NPR

The Middle East: A Web Of 'Topsy-Turvy' Alliances

After a week of recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, an Israeli soldier stands on top of a mobile artillery unit in a position near the Israel Gaza border. (Getty Images)

Writing for the New York Review of Books at the beginning of November, Robert Malley, the program director for the Middle East and North Africa with the International Crisis Group, and Hussein Agha described the current situation in the Middle East:

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the U.S. forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The U.S. is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the U.S. hopes to help topple. The U.S. is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans whenever they can.

Malley and Agha, a fellow at St. Anthony's College, Oxford, wrote this, too, before the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas, and before President Morsi's recent power grab in Egypt. Elaborating on the ever-increasing complexity of the situation in the region, Malley tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that if there is ever going to be a lasting peace between Israel and Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah will have to join ranks in the interest of their shared aim of independence.

That, he says or, Israel will deal separately with Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, creating not a two-state solution but a patchwork that is today more in tune with realities on the ground, but less likely to promote a permanent peace settlement.

Malley says that the situation in the Middle East is one of the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that the U.S. is facing many of the same dilemmas it faced a decade ago, only with different actors.


Interview Highlights

On how a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israel depends on Fatah and Hamas joining ranks

"I don't know a single case of a national liberation movement that has succeeded, that has been able to act effectively on behalf of its people, when it was divided. One of two things always happens: Either one branch of the national movement eliminates the other ... or they find a way to get along and to at least unify their ranks for the purpose of resolving the conflict and achieving independence. I think at this point it's inconceivable that Fatah will eliminate Hamas, and I can't see that Hamas is going to eliminate Fatah, so the only solution if what you want — if what people want — is to see a meaningful negotiation between an empowered Israeli government, a representative Israeli government, and an empowered and representative Palestinian national movement, the only way to do that is for Palestinian ranks to unify. Now, they're going to need to unify on a platform that is compatible with peace, but they're going to need to unify if what we want is a negotiated settlement."

On the delicate balance the U.S. must strike between satisfying our national interests in the Middle East and respecting basic human rights

"I think the U.S. now is caught in that age-old dilemma that we thought we might have escaped with the Arab uprisings. We had the same problem with Mubarak and we still have the same problem with a number of leaders in the region: So long as they satisfy our interests when it comes to basic strategic needs (and, in particular, the relationship with Israel), are we or are we not prepared to excuse what they do at home? During the Mubarak era we did it and then when he was overthrown we said mea culpa, we made a mistake, we should never underestimate what's happening domestically because it plants the seeds of future instability and we shouldn't be prepared to trade those respects for basic democratic and human-rights rule at home for the sake of our strategic interests in the region. ... Well, here we are a year and a half later, exactly the same dilemma. ...

"It's understandable that ... right now for the United States the priority is to keep the cease-fire in place, make sure that relations between Egypt and Israel remain relatively solid, make sure that Egypt takes steps now to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Otherwise the cease-fire might unravel. Now, if that means we have to temper our criticism a little about what they're doing at home, well, maybe that trade is worth it. I can understand it, and I suspect that if I were sitting in the administration ... I might reach the same conclusion, but from an outsider's perspective, it looks so much like what we used to do and which we said we would not do again that it raises serious questions."

On why the alliances among Middle Eastern countries are difficult for Americans to untangle

"In some ways, the region is topsy-turvy and it preceded what happened in Syria. Syria is bringing it really to light [that] all the alliances — or so many of the alliances that we were familiar with — are things of the past, and this is something that I think the United States is going to have to cope with and deal with. ... In Syria, you have obviously countries that are theocratic countries ... like Saudi Arabia ... that are certainly far from being democratic ... that are on the side of those who are rising up against President Assad, but they're also supporting the Salafists in Syria, who are not rising up for the sake of democracy, but for a very different purpose. ... Then you have a country like Iran which is backing not just a secular regime or semi-secular regime in Syria, but one that has repressed its own Islamists, but backing it because of an age-old alliance between those two countries, and you have an organization like Hezbollah...which is backing the regime in Syria even though its former ally in this axis of resistance against Israel, Hamas, is opposing the regime.

