The Middle East on fire

Interview with Antoine Basbous, Director of the Arab Countries Observatory.

Antoine Basbous has been the director of the Arab Countries Observatory for nearly thirty years. On his website, there is a map delimiting his field of investigation, which goes from Kabul to Casablanca, with the Maghreb, the Middle East and the Gulf countries at the centre. Our interview focuses on the epicentre of the crisis, its humanitarian consequences and the geopolitical developments which, according to him, are reconfiguring the entire Middle East today.

Soldiers walk through ruins in Yarmouk, Syria. COMAR SNADIKI/REUTERS

Alain Boinet. Syria has just passed the 10-year mark of war with dramatic consequences for its population, which out of 22 million inhabitants now has more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid and over 5.6 million refugees. Let’s go back to the beginning of the conflict to understand: how could Western leaders have been so wrong in betting on the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime? How could countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar support a rebellion, at first moderate, which then turned into Islamist jihadist groups like Al Quaida and Daech?

Antoine Basbous. This question is vast. To tell the truth, the unpopularity of Bashar’s regime was already the result in 2011 of 41 years of absolute power (30 years for his father, 11 for him) of a dynasty that has given only tears, blood and repression to this country. Many analysts had thought that the fruit was ripe, as Ben Ali had fallen in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and a little later Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen – and therefore that Assad could also fall. But they ignored, or at least did not take sufficiently into account, three factors:

  • The first was that Assad Sr. had built a regime with some 15 intelligence services, which monitored the breathing of the population. Having come to power through a coup d’état, Hafez did not want to be a victim in his turn! The security structure of the regime meant that, despite its unpopularity, it had a very powerful security net.
  • The second phenomenon is that no one took sufficiently into account the degree of Iranian involvement. The Islamic Republic considers the Alawite regime in Damascus as a branch of Shi’ism and above all as an ally that will allow the creation of this “Shi’ite crescent” from the Caspian to the Mediterranean and that is an essential step to consolidate Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon. Iran’s involvement was total: penniless, under sanctions, able to export little, it nevertheless devoted billions to this theatre, put the soldier Assad on a drip and sent Hezbollah to save him.
  • Despite all this involvement, despite the support of the Shiite internationalist brigades hired by Iran, the regime nevertheless nearly collapsed in 2015. Assad’s hometown, Qardaha, was receiving short-range missiles, so the enemy was less than 20 km away from the last stronghold! This is when the third phenomenon came into play: Russian support. The commander of the Iranian expansionist forces, General Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow, met Vladimir Putin and told him: “this will not be your new Afghanistan, we will be the foot soldiers who control the terrain but we cannot act without the air force”. From then on, at the end of August 2015, Putin sent his air force and entered the war in the most direct way possible, after having provided Assad, throughout the crisis, with arms, ammunition and experts.

These are the three secrets of the maintenance of this regime, which today remains under the perfusion of its two sponsors, even if they no longer get along and are rivals. Indeed, Russia does not want the Alawite regime in Syria to put itself totally at the service of Tehran; Putin moreover turns a blind eye to the daily Israeli bombings against Iranian bases and those of its satellites. Israel moves freely in Syria’s airspace. In 2020, it carried out nearly 500 strikes while Russia maintains S-300 and S-400 missile batteries there, but has never threatened or shot down an Israeli plane. Moscow thus lets Israel act against its rival ally, Iran and the Shiite militias, but does not want the Assad regime to collapse.

Tehran, for its part, has invested in the Syrian social fabric: many people have been converted to duodecimal Shiism, Shiite schools have been created, and “colonies” have been built (on strategically well placed and rehabilitated sites, the Iranians install their men, like platforms). For example, there is the Shiite shrine of Saida Zeinab in south-east Damascus, which has now become a colossal military base as well as a base for the Shiite International. In 2016, Assad endorsed this state of affairs by declaring that “Syria [belonged] to the fighters who defended it”, which was intended both to delegitimise the Sunnis who had fled the country and to legitimise the foreign Shiite fighters “imported” by Iran…

Finally, we must not forget that when the population took to the streets, without any communitarian, Islamist or sectarian slogan, Assad released all the jihadists who were in his prisons and supplied them with arms and ammunition. His Iranian allies supported him by freeing 1500 jihadists from Iraqi prisons in August 2012 and letting them cross 800 km of desert to join their “brothers” in Syria. This manoeuvre profoundly transformed the protest by militarising and Islamising it. Assad was thus able to present himself to the West by saying: “Look, do you prefer a President with a blond woman who wears a three-piece suit, or these bearded men? “. Civil society found itself marginalised – indeed, Obama said at the time, “Who are these people on the street? They are teachers, university professors, doctors, pharmacists, workers, farmers… Will they know how to run the political affairs of the country? “The only choice that seemed to remain was between the bearded men and the dictator.

