Interview with Paul Salem

30 August 2014, Washington DC

Paul Salem completed his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has expertise on the issues of U.S. foreign policy, security, human rights, democracy, social and economic policy and governance. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran are the countries of his expertise.

Salem currently is Vice President for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute which is the oldest Washington- based institute to study the region. He has contributed to many other prominent think tanks such as the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and Fares Foundation. He has numerous journal and newspaper articles and several books.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think that the Arab Spring is exclusively an Arab issue? What are the mental and geographic limits to it?

Paul Salem: That is a very interesting and good question because; yes, I think that this was an Arab event in the sense that for instance, democracy came to Turkey in many waves but it did not spread to the Arab World. It did not create much debate or awareness. Similarly, when there was a pro-democracy uprising in Iran in 2009, people in the Arab Word looked at it but did not do anything. When it happened in the Arab countries; in Tunisia, more importantly in Cairo, in the Arabic language with Arab heroes, covered by Arab televisions in Arabic, it became an Arab drama. It affected everybody from Morocco to Yemen and it was a dramatic revolution that people experienced in their living room simply by watching it. It changed people. So yes, the content of what happened is not exclusive to the Arab World in the sense that it calls for democracy and participation and better government, which are universal for all populations around the World; the Turks, the Iranians, the Africans, the Americans. This is common but this set of events happened in Arabic. It has Arab heroes and has impacted the entire Arab World in a way that other things had not. Yes, it was an Arab event and I think, what it means is not that there is an Arab nation, a unified state or something like that, but there is an Arab political consciousness and Arab political life which is somewhat unified as a cultural space. Something that happens in Tunisia affects Yemenites, effects Syrians, affects Egyptians and that is very interesting and very remarkable. The importance of that was obvious that once the revolution erupted in an Arab country, it spread quickly into other Arab countries. If democracy takes hold in one of the big Arab countries, the hope was Egypt, it would also mean that it would spread as a model to the other Arab countries, just like Nasserism of Egypt became the model, the strong military model to all Arab countries.

Pınar Akpınar: When we look at the analogies of the Arab Spring the comparison has always been made among the Arab countries. There has been no reference, for instance, to the late 1980s Eastern European transformations, the Color Revolutions. There has been no comparison of Bahrain and Georgia. The comparison has so far been confined to Syria with Libya or Tunisia with Egypt. The current mindset wants to confine it to the Arab World. Have you recognized such kind of trend?

Paul Salem: Yes, I think a number of people on the elite level have certainly looked at Turkey as an example. It is geographically close, has a strong army and has an Islamic Movement. There was a strong consciousness among the intelligentsia on the Turkish model. It was less about more distant cases like Brazil, Greece, Georgia or Malaysia. But I would have to single out Turkey as an important example that people thought about for better or worse. In these set of revolutions, there has been no leadership, no political parties, and no leaders. They were popular uprisings. So, at the popular level one is not surprised that the public is not aware of Georgia, technicalities of transition; and since there were no leaders like Walesa or Mandela to lead and to make examples and so on, it was not surprising. At the popular level it was driven by television; about what people hear in Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, so it was not surprising.

The obstacles that are being faced in the Arab World are not unique. Many different parts of the World have also faced them, including Turkey. Turkey had times when the army came back, times when political parties became corrupt. In any case, it was very remarkable that it was a very Arab thing. It has marked a whole generation. Everybody who was alive in 2011 will not forget, even though now the things are not that good. This is a generation that rose up and it is no longer afraid as it used to be. It knows what it wants even though it is not getting it. It might take 20 or 30 years for this generation to end up in power. You look at the revolution of the young people in the 1960s in the West and other places it took until the 1990s to take over power and now in the US there is an African-American president, universal health care, gay marriage and so on. It took a generation of time to take over power; this generation that rose up for these values failed but maybe in 2022, 2032 they will win. History keeps moving. I do not think that it is over.

Pınar Akpınar: The Arab Spring has changed the order of the region. What do we have now in terms of actors and alliances?

