“The Syrian crisis has this particular characteristic, which is that it simultaneously encapsulates and brings to life, in terms of analogies, everything that the Middle East and North Africa has lived through over the past couple of decades, more or less the past 30 years,” said Dr. Mahmoud Mohamedou, head of the regional capacity development program at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Dr. Mohamedou cited Saddam Hussein, the failure of the Ba’athi system, the forays of the United States in the region, the Algerian civil war, and the recent transformations in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, as being echoed in the current situation.
“We have this kind of confusing scene where we have to look at the past to see what logic led to this, but at the same time keep an eye on the new developments,” he said.
Dr. Mohamedou believes the region is being led into new, uncharted territory, mostly because of the transnational dynamic. “We see [the transnational dynamic] in foreign fighters coming from all over the world,” Dr. Mohamedou said. “We see it with the fluidity of the development with, for instance, one non-state actor from another country, i.e., Lebanon’s Hezbollah battling a series of globally-oriented radical Islamists who initially are coming to support a peaceful process against an autocratic regime.”
Yet, despite the unique characteristics of the Arab Spring, Dr. Mohamedou strongly believes there is no exceptionalism in it. “We have new characteristics: the transnational dimension that we mentioned, which is a feature of early 21st-century international relations grammar, which is a fact, an important one; dynamics related to social media which were not there in previous transitions; the involvement of the communities within a region that had been, up until the Ottoman Empire, a series of provinces connected by one power. All of those elements are making an impact,” he said, but “the more we indulge this argument of the exceptionalism of the Middle East and North Africa, shall we say, the Arab or the Muslim one, the more we go into Orientalist and neo-Orientalist territory.”
“And I say this goes even for the processes within the region. That we analysts and actors as well have to embrace the notion of the latest type of political transitions; the Arab Spring is nothing but that. Those challenges took place elsewhere, earlier, in Latin America of the 70s, in southwestern Europe of the 60s as well—Portugal, Spain, Greece. We have the same logic in Eastern Europe in the early 90s and late 80s.”
“I think that, to understand the politics today and to act on them in the region, one needs to know more about the alliance making, constitution drafting, pact making, and then about the Sykes-Picot treaty.”
Dr. Mohamedou also discussed the franchising of al-Qaeda. “By embracing the franchise model, [al-Qaeda] were, in a way, kind of creating a monster of their own, having these franchises becoming independent; and of course, symbolically, the death of bin Laden sort of sealed that process.” Syria became the new cause célèbre of al-Qaeda fighters from Iraq, “because the transitional nature of the situation, the volatility, and the absence of the state in most of these territories gave them a opportunity to recreate the same patterns that we saw in the early 80s in Afghanistan, or, more recently, in the Sahel.” Dr. Mohamedou sees “a potential rebirth of al-Qaeda, global… through a franchise.”
The interview was conducted by José Vericat, Adviser, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jose Vericat: I’m here today with Dr. Mahmoud Mohamedou, who is the head of the regional capacity development program at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, as well as visiting professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Thank you for speaking to the Global Observatory today.
I wanted to ask you about the situation currently in Syria, and, in particular, the progress made by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the last few months, and start by asking you about what stage we’re at right now in relation to the conflict and the progress we’ve seen that the Assad regime has made?
Mahmoud Mohamedou: I think there’s an immediate narrative on the developments on the ground: tactical, the military reality. Undeniably on that front, over the past couple of months, since the beginning of 2013, the regime has certainly been able to make some advances. We see that even in the communication, and how they’ve been able to bank on that, and more media appearances by Bashar al-Assad. This is primarily due undeniably to the involvement of Hezbollah, who has now been overtly engaged, and bringing their own expertise, which is, as The Washington Post called them a couple of years ago, “the best guerrilla force in the world.”
Clearly, there is a sense of that involvement making a change, particularly with the battle of al-Qusayr a few weeks ago. But, that also took place simultaneously with a certain degeneration in the level of the violations that we’ve seen. Quantitatively with the numbers, according to the United Nations, we’re beyond 100,000 killed, which is a lot. In terms of the gravity of the violations, we’ve seen some gruesome scenes over the past couple of months. So, clearly those are the dynamics that we see emerging. There’s a certain evolution that is arresting because about a year and a half ago, the regime was far more on the defensive, and the rebels were making advances, not only in Aleppo but elsewhere on the frontiers and the borders by Iraq and Turkey in particular.
If we take a step back, as I think we should, we see something else we should always keep in mind, which is the inherent relationship of the Syrian situation with the larger post-Arab Spring development in the area, the Middle East and North Africa. That element is revealing in terms of the transnational dynamics: the presence of foreign fighters, which has been documented; the political logic behind any development taking place in, say, Syria, Egypt, and even all the way into Libya and Tunisia. There’s a certain correspondence, an echoing that is always there—in spite, of course, of the fact that we have local domestic stories taking over gradually. But when you see, for instance, Bashar al-Assad making a statement about the failure of political Islam when Mohammed Morsi is taken out by the military, he’s clearly looking at his own domestic front while at the same time using the regional development. And I think those two dimensions we should always keep in mind.
