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Divided Interest Among Regional Powers Stalls Progress On Syria Conflict

May 19, 2015

With the civil war in Syria now in its fifth year and little progress in reaching a diplomatic solution, stability in the country doesn’t seem likely any time soon. Conflicting interests among regional powers further complicate the situation, says New America Foundation research fellow Barak Barfi.

 “[In Syria] you have what’s shaping up to be a Sunni-Shi’i conflict,” with Iran supporting Syria on one side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey supporting Sunni rebel groups on the other, Barfi said.

But the Sunni powers are also divided over which rebel groups to support in Syria.

"You see splits between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar is funding Islamist groups – in some cases extremist Islam groups … whereas Saudi Arabia is trying to find people that are more moderate,” Barfi said.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s interests in Syria are political rather than religious.

“Because the Syrian Kurdish organization known as the PYD, is an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK, and considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States … [Prime Minister Erdoğan] is worried that he’ll have a PKK haven on his border,” Barfi said.

But Barfi says there may be hope for moving towards stability in the region as different actors find common interests on which to work.

“We may be seeing a new coalition emerging among some of these states willing to work with Israel,” Barfi said. “And maybe their relationships can get much better and they can solve some of these problems together. So that's something to be optimistic about.”

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Interview Highlights

On Libya After The Removal Of Gaddafi

Well when the Libyan Revolution ended when Gaddafi was killed in September 2011, basically the NATO and Western powers withdrew. They turned it over to the U.N., they had a U.N. mission there, and they were in an advisory capacity and not in an executive capacity where they could something, do some directives. So that's the big problem there. The politicians were not well placed or well positioned to build a new state. Gaddafi destroyed all the state institutions; he monopolized power in the hands of a small coterie of followers. So these people didn't have the political experience necessary and they faced a very fragmented population and over time it became worse. Islamists became more prevalent and that led to General Khalifa Haftar's Operation Dignity in May 2014. It was pitched as a battle against Islamists but it's not an Islamists versus non-Islamists conflict; it's not an ideological conflict. It's a conflict between those who benefitted under Gaddafi and lost out versus those who benefited from the revolution. And that's where we are today.

On External Actors With Interests In Libya

The major player in Libya is Italy – the colonial power. They get most of their natural gas from Libya. They have investments there. The British and the French were at the forefront of the NATO effort to overthrow, to topple, Gaddafi. So those are the three countries that really have a lot of interests on the Western side. On the Arab side, we see a proxy contest between Qatar and Turkey on one side supporting the Islamists, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Egypt on the other supporting General Haftar. So those are the fault lines of the outside powers. 

On Failed Development In The Arab World

Arab states have really failed at development vis-à-vis other countries in the Third World – chief among them, economic development. Egypt was one of the richest countries in the non-Western world at the beginning of the 20th century, yet its per capita GDP lags far beyond countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which developed much later, and even the South American countries. On the political front, we haven’t seen any type of liberalization that we saw in Latin America. In the 80s we had military juntas ruling those countries; now most of them are democratic. We look at women's empowerment issues: they lagged far beyond most Third World countries in that as well. So they face an array of problems because they've basically failed at what they were supposed to do. Leaders have just tried to hold on to power and do what they can to do that. Empowering a crony elite class, dedicating two percent of their gross domestic product to food subsidies, that creates all types of economic problems across the spectrum.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Barak Barfi, welcome to World Views

BARAK BARFI: Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: Barak, all of your experience in the Middle East – you've lived in the Middle East for many years off and on. You've done much work there in terms of your writing and journalism, many publications outlining all of the issues that we are dealing with in the region currently. But I'd like to start with your work specifically in Libya. Libya seems to have fallen off the front pages; we don't really pay much attention to it anymore. Everything, of course, is focused on Syria in particular these days and has been for some time with the whole ISIS situation. I want to get there too, but let's start with Libya because things are still concerning with Libya – a case where the United States was involved, other European players involved, we had regime change. Then what happened? And where are we today in terms of Libya's progress and stability in the region?