DH. In Syria today, the situation seems to be blocked militarily in the north-west and north-east and there is no political solution for the moment. Turkey has taken control of Syrian territories with the support of its Islamist allies and Daech is reorganising. What is the next step: a lasting status quo, a precondition for new fighting or a political solution?

AB. I believe that this country is frozen and divided between several occupants. There are obviously the Russians, the Iranians, and the whole Shiite jihadist international that they have brought with them. There are the Turks, there are the Americans east of the Euphrates who support the Kurds to some extent and protect their hydrocarbon deposits; and the last force present is Israel, which occupies the air space.

The Turkish army near the Syrian border. ©Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Assad, despite his seat at the United Nations, is reduced to a “little baron of nothing”. He has lost the war, cannot promise anything, and runs a country under sanctions in which bread, petrol, medicines, foreign currency are rarely to be found… a country that is totally disastrous, especially after the entry into force of the “Caesar law” in the United States (June 2020), because nobody dares to trade with it. As for the oil and agricultural resources, they are mainly to be found among the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates…

DH. Lebanon found itself on the humanitarian front line by hosting more than 1,200,000 Syrian refugees for a Lebanese population of 6.6 million. Today Lebanon is itself facing a serious political crisis and a paralysis of the banking system that is plunging more and more Lebanese into extreme poverty, vulnerability and anger. While the explosion in the port of Beirut mobilised a great deal of solidarity, the International Conference in Support of Beirut and the Lebanese People is finding it very difficult to give concrete aid due to the blockages of the Lebanese political class. Doesn’t this crisis risk degenerating in the absence of any solution that is equal to the risks?

AB. This country is really going through hell: the first reason is that there is a mafia-like political class that has governed it for so many years and that has impoverished it to enrich itself. The “DNA”, the “software” of this country is totally out of order, it has no immunity anymore, today it is a country colonised by a pro-Iranian militia that controls everything. In the window, there is a Christian President of the Republic, but this President is at the orders of this militia and he anticipates its desires, its needs and its intentions. Finally, there is no more government, it is a total blockage. The country is collapsing, Hezbollah controls not only the air, sea and land borders of the country, but also the administration, the government, the finances… Nothing disturbs its control and we are witnessing a strategy of killing Lebanon in its current formula, so that it can be reborn one day at the hand of Hezbollah as an Iranian colony.

In reality, there is no longer any hope: this country, which in 2020 will celebrate its first centenary within its current borders, is in agony. Never have the Lebanese experienced such a dramatic situation. Today, even if you have millions of dollars in your bank account, you can’t access them. The country is officially bankrupt since March 2020. People are going to run out of electricity because Lebanon has no foreign currency to buy fuel. And when you don’t have electricity, you don’t have a fridge, you don’t have a phone, you don’t have lighting… It’s difficult to describe this country because it’s so bad, it’s a fall into hell without a parachute. All the elites who could have left have done so or are doing so, it is a humanitarian disaster at the gates of Europe.

Explosion at Beirut port, August 2020 ©Mohamed Azaki/REUTERS

DH. As in Syria, the situation is dramatic for the Lebanese population and this implies that massive and direct humanitarian aid must be mobilised. Following the major demonstrations in 2019 and in the absence of any perspective, is there not a risk that the situation will degenerate and become chaotic?

AB. On 17 October 2019, there was a cross-community movement, a national movement with the slogan “everyone, that means everyone, must leave”. This meant that the entire political class had to be swept away, whatever their reference, religion or community. But this movement was torpedoed by Hezbollah, which tore out the Shiites and in a way “communitarised” it, split it up and weakened it. Even if there were Shiites in it, the majority was abused by Hezbollah and the demonstrations in the Shiite areas were repressed. There were deaths and injuries. The message was clear: “the leadership is us, and we will decide, you go home”. Last February, the Shiite intellectual and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim was coldly assassinated. The cross-community movement is finding it hard to move, to exist, to express the fed upness of the whole population.

I am sure that famine will not be tolerated, that people will go out into the streets and demand accountability. The solution envisaged by the political class is to give these Lebanese who were proud, generous, rich – there was an extremely dense middle class in this country – a food card. This is buying social peace at the expense of the World Bank.

