Reporting from Syria: An Interview with Charles Glass

Despite holding citizenship in both the US and the UK, Charles Glass is more than willing to criticize the governments of these countries in what he sees as extreme failures in their Middle East policy. With years of reporting from the region, he has gained significant expertise about the Middle East and the forces that move it, and he, therefore, feels more than confident to make this assessment. Given that Glass has been on the ground in the Middle East during some of the most dangerous periods of its contemporary history, we, and Western policymakers, can gain valuable insight by giving him the space to describe the region as he sees it today. The interview that follows does just that. Charles Glass was born in Los Angeles, California in 1951. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from the University of Southern California in 1972 and proceeded to graduate studies at the American University of Beirut. He began his journalistic career there in the ABC News Bureau with Peter Jennings. He was the ABC News Chief for the Middle East from 1983 to 1993. During this time, Glass conducted what would become his most famous news story, an interview with the hostage crew of TWA flight 847 at Beirut Airport. He broke the news that the hijackers had moved the hostages, which caused the Reagan administration to abort a rescue attempt. In the following year, Glass was held hostage in Lebanon for two months. The experience is recorded in one of his books, Tribes with Flags. He has served under numerous media outlets, including CNN, Harper’s magazine, The Independent, the London Review of Books, Newsweek, and the Observer. His freelance pieces have appeared in these and additionally, The Guardian, TIME magazine, The Daily, Rolling Stone, and the London Magazine. He has two books published on World War II, and his other works on the Middle East include The Tribes Triumphant, The Northern Front, and most recently Syria Burning. At the time of this interview in October 2015, Glass had just returned from reporting in Syria and had published "In the Syrian Deadlands" with the New York Review of Books.

With the emulation effects of the Arab Spring and the momentum that seems to have been building towards civil war, how much influence could the United States have had during these early stages of the civil war in Syria?

Glass: Many people took hope from the successful revolution in Tunisia, but it wasn't violent. The revolution that brought Mubarak down, though it turned into a bit of a fiasco later, was also not violent. You talk to the activists in Damascus, they were begging their comrades not to bring weapons to the demonstrations, and someone was supplying them with weapons. Somebody helped turn that violent. I say that some Syrians wanted to, but they were a very small minority because they'd already seen what violence did to Iraq and Lebanon. They felt that the regime couldn't deal with general strikes and massive demonstrations and that it would have to give because it didn't have mechanisms for dealing with that. They had mechanisms for dealing with violence. They dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982 by destroying half the city of Hama. They knew how to deal with attempted military coups because throughout the 1950s and 60s, they made themselves coup proof. What they didn't know how to deal with, because they had never had it before, was the sort of street demonstrations in Cairo and Tunis, and that's why most of the activists in Damascus, almost all of whom have now been put in prison or have fled the country because there is no place for them and they're not welcome amongst the jihadists, were arguing for something else. They were arguing for democracy and free speech. The jihadists are not arguing for democracy and free speech. They're arguing for another totalitarian system now, but a non-secular one. So I think the Arab Spring did inspire those people originally. The US and those who wanted to get rid of the Syrian regime, even at the risk of violence and destroying the country, helped to turn that uprising into a violent civil war. That's my view, and I could be wrong, but that's how it seems to me.

In Iraq, did you find that there is a willingness to contemplate partition?

Glass: People talk about it, but no one’s got a plan and drawing new borders would cause another war. Between the Kurdish regional government and the Baghdad government area there’s a thick line called "the disputed territories," which will be left for future negotiation if there’s going to be a referendum on independence for Kurdistan. The Kurds control most of those areas down, but the Baghdad government does not want them to, and as a result of many of the Kurdish activities – partly taking Kirkuk, partly doing oil deals with international oil companies over the head of Baghdad – Baghdad has now cut the seventeen percent of its oil wealth that it was sending to Kurdistan to pay its civil servants completely. The Kurds now have not been paid since July. And the Peshmergas, who were the strongest force fighting ISIS, have also not been paid since July. Because of this morale is very low in Kurdistan and the once buoyant economy is now suffering greatly. It’s not a good time to discuss the formalization of partition because no one’s going to be able to cope with it. No one’s ready for it now. In the distant future, perhaps.

How much support does Assad maintain in Damascus and greater Syria?

Glass: Sixty-five percent of Syrians are Sunni Arabs. If they had all opposed Assad, he would have been out in twenty-four hours. They didn't. They didn't necessarily love him, but the system was never meant to elevate the Alawis to a ruling class. A few people from their immediate family benefited enormously. If you go to the Alawi areas now, they're the poorest areas in the country. People don't have running water in their houses. They're mostly farmers with two acres. They themselves have not been elevated. The Sunni middle class in Damascus and Aleppo benefited enormously from the Assad regime, so they were intelligent enough to spread the wealth. Those people still feel they would get a better deal from him than the Islamic State because they want their daughters to go to school. They want to have a normal life. It is true that they want to have more freedom. They'd love to read a newspaper that doesn't have Assad's picture on the front page everyday. They'd love the sort of normal things that the rest of the world has, but even without those, they don't want what they see in Raqqa. People flee Raqqa to Damascus when they can, and they tell horror stories about what is going on there. So even if those Sunnis aren't fully supporting Assad, they're not fighting against him and that's enough for him.