"So, I think, the fault lines have become slightly clearer but they're fault lines that are not democrats versus non-democrats. Although many Syrians are rising up because they want to change the nature of the regime, the fault line is very much Sunni against Shiite; it's Persian-Iranian against Arabs. That's why a number of these alliances seem to us at least as Americans quite unnatural. ... The region has become really a smorgasbord in terms of its alliances, and ... something this unnatural just can't end well because these alliances are not clear cut, they don't make sense in terms of the political logic, they are temporary alliances, they are alliances of convenience."

On whether if it looks to the U.S. like a revolution, it is indeed a revolution

"This is a revolution and it's not a revolution. It's all kinds of things, games within games. Yes, there is a sense of a popular uprising of people who are profoundly ... dissatisfied with their economic conditions, with the sense that they were being ruled by unaccountable autocrats, with the sense of deepening corruption of a regime that was narrowing with people who were not just exploiting the masses but exploiting parts of the elite in order to monopolize more of their economic power, and of countries who have lost all sense of dignity because they didn't have any role on the regional scene. So there is that, but there is so much else, as I say: There are games within games ... there's a Sunni-Shite confessional clash, there's a newly minted cold war ... between the United States and Russia when it comes to Syria in particular. ... So, so much is happening all at once that it's hard to choose one term and to describe it as a 'revolution' or as anything else."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's so difficult right now, but so important to understand what's going on in the Middle East and the Arab world, which is why we asked Robert Malley to join us. He's the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa and has recently issued reports on the conflict and cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the Syrian conflict and its impact on Lebanon.

This month in the New York Review of Books, he co-authored an article titled "This is Not a Revolution," about the post-Arab Spring scramble for power that has been unleashed in the Arab world without clear rules, values or an end point.

He describes new alliances as topsy-turvy, shifting and defying logic, with theocratic regimes backing secularists, tyrannies promoting democracy and the U.S. forming partnerships with Islamists while Islamists are supporting Western military intervention.

The International Crisis Group is an NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. Malley was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. Robert Malley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about Israel and Gaza. The crisis isn't really over yet. The cease-fire appears tenuous. But in terms of where we are now, let's talk a little bit about what each has gained and each has lost with this latest conflict.

Let's start with Israel. Is there anything you can Israel gained through this conflict?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, you know, that's - I mean, first I think we have to have a thoughtful - all those who lost, and unfortunately they had no say in the conflict, they probably didn't want it to happen, and they paid the price, and that's mainly the civilian victims.

But now if you look at it from the point of view of the Israeli government, I think they look back, and they think they've achieved most of what they wanted to achieve, which is they killed the head of the militant wing of Hamas. They tested Iron Dome, which is a defensive system against missile attacks. And in some ways this was a dry run and a very successful one at that because they intercepted about 95 percent of the missiles and rockets that were sent their way.

They manage to deplete, to some significant extent, Hamas' arsenal, particularly of long-range rockets, and they proved to the world and to their foes that all the changes in the Middle East notwithstanding, the rise of popular movements, the rise of Islamism, that that didn't change, that in fact the changes changed very little from Israel's perspective.

It retained its freedom of maneuver. It could attack Gaza and maintain a working relationship with the Islamist president of Egypt. It proved that it could work well with President Obama, and it did all this without having to engage in a ground incursion, which they didn't want to do.

Now paradoxically from Hamas' point of view, it's also a victory. They proved that they could stand up to Israel's superior might. They proved that they didn't give in. They showed that they had greater recognition than ever in the past, since they received dignitaries from Egypt, from Qatar, from Turkey, from the Arab League, all of whom came to Gaza for the first time and witnessed both Hamas' power and the destruction that Israel had wrought.

They proved that they could work with Egypt, but, you know, most of all they proved that of the two wings of the Palestinian movement, the Islamist wing that they represent, and the nationalist, secular or non-Islamist wing that President Abbas and his movement Fatah represent; of the two today, the one that has the ability to wage war but also to negotiate with Israel and that is more recognized and more at the center of international tension, is Hamas. So they won...

GROSS: Which is totally paradoxical because Israel doesn't recognize Hamas. Neither Israel nor the United States will negotiate directly with Hamas because both define Hamas as a terrorist group.

MALLEY: That's right, and yet if you look at it practically, all of the most significant, meaningful, recent negotiations that Israel has had have not been with Fatah, there's been none really that have meant anything, they've been with Hamas over the release of Corporal Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held captive by Hamas for years in Gaza, a negotiation mediated by Egypt but nonetheless clearly a negotiation between Israel and Hamas.