But this country will not reform. International aid has been useless, the political class that reigns today is getting rich through grand corruption and does not want to change, because it means losing its privileges and being accountable to the donor community (World Bank, IMF, Arab and Gulf countries). The electricity sector, for example, represents 60% of the Lebanese public debt, yet there are only a few hours of electricity per day. And even then, it is produced by Turkish ships, which allows those who run this sector to get richer every day. The donors – the Arabs in the first place – no longer want their money to fall into the hands of Hezbollah. It is clear that the political class, under the orders of the Shiite militia, will not take any steps towards reform.

Humanitarian aid in Bourj-Hammoud, Lebanon, August 2020. SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

DH. In the conflicts in the region, minorities are particularly affected, if not targeted, whether they are Christians, Yezidis, Kurds… What special protection should they be given?

The only protection that counts is the one that comes from culture. As soon as Sunnis and Shiites tolerate each other and live together, the culture will have accepted that we can be different and still be friends. But if Shiites and Sunnis continue to kill each other as they do today, I don’t see how minorities can be protected.

Nevertheless, I note that the new American President seems sensitive to the causes of minorities. When he was a US Senator and Vice President, Biden made 24 trips to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In his constituency, there are also many Greek Americans, which may explain his firmness against Erdoğan. He has also acknowledged the Armenian genocide, another historically mistreated minority in this region. Will he go further to comfort the minorities in the region?

DH. The reading grid that seems to impose itself is that of the confrontation between Sunnism and Shiism, which has resulted in the rapprochement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia with Iran. At the same time, Turkey is trying to take the leadership of the Sunni world and the Iranian nuclear conference is resuming. How do you see this situation?

AB. The Sunni-Shiite confrontation dates back fourteen centuries and is not going to subside, especially since Iran, in the name of Shiism, has exported the Islamic Revolution to the entire region from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. This “Shiite crescent” includes Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah’s Lebanon and Yemen, which allowed the advisor to the President of the Islamic Republic to declare that Iran already controls 4 Arab capitals! With this hegemony, Iran frightens the Arabs; they are on the defensive while Iran is gaining on their territories. This explains the rapprochement between Israel and several Gulf countries.

These countries have given up on the Palestinian cause saying that it has no future, that the fight is sterile. With the American withdrawal from the region initiated by Obama, they said they had to join forces with other regional powers, and Israel is perceived in the Gulf as a real power that can actually prove to be a solid partner with significant support in Washington.

However, the Gulf countries have forgotten that Israel lost its last war against Hezbollah on its doorstep (2006). The Hebrew state received on the last day of the conflict the same number of missiles from the Shiite militia as on the first day! All its air campaign failed to silence Hezbollah. If Iran tomorrow starts launching missiles at the United Arab Emirates’ skyscrapers, their desalination plants or their strategic sites, I can’t see Israel providing real all-risk insurance for countries that are nearly 2,000 km from its borders…

DH. In this context, what changes can we expect between the Trump administration’s “America first” and the Biden administration’s “America is back”, when we have the feeling that the American priority is now China and that the time of Western armed interventions seems to be behind us?

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech on his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, at the White House in Washington April 14, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

AB. European disengagement dates back to the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Suez campaign. Following this military success, which was nevertheless a diplomatic defeat, the Americans replaced the Europeans in the region. The American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was not very successful, despite the military success of the early days. These long conflicts have sapped the morale of the army and the state coffers. And at the end of George W. Bush’s term, there was a sense of disengagement, of being fed up with the region. Obama confirmed this by moving closer to Iran, and Trump has continued the American withdrawal while marking his passage with a coup d’état, the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani in January 2020.

Biden, on the other hand, has cultivated a better knowledge of the region and the turmoil of its history thanks to his long career as a senator interested in international affairs, then as Obama’s vice-president. He is certainly in favour of a slightly more controlled disengagement that does not totally sacrifice the Kurds. Where Trump had dropped northern Syria and the Kurds to Erdoğan after a flattering phone call, Biden is unlikely to let that happen. But indeed, the US disengagement from the region in order to give priority to China is an undeniable reality.

DH. How should we interpret the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the President of the United States, Joe Biden, in the context of Turkish expansionism, from Syria to Libya, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh?

An Armenian demonstration outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2021. ©AFP

AB. First of all, Biden has never carried Erdoğan in his heart. He is very close to his Greek constituents, knows a bit of history and is familiar with Erdoğan’s manipulations, his ambitions, his desire to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire and his meddling abroad. It is true that the year 2020 has been a good one for the Turkish president. He has met with success in Syria against the Russians, as well as in Libya against Haftar and Wagner’s Russian mercenaries. His drones have taken away successes on the battlefield and they have also been successful in Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of Azerbaijan. Erdoğan tried to intimidate Europe, with some success, and launched his exploration ships into the disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, he was banking on Trump’s success because he knew his “software”: Trump likes flattery, strong men, small dictators… but as soon as Biden was elected, we saw Erdoğan change his tone. He immediately softened his rhetoric in relation to Europe, in relation to France, he withdrew his prospecting boats from the eastern Mediterranean and at the same time he showed himself to be very understanding, less threatening on the issue of migrants, which he had always instrumentalised.