The Middle East and North Africa is at a key moment historically, which is based on fluidity, characterized by a lot of interconnectedness, and I think for the current phase, even though we have seen advances by the regime, in the longer term, they don’t necessarily mean much in terms of the volatility of the situation.
JV: I was wondering while were on this topic, whether we can make any comparison with the events in the 1990s in Algeria, given that the number of dead are somewhat comparable, even, I would say, that the numbers are unfortunately growing more steadily in the case of Syria. Is this purely anecdotal, or do you think that there are features that are shared?
MM: No, you make a good point. The numbers in Algeria were 150,000 to 200,000 by the end of the civil war in 97-98. There’s a lot of analogies that we can bring to bear to this. We can look at the civil war in Lebanon, paradoxically, which had been invaded by Syria in 1975 as another referential, and elsewhere.
The Syrian crisis has this particular characteristic, which is that it simultaneously encapsulates and brings to life, in terms of analogies, everything that the Middle East and North Africa has lived through over the past couple of decades, more or less the past 30 years: The disappearance of Saddam Hussein; the failure of the Ba’athi system, and keep in mind that Syria is a Ba’athi system to begin with; the forays of the United States in the region; the Algerian story, as you mentioned; the whole more recent transformation in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia as well.
At the same time, it takes us—and I really believe that this is key—into new uncharted territory, and by that I mean that we see the transnational dynamic. The grammar of international relations—which has as a central feature to it, transnationality—being taken into a new territory through Syria. We see it in foreign fighters coming from all over the world. We see it with the fluidity of the development with, for instance, one non-state actor from another country, i.e., Lebanon’s Hezbollah battling a series of globally-oriented radical Islamists who initially are coming to support a peaceful process against an autocratic regime.
You see how complex these dynamics are with each one of these militaries, for instance, the Lebanese military standing on the lines when this is happening, as well as other countries in the region. We have this kind of confusing scene where we have to look at the past to see what logic led to this, but at the same time keep an eye on the new developments.
JV: On the subject of al-Qaeda, on the subject of the Jihadist groups; this is an area in which you have published a book, particularly on al-Qaeda, and I wanted to ask you about it. It has come as somewhat of a surprise through some observers of Syria, given that Syria was primordially a secular Arab state now. What relevance do you give to these groups? How much do you think they have taken Syria hostage?
MM: It’s very interesting because, again, we’re in the new and old sort of interaction. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq felt the same situation as well when al-Zarqawi merged with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then we saw how that morphed. The situation should not be surprising. Al-Qaeda al-umm, the mother al-Qaeda, has in effect kind of been becoming an evanescent type of organization since the mid- to late-2000s, even before the death of bin Laden. By embracing the franchise model, they were in a way kind of creating a monster of their own, having these franchises becoming independent; and of course, symbolically, the death of bin Laden sort of sealed that process, as such.
What we see subsequently is a lot of autonomization of the franchises; particularly, we heard a lot about the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, but little did we pay attention to what was happening in the continuing activity of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which were gradually and steadily continuing its operations,—even re-emerging post-2010—to the point that it was poised then to go to any new front in the making. And the new cause célèbre of those fighters became, very quickly, Syria. Not necessarily because of the opposition to secular, as you point out, Ba’athi Syria, which was the opposition of the peaceful opposition, shall we say, but because the transitional nature of the situation, the volatility, and the absence of the state in most of these territories gave them an opportunity to recreate the same patterns that we saw in the early 80s in Afghanistan, or more recently in the Sahel or elsewhere. Such organizations live and die on that volatility, that absence of the state, and al-Qaeda had that chance.
Now, what’s interesting—and I think this is the most important point—is that we’re seeing potential rebirth of al-Qaeda, global, through a franchise. And that’s an interesting development when you see that the periphery is created and then generates intensity back onto the center. Now we see Ayman al-Zawahiri almost fighting to be heard by his own franchise that he put in place five or six years ago with bin Laden before his death.
JV: Now in Syria the word of the day is “sectarianism,” and even across the Middle East. Do you think that beyond the sectarianism between Christians and Muslims, between Sunni and Shiite, do you think that the real metanarrative is between secular and religious?
MM: It’s undeniably one of the central ones. I think we don’t have to beat around the bush. The Sunni/Shiite element is clearly something that is central to the conflict going on, and it’s taking us into irrational violence that’s going to feed on each other, because that’s unfortunately how human nature has historically dealt with these processes, which will make a national reconciliation process where identity, ethnicity, religion, kin, brethren, tribe, all of these issues—and we have to go all the way to Ibn Khaldun to understand the importance of this in the region—all of this will have to be put on the table to be addressed.
But it’s only one of several other issues. Initially you only have basically a citizenry/state opposition, the interface that begins in [the Syrian town of] Dara’a. Then you also have the political dimension, which is the secular against the religious element, something we see playing out also with stability in Egypt and Tunisia. Then you have the more regionally-oriented narrative that seeks to address a colonial defect situation, addressing the French mandate, and earlier with a Kurdish issue which had not been dealt with, to something that is more internationally grounded into these processes that meet regularly in Doha and Istanbul. We have a multilayered, complex crisis that is bringing all these elements to some sort of non-resolution, as of today.
