précis Interview: Philip Khoury, associate provost

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  • Fall 2012

Philip Khoury is associate provost and Ford International Professor of History

November 1, 2012

précis: In the last ten years the Middle East has been at the center of national security and foreign policy discussion. Do Middle East scholars seek to convert their expertise into policy advice and do policymakers want input from Middle East scholars?

PK: The Middle East is rife with political tension—internal, domestic political tension, at least partially connected to the Israeli-Arab conflict—and because scholars often get typecast, rightly or wrongly, as belonging to one camp or another in this conflict, they are often perceived as biased. As a result there has not been a very deep reliance on university academics that specialize in the Middle East. A few have actually served on the National Security Council in the past, but there have not been many. Additionally, the "think-tank culture" of Washington has subsumed some of that because people living in Washington rotate between government and these institutions to craft policy.


précis: What is MIT’s relationship to the policymaking community?

PK: MIT has frequently sent its talent to Washington DC, particularly from the Department of Economics and the Sloan School, but also from the worlds of engineering and science. After all, Jerry Wiesner, MIT's 13th president in the 1970s, was the science advisor for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and MIT's 10th president Jim Killian was science advisor to President Eisenhower. Former MIT dean of engineering Vannevar Bush, who advised Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, put the research university on the map as we know it today by creating the federal grant system during the heart of World War II, which has driven research in this country ever since. Other noted faculty such as Sheila Widnall, John Deutch and Ernie Moniz have served as senior government officials. So MIT has had a long history of deep involvement with Washington.


précis: Over the last 10 years the US has been involved in various interventions in the Middle East with a mixed record of success, but do you think limited humanitarian interventions might yield different outcomes?

PK: I'd like to be optimistic and think that after the tragic mistakes of Iraq, for which we're still paying the price in terms of Americans and Iraqis killed, we're not that likely to jump into things in quite the same way. Despite triumphant claims, Iraq still isn't resolved and a very wobbly balance remains. Though we went into Libya rather quickly partially on humanitarian grounds, we have hesitated with Syria because it is just a lot more complex. It was much easier to justify getting rid of Muammar Qaddafi than it is to justify ridding the Middle East of the Syrian regime, though perhaps it gets easier by the day as the conflict continues down a very negative path. Simply put, Syria has allies Qaddafi did not have.


précis: So strategically it is more difficult?

PK: It is much more complicated. I can't think of another country where an intervention could trigger so many known and unknown negative repercussions. 

Lebanon, which saw the worst civil war from 1975-1990, and, it's important to note that this also involved Syria, is already worrying about the spillover effects from Syria and its leaders are doing everything in their power to contain the situation. But equally important, you have a tenuous political situation in Jordan, and Israel watching everything around it through a microscope. Then there is the Iranian connection with Syria that complicates matters. And finally you have Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could become problematic. As a result, going into Syria is not simply going into Syria. It may involve stepping into more messes than we realize.

Also, the Syrian regime will be a lot more difficult to get rid of than the regime in Libya. Syria has much more firepower and can do a lot more damage to an intervening force as well as to their neighbors. There's no question a lot of people are getting killed and more deaths will come, but after the fall of the regime, depending on when and how that happens, there could be real massacres of the regime's allies and especially the Alawite sect that undergirds it.


précis: Given all this, does it seem unlikely the US will lead a coalition to intervene in Syria?

PK: No question we're thinking about it but I just don't know how close we are to actually doing anything. I remain doubtful we are going to do anything because we simply don't think in humanitarian terms first and therefore stand to gain little. If events unfold that begin to draw in other actors—if Iran were to intervene more formally and more palpably than it already has—that might oblige us to do something in lieu of Israel taking action.


précis: How did it get to this stage? I remember there was once cautious optimism of economic reform and modernization in Syria under the new Bashar Asad regime.

PK: There was a brief period of opening up. When Bashar came in after his father died, he looked like a different kind of leader promoting a younger generation. This perception may have been abetted by his fluent command of English and his Syrian wife's London upbringing and former employment with JP Morgan. He did initiate some reforms and move a few things in a positive direction for Syria. He seemed to promote investments in technology and an information economy, and created opportunities to attract young talent, both within the country and from the Syrian diaspora. He even moved some of his father's old henchmen out of their positions. But as things grew unstable, he had to reinstate some of this old guard to reassert control. He had to rely on people who only know how to do things one way, and that is by ruthlessly dealing with dissent.


précis: Did anyone anticipate the magnitude of this conflict?

PK: Scholars and analysts may have imagined this possibility in Libya, in Yemen, and even in Bahrain. But most wouldn't have expected this in Syria. Syria was generally thought to be stable and one of the last places to go, but it is amazing how wrong this perception was. It suggests that at some level there had to be something simmering underground that was rather well organized; people must have been fed up with that kind of repressive regime, and old wounds must have still been open. This regime is eventually going to go. At this point it's hard to imagine the regime lasting much longer than another year given the damage to its credibility that it has sustained. But let's see.


précis: How is the reporting on Syria and general expertise that informs public and policy debate on the subject?