BARFI: Well when the Libyan Revolution ended when Gaddafi was killed in September 2011, basically the NATO and Western powers withdrew. They turned it over to the U.N., they had a U.N. mission there, and they were in an advisory capacity and not in an executive capacity where they could something, do some directives. So that's the big problem there. The politicians were not well placed or well positioned to build a new state. Gaddafi destroyed all the state institutions; he monopolized power in the hands of a small coterie of followers. So these people didn't have the political experience necessary and they faced a very fragmented population and over time it became worse. Islamists became more prevalent and that led to General Khalifa Haftar's Operation Dignity in May 2014. It was pitched as a battle against Islamists but it's not an Islamists versus non-Islamists conflict; it's not an ideological conflict. It's a conflict between those who benefitted under Gaddafi and lost out versus those who benefited from the revolution. And that's where we are today.

GRILLOT: And when you say "benefited," just to be clear, you mean benefited financially? Benefited politically? Had a voice in society? Had a higher standard of living? That it was more kind of a class, or a haves and have-nots society instead of an Islamic, ideological thing? Is that what you mean by those who benefited and those who didn't?

BARFI: Well there are no classes in Libya. Libya only has about 6.5 million people and they produced, pre-war, I think, 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, which makes them a very wealthy state, so everybody is middle class. It's between those who benefited from Gaddafi's patronage and were given positions in the government, were given influence, given access, versus those who did not have it. And those who did not have it – specifically from the city Misrata – have now taken over and we see tribes such as the Warfalla from Beni Walid, which is the largest tribe in the country – they provided the security backbone of the country – they've lost out. They actually were the last holdout after Tripoli fell. So these are the fault lines in society.

GRILLOT: So before we get to the fault lines in other societies and how we might distinguish the way in which you're characterizing the situation in Libya from, let's say, how it is in Syria, let's talk about the involvement of external players here in Libya. So you mentioned about how it was turned over to U.N. actors, and kind of having U.N. oversight. What is the role right now of international actors? Are they the United States? The European players? Are there people on the ground? Is there a significant amount of attention being paid? At least, maybe not, again, on the front pages, but in some way, shape, or form, people are there engaging with Libyans and trying to guide them along these lines in terms of redeveloping their society in a way that is beneficial to everyone within that society?

BARFI: The United States really doesn't have a lot of interests in Libya. Libya's chief export is oil. In 1982, President Reagan cut off purchases of oil supplies from Libya, so we stopped purchasing them. The major player in Libya is Italy – the colonial power. They get most of their natural gas from Libya. They have investments there. The British and the French were at the forefront of the NATO effort to overthrow, to topple, Gaddafi. So those are the three countries that really have a lot of interests on the Western side. On the Arab side, we see a proxy contest between Qatar and Turkey on one side supporting the Islamists, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Egypt on the other supporting General Haftar. So those are the fault lines of the outside powers. 

GRILLOT: So now let's think about those fault lines, then, and migrate a little bit to Syria. You've spent quite a bit of time studying this issue as well. So, characterize for us that situation as opposed to what's going on in Libya and how we have some of the same issues obviously affecting society in both countries, but some very different ones as well in terms of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq and the Levant, and how that is challenging us in a very different way in terms of the involvement of the United States and other external players.

BARFI: Well in Syria, the fault lines are much clearer and they're much more sectarian-based. You have what's shaping up to be a Sunni-Shi'i conflict with the Shi'i power being Iran supporting Syria, whose rulers are part of an Alawite sect, which is actually a Shi'i offshoot. They’re on one side supported by Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shi'i organization – versus the Sunni powers. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the big players who are supporting the rebel groups. And Turkey as well, whose prime minister was the first to call for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to go.

GRILLOT: So it sounds to me, as I'm hearing you talk about Libya and then Syria, that you can kind of stack people in the region up – you're either supporting this or you're supporting that – that it seems very black and white. Is that really the accurate portrayal of it, is that these people are supporting this group, and these countries or governments are supporting this group, and that it's pretty clear? Those fault lines are pretty clear? It sounds like they're more clear in one place than another, but it sounds like they're all kind of taking sides and that contributes to the significant complexity in the region.

BARFI: On a macro level that's certainly true. But on a more micro, local level, you see splits between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar is funding Islamist groups – in some cases extremist Islam groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham, which was a Salafi organization. Salafis are very puritanical; they want to return the first three centuries of Islam. We believe that they've been funding Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate. Whereas Saudi Arabia is trying to find people that are more moderate on the Syrian ideological spectrum and have less extreme Islamist views.

