Departing Washington. Next Stop: Reality.
While U.S. officials are absorbed in abstract policy discussions, there are some aspects of the Middle East’s current crisis that you can only understand by going there.
Something happens when I step on a plane to fly to my home country, Lebanon. During the 12-hour journey, a slow, almost imperceptible transition takes place.
I take off from Dulles airport a Washington-based foreign correspondent and an impassive analyst of U.S. foreign policy, and I land a Levantine who liberally sprinkles her speech with Arabic swear words like any self-respecting Lebanese; mixes French, English, and Arabic in every sentence; and, I’m ashamed to admit, ignores many traffic rules like everyone else in the country.
But I also reconnect with the reality of the war next door and the angst of living barely a two-hour drive away from both Damascus, Syria, and the self-declared caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The conversations in my adopted home of Washington about the Islamic State or about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can sometimes feel like an academic exercise: They are rooted in policy options and are disconnected from the impact on real people’s lives. The White House often makes short-term policy decisions, but to people on the receiving end, the long-term impact can be more obvious and dangerous than it is for decision-makers in the United States.
Of course, I don’t forget I’m from Lebanon while I’m in the United States — I only moved here seven years ago. But when you’re an ocean away from the Middle East, that intuitive ability to think through how players on the ground will react to a decision made in Washington and to decipher the minutiae of their calculations gets dulled by the demands of a job that requires you to understand the nuances of inside-the-Beltway logic.
So the longer I live in the United States, the more often I go back to the reality that is home, a country paralyzed by the war in Syria. Lebanon is flooded by Syrian refugees who now make up close to 25 percent of the country’s population, the highest per capita refugee population in the world. The Islamic State is knocking at the gates and has been holding roughly a dozen Lebanese Army soldiers hostage for almost a year. Lebanon’s Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, is rounding up more foot soldiers from villages in the Bekaa Valley for its war to support Assad. There has been no president since last summer, while Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for control of Arab capitals.
The day after I arrived in Beirut this June, I met up with a Syrian friend over coffee. He has transferred his life and work from Damascus to Beirut over the last year. He and his wife bought an apartment and had a baby. They’re among the very lucky ones, even within their own family.
In 2011, just as the uprising in Syria was starting, his brother graduated with a master’s degree in psychology and high hopes for the future. He was then drafted into the army for the obligatory two-year military service. But the army never released him, and four and a half years later, the young man is stuck in a war he didn’t choose on one of its front lines, close to the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah is in control. “What was Washington doing to end the war? When will it end?” my friend asked plaintively.
This is one of the more benign stories you can hear out of Syria today. But it’s when I’m face to face with these stories of people grappling with their country’s slow, inexorable descent into hell that the disconnect between the two worlds I inhabit can feel most poignant.
There have been more discombobulating reality checks. On Aug. 22, 2013, I had an off-the-record breakfast with a senior U.S. official in Washington. It happened to be the day after the chemical attack in Ghouta, outside Damascus, carried out by Assad forces.
I listened calmly and took notes on the policy explanation of why a strike was now inevitable. This administration was not interested in getting involved in civil wars, the official said, but when international laws are broken, such as with the use of chemical weapons, it has to take action. The strikes would be targeted and limited: command-and-control centers, military-airport runways. Plans would be drawn up and presented to the president.
I alerted my editors about the impending news story, wrote an internal planning note, and we quietly prepared our coverage plans. That evening, I got on a plane to Lebanon for a long-planned trip.
By the time I landed in Beirut, I was seized by the same panic gripping the country. In case of a strike, Lebanon’s airspace would be shut and the airport would close. U.S. warships would be positioned not far off Lebanon’s coast, so the port would likely be shut down as well. I had left calm conversations over Washington power breakfasts and had landed in the eye of the storm.
Schools were starting in a couple of weeks, and frantic friends asked me whether they should enroll their children in schools abroad and pack them on the first plane out. Memories of wars and evacuations, distant and more recent, overwhelmed everyone. In the end, of course, there was no strike; two years later, the anti-Assad camp is cursing the United States for backing down.
There is, of course, an argument to be made that U.S. officials should make coolheaded, calculated decisions to advance the national security interests of their country, rather than be pressured into panicked, emotional reactions. But when, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and related attacks in France, President François Hollande said he regretted that the international community had not acted in Syria in August 2013, he seemed to indicate that decision-makers in Washington had been blind to the long-term impact of their U-turn.
Today, the panic in Beirut is about the barbarians just across the mountain range separating Lebanon from Syria who are beheading fellow Muslims, enslaving women, and trying to alter the collective memory of those they rule. On this border, Hezbollah militants and the Syrian army are engaged in heavy clashes with militants of the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and fighting sporadically spills over into Lebanese territory. Fear of an Islamic State attack inside Lebanon, against a beach resort or a busy shopping mall, weighs on everyone’s mind.
But neither the U.S. strategy to deal with Assad nor the one to tackle the Islamic State can make any sense when you look at them while sitting in a cafe by the Mediterranean. The twin challenges are connected, and one of the more perplexing aspects of the Syrian conflict for people in the region is how it seems to have been reduced to the issue of the Islamic State and a counterterrorism problem in Washington. Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks recently pointed out that this whack-a-mole approach allows officials to say they’re doing something when they have no actual strategy.
