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Does Foreign Intervention Doom the Arab Spring? A Conversation With Trita Parsi and Stephen Zunes

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Two years ago, starting in February 2011, much of the world became absorbed in the Arab Spring uprisings happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Many international observers were excited by the successes in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. However, in other cases, regimes in power were successful in repressing the rebellions, leading to a series of difficult questions for how pro-democracy activists should move forward. One question was whether groups should remain nonviolent in the face of repression or take up arms. Another question was whether Western governments should intervene to protect civilians from massacre.

For those who tend to be critical of Western intervention, particularly in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debate has been thorny. With regard to Libya, a variety of critics of U.S. foreign policy were divided about whether outside intervention could be a legitimate move to save civilian lives, or whether such action would inevitably reflect the self interest of countries such as the U.S., be used to justify problematic interventions in the future, and possibly result in more deaths than would otherwise occur. In the case of Syria, conflict in the country has raged on for over a year now, without so much as a U.N. Security Council condemnation of the Assad regime's violent repression. Finally, looking to Iran, which hawkish factions in the U.S. and Israel have been threatening with military strikes, the possibility of another costly war in the region is dangerously high.

In the context of these debates, I participated in the summer of 2012 in a press delegation to Turkish refugee camps housing Syrian exiles. There I interviewed those who have been displaced by the bloody conflict. Out of the footage I collected came The Suffering Grasses, a film about Syria's troubled revolution. Among the issues explored in the documentary are whether pro-democracy forces should use exclusively nonviolent tactics or turn to armed uprising, and what role the international community should play.

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Photo credit: Sameer Ramzi

As a continuation of the questions raised in the film, our team at Cultures of Resistance (CoR) hosted a discussion of how these topics are playing out in both the Syrian and Iranian contexts. We had the pleasure talking with two leading experts: Dr. Stephen Zunes is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the Middle Eastern Studies program. He is a Senior Policy Analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio, Democracy Now!, and Pacifica Radio. Dr. Trita Parsi is the Founder and President of the National Iranian-American Council. His most recent book is A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press). Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CoR: After the Western intervention in Libya, a number of people argued that it was a success and that it saved Libyan lives, it helped the Libyans oust a dictator, and it did not result in military occupation. By what standards do you think we should evaluate any decision to intervene on humanitarian grounds?

Zunes: On a positive note, the Obama administration did not support military intervention until after it got the "okay" from the Arab League and United Nations and made sure it was a multilateral effort where the United States was not front-and-center. The other good news, of course, is that Qaddafi was overthrown.

2012-12-20-Zunesportrait.jpgI still have very mixed feelings about the decision to intervene [in Libya]. First of all, there was a massacre and the massacre was a war that took as many as 30,000 lives over a six-month period. As horrific as events in Syria have been, it has been 20 months now, and the death toll hasn't gotten that high.

I'm not against humanitarian intervention in principle. I think that in a Rwanda-type situation -- to prevent a genocide -- it would be important. Part of the problem with Libya was that they gave up on the nonviolent struggle so quickly. That was what gave the regime an excuse to come down with even greater brutality. Less than 500 people were killed during the non-violent phase of the struggle, which was less than the number killed in the Egyptian revolution, for example.

Although I did not support some of the more simplistic left-wing analysis of this being an imperialist plot or anything like that, I think there are some serious questions regarding the intervention, not the least of which, and I think this is affecting the situation in Syria now, was that NATO went well beyond its mandate. The mandate was to protect the civilian population through a "no-fly" zone, but in fact they ended up becoming, in effect, the air force for the rebels. I think that's one of the reasons China and Russia vetoed those, relatively mild in my opinion, resolutions regarding Syria. They fear that if they give an inch, the West will take a yard and use it as an excuse for armed intervention.

I really think that the armed struggle has set back the movement in Syria. It has made it more sectarian, more factionalized. It has ended up getting a lot more people killed. It has crippled the nonviolent link of the movement and has made it a proxy war for various outside parties -- some of whom may want to overthrow Assad, but they're not interested in a democratic Syria.

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Photo credit: Mezher Farwati

CoR: Dr. Parsi, do you have a sense of what the Obama administration is doing to try to contribute to ending the armed conflict with Syria? What would you suggest should be the path looking forward in U.S. engagement around Syria?

Parsi: The position of the United States has been to get rid of the Assad regime. While there has been some support for a ceasefire and for getting Assad to stop the killings that he is engaged in, it is not necessarily a concerted effort to get a comprehensive peace treaty inside of Syria. From the administration's side, there is a lot of curiosity as to what type of secondary geo-political effects the fall of Assad would have, particularly mindful of the focus on Iran and the effort to try to isolate and contain and defeat Iran. There are certainly forces in Washington who believe that Syria can be some sort of a death toll to the Iranian regime.

2012-12-20-Parsiportrait.jpgI remain quite skeptical, because at the end of the day, what we are likely to see in Syria is not some sort of a neat transition from the current situation towards a pro-American or pro-Saudi regime. Rather, we are going to see a prolonged period of chaos similar to what we saw in Iraq. Under those circumstances, while Iran's influence will be reduced in Syria compared to what it had when Assad was in complete control, its influence will, nevertheless, not evaporate. In a chaotic situation, the Iranian regime will still be able to operate in Syria and still have access to Hezbollah and other elements in Syrian territory.

CoR: Professor Zunes, what do you think the state department can do diplomatically to try to broker a deal under which Assad would step down rather than just fight it out to the end? Do you think there are ways that the Obama administration can work with Russia and China and other nations to broker that kind of deal?