Day-to-day negotiations sometimes through weapons, sometimes through Egypt, about the situation in Gaza and now a negotiation over the cease-fire. So Israel may say that it doesn't deal with or recognize or want to have anything to do with Hamas, but in reality it has much more to do with Hamas these days than it has to do with those who purportedly they want to deal with, they claim they want to deal with, Fatah.

GROSS: But is that because it's Hamas that's really posing the threat to Israel, therefore it's Hamas that has to be contended with?

MALLEY: Yes to a large extent that's true, and that's an argument that Hamas is going to make to the Palestinian public. It's going to say: Who does Israel pay attention to, those who are urging negotiations, who are forsaking the use of armed force, who are saying that they want to negotiate endlessly, or those who say we're not going to take it anymore, we're going to fire rockets, we're going to resist?

And the argument that Hamas is going to make is: Look who Israel pays attention to. It only listens to us. That's a very serious blow to the Palestinian non-Islamist national movement. They've been marginalized by this, and whether Israel intended this result or not, there's no doubt that among the losers of this conflict are the ones who stood on the sidelines, and President Abbas is prime among them.

GROSS: Iran and Syria have been backers of Hamas, and Hamas would look pretty bad now openly aligning with Syria, since the Syrian government is massacring its people. So what is the relationship now between Hamas and Syria, and Hamas and Iran? Is that relationship changing?

MALLEY: Oh, it's changed radically, and this is - you know, in some ways this war was the first - it was the first war between Israelis and Palestinians in the post-Arab uprising era. It was the first war in which Hamas was no longer aligned with Syria and Iran but with Egypt and Qatar and Turkey; three countries that are very close to the U.S.

So it was a real, live experiment in how war could be waged and what the relationships were after the fall of President Mubarak, after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, after the tumult in the war, civil war we're seeing in Syria.

And from Hamas' perspective, the relationship with Syria or with this Syrian government regime is over. There's no relationship whatsoever. The Syrian regime has shut down Hamas' offices in Damascus, and the leaders of Hamas denounce the actions of the Syrian regime daily.

They don't want to go too far because you still have several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees living in Syria, and they don't want to see them become the victims of Syrian retaliation. But for all intents and purposes, that relationship is over, and Hamas, which let's not forget is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is combating the regime, the Bashar al-Assad regime. So there's no doubt where Hamas' sympathies and long-term interests lie.

With Iran it's a bit more complicated. Certainly they've suffered, the relationship has suffered a blow as a result of their very divergent positions vis-a-vis Syria, since Iran is the Syrian regime's number one supporter. At the same time, I think neither one of them sees it in their interest to see a complete break in the relationship.

Iran still wants to be able to say that they're helping the Palestinian resistance. So they want to be able to maintain a connection with Hamas and be able to say they provided weapons and funding to the organization. And Hamas, you know, can't really look askance at a country that is prepared to help them when not that many today are prepared to arm the organization.

So there's a relationship, a marriage of convenience. It's, you know, on the brink of divorce very often because of the Syrian, the divergence when it comes to Syria. But practically speaking at this point, they're prepared to live with one another, to get what help they can from each other. But again in the long term, Hamas' future is not with Shiite Iran, it's with Sunni Egypt, Sunni Qatar and Sunni Turkey.

GROSS: You think in order for there to be a genuine lasting peace in the Middle East, in order to have any hope for that, that the two Palestinian, the two major Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, have to get together again. What's holding them back from doing that?

MALLEY: Well first, you know, this is something that I think some people disagree with because they say how can you make peace with an organization or with a movement that includes an organization such as Hamas, and if Fatah and Hamas were to reconcile, then by definition Hamas would be part of the new national movement or the mainstream national movement.

And I could understand from an Israeli perspective why that seems to be anathema. My point is, and when I was a student, I was a student of national liberation movements, and I don't know a single case of a national liberation movement that has succeeded, that has been able to act effectively on behalf of its people when it was divided.

One of two things always happens. Either one branch of the national movement eliminates the other - that's what happened in Algeria, there were two branches of the national movement, and one basically suppressed the other through very violent means - or they find a way to get along and to at least unify their ranks for the purpose of resolving the conflict and achieving independence.