The Islamic State isn’t just a counterterrorism concern. Six million people are estimated to live under its rule in Iraq and Syria. It represents a social and cultural problem, an insidious but fundamental transformation of a society that is still proud of its complex makeup and history but could forget what its recent past was made of, the way most Saudis have forgotten that they had unveiled Saudi women on their screens just three decades ago.
The longer the group controls large swaths of territory, ruling by terror, the harder it will be to undo the damage. Just ask people in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas how their lives, cultural heritage, and tribal ties have been wrecked by two decades of Taliban rule.
If you’re hoping that over time the Islamic State will mellow and become an acceptable member of the system of nations, think again. Militants or revolutionary movements sometimes become the system: More than 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah may have become more interested in the trappings of power and empire, but they’re still just as zealous in expanding their control from Iraq to Syria and exporting the underlying structures of the Iranian revolution, which allows them to maintain a tight grip on Shiite communities.
The idea that the Islamic State is a convenient magnet for jihadis that rids the rest of the world of their nuisance can also be an attractive one for policymakers, but that’s not how it has worked out in the past. In the 1980s, the Saudis thought that encouraging ultra-religious young men to travel to Afghanistan and fight the Soviets would rid the kingdom of the likes of Juhayman al-Otaybi, the radical who launched an assault against Mecca in November 1979. Fast-forward to September 2001 and then to the attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself in 2004 — attacks launched by al Qaeda, which has its origins in the Afghan jihad — and no one should be under any illusion that anyone can escape blowback from a civilian uprising that descended into war and has now transformed into a playground for radical militants.
Events have already shown that there is no containment strategy for Syria. A French jihadi who returned to Europe from Syria, where he was a captor of Western hostages, conducted the attack against the Jewish museum in Brussels last year in which four people were killed.
Syria can feel like it’s on another planet when you’re sitting in Washington, but for Europeans it’s very much in their backyard. Britain and Tunisia, for instance, are now united in their grief after the senseless attack on a beach in the Tunisian city of Sousse.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius just traveled to the Middle East in an effort to revive the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a quixotic, oddly timed endeavor, but his rationale was blunt: The Islamic State is reportedly making inroads in the Palestinian territories, and if the group suddenly found itself in the business of liberating Jerusalem, recruitment in Europe could skyrocket.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Poll after poll has shown there is minimal support for the Islamic State in the Arab world and wide support for the U.S. effort to target the group, including in countries like Jordan. Those who do voice support for the Islamic State or regional leaders who wink and nod to the group see it as a short-term tactic to counter Iran and the growing power of the Shiites.
The Islamic State is not a reflection of the hopes of the majority of young Arabs, and it certainly doesn’t answer the needs and desires they expressed when hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets across the region in 2011. The problems of the Arab world aren’t Washington’s to fix alone — but the conversation in the United States about this region also cannot be reduced to a tally of how many airstrikes the coalition has conducted every day against Islamic State targets.
The Arab uprisings are a distant memory now and the West has soured on the idea of change in the region, but the dire need for reform is still deep. Arab leaders from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Jordan’s King Abdullah II have valid security concerns, but they also use the threat posed by radical militants as an excuse to tighten their grip on power, squash civil liberties, and perpetuate the cycle of repression — all with U.S. acquiescence.
Toward the end of my stay in Beirut, I sat down with Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni democracy activist and writer who fled his home country in April so he could continue to speak out against a war that is getting very little coverage.
I first met Muslimi when he came to Washington in 2013 to testify before Congress about the impact of U.S. drone strikes on his country, after a Hellfire missile killed five people in his village of Wessab. It was the first time members of Congress heard from someone on the receiving end of America’s policy of “targeted” drone strikes. Muslimi had benefited from several American scholarships, including one that allowed him to study at the American University of Beirut, and he was an eloquent, passionate speaker.
“It was easier to reach the U.S. Congress than speak to parliament in Yemen,” he told me.
That’s what the Arab uprisings were about as well: demands for better representation, more accountability, more justice, more jobs. Not an Islamic State.
But “it was not our time,” Muslimi said of those who sought change in 2011. He believes that the key now is to understand what went wrong, learn from it, work hard to stay alive, and try again, harder. I know Muslimi is not alone, but voices like his are not heard often enough in the United States above the din of headlines about the threat of terrorism.
I’m back in Washington now, ready to dive back into policy conversations. I enjoy straddling the two worlds and relish the simple pleasures, the green and quiet of this city, even the uninterrupted power and air-conditioning — after all, I grew up during the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War and faced many hours plunged in the darkness in Beirut.
But if even I can sometimes forget what war felt like, I know how hard it can be to “feel” something you’ve never experienced as a policy maker in Washington. With future generations of the Middle East being shaped by the atrocities of war, it has never been more important to find ways to connect, to listen to different voices, and to understand the long-term implications of festering conflicts in this region.
Photo credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images