JV: Now, moving on to the attempt by the international community to intervene and to reach some sort of solution, and touching on the fact that the Syrian opposition that is mostly living in the diaspora is considered to be proverbially fragmented and divided, and how that is preventing any serious intervention in the conflict, and given the strength at the same time that the Syrian regime has been displaying, do you think that that’s going to be the narrative for the foreseeable future? Do you think that that is going to be the case in terms of continued fragmentation and failed attempts to intervene, and, at the end of the day, a failure to find any alternative to the Assad regime as a dissuasion from any sort of intervention?
MM: No, I don’t think so. I think that ultimately, we will have a wake-up call inevitably by the Syrians when it comes to this. However, for the time being, clearly the failure of that opposition—we have to call a spade a spade—has not only given momentum to the regime who is able to bank on that, and has even given the semblance of some sort of unity, paradoxically and ironically, that their regime itself was facing a lot of disarray and disunity about a year and a half ago.
But, there’s two issues here. On the one hand, we have an operational problem in relation to a coalition which is all the time being expanded with a variety of groups, which have challenges that are not unprecedented. The Libyans dealt with this with the NTC two years ago. Other systems have to deal with this in Eastern Europe in the 90s and, before that, in Latin America, with all kinds of coalitions making alliances—pact-making being an important component of these Rupturas Pactadas, as they were called at the time in Latin America and Spain. That has to be addressed. And the pattern of resignations by several of these heads of the oppositions is undeniably problematic.
But, the opposition, as I was saying, has also to deal with the competition by the radical Islamists. First of all, that Islamists amongst themselves, which are a fringe, which are democratic Islamists, we have to also recognize the fact that that line of activity exists. But also more radical ones, and we’ve seen the excesses of some of them last year in the brutality and the barbarity those portrayed in some of those videos. That is more problematic because it’s painting a challenge to what type of post-Assad Syria is going to be. And we have to look into that. The divisions have to be dealt with today in some sort of platform, the so-called “day-after” logic, so that they’re not transplanted immediately onto the transition once Assad goes.
JV: In relation to this particular point of the extreme violence, do you see a sort of a contagion effect, in that in the most recent events in Egypt and the levels of brutality that are beginning to be reached there, massacres by each of the sides, do you think that there could be a chain reaction provoked by these videos, these images etc., that is actually allowing or permitting or fostering levels of violence that are unprecedented?
MM: Well, that’s a very important point, and is not limited to the violence. The Arab Spring and the post-Arab Spring is taking place in the globalization era. It’s taking place in the YouTube, iPhone, Myspace, technology revolution. It’s not taking place as other transitions took place. So, you have this empowerment at the level of individuals that are able to beam any signal any time, and therefore, when you connect that with the existing cultural commonality of the region that speaks the same language, follows each other on Al Jazeera and other channels, and echoes these dynamics at the same time that each story’s becoming increasingly individualized. That’s fundamental. But you have a sense of keeping an eye or an ear on what’s happening elsewhere.
And certainly, one sees the importance of the strife in Egypt. The negativity that is oozing out of that is undeniably making the resolution of Syria even more complicated, as it’s also impacting the debate ongoing in Tunisia, which is of another order of a different logic, much less violent, but is increasingly becoming radicalized. I think this notion of a singular narrative of the “Arab Spring” is always going to be somehow linked with this lifeline onto the domestic stories for the foreseeable future. And when the more positive comes… Let’s say a president. If the Tunisian president, for instance, functions and indicates a way out of this, I think this will beam back onto Egypt and down the road into Syria.
JV: Lastly, is there a single narrative for the Arab Spring? That is to say, is that Arab spring a unique historical phenomenon, or do you think we can learn from past historical experiences?
MM: I really believe that there is no exceptionalism to the Arab Spring. We have new characteristics: the transnational dimension that we mentioned, which is a feature of early 21st-century international relations grammar, which is a fact, an important one; dynamics related to social media which were not there in previous transitions; the involvement of the communities within a region that had been, up until the Ottoman Empire, a series of provinces connected by one power. All of those elements are making an impact.
However, the more we indulge this argument of the exceptionalism of the Middle East and North Africa, shall we say the Arab or the Muslim one, the more we go into Orientalist and neo-Orientalist territory. And I say this goes even for the processes within the region. That we analysts and actors as well have to embrace the notion of the latest type of political transitions. The Arab Spring is nothing but that. Those challenges took place elsewhere, earlier, in Latin America of the 70s, in southwestern Europe of the 60s as well—Portugal, Spain, Greece. We have the same logic in Eastern Europe in the early 90s and late 80s. We have these types of discussions that have to be dealt with.
I think that to understand the politics today and to act on them in the region, one needs to know more about the alliance making, constitution drafting, pact making, and then about the Sykes-Picot treaty.
JV: Dr. Mahmoud Mohamedou, thank you very much.
MM: Thank you very much for having me.
In the photo: Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou (Credit: RTS.ch)