I think at this point it's inconceivable that Fatah will eliminate Hamas, and I can't see that Hamas is going to eliminate Fatah. So they (technical difficulties) if what people want is to see a meaningful negotiation between an empowered Israeli government, a representative Israel government and an empowered and representative Palestinian national movement, the only way to do that is for Palestinian ranks to unify.

Now, they need to unify on a platform that is compatible with peace, but they're going to need to unify if what we want is a negotiated settlement. There's another path altogether which may well be the more realistic one, which is one in which Israel deals sequentially and separately with Fatah in the West Bank and with Hamas in Gaza.

You don't have a two-state solution. What you have is really a patchwork in which Gaza is governed by Hamas and co-exists with Israel, and the West Bank is more or less governed by Fatah and by the Palestinian Authority and co-exists equally with Israel. That's not a resolution to the conflict, it's certainly not a two-state solution, but I have to say that today that's more in tune with realities on the ground than what I would consider a far more optimal outcome, which is a permanent peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

GROSS: If you're joining us, my guest is Robert Malley, and he is the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Malley, and he's the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. His specialty is conflict resolution. Egypt was a key player in brokering the ceasefire. Mohamed Morsi is the new president of Egypt, key player.

So, you know, he's from the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Muslim Brotherhood had, through its history, through its long history, tried to overthrow dictatorships in Egypt, and now it's in power. And this was a really interesting test of how Morsi was going to use that power. What interested you most in how he handled the conflict and how he became, you know, a major player in the cease-fire?

MALLEY: You know, about a month ago, a colleague of mine, a friend of mine, Hussein Agha, and I wrote an article in the New York Review of Books in which we examined where the region was and in particular where Egypt was headed. And we speculated at the time that what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and what President Morsi in particular would do would be to try to sort of offer aid to the U.S. and to the West saying, we'll take care of your basic needs in terms of regional stability, in terms of the fight against terrorism, and we'll put off the fight against - the showdown against the Jewish state.

But in exchange, let us take care of our business at home in terms of Islamizing society. So we won't be your enemy when it comes to your strategic interest, as long as you don't meddle too much in our affairs. What happened in Gaza, and then what happened domestic in Egypt, that one-two punch of a cease-fire one day negotiated by Egypt in ways that I think the U.S. found extremely satisfactory, extremely pragmatic and extremely productive, taking sides, perhaps more sympathetic to Hamas but basically reaching a deal that Israel was very comfortable with and then acting quite in a very autocratic way at home, I think that in a way, I think it vindicated the analysis that people had of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is they are prepared right now to put on the back burner any notion of confronting Israel and doing things that the U.S. might hostile so long as they could consolidate their power at home. And this was in a matter of two days a perfect snapshot, a perfect microcosm, of that approach.

GROSS: I think a lot of people were actually wondering, did, you know, did President Obama give Morsi the green light to do this? It's like you're taking care of our needs, do what you've got to do at home. I mean, it just seemed, like, so surprising that, like, the day after brokering this important cease-fire Morsi seizes more power and issues the decree putting himself up above judicial review.

MALLEY: You know, I doubt very much that the U.S. gave a green light. I think the U.S. now is caught in that age-old dilemma that we thought we might have escaped with the Arab uprisings. We had the same problem with Mubarak, and we still have the same problem with a number of leaders in the region. So long as they satisfy our interests when it comes to basic strategic needs - and in particular our relationship with Israel - are we or are we not prepared to excuse what they do at home?

During the Mubarak era, we did it, and then when he was overthrown, we said mea culpa, we made a mistake, we should never underestimate what's happening domestically because it plants the seeds of future instability, and we shouldn't be prepared to trade respect for basic democratic and human rights rules at home for the sake of our strategic interests in the region.

Well, here we are a year and a half later in exactly the same dilemma, and it's understandable. However much it may be short-sighted, but it's understandable that right now for the United States, the priority is keep the cease-fire in place, make sure that relations between Egypt and Israel remain relatively solid, make sure that Egypt takes steps now to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, otherwise the cease-fire might unravel.