Paul Salem: It has really changed the regional order. Before the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar had a very strong and middle of the road position. They were good with Iran, they were good with Saudi Arabia, they were good with Bashar al-Assad, they were good with Mubarak, they were good with Israel and they were gaining a lot of prominence because, they could talk to all sides. Turkey was gaining a lot of prominence as a model. It had succeeded in development, politics, accommodating Islam in a modern society; also the US was very present. Over the past three years, the US left (although now it seems to be coming back again!). Turkey and Qatar were in the middle but today they are partisans. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not have a pro-active role before; now they are stepping up and becoming more pro-active then they had throughout their history. Saudi Arabia is the main external driver in Egypt, the Emirati air force bombed Libya a few days ago and Saudi Arabia is backing the Lebanese army with billions of dollars. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates stepped in to fill the void that has appeared after the United States left, to stand against the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. This has definitely changed the order of the region. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are now really active members. Turkey is kind of isolated. It is no longer the big brother of the Middle East as it was two or three years ago. Qatar has been very much contained, lost in Egypt, and is isolated in the Gulf Cooperation Council. It has taken a lot of blows. It is trying to regain influence but it has taken a lot of hits.

In 2010, Iran was inheriting the whole Levant. It was inheriting all of Iraq, it had all of Syria, it had all of Lebanon and it had Gaza. It was looking at Yemen, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia and so on. But between 2011 and 2014, it lost half of Syria; it lost half of Iraq. Iran is not in trouble completely but it had much more 3 years ago than today. It is at war in Syria, it is at war in Iraq. It faces a lot of challenges and I think it mismanaged its empire, but it is still a big player.
Israel stays isolated like before, maybe more isolated than before. It does not have good relations with Turkey today but still has good relations with the new Egypt. It lost it under Morsi for a while but re-gained it. The US is much less influential in the Middle East, although its recent reengagement in Iraq and Syria could change that. Of course, Russia now has come back to play a role through Syria mainly.
China is a player in the oil industry. The US occupied Iraq partly for the oil but China ended up getting it, not the US. China is emerging as the future of Gulf oil. The US still protects the oil but it is China that really consumes it. You look forward and, in twenty or thirty years, what China is going to do about the Gulf and the oil is a good question. The US does not need that oil like it used to.

Pınar Akpınar: Before the Arab Spring, there were a couple of non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and there were also these traditional state actors. It was possible for them to exist in parallel. Now there are new non-state actors and this parallel coexistence does not seem possible. It is invading those countries and establishing cross-border states. The Kurds are gaining prominence. What do you think about these non-state actors?

Paul Salem: As you have said before, there was Hezbollah, Hamas and now there is obviously ISIS as the big player. ISIS is the new 'big boy on the block.' There are similarities between all of these groups but also deep differences. Similarities are yes, they are not officially states, they do not follow the same rules, and some of them do not respect borders as much as others. At the same time, I think they have a lot of differences. It is hard to say that Hezbollah is completely a non-state actor. It is but it is also a part of the Iranian defense strategy. It is part of the Iranian state's foreign security policy. It is not completely an independent actor. It was set up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Lebanese joined because it helped them liberate their land. Iranians back it up because it is Shia protecting their land, but it is also part of iran's deterrence to Israel and the US. If Iran or the US wants to attack Israel, Iran has Hezbollah to make Israel pay a very heavy price. Syria also used hezbollah to deter Israel, to make Israel pay a price and so on. Hezbollah has always been a Lebanese group but strategically an Iranian institution. Hezbollah is not totally a non-state actor.

Hamas is really a Palestinian liberation movement like Fatah but it is also a non-state actor. But its project is quite nationalistic.
ISIS is an international movement. It seeks to build a strict theocratic state, but it does not have a recognizable nationalist agenda, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas. But ISIS is certainly the new powerful non state actor. We will have to see if it can survive the current onslaught against it and be a more permanent part of the Middle East scene, like Hezbollah and Hamas have become.
Kurds are the only ones that might be close to declaring a state. The rise of the Kurds has been one of the phenomena of recent years; particularly the last 3 months as they were able to take parts of Northern Syria. They are part of the new regional map. The collapse of the Sykes-Picot line between Iraq and Syria, you can say, is part of the new regional disorder.

