“We Should Think About How Easily Our Chain Can Be Yanked:” An Interview With Graham Fuller

 /  Nov. 23, 2014, 12:27 p.m.


Patrick Interview

Graham Fuller is a Middle East expert and the author of Turkey and the Arab Spring. After serving for over twenty-five years with the Central Intelligence Agency in Turkey, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, Fuller has been an analyst for the RAND Corporation, and is currently an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Patrick Reilly is the Chicago Editor of the Gate, the University of Chicago undergraduate political review.

The two sat down in front of a small group of students on  October 31 to discuss a wide array of topics pertaining to Mr. Fuller’s experiences in Middle Eastern affairs.

Patrick Reilly: Let’s begin by talking about your experiences with Afghanistan. Back in the 1980s, the US sponsored a variety of Mujahedeen rebel groups to fight against Soviet interests in that country. Some of those rebel groups eventually wound up turning against the United States. Do you see any parallels between those groups and the Free Syrian Army or the Kurdish Peshmerga, both of which are currently seen as US allies?

Graham Fuller: Good question. I was CIA station chief in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, however I was still with the agency in the wake of the backing of the anti-Soviet jihad. To be clear, the CIA doesn’t make policy: we are tasked with the execution of policy, so that is important to note, that these are general State Department and White House policies and not CIA directives.

There is an interesting debate going on as to whether the US created a monster by supporting the Mujahedeen to drive out the Soviet Union. Many have said that we did create a monster, which after the defeat of the Soviet Union, spun around and attacked us. There is an element of truth to this. You ask an interesting question: Is this similar to the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga? A lot has happened since the 1980s. In that era, the US unhesitatingly supported Muslims who were anti-Soviet. They were anti-Soviet mostly because the Soviets were atheist, and because of the anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of Muslim countries certainly helped catalyze anti-Soviet sentiment. But now, the situation is different. If there was some gratefulness on the part of some of these Islamist Mujahedeen groups—which were sort of coming into their own for the first time in the 1970s and 80s—that has totally disappeared.

The United States is now the invading force, the occupying force, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been actively engaged in military operations in Yemen and Somalia and a number of other places. The Soviet Union is gone, and opposition to US policies is one of the big differences between [then and now]. The US is on the line now with, in my opinion, very incorrect and dangerous policies, so we are the ones having to struggle with new Mujahedeen for whom we are the enemy. That being said, I am not too concerned about groups like the Peshmerga or the FSA turning against us. With regards to the Kurdish Peshmerga, they represent a Kurdish nationalist movement. The Kurds don’t have many friends in the world, but every time there is a shakeup in the Middle East, the Kurds seem to gain ground. From Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Kurds gained international attention for the first time. When the second Iraq war occurred and Saddam was overthrown, they gained a huge degree of autonomy. The Kurds have benefited every time and are probably benefiting even now by being dragged into the conflict to defend themselves. Many people look upon them fondly. I don’t see why the Kurds would turn against the United States unless we were to invade Kurdistan, crush it, and turn it over to Iraq or Turkey.

PR: Speaking of Turkey, two days ago the New York Times ran an Op-Ed by a resident of the town of Kobani, on the Turkish-Syrian border. He wrote: “The Turkish government is pursuing an anti-Kurdish policy against the Syrian Kurds and their priority is to suppress the Kurdish freedom movement in northern Syria. They want Kobani to fall.” Now regardless of the accuracy of that statement, it seems that there has been some major difficulty regarding Turkey’s cooperation in the current operation against ISIS. What are your thoughts on that dynamic?

GF: There are a couple of things going on here all at the same time. First of all, Turkey has sympathy—not incorrectly, I think, especially given the current AKP regime—for seeing really moderate Islam play a greater role in the region...Turkey has tried to use moderate Islamic forces to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, over the past couple of years. They arrived at this decision reluctantly, as you have all heard, because of the Arab Spring. That is sort of what my book is, Turkey and the Arab Spring. We had rapid-fire overthrow of regimes in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, followed by Libya, and the throwing out of a long-time ruler in Yemen. So a few months after, when trouble began in Syria, it was not unreasonable to assume that Syria would be the next regime to go.

Things were on a roll in the area. I was one of those analysts who thought, “You know, I wouldn’t give a lot of time to Asad.” Washington thought that. I have been out of the agency for twenty-seven years, so I only know what I read about in the newspaper, but even so it seemed like the agency thought that. Russia thought that. Turkey was sure that Assad would be gone, and they wanted to be there at the time of the change and take credit for having helped dump yet another dictator who was not terribly popular in the country. Everybody was wrong. Everyone. The Iranians were wrong; the Iraqis were wrong; the Saudis were wrong. He didn’t fall. And the main reason, to oversimplify, is that people looked around, saw what happened in Iraq and said, “Do we really want Syria to turn into another Iraq, in which the country was essentially destroyed?” That was not really an attractive option so I think at least half of Syria said, “We don’t want to go there. We don’t like Assad, but at least it isn’t that bad.” It had been a relatively quiet place for the most part and unless you were actively anti-Assad, there wasn’t much reason for fear. I think minorities in particular—Christians, Jews, Druze, others who lived there—were not at all sure that whoever would replace Assad would be better for them. Whether those who didn’t fight against him were right or wrong, he is still there and Washington is now stuck with a choice of supporting ever-more fanatical opposition to Assad, or conclude, as I reluctantly had to,  , that the game is up: continuing to try  to overthrow the regime in Syria is just wrecking the place and there is no assurance that what comes after will be within the control of the US. Turkey, if it is smart, will back away from this now because it is causing them huge damage. It has wrecked Turkish relations with Iraq and Iran; it has complicated their relations with Russia. Of all five revolutions in the area, this is the only unsuccessful one, and everyone would benefit from acknowledging that it didn’t work.