Now if that means that we have to temper our criticism a little bit about what they're doing at home, well, maybe that trade is worth it. I could understand it, and I suspect if I were sitting in the administration now, I might reach the same conclusion. But from an outsider's perspective, it looks so much like what we used to do and which we said we would not do again that it raises serious questions.

GROSS: Do you think that the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is in jeopardy?

MALLEY: No, I mean, I think if anything, the recent role that President Morsi played consolidated it. It showed that he has no interest right now in provoking a conflict with Israel, a conflict that would obviously spill over into one with the United States. That's not what he or the Muslim Brotherhood is about right now. Right now it's about consolidating power at home and perhaps expanding the reach of the Islamists to other countries, and I'm sure we'll talk about Syria, but there are other countries, as well.

That's what they want to do, and if they are to succeed in that endeavor, they can't afford to alienate the United States or the West because that would mean an end to some of the financial and other assistance. It could jeopardize the IMF loan that Egypt is desperate to get. So no, I think for now that peace treaty is in pretty solid shape.

GROSS: Now, you write that Egypt is worried that Gaza will be dumped on them. And I'm hoping you can explain what you mean by that.

MALLEY: This has been a worry certainly that the military and the security services in Egypt has had now for some time, which is that once Israel under then-Prime Minister Sharon disengaged from Gaza in 2005, that the goal was to say you know what, Gaza's a dump, I mean it's one of the most - one of the places that has the highest concentrations of people. It's impoverished, and so the notion that the Egyptians suspected that Israel had was over time, we will not do any trade with Gaza, we'll close all of the crossings with Gaza, and Egypt will have to take care of Gaza.

In other words, it will have to deal with the security problems, with the demographic issues, with the issues of smuggling. Let Gaza be Egypt's problem. And from the perspective of the security services mainly in Egypt, that was viewed as a mortal threat because of the problem of smuggling, because of the connections between certain groups in Gaza and certain groups in the Sinai, the smuggling of not just weapons but contraband.

And so it was a source of instability, and the Egyptians have been saying we don't want this outcome, let alone the fact that it actually means the death knell of the two-state solution because if Gaza is going to look towards Egypt, the West Bank ultimately will look to Jordan, and the connections between Gaza and the West Bank will be severed.

So during the Mubarak era, the security services and the intelligence services were adamant. They would not open up trade with Gaza if it meant that Israel would close up its access and egress between Israel and Gaza. The question today, and it's one of the sub-plots of what's been happening, is whether from a Muslim Brotherhood perspective, from President Morsi's perspective, that equation holds, or whether, as they see it, connecting a Hamas-governed Gaza to a Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt makes sense, and that they would not be so adverse to the notion of basically rejoining the two.

And don't forget that before 1967, Egypt basically was controlling Gaza, and from - again, now if you want to look at it from a more theocratic, theological point of view, from a Muslim Brotherhood Islamist perspective, borders don't really matter. The difference between a Palestinian and Egyptian doesn't matter. What matters is shared creed, and within that project, bringing Gaza closer to Egypt makes perfect sense.

And not thinking any more about a permanent status solution between Israelis and Palestinians but two forms of coexistence, one between Israel and Gaza, the other between Israel and the West Bank. You know, in a way that is much more harmonious with the way the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in particular views things.

They don't want a permanent solution in which they have to recognize the existence of a Jewish state. They want a long-term truce, what they call a hudna, which is a form of coexistence between two adversaries who agree not to resort to force for some time. That's what they would like. Frankly, I suspect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also would be comfortable with an outcome that doesn't force them to endorse compromises on truce and compromises on recognizing Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

And Israel doesn't have to make the core concessions, which frankly some Israelis don't want to make, and other Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians are not prepared to make. So I don't view this as a long-term solution, and by definition it isn't, it leaves the conflict alive. It allows Hamas to perpetuate the conflict without having to wage it, and it allows Israel to say for now, we're going to be satisfied with a situation where we withdrew from Gaza, we may withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank, and we will coexist with Palestinians who deep down we are convinced don't really want to make peace with us, but because we are stronger them we could force into a form of coexistence.

GROSS: Robert Malley will be back in the second half of the show. He's the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Malley, the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa. He's recently issued reports on the conflict and cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the civil war in Syria. This month, in The New York Review of Books, he co-wrote an article titled "This Is Not A Revolution," about the post-Arab Spring scramble for power and the topsy-turvy logic defying alliances that have recently formed.

