A Conversation about Syria, Pan-Arabism, and Political Islam with Sciences Po’s Federico Manfredi Firmian

We met Federico Firmian Manfredi for a discussion on his latest paper, Syria, Pan-Arabism, and political Islam.

In Federico Firmian Manfredi’s latest paper, “The War in Syria: A Longue Durée Perspective”, the Sciences Po Political Science faculty member employs a longue durée perspective (meaning that he gives priority to long-term historical structures) to understanding the Syrian conflict, arguing that one of the driving forces of conflict in Syria has been the recurrence of struggles between those pushing for ever greater capitalist integration and those resisting such efforts in the name of alternative ideologies, including communism, Pan-Arab nationalism, and various distinct currents of political Islam. To demonstrate these dynamics, Mr. Manfredi presents a sweeping overview of the history of Syria and of the greater region, from Ottoman times to the present. Moreover it details the war that broke out in Syria in 2011, highlighting how it relates to broader struggles unfolding across the immediate region and beyond.

We met Mr. Manfredi for a discussion on his paper, Syria, Pan-Arabism, and political Islam. The transcript of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Quarterly: For our readers who haven’t read your paper yet, could you briefly describe what the paper is about and your motivations behind writing?

I actually teach a course called War in Syria in the fall semester at Sciences Po’s Reims campus and this paper actually summarises much of the analysis in that course. In the paper, I explain what is driving the conflict in Syria, showing that the conflict is largely the result of ideological struggles that have developed over the last couple of centuries, mostly related to capitalism and the opposition to capitalism.

Why did you decide to adopt the long durée perspective for this work and what are some of your points that you have covered under this new category?

I think to put into perspective some of the issues that are neglected in the discussion of the war in Syria. For example, many studies consider the many mistakes of Bashar al-Assad and his father in discussing the Syrian conflict, but they don’t explain where their authoritarian governments truly came from. I think that a historical understanding is an important element of what is happening in Syria: To understand how this conflict came about, we need to view the Ba’ath Party – the party which gave way to the Assad family’s control of the Syrian government – as coming out of a broad ideological current of Pan-Arab socialism. This Pan-Arab socialism developed in opposition to imperialism and capitalism in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. 

What links socialism with Pan-Arabism ?

In its [pan-arabism] heyday  had a promise of uniting all Arab people, of erasing all the colonial borders. The borders of the Arab world are pretty much all the result of imperialist decisions and aimed at promoting the economic interests of outsiders. There was a sense at the time, particularly in the 40s and 50s, that Arab people could unite and do away with the colonial borders. As part of this, they could pursue socialist policies of development that would lead to some redistribution of resources, land redistribution and create a more just social order. It was a very popular ideology and Pan-Arabic parties came to power in many countries across the region. 

What are the implications of the paper on the continued stability of the Middle-East? How will governments establish political stability without a strong economy?

So in the case of Syria, I think a great policy mistake on the part of the United States was to spend billions of dollars to support the Syrian opposition during the course of the conflict. American support of the opposition  only fueled the conflict longer and more destructive and failed to achieve its main objective: Bashar al-Assad is still in power. It failed to achieve its objective and made the conflict longer and more destructive. In this regard, there are some parallels to be made with what happened in Libya in 2011 and to some extent  with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Often these interventions are aimed at overthrowing a system that doesn’t work, but the idea that imposing elections and free markets will fix the problem is misguided. In fact, these interventions [in Iraq, Libya, and Syria] prove that interventions can cause more harm than good. They can destabilize entire regions as all of three of these conflicts have proven. 

Syria most likely will remain under authoritarian government for the foreseeable future. In a few years, other crises will perhaps emerge, and it will be very difficult for the country to come out of this vicious cycle. 

You mention in the conclusion of your paper that capitalism is inherently aggressive against systems positioned outside of it. Within Syria or other countries who saw the rise of Pan-Arabism, do you think that the failure of capitalism stems from its status as an ideology or its status as a symbol of Western intervention?

Its failures are often the result of a wrong-headed approach. Opposition to capitalism has empowered many radical governments that promised to fix the system’s inherent problems, to create a more just economic model. We have many examples of that; from communism to Pan-Arabism to more recently governments that use some form of political Islam like Iran. There have certainly been some policy approaches taken by governments that have been counterproductive, and which have led to economic failure and political crisis. And often, some type of intervention on the part of capitalist states see an opportunity to change the system and reintroduce capitalist logic. 

What characterizes political Islam and how does socialism link to it, other than being a contrary to the western capitalism? Do you see political-Islam as a form of populism?

I see it as an opposition to capitalism and as a possible alternative to capitalist system in the same way that communism offered a series of alternatives to capitalism. But like communism had many different varieties, political Islam also takes a variety of forms. Political Islam if anything is even more varied with many different political currents all aimed at establishing a better system. Whether that actually works or improves the well-being of the nation, as its promoters argue, remains doubtful. We have some examples of governments that came to power by presenting political Islam as an alternative to capitalism: from the Islamic Republic in Iran to Hamas in Gaza or the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are all very different in of themselves but all offer an alternative to capitalism – still none of them have managed to create economic models that really work. 

Do you see a popular wish for a capitalist economic system in Syria today? 

That is a very difficult question because of the history of capitalism in the Middle-East. Capitalism in the Middle East was never really popular because of its associations with colonialism – an association which only intensified with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the minds of many, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was associated with Western support for Israel. As a result, many rejected capitalism in the name of some other ideological alternative. Given what has happened in more recent years, the invasion in Iraq, the intervention in Libya intervention, I think there is still a great degree of scepticism if not [an outright] dislike of capitalism. Political Islam seems more popular and certainly has more momentum than capitalism in the region. 