When you were in Damascus, did you sense any tension from the Syrian regime in regards to outside actors, such as the Iranian Quds Forces and Hezbollah, being able to dictate course?

Glass: Not from the regime so much as ordinary people. A lot of Sunnis in Damascus and Aleppo resent the Iranian-ization of the country. They see it as Shi’a-ization. There was a time when some of the Iranians tried to convert Sunnis, which was a huge mistake, like the Christian missionaries of came in the 19th century who also tried to convert. It doesn’t work, but it created a lot of resentment, and that resentment is increasing. A lot of the Iraqi Shi’a fighters and Hazaras who have come with their families have been put in flats in Damascus. And this has led to some resentment as well; Sunnis feel that they’re being displaced. And these Sunnis, who live in Damascus by the way, they haven’t deposed the regime. They don’t like the regime but they haven’t fought against it. In a way, they welcome the Russian intervention as a counterbalance to this Iranian-ization because the Russians don’t have any religious agenda. And they think that if the Russians are running things, they’re not going to try and drive Sunnis out. So in a way it’s helping the regime with its Sunnis who have not opposed it yet.

Do you think that the Iran nuclear deal has had any effect on Syria, on Iraq, or any part of situation in the Middle East?

Glass: Well, so far, no. In theory, there was a prospect for the US to say, ‘We and the Iranians have a common enemy, we can coordinate.’ Instead, they have coordination with the Iraqi army, which coordinates with Iran. So there’s an indirect coordination. IS is a very serious military force, it’s not a joke. They fight better than the Iraqi army. They fight better than the Syrian army. To defeat ISIS, all these nations should coordinate but they’re not. And that didn’t come out of the nuclear deal—they’ve always said that nuclear negotiations are a separate issue, other things can be discussed or not. But the deal doesn’t lead to a good relationship; it just means that that problem is solved, or put aside at least.

What has the Syrian civil war done for not only the political position of Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also its strategic and military ambitions in the region?

Glass: Well, they’ve lost a lot of men. I know that. It’s also made them very unpopular with the other sects in Lebanon. It’s helped Amal, another Lebanese Shi'ite party, to come back and achieve a little bit of independence from Hezbollah because many feel feel that Amal represents more Shiites, although they’re corrupt. But Hezbollah is still a powerful force. They’re still the kingmakers in Lebanon. They’re still preventing a president from being chosen. They’ve paralyzed the Lebanese state.

How do you assess Putin's intentions to play a role not only in Syria but possibly in Iraq as well? What might the ramifications of that be for the US position, both in Iraq and Syria?

Glass: Well, while I was in Baghdad, there was a Russian military delegation meeting with the Ministry of Defense. They’re already coordinating their confrontation with IS. They feel that the American policy in confronting IS has failed. Clearly, it has. They have not supplied, for example, the Peshmergas with any weapons at all. The Peshmergas are down to very few bullets. They have no tanks. They have no heavy artillery. They are completely abandoned on American airstrikes, which are rather difficult to predict. The Americans are doing very little close-air support for the Peshmerga infantry. They’re doing some with the popular militias in the South. They seem to be giving more support to the popular missions in the South than they are to the Kurds. I think that shows a slight incoherence in Washington’s policy on whether they’re really serious about defeating IS. If Washington were serious, they would be doing more like what the Russians are doing: a lot of close air support for the Syrian army, the Iranian forces, the Hezbollah forces, the Iraqi Shiites who’ve come to Syria to take back the countryside around Aleppo and Hama. This is just in the last two weeks. Russia has become more involved because it is committed to its only client state in the Middle East. If you look at the map of the Middle East, from Morocco and Mauritania all the way to the borders of Iran, every country is an American client state except one, Syria. So there’s no way that Putin was going to dump his only ally in the region, lose all credibility in the region, give up his only naval base outside the old Soviet Union, just to please the United States. Because he’s committed to Assad, and Assad was losing two months ago – Assad had lost all of Idlib province, he'd lost Palmyra, things were getting very bad in Daraa again, and the countryside around Homs was narrowing around the city. If Putin didn’t do what he’s doing now, he could have lost him, and he doesn’t want to lose him. Moving into Iraq, if he can have good relations with Iraq and pick up on this anti-American sentiment amongst Iraqis, he could conceivably have two client states, Iraq and Syria.Both are impressive and corrupt, but so are all of America’s client states, so the Middle East is used to it.

- To read more, find the full interview here

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