Pınar Akpınar: How do you think the sectarian divide has surfaced in this geography? What are the causes and possible consequences of it?

Paul Salem: The sectarian tension is caused by political exclusion in Syria and Iraq. It is because of bad politics that people go back to their sectarian community and demand something. In other words had Syria been governed in an inclusive way it would have been different. The cause is the normal political problems in Syria and Iraq that throw people to their communities to demand something. The importance of that is, it is not that Sunnis and Shias by nature have problem with each other. It is that when you exclude somebody, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, black or white they are going to complain. They will complain as whites or blacks or Kurds. The solution in the places that it is happening such as Syria and Iraq is to have better and more inclusive politics. This problem is made much worse, because from Iran and some of the Gulf countries, these sectarian identities are provided with lots of money. That makes things worse.

During the Cold War, if you wanted to make a party, you would either go to Moscow and organize as communists or to Washington and organize as something else. Now if you want to do politics you go to Tehran and say look I am Shia and they give you money so you can do politics; or you go to the Gulf and ask for support for a Sunni movement. The money is coming from these places and the fact is that in this part of the Middle East and the Gulf there is a fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Gulf security, over who dominates the Gulf. The US is withdrawing and is leaving a mess behind it. Iraq is what it is, Iran is powerful, and they have nuclear know how. So this regional disorder, which would cause problems in any part of the World, is causing problems to the big states which are Iran and Saudi Arabia. When they fight with each other, they organize proxies in the way that they know how. They organize you as a Sunni; they organize you as a Shia. The regional instability in the Gulf in the Eastern part of the Middle East makes the Sunni-Shia divide worse. If everybody sat down at the table and calmed down the region you would not have to organize Sunnis and Shias to fight in Bahrain. There is a geo-strategic level as well and locally there are normal political problems. In terms of solution the only practical thing to do at this point is to have inclusive politics. Lebanon has it and it is doing okay despite great pressures. Syria does not have it and we have a civil war. Maliki tried to avoid it and he has a civil war. So you have to include people. It is not that complicated.

Pınar Akpınar: What do you think are the Saudi foreign policy priorities? How do you think that it will influence the future of the Arab Spring?

Paul Salem: I think they have two main concerns now. One obviously is Iran having a large influence on the region. They are afraid of Iran; they think that Iran always wants to be the hegemon of the Gulf and the Middle East. Of course, Iran is bigger; it has more people, and the like. Now with Iraq on its side there is a great absence of balance in the Gulf. As the US becomes less and less present and less effective, the Saudis and the Gulf feel more and more insecure and more instability. It is obvious that they are trying to contain and fight the Iranians all over. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen, that is clear. Their other concern recently was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. They felt that it was a trans-national movement that if it rises in Egypt it can then make links with the AKP in Turkey, with Tunisia, Syria, and so on. This could become the new wave and Muslim Brotherhood has footholds in some parts of the Gulf so it could be an effective and domestic revolutionary movement. That is what they feared. Obviously they were very concerned and they moved to support the change in Egypt. Otherwise their foreign policy concerns relate to keeping oil prices in a certain range. They are also worried about the future of their relationship with the US, which has been their main guarantor for the last century. If the US can no longer be reliable, who would their international ally be? I do not think that they have an answer yet. But it is something for the future they are thinking about.

Pınar Akpınar: You have said that Israel is isolated. It seems like much of the discourse of the Arab Spring has been that Israel is dominated by the threat of political Islamists or extremists. Why is Israel isolated in the terms of intellectual analysis? Do you see any perspective, preparation, any idea on the future of the Arab Spring?