The Palestinian Authority plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly this week for recognition as a non-member state. When you and I spoke a year and a half ago, the Palestinian Authority was on the verge of going to the U.N. to ask...

MALLEY: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...to ask for the same thing. So what happened then and what are their ambitions now?

MALLEY: You know, it's been again, a controversy over move by the Palestinians. Israelis see this as a unilateral move by Palestinians who are trying to circumvent negotiations. Put yourself in President Abbas's shoes. This is the last tool he has remaining. Everything else he's tried has failed. Negotiations have failed. His unity, his attempt to reconcile with Hamas, whether it was genuine or not, has also failed. His attempt to bring the U.S. to his side to try to pressure Israel has been for not. The situation in the West Bank today economically is on the brink of collapse. The one thing he has to show that he's still relevant - and this is a battle of relevance - is to go to the U.N. He says this is perfectly consistent with what the United States and others should want. It's non-violent. It's diplomatic. It's consistent with a two-state solution. In fact, it is about a two-state solution. It's about Israel on the one side of the 67 borders, Palestine on the other. So he says, why should people get so upset? But I think politically, it really is his last tool.

Now frankly, given what happened in Gaza, on the one hand it makes going to the U.N. more imperative and more necessary because he really has to do something to show that his way can produce some results. But it also becomes much less significant, because from a Palestinian perspective, when you compare waging war with Israel and Gaza, or going to the U.N. to beg for non-membership state status, of the two, one looks more glamorous than the other.

GROSS: So I want to talk with you a little about Syria. You recently issued a report about Syria, and I know you've been on top of what's happening there, to the extent that somebody can be. How is the Syrian civil war affecting alliances through that region? We talked a little bit about how Hamas is no longer aligned with Syria. What other countries are realigning because of the Syrian government's attack on its people?

MALLEY: Well, you know, in some ways the whole region is topsy-turvy and it preceded what happened in Syria. Syria is bringing it really to light. All the alliances, or so many of the alliances that we were familiar with are things of the past - and this is something that I think the United States is going to have to cope with and deal with. Let's just take a few examples. We are backing, the United States government is very close to the Iraqi government. And the Iraqi government is aligned with Iran and also is helping the regime in Syria, which we are hoping to topple. We are in the same trenches - if you will - as Saudi Arabia and Qatar in trying to support the opposition against the Syrian regime, even though they're supporting the Salafists, or some of them are supporting the Salafists, who are killing Americans elsewhere. We're also in the same trenches as - as I said - as Qatar, as Turkey, who are backing Hamas who is at war with Israel, who we're supporting. You have an organization like Hezbollah, the Shiite organization in Lebanon, which is backing the regime in Syria, even though its former ally in this axis of resistance against Israel, Hamas, is opposing the regime. So I think the fault lines have become slightly clear, but they're fault lines that are not democracy, Democrats against non-Democrats - although, many Syrians are rising up because they want to change the nature of the regime. The fault line is very much Sunni against Shiite. It's Persian-Iranian against Arabs.

So the region has become really smorgasbord in terms of the alliances and there's something that seems just very unnatural and Hussein Agha and I wrote in the article in The New Yorker Review of Books, something this unnatural just can't end well - because these alliances are not clear-cut, they don't make sense in terms of sort of the political logic, they are temporary alliances, they are alliances of convenience, and in the case of Syria, it has transformed what really was at the beginning an uprising similar to what we've seen elsewhere, based on social, political, economic issues, but it has hijacked it to some degree - to some degree - and turned it into a proxy war between Iran and its allies on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other and then, of course, the Russians and, you know, there's also a cold war that's superimposed upon it with the Russians on one side, the side of the regime, and us, the United States on the other side, the side of the opposition.

GROSS: Well, so what are some of the scenarios that you're most afraid might happen?

MALLEY: Well, I think the most worrisome scenario is one in which Syria becomes more fragmented, I mean even more violent, chaotic, and the country doesn't necessarily, you don't necessarily see parts of it secede, but it no longer exist as a state as a country. Culturally, socially, this is a, you know, this is a country that has so much history. You know, my grandparents actually come from Aleppo, which is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful cities in the Middle East, and is being destroyed and Damascus may well be next, it's already on its way of destruction. So the fabric of the country is disappearing and the country may well fragment between areas that are more dominated by the Alawites, others that are more dominated by Kurds. Of course, most Syrians are Sunni but if the country becomes, not just fragmented, but it is a theater for this proxy war, and continues to be a theater for a proxy war, and if it becomes a wash - as it is already, but more a wash in weapons - it's very hard to see how you the patch things together.