PR: Could Turkey’s reluctance to participate in efforts to either combat ISIS or Assad potentially weaken its relationship with NATO or weaken its effort to join the European Union?

GF: Turkey is a member of NATO, of course, and a fairly respected member of NATO, because it is the most powerful military force in the Middle East except for Israel, so it is an important card. Many have said that at this stage, NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. I think [the risk of Turkey being denied entry to the EU] isn’t a major problem. With the EU, Turkey has fought for quite some time to try and gain entry.,  It has been prevented from coming in—very unjustly, I think—perhaps because some Europeans felt that the EU was not a place for Muslims or Turks. Considering there are seventy million Turks, some may have wondered whether the EU could afford to open their borders, including their economic borders, to that many people.

I don’t know that it is such a big issue for the EU right now, but certainly the problem with Turkey’s policy has been that it has been supporting slightly more radical Islamist forces because they’re the ones that have been willing to fight against the Assad regime. You don’t find many moderates who are rushing to the battlefield, it tends to be the more radically inspired people. So Turkey has been supporting slightly more radical groups to try and get the opposition to Assad rolling. It hasn't been working, yet every couple months the opposition gets a little bit more radicalized, and Turkey has been unwilling to back off from this pattern. Whether Turkey has actually  supported ISIS outright or looked the other way, which is the more likely case, they’re torn between supporting Islamist opposition to Assad and letting Assad reign. Sadly, the most radical forces are the most effective forces in the end. Turkey continues to make that tough choice, but I don’t know whether they can keep it up much longer.

PR: Switching gears now, let’s talk about the US policy. President Obama has said repeatedly that the US will not commit boots on the ground in Iraq. How realistic is that?

GF: Well I don’t know. Having watched the US in the Middle East for a very long time now, I feel that US involvement in the Middle East, militarily, has been a disaster. In theory, we have gone in to make things better, and in nearly every case the countries have been wrecked with very little to show for it, except massive expenditures. Afghanistan and Iraq will cost us somewhere between three and four trillion dollars. Think what you can do if the United States put that money towards development instead of war. You can do a lot with $100 billion, and according to most reports, that is just 2.5% of what we are spending on these wars. In my view that is a huge misuse of funds. It would be one thing if we won at great cost, but we have lost. I think the president was at least smart enough to make up for Bush’s incredible mistakes and incredible ignorance about the area. I think the president recognizes that this is not a smart move, but he is under considerable domestic pressure. There is always that temptation to send in an “advisory force,” or just send bombs or drones or whatever. This can be a slippery slope to full-on war...Or he may just hold the line and try and box the war hawks in, which is what I would suggest doing.

I don’t think that ISIS has the makings of a state, and I don’t think they will last that long. They are on a roll right now, and being on a roll often gives you tremendous power­—there are lots of young Muslims who feel that Muslims have been stepped on for the past decades and want to go and join this new caliphate. I think that it is probably wise to try and stop ISIS from advancing using air power. I think that trying to stop them from taking Baghdad is a good idea. I don’t think that ISIS can or will, but stopping them is a good idea. Stopping them from taking Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and Damascus is a good idea, but I don’t think ISIS will try. It is best to try to contain this. But if we get more involved, it turns into a US-Islam fight, and a lot of people who are unhappy with the US now may be more inspired to join ISIS. Furthermore, just think about how we have been played. Some of you may have watched the grotesque and horrendous, grisly videos of three captured westerners who were beheaded by knife in the desert by Islamic jihadists. This is Islamic shock and awe. If that had not been done,  if we had not put that on prime-time television, I would argue we might not be there today. ISIS could have taken five hundred Syrian troops or Iraqi troops or Shi’ites out to the desert and executed every one of them and it would’ve barely made it to television news. This got everyone’s attention, three people. It was effective and it is partly what has stimulated our response. We should think about how easily our chain can be yanked.

PR: In your experience with the CIA, have you seen any particular countries or campaigns that you might point to as an example for either defeating ISIS or otherwise improving the situation in the Middle East?

GF: My basic principle is that US boots should be removed from the region. It has been highly provocative and the situation has been getting worse and worse. Simply because we have the most powerful army in the world doesn’t mean that it is the answer to everything. You know the old saying: “If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.” I do believe that we need to get our military entirely out of the Middle East. There are other countries, other forces, that don’t carry the baggage—I will even use the words neo-imperial baggage— that the US is now associated with. Countries in Scandinavia, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Asian countries are all willing to send troops if they are called for and asked for by regional people or forces. But I am reluctant to see this turn into a regional war. Anyway, the American presence is the single most provocative thing in the Middle East. I don’t want to see the French there. I don’t want to see the British there. They both have tons of baggage too. I think we need tough love: we cannot force the Middle East to democratize, especially at gunpoint. You’re not going to democratize anything at gunpoint. I think there have to be new economic and diplomatic policies, and a recognition that we cannot do it on our own, that we cannot be the world’s policemen, that we need help to do all of this. In that sense, I have a fairly narrow view of our success and our need for credible allies. Saudi Arabia is not an ideal country. In terms of its ideals or its leadership, it is not something most Muslims aspire to. But if Saudis are willing to pump billions of dollars—though not a single soldier, mind you—into the situation, I am not sure how great that is for the region either. It is not a pretty picture right now, it is a mess. I am not sure the US is going to make it any better. I don’t know whether Obama is going to be able to keep it together, or whether we are going to have to pull back.

The image featured in this article is courtesy of Patrick Reilly. 


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