Given its history, do you think a capitalist system and free elections would stabilize Syria?

I wouldn’t say that. The problem is that in Syria we’re at the point in which it is very difficult to come up with a solution. Mistakes were made. So many bad things happened. At this point to think that just having elections and free markets would stabilize Syria is doubtful. It may just lead to more conflict and a situation of more or less permanent, decades-long, civil war. Think of Afghanistan or Somalia, for example. I think some changes should have been made earlier, and at this stage it is very difficult to come out of the current predicament.

Is there another economic model that would yield sustainability in the region? 

The problem is that we are now in such a dire situation that leaving the state of conflict would be extremely difficult. I think that the greatest hope is to be found in the countries that are still holding together. For example, Jordan or, beyond the immediate region, Morocco and Tunisia. It is certainly easier for the international community to strengthen countries that already have a somewhat stable economic and political model than attempt to stabilize countries like Syria or Iraq where institutions have already fallen apart. It will be very difficult to find solutions that effectively stabilize Syria. 

If the Syrian government regains the bulk of its territory, which economic model do you think Bashar Al-Assad may seek to develop?

He seems to be going with an illiberal capitalist model. He’s doing away with many Pan-Arabic ideas of socialism which the government simply cannot afford anymore, and instead opening up to private economic actors while keeping the politics tightly closed. This is quite similar to what Russia and other authoritarian systems have tried to do in the last couple of decades. Of course, in Syria it will be much more difficult because the country is in ruins. There is no economy to speak of and there is very little incentive to invest even in the private sector. But that is the model that the government seems to be going for: some degree of  private economic activity with close ties between the business elites and the government to keep tight control on politics. 

If the government cements its power and employs such an illiberal capitalistic model,  do you think that or Pan-Arabism is the stable form of government economically and politically? Or are there other possible alternatives including democracy at some point in the future?

I would say it’s not a stable model because as we’ve seen in recent years, so many of these countries with authoritarian governments in this region of the world, fall apart. If it was a great model, there would have been no war in Syria in the first place. The fact that there was this long, destructive war in Syria shows that the model did not work. As to how Syria could move to something else, it is very difficult at this point. There was perhaps a chance for something to happen in that direction in the Northeast  part of the country where the United States had a military presence in partnership with the Syrian democratic forces. There, some elections have taken place, but that development was disrupted by the US withdrawal and the return of the Syrian government to those areas. Syria most likely will remain under authoritarian government for the foreseeable future. In a few years, other crises will perhaps emerge and it will be very difficult for the country to come out of this vicious cycle. 

In the conclusion of your paper, you mention the aggressiveness of capitalism in forcing other economic models to adopt it. In your opinion, how important were non-state actors in influencing Western governments to engage in imperialistic missions in the Middle East?

So in the case of Iraq, interests of fossil fuel lobbies were clear. The war was largely about opening up the Iraqi economy to the world to sell and produce greater quantities of oil and hence lower oil prices on international markets with the idea that oil companies would profit. More broadly [such an opening] would fuel the growth of the global economy. In the case of Syria, there were strong interests that related to the stabilization of Lebanon and the security of Israel. Specifically,  the belief was, back in 2011, that if a regime change were to happen in Syria, then Lebanon would be stabilized, Hezbollah would be sidelined, and Israel would be more secure. Moreover, there could be more trade in the region between Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and it would be good for business. The government of Bashar al-Assad was one of the last anti-imperialist governments to want to oppose the US-dominated global capitalist order. In this sense, its fall would likely have been in the interest of many foreign businesses.

Would it be valid to say that the foreign intervention in Syria was not started by governments such as that of the United States but rather by private interests? 

I would say it was started by the United States and its allies due to pressure from private interests that thought this would be great for business in the region. I will say, more generally, that private business interests are very much institutionalized in the US government: people move from the private sector to the public sector. Ideas favorable to private enterprise are well entrenched in the US institutions at the highest level including foreign policy and defence. They have contributed to US foreign policy taking the form of active efforts to overthrow the government of Syria byto supporting the insurgency.

One last question, a bit more personal. If you were a ruler or in control of a country such as Iraq or Lebanon, what type of economic system or political system do you think you would use to not only have a stable political system but also relatively prosperous economic system. As we have seen in your paper, protests, particularly in 2011 were caused by poor quality of life due to the economic systems in place. 

I would not want to be in that position!  If I had the opportunity to give  some policy advice, I would increase transparency. I think transparency is something that is key to improving the situation of countries like Iraq or Lebanon. There is a huge degree of corruption there and by making things more transparent, much of that would be exposed. There are vested interests, of course, that do not allow increased transparency, but if, for example, there could be full transparency as to the government’s budget, detailing where the money is spent, what the outcomes have been, how examining can it be spent better, we would have the beginnings of a step in the right direction. As to the size of the public sector, I don’t think that is so much of a problem as networks of patronage already exist within government. 

Regarding sustainability, many of the industrial policies that exist in these countries are very unsustainable environmentally. And so fixing environmental policy is a huge issue, a very difficult one. More sustainable agricultural practices would perhaps stem the flow of people from the countryside to the cities. Such a shift is very destabilizing and very hard on people’s lives. People that leave the countries for the cities often face very harsh conditions. Life doesn’t necessarily get better once they arrive to the cities. 

Our interview with Professor Manfredi only touched upon some of his ideas about the Middle-East region. Should you wish to read more, you can find his latest paper here

Many thanks to Matthew Capuano-Rizzo for editing the transcript and to Chloe Bhumgara and Shriya Sharma for assisting with the interview.

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