He was right to fear Biden: the latter’s first phone call, more than three months after taking office, was to announce 2 unpleasant things to him: first that he was going to recognise the Armenian genocide, and second that Turkey was excluded from the F-35 programme in which it was a partner. For Erdoğan, this is a hard blow in an economic context that continues to deteriorate in Turkey. The pound continues to fall, and the country is on its third central bank governor in two years, unemployment is climbing, the pandemic is hurting badly… The rocky relations with Moscow and the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine have moreover pushed Putin to decide not long ago that he would no longer let Russian tourists come to Turkey. Finally, many of Erdoğan’s lieutenants have left him to create rival formations and in the last elections, i.e. the 2019 municipal elections, all the major cities in Turkey switched to the opposition. These elements paint a Turkish context today that is very gloomy for Erdoğan.

Armenians take part in a torchlight procession in Yerevan on April 23, 2021, on the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Karen MINASYAN /AFP

DH. France has committed itself by supporting the Kurds in Syria. It is almost the only country that has opposed Turkey head-on in the eastern Mediterranean, notably with the sale of Rafales to Greece, but also, in another register, through its support for Lebanon. How do you understand this French policy? What role can France usefully play in this region?

AB. France is helping the Kurds in Syria who control the largest prison for jihadists, which holds over a thousand French jihadists. Paris has not forgotten the contribution of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to the defeat of Daech, unlike Trump. This is to its credit. It is also in its interest to support this effective ally, always ready to fight Daech.

As for the hegemony that Erdoğan wanted to exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, it is true that without France he would not have encountered significant opposition. NATO anaesthetised by Trump and Germany too obsessed with managing its own Turks, allowed Erdoğan to push his advantages. France thus took the lead in mobilising southern Europe around Greece and Cyprus, dragging in Arab powers as well, including the Gulf. The United Arab Emirates participated with its military aviation in recent manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. Paris also supports the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a coalition set up by Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece to contain Turkish hegemony by setting up cooperation between gas-producing countries for joint marketing. But the issue is also to remind Erdoğan that the Mediterranean is not a field of manoeuvre for Turkey.

Finally, there are international conventions (Montreux, Montego Bay…) that prevent Turkey from creating faits accomplis, claiming and exercising its hegemony over areas that do not belong to it. Without France’s leadership in this operation, Erdoğan would have already advanced his pawns to challenge international law – as he did via the November 2019 agreement with Libya, which so expands Turkey’s exclusive economic zone that it joins Libya’s and encroaches on the waters of other riparians, including Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. This large-scale operation was aimed at controlling the maritime space of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut after the explosion at the port on 4 August 2020.

DH. To conclude, what are your final words?

AB. We live in a world that is becoming more and more fluid and uncertain. We need more than ever to be upright and have the means to act or react to defend our interests. Although suffering from the wear and tear of his power and major difficulties, Erdoğan is pursuing an offensive policy and charging into the “soft bellies” of his neighbourhood (Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean). He will continue his policy until he meets resistance. Thus, the ideology of Islamist terrorism continues to progress on all continents, even if its geographical expression has failed each time it has been realised.

Antoine Basbous, Arab Countries Observatory

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Who is Antoine Basbous ?

Antoine Basbous is a political scientist and specialist in the Arab-Islamic world and Islamist terrorism

In 1991, he founded the Observatoire des pays Arabes (OPA) in Paris, which he has been running ever since. It is a completely independent consultancy specialising in North Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf and the Islamic world in general.

Antoine Basbous was born in Lebanon, where he studied law and French literature. In France, he obtained a doctorate in political science and a DEA in Information and Communication. He worked as a journalist from 1975 to 1987 in Beirut and then in Paris.

Antoine Basbous has published several essays translated into different languages, including Guerres secrètes au Liban, Editions Gallimard, 1987; L’Islamisme, une révolution avortée? Editions Hachette, 2000; L’Arabie saoudite en question, du wahhabisme à Bin Laden, Editions Perrin, 2002. In September 2004, an updated version of the latter work was published in paperback by Tempus under the title L’Arabie saoudite en guerre; Le tsunami arabe, Editions Fayard, 2011.

He is consulted by the largest companies, governments and courts in Europe and North America, and regularly participates in debates on the crises that are shaking the Arab and Islamic worlds, on terrorism and on the relations between Islam and the West.