Interview: Anthony Shadid on the Political Reconfiguration of the Middle East (Part II)

Interview – 9 November 2011

Source: Associated Press/ Amr Nabil

This is the second part of an interview conducted by Shereen Dbouk with Anthony Shadid in Beirut, on the 2nd of November, 2011. Click here for the first part of the interview.

What types of governments could we see established in Libya and Tunisia? What of Egypt where there has not been any real systemic change?

Anthony Shadid: That is a key question. Because free elections were so elusive for so long in the Arab world, the very idea of voting for a government that would represent the people was is in itself revolutionary. If we approach these elections as we have already done so in Tunisia, and as we approach them in Egypt, elections feel more like mechanisms than as means. It is a mechanism that is going to enfranchise societies that were not enfranchised. But does enfranchisement then lead to a way to solve these problems?

I do not think this is clear yet. We are still stuck in these old divides, these old struggles of religious versus secular, et cetera, that aren’t necessary reflecting the bigger challenge these societies face. There is a real danger as we move forward and as we come closer and closer to this reckoning between political Islam and the mainstream politics, that there is going to be a tendency toward trivial debates over culture-related issues that might be provoked by a right-winged political Islam pulling the more reformist trends in its directions.

We have seen in the Untied States endless debates over flag burning, Obama’s birth certificate, things that feel very trivial when you look at the big issues and the bigger challenges these societies face. We could see somewhat frivolous cultural debates dominating these new bodies’ politics; these new political discourses at the expense of coming up with solutions to fix questions of social justice, class and equality, and citizenship. That is a danger. It is going to be a challenge going forward. I think that is going to be the question people are going to start asking. What did elections provide for us? What do they provide for our societies? Are we better off today than we were before? Then, there is a real danger that this question be answered in a negative way. And then what? What is the next step?

Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap with Hamas in exchange of Gilad Shalit’s release. Following the decision to welcome Palestine as a member at UNESCO, Israel has frozen some of the PA funds. Is there here a strategy by Israel to enhance Hamas’s influence and undermine the Palestinian Authority? How is Israel reacting to the events unfolding in the region? 

Anthony Shadid: I do not cover Israel as a journalist that much. My insights are mainly incidental to what is happening in the region. American policy has at times fumbled in the Arab world as it tried to negotiate both what I think some in the administration would like to see as a principled stand, as opposed to more traditional American interests that have prompted interventions time and again.

There is certain incoherence in American policy as we look at its role in the region right now. I think that same incoherence goes for Israel as well. Israel was obviously taken by surprise by the events of the Arab Spring. As the order in which Israel used to be a pivotal player is crumbling around it, the Israelis, are, in certain ways, playing by old rules when new rules are emerging.

That has made it a much more dangerous and precarious environment for Israel in general. How it negotiates that is really unclear at the moment. Israel at the same time is facing some of the most drastic and dire changes it has ever faced.

The Arab League is actively involved in the Syrian conflict and has also played a pivotal role in approving NATO intervention in Libya. Do you think that to the “Arab Spring” there exists what can be called an “Arab” response? Are these responses efficient and effective enough in terms of military and political mediation?

Anthony Shadid: What we are still seeing is the agenda of individual countries that seek cover through international organizations. For instance the intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Bahrain was first and foremost a Saudi intervention that used the cover of the GCC. Even the Arab League mediation in Syria right now, is first and foremost a Qatari role, reflecting Qatar’s more prominent place in the region’s politics.

As for Libya’s intervention, there was an old order in the Arab world that was willing to see Kaddafi fall and that Arab League cover was essential for NATO’s intervention. I think the real story of how they got the Arab League to back into NATO has not been told yet but clearly it proved necessary. In the bigger context of the conversation, we could perceive this as a certain decline of American influence, and the powerless nature of Europe in trying to guide any action in the Middle East.

We are seeing Qatar, we are seeing the Saudis, we are seeing Turkey, and these countries as well rely on older broader organizations that might be able to bring cover for their agendas in each and every country.

Now that the attention of the international community is focused on Syria, do you think that we are experiencing yet again a case of selectivity versus prioritization such as we did with Libya? The opposition in Syria is becoming increasingly visible, with protestors on the ground asking for a no fly zone. Do you think Syria is echoing the trajectory of Libya?

Anthony Shadid: I feel a strange disconnect in Syria between elements of the opposition in Syria calling for foreign intervention and very few of any signals that the international community is willing to intervene. It is almost a debate that is happening but has no place in the events that are transpiring. That is odd to me.

