This week FPI talked to Sarah Birke, Middle East and North Africa correspondent for The Economist, a British weekly with semi-anonymous journalists (it has no bylines). We think it’s high time you meet the brains behind some of the magazine’s best pieces on the region.
Sarah is currently based in Cairo but reports on countries across the region from Syria — her home for three years and where her soul still resides — to Algeria, producer of the region’s best wine. She’s also reported on Sudan’s stagnant politics and Saudi Arabia’s taste for social media.
Fun-fact: She likes to play scrabble in Middle Eastern monuments. A favorite was a game in a small amphitheatre in Shahba, southern Syria (she can’t remember who won).
FPI: You’ve been reporting on Syria for the past several years. Can you give us a diagnosis? A prognosis?
It’s horrific; an absolute tragedy. Over 160,000 Syrians have been killed and nine million displaced. More than that, millions more have had their lives ruined.
The diagnosis is fairly simple: the Assad regime ruled over the population using a mixture of repression, fear and divide-and-rule tactics for 40 years and some people, inspired by uprisings elsewhere, decided they had enough. But the regime didn’t want to cede power and helped turn an uprising into an armed struggle in which sectarianism and militant Islam now play a role.
The prognosis is bad: years more of a war. If the regime remains better supported than the opposition, we’ll end up talking of Syria as we do of Somalia — with a government ruling over a functioning part of the country and other lawless parts run by warlords. And the government-controlled areas will be more repressive than ever. Militant Islam, sectarianism and hatred will fester and grow.
FPI: What is ISIS? And how has it changed the course of the Syrian war?
Daash, as Arabic-speakers call it, means the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—or Greater Syria, the area of the Levant including modern Syria and further afield. That tells you something about the group’s goals—it wants to create an Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East. And it aims to bring it about through violent means and by applying a perverse form of what it sees as Islamic law. That includes suicide bombings, slaughtering Shias (and Sunnis it sees as too moderate) and controlling behavior, from what women wear to when people pray. Most Muslims reject the group’s strictures.
The group grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, expanded into Syria in 2013, attracting hundreds of foreign fighters, and is now wreaking havoc in both countries [Read Sarah’s piece from back in December on how ISIS changed the course of the Syrian war]. In short, it allowed Assad to frighten both the West and many Syrians into thinking the choice is between the regime and ISIS. That has had implications for policy-making and those Syrians who were unhappy with the regime but not participating in the battle against the regime.
FPI: How does the current turmoil in Iraq effect Syria’s future?
That’s a good question—the answer to which is yet to become clear. In the last few days we’ve seen Daash moving military equipment captured in Iraq to Syria suggesting they may once again fight more intensely in Syria—but against other rebel groups, at least to start with. In the last six months Syrian fighters pushed Daash out of certain towns and villages and the group may sooner or later fight to take them back.
What is happening in Iraq will almost certainly affect policy towards Syria, too. Will the West give more weapons to moderate Syrian rebels that have been fighting Daash? Will some countries up support to Assad, who claims he is fighting terrorism and has recently carried out some airstrikes against Daash facilities despite having let (and indeed encouraged) the group to grow in Syria? Or will they see Assad as part of the problem and act accordingly?
FPI: How are we—the international community, the press—getting Syria as well as the region wrong?
Of late there has been a lot of analysis about Sykes-Picot, that fateful line drawn by the British and French in 1916 to carve up the region and determine the shape of its nations. ISIS regularly talks about erasing it and showed its fighters bulldozing a berm at the Syrian-Iraqi border.
But talk to Syrians and Iraqis, Sunnis included, and it is rare you find someone who wants this. Every state is, to a greater or lesser extent, artificially created. Syrians are Syrians and Iraqis are Iraqi. Their regimes have largely failed to create national identities, but the people have a communal sense, from the shared experience of Iraqis during the 2003 American-led invasion to Syrians living under Assad rule for 43 years.
More generally, I think it is a mistake to see the region as monolithic. Why do 20-odd countries get lumped together? Sure, there are shared histories and similarities today and these can be helpful to understanding, but there are many differences too. Glossing over this can be harmful when we assume similar players will act in the same way and outcomes will be the same.
Sectarianism is another thing we often get wrong. It is a real problem in the region—especially at the moment—and that should not be denied. Indeed it is the main driver for groups such as ISIS. But we often use sectarianism to analyze issues at the expense of other factors. Another cause of conflict in the region barely ever talked about is class. This plays a huge role but when did you last read something in which it was mentioned?
FPI: Any reading recs for those interested in diving into the issues more?
Read novels by writers from the region such as Khaled Khalifa or Naguib Mahfouz or Khaled al-Khamissi… They will tell you about the society, through a local’s eyes, and are often far more nuanced than journalism. This is a helpful context for understanding the politics and seeing that there is more to the region that what you read in the media. And read the Arab press—you can get a lot translated into English. MERIP is a personal favorite for long-form essays on the region. And visit the region…
FPI: There’s misery all around the region. How do you find happy stories? Do you see any hope?
It can be difficult to see hope. But since the uprisings I think people expect more, whether they’ve been able to oust a leader or not, whether they have the energy for it or not, and whether they’re willing to now make a Faustian bargain with horrid leaders for fear of the alternative. The internet and globalization make this different from past periods of turmoil. However, the last few years have proved how difficult change is.
Meanwhile, away from politics, there are so many challenges in the region, from the lack of decent education, jobs, healthcare and female participation to militant Islam.
There are some happy stories. For example, there are some fascinating businesses in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. I love the creativity that some young men and women use to get around social strictures. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in the region. And I take pleasures and see hope in small things: the hospitality that involves endless cups of sugary tea (the regional reporter’s cliché for good reason!) proffered by Syrian refugees in tents in Turkey to Yemeni workers in Jeddah’s old souq.
FPI: What is your favorite thing about Syria?
Oh where do I start? It’s the people. I can’t reconcile Syrians killing each other with the people I know. Even when I go to refugee camps, people insist on offering tea and try to find a small gift. On buses, people would always make room for you. I can’t stand the way life has been ruined for so many people: not just the refugees in camps, but millions of others hidden away in regional capitals struggling to survive, having lost their home, their belongings, their country. I now have a Syrian friend from Damascus in every city, from Riyadh to Beirut; it is wonderful to re-find old friends, but sad to see how depressed they are.
It’s the food. The most delicious cuisine in the region (sorry, Lebanon).
It’s the beautiful architecture, the winding alleyways of the old cities, the mosques and their calls to prayer at dusk…
And it’s the sunlight—this bright, clear light that bathes the place.
FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interruptors?
Follow your gut instinct. If you want to move abroad to some country like, say, Syria, don’t listen to the naysayers. Do it! You always regret not doing something more than doing it.
If you’re a woman, don’t take any shit. I’m still amazed by how differently many people look at you when you’re female AND young to boot. Try not to be intimidated: prove yourself and work to your strengths. There are many. Women reported brilliantly on Syria’s war, for example, because they could pop on a hijab or niqab and move around unseen. You get access to the lives of women—half the region’s population—that men don’t, especially in places such as Saudi Arabia. There is nothing like a good scrub in a Syrian hammam or a manicure in a Lebanese nail salon with a bunch of women to get to know how they think. And I’m sure politicians have sometimes told me things because they view women as harmless little darlings.
I hate gender stereotypes, but men are so much better at bullshitting than women, often when they know less. Don’t try to match them by bullshitting, and don’t be intimidated— be your impressive self and put forward your views in your own style.