Joshua Landis Interview Transcript
A Seismic Geopolitical Shift in the Middle East
Over ten years ago, most Arab countries in the Middle East cut ties with the Syrian government during the civil war and supported armed groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Meanwhile, Iran was Assad's key backer.
But now, in the Spring of 2023, a big shift is underway. Saudi Arabia and Iran are taking steps towards rapprochement and Arab governments throughout the region are re-opening embassies in Damascus and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Syria.
Joining me to explain what is driving this regional re-alignment is Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the Mackey Chair. We kick off discussing how the outbreak of the Syrian civil war impacted regional diplomacy and why now we are seeing such profound changes in the the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the Global Dispatches episode titled, “A Seismic Geopolitical Shift is Underway in the Middle East featuring Middle East scholar Joshua Landis.” The full transcript is available to paid subscribers
Can you briefly explain how the Syria civil war impacted regional geopolitics? How did countries in the region align when Syria began to dissolve into civil war?
Joshua Landis [00:03:17] Well, Syria is right smack dab in the middle of the Middle East, so it had a big effect on everybody. The countries aligned largely by those that were pro-U.S. and pro-Iran and Russia. That aligned along a Sunni-Shiite divide. The Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, lined up against Assad, hoping to overthrow him because he's an ally of Iran, a Shiite power. Assad himself is an Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shiism. So that's the way things really lined up. Iraq, which is led by Shiites now, was pro-Assad and Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon, a very powerful militia that grew up after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and after the Iran revolution in '79 supported a Shiite militia backed by Iran, and was instrumental in supporting Assad throughout the civil war. So the region really split in two, and it was Shiites versus Sunnis. It was America and an American built coalition, which was called by Secretary of State Clinton 'The friends of Syria", against Russia and Iran and resistance powers China, so forth, that backed Assad.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:48] That was basically the status quo for ten years after the Syria civil war erupted. Yet in recent weeks and months, that seems to be shifting pretty profoundly. Why is it we are seeing now countries that were previously dedicated to overthrowing the Assad regime are now taking steps to normalize relations with Syria?
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