GRILLOT: Can I ask about Turkey? We've obviously seen Turkey struggle a bit with this issue and disagreements between Turkey and the United States and others about how to deal with these problems. But here you have Syria on its southern border; Turkey, the Turkish government, clearly wants one thing to happen in Syria but yet the United States seems to be moving in a different direction. So you have that split or that fault line as well, but also this Kurdish issue – obviously the Kurds in the northern part of Syria and the incursions across that border into Turkey, and how all of this is shaping up to even further complicate an already difficult situation.

BARFI: Well, as I stated, Prime Minister Erdoğan was the first to call for Bashar al-Assad to go and he was willing to use all means necessary to do that. And what that meant is he turned a blind eye to the jihadists using Turkey as a logistical base to cross into Syria. In recent months they've clamped down on that. Turkey has other problems as well. It has a big Kurdish problem that it’s been able to minimize for some time under Erdoğan. However, it's come to the fore again because the Syrian Kurdish organization known as the PYD, is an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party, know as the PKK, and considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States. So he's worried that he'll have a PKK haven on his border. Those fears have been unfounded, but he's also worried about Kurdish nationalism being brought to the fore. We know that in Iraq they've carved out an autonomous area. If they do that in Syria, what will Turkey's Kurds do?

GRILLOT: So let me just explore a little bit further some of the ways in which all of these things have happened. You've so nicely described all of the various fault lines and the issues and all of the complex nature of this and where people stand, where different players stand on the issues. But overall, throughout this region, are there some similarities? I've heard other analysts, for example, talk about how the Arab World right now is facing all of these difficulties because of several pressures coming all at one time. You have the political pressures, the lack of political voice, the fact that you have a large segment of society that doesn’t have any role to play in their governance, in their daily lives – so kind of political voice. You have, obviously, lots of economic issues and economic problems and unemployment and poverty and environmental concerns. Just look at Syria alone – we have environmental issues at play there and drought and troubles over who gets what land. And same thing in the Palestinian-Israeli situation and case. Demographics with the youth bulge. So this entire region seems to be facing all of these pressures, whereas some countries, as they've developed, have maybe faced one or two of these pressures at one time. It seems like this region has really come under all of these pressures at one time. And is that kind of an accurate portrayal in terms of how these analysts are suggesting we have to understand all of these conflicts within that context of all of the stuff happening at once and all of the very difficult measures that have to be undertaken and how external players and parties just really don't know how to deal with it?

BARFI: Arab states have really failed at development vis-à-vis other countries in the Third World – chief among them, economic development. Egypt was one of the richest countries in the non-Western world at the beginning of the 20th century, yet its per capita GDP lags far beyond countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which developed much later, and even the South American countries. On the political front, we haven’t seen any type of liberalization that we saw in Latin America. In the 80s we had military juntas ruling those countries; now most of them are democratic. We look at women's empowerment issues: they lagged far beyond most Third World countries in that as well. So they face an array of problems because they've basically failed at what they were supposed to do. Leaders have just tried to hold on to power and do what they can to do that. Empowering a crony elite class, dedicating two percent of their gross domestic product to food subsidies, that creates all types of economic problems across the spectrum. We see this.

GRILLOT: Well we have to end, hopefully, on an optimistic note. Can we try, at least? Is there something we can take away from the experience we are having today? Based on your time there, what you can tell us about this region, your analysis, what is there to be optimistic about? Where can we be hopeful? What are some rays of sunshine in this region in terms of moving forward in some productive way?

BARFI: Well we have allies in the region – chief among them is Saudi Arabia, Jordan – that want to help us to defeat the extremists. And we may be seeing a new coalition emerging among some of these states willing to work with Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel, their interests dovetail at this point – on Syria, on the Iranian nuclear issue. They've been meeting and maybe their relationships can get much better and they can solve some of these problems together, including the Palestinian problem. So that's something to be optimistic about.

GRILLOT: Thank you so much, Barak, for being with us today and helping us understand a little better the very complicated problems we're facing today in the Middle East. Thank You.

BARFI: Thank you very much.

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