By Harry SarlesJanuary 16, 2019
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kansas -- Syria, specifically the Cultural and 'Soft Power' influences on Syria by Russia and Iran was the topic of the first panel presentation of the year by the Command and General Staff College's Cultural and Area Studies Office (CASO) Jan. 14 at the Lewis and Clark Center, here.
CASO's presentation included nationally and internationally known scholars Dr. Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute, Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Gary Hobin from CGSC's Department of Joint Interagency and Multinational Operations. "This is an opportunity for us to touch base with experts in the field," said Dr. Jim Martin, CGSC Dean of Academics. He encouraged the more than 80 audience members present to engage with the speakers in the question and answer period that followed the presentations.
Introducing the panel, Martin noted CASO was formerly known as the Culture, Regional Expertise, and Language Management Office (CRELMO). He said although the office title has changed CASO remains dedicated to assist the college in cultural and area studies and will continue to sponsor events like the panel.
Dr. Mahir Ibrahimov, director of CASO, was the moderator for the panel discussion. He opened the panel explaining terms that are used in talking about influence and soft power and gave a rundown of influence efforts in Syria by Russia and Iran. He then turned the discussion over to the panelists.
Rubin was first up, talking about the sources of influence in Iran including its 2,000 years of history that has resulted in the country believing it has the right to influence the region. He also said the fact that Iran is an Islamic Republic means it is dedicated to exporting the Islamic revolution, and says so in its constitution. The final source of influence is ethnic. He said in the 1930s the basis of ethnicity was shifting from geography to language and the Persian, the language of Iran, is widely spoken from the time of the Persian empire and thus Iran identifies ethnically will all who speak Persian. He said many organizations, including Hezbollah, provide food and other essentials as a way to influence the populace. "The bribery is top down, the charities are bottom up," said Rubin.
Borshchevskaya began her talk with historic background that shows some of Russia's soft power activities. Russia has a centuries-long connection to the Middle East, she said. We look at Putin's intervention in Syria as brand new but it's not the first time Russia invaded the area. In 1772, Russia captured Beirut and remained for several months. Current Russian efforts in Syria are attempting to do two things, presenting Russia as a neutral broker that understands the Middle East better than the West and Iran; also a country that has a large Muslim minority. Putin has long used religion as a domestic and foreign policy tool, she said. Russia has long recognized that Lebanon is important to Syria and has appealed, primarily through the Eastern Orthodox Church, to Christians in Lebanon.
"Moscow's goal is not conflict resolution, it is conflict management," she said. This makes everyone else dependent on Moscow, she said.
Hobin picked up from there and said Russia and Iran as friends of Syria may be short term. And, while the soft power efforts the other speakers had note are all in Syria they may not we welcome or attractive to the Syrians and thus not meet the book definition of soft power.
He said you have to look at the ethnic division in Syria first. Although the country is 86 percent Muslim that is 70 percent Sunni and 10-17 percent Alawites. Assad is an Alawite. The rest of the population is Christian and smaller groups of other religions including Jews. Their main goal is survival. To survive they'll get help where they can including Russia.
Geographically they're surrounded by nations and ethnic groups they see as a challenge -- Turkey to the North, Iraq on the East, Lebanon and Israel to the West, and Jordan (seen as a Saudi proxy) to the South.
It's important to understand what each party wants in Syria. Syria wants Russian goods and weapons, to maintain the Assad regime, and to divert the Turkish threat said Hobin. From Iran, Syria wants materials, regional diplomatic support.
Iran, in Syria, wants to demonstrate their prominence as a key player, gain support of a friendly Muslim state, and undermine sanctions and the Saudi influence. The Russians wand a Mediterranean port, and to keep the U.S. engaged as far away from Russia as possible. So, from the Syrian perspective, I think "Yeah, we'll take whatever assistance we can get from whoever is going to give it to us, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we like what they do," said Hobin.
During the question and answer period. Rubin said there were four areas of influence that countries traditionally use -- diplomatic, information, military, and economic. He said too often the U.S. forgets the "I" part of the DIME. Borshchevskaya agreed, noting the U.S. fails to study what the Russians are saying in Arabic in the Middle East. She also said the Russians do propaganda well.
Rubin noted the Iranians engage in social media frequently and consistently. And, first impressions are strong. He said the U.S. needs to engage in information operations on an hourly basis.