Zunes: Certainly, we are trying. Unfortunately, U.S. policy has made it very difficult. The United States has been willing to cooperate with the Assad regime on a number things over the years going back to supporting Syria's initial invasion of Lebanon to crush the PLO, the Lebanese national movement in the '70s, Syria's support for Operation Desert Shield, and of course Syria's role in an extraordinary rendition program in which the U.S. sent terrorists and suspects to Damascus to be tortured and the like.

Then, of course, you have the double standards of supporting other dictatorships including the regime in Bahrain, which brutally suppressed a pro-democracy movement there. Even things like complaining about Russia sending helicopter gunships to Syria. That certainly was not a good thing, to be sure. But given that the United States has sent helicopter gunships to governments like Israel, Turkey, and Colombia in direct defiance of calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, it is hypocritical.

Even if we were to assume the best of intentions by the Obama administration, there's a lot of baggage there, which gives the United States little credibility in playing a major diplomatic role.

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Photo credit: Mezher Farwati

CoR: Could you briefly talk about how the Obama administration's response to the Green Revolution in Iran was different than it's reaction to the subsequent Arab Spring uprisings?

Parsi: I think it was quite different. In the Iranian context, the Obama administration understood well that there were several different factors that rendered a more active American profile potentially unhelpful.

First of all, the U.S. had very little influence inside of Iran. It doesn't have trade, it doesn't have any relations, and certainly it doesn't have any military relationships. What it could do, or the opportunities that existed or options that existed in Egypt, simply did not exist in the Iranian context.

The history of Iran is also very different. Iran is plagued by the memory of having the United States having actively intervene in its internal politics and unseating a democratically elected prime minister. The idea of having the support of the United States is a huge negative in the Iranian context. I'm not saying that America's endorsement is a plus in Egypt necessarily, but it is not as big of a negative in Egypt as it is in the Iranian context. The U.S. understood this quite well and realized that to take a more active role in siding with various factions would probably have been counter-productive.

In the case of Egypt, of course it was complex in other different ways, but I think one of the things that may have been forgotten is that at the end of the day, the Obama administration only sided with the protesters at Tahrir Square at the last possible moment. Just hours before his ouster, the U.S. was still trying to see if it could maintain Mubarak in power until September of 2011.

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Photo credit: Abdulwahab Tahan

CoR: Can you tell me, Professor Zunes, if you think there is a reasonable chance of resuming diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran, or if you think that moment has passed and the U.S. will be continuing with a hard-line stance?

Zunes: Unfortunately, there are hard-line elements in both governments that do not want the situation resolved, for whom this kind of tension in many ways plays to their advantage. Indeed, there are Republicans and Democrats in Congress that try to undermine Obama. For example, the House of Representatives passed a bill in December, which fortunately did not become law, that would literally ban any negotiations between Iran and the United States, except in some very special, convoluted circumstances.

I think the main issue is that the U.S. has a hard time recognizing that all successful arms control negotiations have been based on universal principles in the rule of law, bilateral agreements, weapons-free zones, etcetera. This idea the U.S. has been pushing that allies like Israel, Pakistan, and India can have nuclear weapons, but Iran can't even have nuclear weapons capability, it just plays right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the clerics who can take advantage of the strong sense of nationalism among Iranians, including those in the opposition who do not like Iran being unfairly singled out.

Until we are willing to consider a nuclear weapons-free zone or something more comprehensive, I think it's going to be difficult to have a negotiated settlement. At the same time, I certainly think it is worth trying. Given that the military options seem so self-defeating, it just really doesn't make sense, even putting aside the moral and legal arguments. I mean, strategically, the military options do not make sense.

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Photo credit: Sameer Ramzi

CoR: When we refer to the "international community," it is often assumed that we are talking about Western governments or the U.N. or NATO. Something we at Cultures of Resistance try to do as much as possible is to find ways for regular people to take action in promoting diplomacy, nonviolence, and eschewing militarism. What do you think citizens can do to prevent militaristic responses to these situations?

Zunes: One thing, I think, is just to learn more about Iran and Iranians and Persian culture. The more people familiarize themselves with other peoples, the less likely they are to go to war. I don't think there's been any country where the U.S. has been on the verge of going to war with where they have such a large and articulate and well-educated diaspora community.

Also, I think it's important to point out that the worst thing that we can do in terms of supporting the struggle for democracy and justice in that country is to threaten war. Historically, opposition movements have been strongest when external threats are low and weakest when external threats are high. The more pressure the United States has on Iran, the more the threats of war, the stronger the regime. Obviously, people tend to rally around the flag when they're threatened, and Iranians are among the most nationalistic people in the world.

If there are to be sanctions, they should be done under the advice and feedback of the opposition within Iran. While they do not object to military sanctions, or sanctions targeting Revolutionary Guards, these more comprehensive sanctions are largely opposed because of the hardship they have on the Iranian people. These comprehensive sanctions allow Ahmadinejad to blame the economic problems not on his own mismanagement, but on the sanctions.

Parsi: I think it is critical to try to get a political solution there as quickly as possible. It would have to involve all different actors. You are not going to get a solution unless every significant actor feels that they have a stake in that solution. That means diplomacy and it means talking to all sides. That is not easy, and it is not necessarily as sexy as some of the interventions that some are arguing for. But it is ultimately much more successful in bringing about a sustainable, peaceful solution.