There are more optimistic scenarios, but you asked me what I worry about? I worry about a many, many year confrontation that destroys a country that has had such a rich history and a culture that has been made such a contribution to the history of mankind that, and let alone the tens and tens of thousands of victims.

GROSS: If the Syrian civil war continues on for years, as you say you fear it might, can there be any stability in that region, especially if the Syrian war has become something of a proxy war?

MALLEY: Right. Well, first, you know, that is the worst-case scenario. There are other scenarios in which the, either there is a negotiated transition or more likely the opposition takes over, that could happen. Even then I think we may be in for a messy situation. But you talk about the spillover effects. If you look at Syria today, it has tentacles one way or the other in so many of its neighboring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey. Now, we've already seen spillover of Syria into Lebanon with the assassination of a high-level security official, but other things happening as well in Lebanon. Lebanon cannot remain immune from what's happening in Syria. If you look then to the East in Iraq, you speak to a number of Sunni militants in the region and they tell you sure, Syria's important. The jewel in the crown is Iraq and we will never accept the fact that Iraq is being ruled by Shiite, that Baghdad is under the control of Shiites. Once the Sunnis take over in Syria we will turn our aim to what's happening in Iraq. And you're already seeing Sunni militants who feel emboldened. And that explains to some extent why Prime Minister Malki in Iraq has by most accounts, provided assistance of one form or another to Bashar Assad, even though there is no love lost at all between the two, but he sees, Maliki sees and some Shiite, a number of Shiites in Iraq, see the fall of the Bashar Assad regime and the coming to power of what they feel would be Islamist Sunnis as a mortal threat to their hold on power.

Then you look south at Jordan. And again, if you listen to some Islamists, they will tell you one Syria is over we will take a look at Jordan, where the king is equally in a fragile situation, and where the Muslim Brotherhood is quite powerful and where perhaps, will be able to bring about a regime change. And then, of course, there's Turkey, where because the Kurdish question - the presence of Kurds are the Kurdish violent movement, the PKK, which also has its Syrian Expression and the Syrian regime is not hesitating and Iran neither, to empower the Kurds who would be prepared to fight Turkey as Turkey helps the opposition to Syria. So, you know, Syria has always been a master at exporting its problems abroad. That's been the modus operandi of the Assad regime. When you have problems, you export them and you make sure that you prove to the rest of the world that however bad things are today, Syria can make that much worse. And in the past, this is the way the Syrian regime managed to get Western countries, in particular to say well, we're not going to go too far in confronting you because we could see what the harm that you could do elsewhere. If Syria implodes, if it explodes, it's likely to have profound effects across the region, and as I said, we're seeing some of it already.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Malley. He's the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa. And he's been issuing a lot of reports on crises throughout the Middle East and the Arab world.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Malley. He's the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa.

As we near the second anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring, I think it's clear that one of the lessons here is that when there are revolutions you never know what's going to happen.

MALLEY: You know, I refer to the piece I wrote with Hussein Agha in The New York Review of Books, we called it, This Is Not A Revolution. When we had in mind is that famous drawing by Rene Magritte, which shows a pipe, and the headline is, this is not - the caption is: This Is Not A Pipe. This is the resolution and it's not a revolution and it's all kinds of things, games within games. Yes, there is a sense of a popular uprising of people who are profoundly - and this is what we discussed a year and a half ago - profoundly dissatisfied with their economic conditions, with the sense that they were being ruled by unaccountable autocrats, with a sense of deepening corruption, with a regime that was narrowing of the people who were not just exploiting the masses, but exploiting parts of the elite in order to monopolize more of their economic power, and of countries that have lost all sense of dignity because they didn't have any rule on the regional scene. So there is that, but there is so much else. As I say, there are games within games. There is a regional cold war. There is a Sunni-Shiite confessional clash. There's the newly minted cold war, you know, between the United States and Russia when it comes to Syria in particular. There's a sense of minorities trying to seize the opportunity perhaps, to finally have their self-determination - and I'm thinking in particular of the Kurds.