Turkey has held out the prospects of intervention but more as a means to keep leverage in Syria’s internal affairs now that they have no more soft power. They have effectively broken the relations. I think Turkey is scrambling to find some way to determine the events that unfold there in the future and this threat of intervention then becomes that means; a leverage.

I do not think the prospect is likely right now. Things may change next year, but the idea of Turkish military intervention in a country that is so deeply embedded in the regions alliances, Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, is difficult for me to see.

A lot of these countries are going to have to be taken on a case-by-case basis and Syria is one that is so particular given the alliances, the power structure with other countries, and its relationship with the rest of the world. Also given its history, being able to promote long periods of isolation and then reemerge by playing of rivalries in the region is to its advantage. It is difficult to see Syria following the examples we have seen elsewhere in the region.

If Syria falls, what happens to Lebanon and Hezbollah? What are the implications for the region if Assad falls?

Anthony Shadid: There are vast implications. There is no question that we have unsettled; unresolved issues in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran, were the Syrian regime to fall. In terms of regional rivalries, it may not necessarily precipitate a sea of change in these alliances that have been there for generations now. Would Iran still have a say in Syria? Perhaps. Would Hezbollah still try to create some kind of accommodation with a new Syrian government? Definitely.

In terms of Syria and Israel it would change very little. Syria may become more aggressive vis-à-vis Israel if there is a new government there. I think the key question to look at in Syria and how it is going to play out is if the government does fall, what kind of animosity is the new government in Syria going to have toward one domestic consideration, is there going to be-to be blunt vengeance against the Alawite sect? What groups are associated with the Alawite sect that the new government would have to be reckoning with? That is where you might see some issues with Iran and Hezbollah. I think you would also see a much higher profile of Saudi Arabia within Syria if Bashar Al-Assad were to fall.

Beyond that it’s really difficult to say. The Turks could seek to move in, you could see a rivalry emerge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for positioning in a post-Assad Syria. I do not think that it is something that is imminent.

According to your experience in Iraq and everything you have witnessed these past ten years, do you feel there is a disruption in the strategy of foreign intervention, more specifically US intervention? Is the UN once again becoming central in foreign decisions? Taking the example of Libya and UN Resolutions 1970 and 1973, inspired by the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, what is your opinion of this new norm? Is R2P the perfect formula serving national security interests while also addressing humanitarian emergencies? Is it possible to compare Libya 2011 with Iraq 2003?

Anthony Shadid: It is too early to understand the legacy of western intervention in Libya at this point. Without doubt you can say Libya’s revolt/revolution, of all the revolts and revolutions in the Arab world right now, is the one with an asterisk on it. It was made possible first and foremost by NATO’s intervention. Colonel Kaddafi would not have fallen had NATO not intervened. What is going to be the legacy of this intervention, I think it is too early to say.

There is a sense, less so in Libya and more so in the region that there is going to be a certain debt that NATO and the West in general are owed by virtue of their intervention in Libya. What kind of debt emerges? Does it come in the form of oil contracts? Does it come in the form of undue influence in Libya’s internal affairs? Do we see a rivalry between certain European countries and Turkey over positioning themselves in a post Kaddafi environment?

It is fair to say there will be some kind of reckoning with the legacy of that intervention. That intervention is fundamentally different of the intervention we saw Iraq in 2003, which was a full-scale invasion occupation. We have not seen that in Libya. And I think Iraq’s experience was traumatic.

But didn’t we overrule the mandate?

Anthony Shadid: Did we? I do not want to make any arguments whether it was right or wrong by any means, but despite the lies and the misstatements and bad prediction, the Americans did seem to keep at least some veneer of international recognition in their endeavor there.

The occupation in 2003 was recognized by the United Nations, despite the disastrous effects it had in the aftermath. Intervention is going to be a permanent facet of the Middle East and of the Arab world. At the same time there’s a deep allergy in the Arab world for any kind of intervention and it is hard to point to an example where that intervention has succeeded.

In fact, I think it has often been disastrous. But that intervention is going to continue, there is no question about it. Libya may be the way that interventions happen in the future but it may also be an isolated case. You do not see the same thing happening in Syria. It is hard to imagine it in places like Bahrain where Saudi Arabia has an overwhelming power in the island-state’s affairs. You could argue it is a case-by-case basis rather than an emerging policy to be replicated elsewhere in the region.

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Interview, Lebanon & Syria, Libya, Palestine & Israel

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