeat them. Its allies are not as strong as Iran’s allies. And, since the nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis cannot count as much on American support. Plus the Saudis badly managed Yemen. They intervened militarily thinking that they could resolve the situation there. Now they’re trapped and far from winning. And Iran is probably backing their foes.
MY: But there is still a Sunni majority in the region.
ZM: Yes, absolutely. But on the Arab Sunni side, states are divided and incapable of formulating a unified policy. Some pro-Iranians make the comparison with Israel, saying it was capable of defeating tens of millions of Arabs without being a demographic majority, so why can’t we do the same? And the Iranian policy has evolved in the region. It was more pragmatic before. They had many Sunni allies in the 1990s and until the war in Iraq, but moved into a much clearer sectarian direction in Iraq and then Syria, even in terms of their lexicon, vocabulary, and metaphors. Now it’s mainly about Shiism and its “defense.” They’re not hiding it anymore, whereas before they were keen about not showing it in order to appeal to the Sunni street. And if we look at Hezbollah in Lebanon, it’s almost the same.
MY: Is there any possibility for an end to all this?
ZM: I am afraid this will not end soon, and that’s the whole issue. It will lead to more and more Arab Sunni frustration. The Islamic State in Iraq was one illustration of this frustration, as many Sunni notables of the old regime, and in some cases Baathist officers, joined the Islamic State because it was about being marginalized as Arab Sunnis by the pro-Iranian Shia and by the Kurds. We see it in Syria with more and more radicalization in response to the Iranian, Lebanese, and Iraqi Shia invasion of Syria. So even if the Iranians win now, in the long term this sectarian conflict will not end without serious political solutions in Syria and Iraq, and Yemen, and without a return of Iran to its own borders. Iran will definitely remain influential, it is a strong actor in the region, but this hegemonic tendency will only lead to more conflicts.
MY: If I can bring you down to the more modest level of Lebanon. Michel Aoun has just been elected president, after he was endorsed by his rival, the Sunni leader Saad Hariri. How do you interpret this development?
ZM: First, I think that there is a problem that many Lebanese don’t want to see, namely the decline of the Lebanese consociational system itself. There has been one crisis after another—many messages sent out by the system that it cannot function anymore with the current mentality of the political elites. The system was created for elites that were not militant, they were notables of the pre-1975 civil war era who were lawyers, businessmen, bankers, landowners, and so on, at a time when a culture of compromise and consensus meant that confrontation tended to be avoided.
The characteristics of this elite changed after the war. Plus the old system did not have strong hegemony by political actors within each community. Before the war you had alliances bringing together Christians, Sunnis, Shia, and Druze, confronting another alliance with a similar mixture of sects. The evolution towards the monopolization of representation in each community led to political crises, because you suddenly had alliances in which one community was not represented in each bloc—and we saw this with the March 8-March 14 dichotomy after 2005. The major Sunni representatives were absent from the first alignment, and the major Shia representatives were absent from the second.
The decline of consociationalism was also reflected in recurring crises over the presidency. At each presidential election since 1988 there has been some sort of obstacle hindering the process. And this might continue after the end of Aoun’s term, because there is a malaise in the system itself, and because the Christian-Moslem power-sharing arrangement that was written into the constitution, or at least the 1943 National Pact, began disappearing as the Sunni-Shia rivalry effectively replaced it, changing the nature of Lebanon’s political contract
Before Aoun was elected it was clear that Hezbollah didn’t want a president. The vacuum allowed the party to impose its foreign policy without a president there able to ask questions, or having to defend Hezbollah’s policies before the Americans, Saudis, French, and others. Now maybe because of the poor economic and financial situation and due to the many threats to Lebanon’s internal stability, they have accepted Aoun, an ally, whom they trust in a way. So there is a kind of arrangement to avoid more decline in, or even the collapse of, the state. But I don’t think that there will be a radical change in the situation because it’s still the same political elite which is still allied with the same outside actors
MY: There has been one interpretation of Aoun’s election that it was a victory of a candidate supported by Iran over a candidate supported by Syria, namely the parliamentarian Sleiman Franjieh. Do you see that there were differences between Syria and Iran over this election?
ZM: I always thought that there was a difference between Syria and Iran in Lebanon, even if Syria was the direct actor on the Lebanese scene for many decades. But after 2005, when the Syrian regime was forced to withdraw from the country, it never had significant support. Syria’s allies are individuals within communities, but unlike Iran with the Shia not an entire community. So the Iranians in that sense are stronger than the Syrians in Lebanon, through Hezbollah. And if now they saw that it was better to bring in a president, it showed that they didn’t take into consideration the Syrian regime’s first choices for the presidency or its desire not to allow a new government to be formed. So yes, in that sense it could be an Iranian victory.
MY: A bit about you before we conclude. As a Lebanese Shia who opposes Hezbollah, what future is there for someone like you in a country where the party is such a dominant actor? Is exile the only option?
ZM: First allow me to say that I never portrayed myself as a Shia. Even when I was active with March 14, until 2007, I always preferred not to be referred to as a “Shia of March 14.” Not only because I am secular and politically on the left, but also because within the confessional prisms of most actors, I don’t like the label of “good Shia” versus “bad Shia.” These kinds of traps don’t help. Definitely there is a problem in the Shia community, more than any other community today, when it comes to diversity. Until the rise of Hezbollah, the Shia had one of the most dynamic societies in the country: they were rural then moved to cities; they became increasingly educated; there was diversity; some were religiously conservative, many were politically on the left, and others followed the traditional leadership. It was a rich and promising experience.
And then after the Israeli invasion of 1982, and following the consolidation of the Iranian-Syrian regional alliance, Hezbollah appeared, and brought with it institutions and a clear ideology. The party has schools, and there is a new generation being educated in these establishments whose projects and ideas are different from the ones we all know. It has charity networks, youth associations, hospitals, media outlets, it manages municipalities, it organizes trips to Iran, and it has an army. Moreover, it is legitimate to most Lebanese Shia. I think that in this moment of mobilization of communities everywhere, in this moment of sectarianism and Iran’s progress in the region, it will be very difficult for those who oppose Hezbollah’s project in Lebanon from a secular, progressive, or non-sectarian perspective to impose themselves and to exist politically.
MY: A final question: Are you writing another book?
ZM: I’m updating my book on Syria, and I hope it will soon be published in English. I am also reworking the text of my Ph.D. thesis on Lebanon, and it will be published in English as well.