Robert D. Kaplan on the Middle East (Agenda)
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Colin Chapman: When the year began, the Middle East looked set for transition. But now, especially in the Levant, life has turned ugly. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed reports Syria might use chemical weapons in the war against rebel forces, while in Egypt, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood tread uneasily together.
Welcome to Agenda and with me this week is Stratfor's Chief Geopolitical Analyst Robert D. Kaplan. Robert, let's start with Egypt. Who really runs the show there, the Muslim Brotherhood or the military, always into tacit power sharing?
Robert D. Kaplan: I think what's going on in Egypt is the beginning of a long and drawn out negotiation between the Muslim Brotherhood who are well organized and the military who are very well organized. Both those groups have institutions they can depend upon, the secular or liberal-oriented activists in the street can stage massive demonstrations periodically but they are not organized and therefore they're the least important of the three power centers. I think what may emerge in Egypt is a sort of a Nasserite, Islamist condominium. Nasserite in the sense that the military has run Egypt under emergency law more or less since 1950, since the early 1950s. And Islamist in the sense of the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember the Egyptian military itself has become more observant in an Islamic sense over the course of the decades. It's not the purely secular military like the Turkish military is. There's a lot of latent support or at least benign sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood in the middle levels of the officer corps, very likely in Egypt. So Egypt is going to be focused inward on itself. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military are going to try to find common ground, there will probably be no abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel because that's what the military will demand and Egypt will be an inward-looking, shaky society at the same time that Syria unravels or at least seems to be unraveling, in somewhat Yugoslavia fashion.
Throughout the region what we are seeing is the beginning of the post-Ottoman, post-colonial Middle East emerge. Let me explain that. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the British, the French, the European colonial is carved up pieces of the Ottoman carcass. The French took greater Syria and made the states of Syria and Lebanon into it. The British took what is now Iraq and Jordan and made states into them. When the British and the French departed, you had strong dictatorships that held the borders of these states very firm and governed in a colonial-like dictatorial fashion that was very oppressive but very stable for many decades. And that order has been crumbling over the last few years. It crumbled in Iraq, it's crumbling in Syria and the regime in Jordan is under more and more siege from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Colin: You mentioned Jordan, but by and large, monarchies in the Arab world have remained immune especially down the Persian Gulf. Why is that?
Robert: That's actually a very good, interesting question Colin. More or less the monarchies are in better shape than the secular, austerely ideological dictatorships, like existed in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Egypt. The Moroccan regime is holding steady. The Gulf sheikhdoms are holding steady. But even those have had to give more and more concessions to their constituents, to their populations. The Jordanian monarchy is becoming shakier and shakier as we speak. Oman is a very stable, impressive country but the ruling sultan in his seventies, his health is unsure and it's unclear what will follow him, and Oman is dealing with a great youth bulge. Keep in mind that the monarchies because they had historical legitimacy and were seen as traditional going back a long time from age-old families more or less, they required ideology much less than the more ad hoc leaders — the al Assads in Syria or Gadhafis in Libya. And because the monarchies had more inbred legitimacy, they can more easily make compromises to their population and they were less dictatorial, less austere, less suffocating in their rule so that they have more, as I said, more legitimacy than Saddam Hussein or Hafez al Assad or his son Bashar al Assad.
Colin: What about Saudi Arabia? It's different; House of Saud has big oil wealth and has high-tech military hardware.
Robert: Yes. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. The al Sauds conquered Hijaz from the Hashemites in the 1920s. It has significant legitimacy, which is often underestimated. It's overseen a dramatic change in lifestyle and living standards over the past few decades. It's overseen a vast youth bulge and it is still in power. The al Sauds have a royal family of 1500 members or so, and because it's so huge, there are different factions of the family that are plugged into different elements of society, so the family in and of itself constitutes its own intelligence service. Nevertheless, with such a high rate of unemployment among young males, a diminishing water table, etc. and most importantly, an aging dynasty that is going to quickly descend the rule to the grandchildren where there are going to be more factional struggles, means that Saudi Arabia has very rough days ahead in the coming years and decades.
Colin: Going back to the Levant, you mentioned that the king of Jordan is in trouble. To what extent is that due to geography? After all, Jordan faces turbulence on all its borders.
Robert: Yes, again a very good question. Keep in mind there's an unspoken reason why Jordan continues to exist and be quietly supported. It continues to exist, the monarchy that is, because it is heavily backed up by the Israeli intelligence services, who pass on useful information to the monarchy. One of the jobs of the Israeli security establishment is to keep the Hashemites in power in Jordan. Also, Jordan has what no state in the Arab world wants: a long border with Israel. So Jordan serves a purpose. Let the Jordanians have the long border with Israel as long as it's not us. And because when you have a long border with Israel, no matter how extreme your public statements in defense of Palestine and Islam, you have no choice but to conduct periodic meetings behind the scenes with Israeli officials, their intelligence services to keep the border secure, etc. The Saudis don't want any part of this, other Arab states want no part of this, so Jordan serves a purpose.
Colin: Now Syria: As his opponents close in on him, Bashar al Assad may be running out of time. But intelligence reports say his missiles are being loaded with deadly chemical weapons. How will this play out?
Robert: I think the Syrian regime no longer exists. Bashar al Assad is at the moment, the first among equals of many warlords in Syria. The regime has suffered one setback after another, the rebels are closing in on Damascus but nevertheless, regime elements or al Assad warlord Alawite elements still hold Damascus. They still hold considerable territory. They still have considerable soldiers at their disposal, so it is hard to predict whether the fall of the al Assad warlord faction is going to take days or weeks or months yet. What is important though is, you mentioned it, the chemical weapons issue. Because while the West is warning al Assad not to use chemical weapons, the west is privately terrified that the chemical weapons, and there may be some biological weapons there too, don't fall into the hands of the jihadists who are fighting al Assad.
Colin: Finally Robert, the international community watches and waits, chancelleries and defense establishments on the alert, it's a real mess. How is it going to be sorted out?
Robert: Well, first of all, don't assume that the Americans, the Chinese or even the Russians, who have a good intelligence network in Syria, are in control. They have constraints and limitations too. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of three dozen chemical weapon sites in Syria. It's hard to know how those sites can be secured without some agreement from the post-al Assad regime. If al Assad were to flee and there were a deal to be made with the remnants of his old regime to allow people to come in, say the Russians, to dismantle the chemical weapons, that would be the best-case scenario in here. But remember, three dozen sites. The last thing President Obama wants to do is send troops in there, even just to surround and occupy those sites, because the minute you put troops on the ground, even if you claim it's for a very limited, specific purpose, they instantly become engaged in the Syrian civil war. So the great powers have limitations of their own and that's why they're busy scurrying around trying to negotiate some sort of asylum deal for al Assad, some sort of deal with people who would take his place, because they are terrified of the collapse of central authority somewhat similar to what we saw in Iraq in the middle of the last decade.
Colin: Robert, we could talk for hours, but we're out of time I'm afraid. Thanks for your analysis.