There's regions within countries that are trying to assert themselves. If you look at Libya, you know, the East is trying to not separate from the West, but have its own greater sense of autonomy. So, so much is happening all at once that it's hard to choose one term and to describe it as a revolution or as anything else. It's, you know, to use a trite phrase, it's extremely complicated. And as I've said, one has to refrain from either assuming that because people rise up it's going to coincide with our image of a democratic future in which people are taking the future in their own hands, their fate in their own hands, and that they're going to do what we would want them to do - which was to some extent the initial enthusiasm that one felt in some of the Western commentary - that people were, this was not about Islamism, this was not about anything other than people wanting their democratic rights, and that's obviously not what's happening.

We also have to avoid today, I think, that other extreme, which is to say that everything is lost and that this is simply a repetition of patterns we've seen in the past. You know, there's good reason to be quite pessimistic today. And for Egyptians, for Syrians, for Gazans, for Israelis, for people living in Libya, they look at what they see today and I suspect quite a number of them may feel a degree of nostalgia for the stability that they once enjoyed. But things are changing and the question, of course, is: where will the region be when the dust settles and, of course, when will that dust settle?

GROSS: What would your recommendation be to the United States now in this era of shifting alliances and of contradictory alliances, and as you put it, smorgasbord alliances?

MALLEY: Well, firstly, I mean I think that is an absolutely - it's a fascinating question because I think the U.S. - first of all, there's a sort of secular trend, that the U.S. is losing influence in the region. I don't think that's a function of this administration or the last one. I think there's a sort of secular trend which was accelerated, in my view, by the war in Iraq and the depreciation of our moral authority.

So we have less influence, on the one hand. And on the other hand, as we've said, the ground beneath our feet is shifting in so many ways and the real risk we face today - if I had a recommendation, it's to be aware of this risk - that we become a pawn in battles waged by others in which we really shouldn't have a stake.

Again, to give a few examples. We don't have a dog in the fight between Sunnis and Shiites. Our goal shouldn't be, and I hope it isn't, to ensure that Sunnis prevail over Shiites. Now, we have a real problem with Iran's nuclear program. We may have a real problem with Iran's conduct in the region, but our allies, our current allies in the struggle against Iran have a very different objective in mind.

They have an anti-Shiite, anti-Persian objective. We shouldn't make that fight ours. So we have to be careful not to become captive of fights that we really shouldn't be engaged in, and in fact I think are fights that are alien to who we are and what we should want to achieve. That's - it's very difficult because obviously you need to have allies. You need to find your way in the region. But we have to be mindful of that.

And you know, even as we speak today, the U.S. is forming a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I could understand that. At the same time, this is an organization that, both in terms of its domestic program and deep down its foreign program, is fundamentally hostile to what we want. So how do we manage that?

As I said earlier, we are siding with Saudi Arabia, with Qatar, in Syria, when their goals have nothing to do with the democratic emancipation of the Syrian people. It has to do A) with the proxy fight with Iran, and B) with a fight between - a fight to empower Sunnis. We're allied with so many countries in the region whose ultimate goals are at loggerheads with our own.

Now, what you do with that is much more complicated, but the first step is to be aware of it, aware of the fact that other countries want to use us for their purposes. And given our declining influence, they have a greater ability to do so. You know, this game always happens, but at least in the past we could project our overarching goals.

At this point it's not clear what our goals are and if we're able to overcome this effort by others to drag us into fights that are none of our business. And that's, you know, you ask me for what - what I would recommend. I'd recommend that we be as clear-eyed about that as possible. Even as we try to pursue our own objectives, whether they have to do with democratic promotion, whether they have to do with resolving the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which I still think at this point is a conflict that can be resolved - ask me a year from now and I might give you a different answer. So you know, let's try to remain true to our principles and understand that the fights that are taking place today in many ways alien to the struggles that we want to wage.

GROSS: Well, Robert Malley, I want to thank you very much.

MALLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Robert Malley is the International Crisis Group's program director for the Middle East and North Africa. You'll find a link to his recent article in the New York Review of Books about the post-Arab Spring shifting alliances and scramble for power on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album of duets by singer-songwriters Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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