Paul Salem: It is true that the Israelis, from the very beginning, all they could see in the Arab Spring uprisings was risk and fear. They feared that any uprising would lead to Islamisation and radicalization. Maybe they were correct as the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections but they are definitely isolated in the sense that yes they are in the Middle East but they are not in the Arab World. People think that they understand the Arab World well, but they do not. Many Westerns understand it better because at least the Westerners do not have paranoia of their neighbors. First they cannot go to these countries, they have a security concern and they see everything as a threat. I do not think they have had a good analysis of the dynamics of Arab society and so on. Unfortunately many of their pessimistic predictions came true in Libya, Egypt and so on. Right now they are concerned about security. Obviously right now you cannot talk much about the Arab Spring, there was an Arab Spring; it is still alive in Tunisia , but that is about it.

Pınar Akpınar: How do you see the future role of the US in the Arab Spring countries? Do you think that it will be a universal one or a case dependent one?

Paul Salem: The role is limited. The US has openly declared that it does not seek a big role in Arab transition politics. It has said, 'we care about Israel, we care about oil flows, we care about terrorism, we care about weapons of mass destruction.' Indeed the US administration threatened Syria over chemical weapons and is negotiating with Iran on nuclear weapons; and now is reengaged in Iraq and Syria in the fight against terrorism. It fights terrorism wherever it can; it stands with Israel no matter what. So, on those things this is what Obama said that is what they do and these are the main things they care about. They will also stand by their allies. It is true that when it comes to the big GCC countries the US still guarantees their security. If there is any threat to these countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, the US is there with the air force and the army. That continues to be the case; that has not changed. There might be a question right now.

In general the US influence and interest is generally on the decline. This is partly linked to the US exhaustion on having too many wars and too many problems. But also, the US is gradually becoming oil independent. It might still take some years but that is the direction. The big companies and the big industry in the US no longer feel that they have to be in the Gulf, it is not a matter of economic life or death. China feels that way now but the US does not feel that way anymore. If you look one or two decades down the road, the US might slowly have less and less impact. They will still be there but not going up, going down.

One thing about this administration is that it has not had good relations with its allies. It has allies but they have not had good relations. The US-Turkish relations are weak. Obama and Erdoğan are not really friends. Obama and Netanyahu are not friends. Obama and Sisi, Obama and King Abdullah are not friends. This is very unusual. The US presidents, at least with the allies, usually have good and strong relations. This administration does not. There are some reasons why they have bad relations. The US disagreed with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates over Egypt. also, they disagreed over Syria. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates wanted to do more while the US did not. Maybe that will now change as the US gets more engaged in Syria. Turkey and the US disagreed on Syria as well. Obama got distant from Erdoğan over the 'Mavi Marmara' and problems with Israel also created problems. When Erdoğan had the domestic demonstrations he did not look as shiny as he looked three years ago. Obama also took a step back. Also I think that it is partly Obama. His style is that he does not have friends. He does not have friends inside the US as well. He is popular, he is a great speechmaker but he does not have friends in the congress. Clinton or Bush had a lot of friends, Ronald Ragan as well. They were politicians who worked through relationships. Obama is a politician who works through speeches and presentations.

The relationship might change with a new president. Also you can say that George Bush told his allies in a way, 'Move away I am coming, I will do it myself.' Obama almost says 'Move out of the way I am leaving.' Both of them have said 'move out of the way' where in the old days like Clinton all the way back to Nixon, the US position was, 'We do not get involved directly. So, we work through our allies.' Enhancing the relations with the allies was important because the allies did things that you did not want to do yourself. Bush, the father, was the first one who took the army to do it by himself to save Kuwait. Bush, the son, did the same thing and then Obama pulled out saying, 'I do not need any allies. I am leaving.' I think the new president will probably re-calibrate, go back to the old style and say, 'Let us just have our allies work with us. Let us stay home. Let them do the things that we need to have done.' It will take a lot of work to fix the relations with the allies because there is no common vision. The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia... Each one wants something different.