PK: Reporting is difficult because Syria cut off access very early. It's very difficult for journalists to enter the country let alone move around freely and safely. My dear friend, the late Anthony Shadid of The New York Times—who was probably the leading American journalist to cover the Middle East in modern memory—had to sneak into the country through the North and use stringers or anything he could find to get information. So as a result we are forced to depend on more regional media outlets like Al Jazeera. Yet even Arab reporters have a hard time getting in to the country and much of the reporting comes from Beirut using unnamed sources from Syria who are working clandestinely.


précis: Is this purely a sectarian conflict or does your research on the urban/rural divide in Syria map on to the cleavages of this conflict?

PK: The French colonial administration played a significant role in playing the Alawites, a compact minority from the northwest of the country, off against the Sunni majority, who dominated the cities. The French pushed the Alawites, who were generally uneducated, rural people into the army and the security services. The French didn't advance them very far in terms of the actual leadership in the military so Alawites composed the rank and file along with other rural peoples. In time as the military academy opened up after Syrian independence, some of these Alawites managed to rise into the officer class and then promoted their own. As they rose, they formed alliances with other rural peoples so that rural Alawites and Sunnis would at times align against the cities, which were predominantly populated by Sunnis. Eventually Alawites gained control of the leading positions in the military and especially in the domestic intelligence services. This was also a huge step upward for them in terms of social mobility. Most urban Sunni elites had avoided the army, which afforded rural peoples access. Today those who once eschewed the military probably regret the decision that lost them control of this critical institution.

I think that the conflict we're witnessing today is really the struggle of a sect-class. The Alawites as a minority managed to gain a considerable amount of power within the state system through their control of the military and intelligence services. They then managed to co-opt, through patronage and all kinds of deals, a certain element of the Sunni upper-middle and upper classes from the cities because they needed their mercantile know-how, which the Alawites lacked, in order to actually keep the economy going, and create opportunities at least for some people. However, this Alawite-led regime has managed to hold on to power by using a very powerful internal security system with many different units played off of each other and the president keeping a pretty close hand on things through his family members.

Some of the earliest fighting in this conflict in Homs tracks along these sect-class lines, which have deep roots. Historically, the landowning class of Homs was composed of urban Sunnis who owned the lands around the city, and their peasants or sharecroppers were often Alawites, who came from the backside of the Alawite mountain. The Sunni urban landowning class manipulated and exploited the Alawite rural class generating a lot of animosity and antagonism. Once the Alawites came to power, they turned against these Sunni notables. Now the largely Sunni rebel base today bears the same hostilities. All these conflicts of the past seem to be rising up again as the system of control breaks down. And as a result of the Alawites' concentration as a compact minority in the northwest, they are actually much more vulnerable to massacre.


précis: Would Asad leave with a golden parachute?

PK: There are too many business interests, too many things at stake. The great fear that many observers have articulated is that if the regime collapses then the real massacres could begin in retribution. Bashar and the closest members of his regime may believe that he can't flee because there will be no one to defend the Alawite community from massacre.


précis: So the expectation is that they're fighting for their lives?

PK: Well, they are also fighting because they own a good chunk of the country. It's not simply that they are fighting for their own people, but also for enormous material wealth that they control. Asad's cousins, the Maaloufs, are the wealthiest family in the country. Asad himself may be very wealthy along with others close to him, and much of that wealth is tied up in the country. 

There is undoubtedly a fear, which one hears next door in Lebanon, that massacres may be inevitable and the regime cannot afford to let its own co-religionists become victim to this. But if you probe a little further, you understand that they have enormous investments in the country, which also helps to explain why the Asads are so far staying the course and may go down fighting.

One of the president's family members, the head of general intelligence for the country, was blown up a few months ago along with the defense minister. One might think that would bring down a regime, but the members of the regime's inner circle are not fleeing.


précis: What has Hezbollah been doing during this conflict?

PK: Hezbollah is looking for a way to save face. There's no question their leader Nasrallah's reputation has been sullied, though he is not dead in the water. He is supposed to be a revolutionary leader, but when the Arab revolts occurred throughout the Middle East, he offered little encouragement. The problem is that you are what you eat. Once Hezbollah become established, they don't want to risk giving up that power. And so they behaved differently. 

Nasrallah's ties to the Syrian regime have discredited him in the eyes of many onlookers in the Arab world. Regardless of whether you are a secular liberal or an Islamic fundamentalist, the actions taken by Damascus are not appealing to most of the rest of the Arab world, much of which is Sunni. Across the rest of the Arab world there has been delight in watching the people of Syria rise up, much as the people in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere rose up; and the Syrian regime's response is not seen as a win for the Arab people. 

Even though it controls the firepower in the country, Hezbollah has not taken over the government. But the concern in Lebanon is that Hezbollah, worrying that its Syrian ally is collapsing and its Iranian ally is losing position, may feel the need to consolidate its position with a military coup to pre-empt a potential usurpation of Hezbollah's stake in the country.


précis: Hasn't Hezbollah seen the returns of being actively engaged in the Lebanese political process?

PK: Yes, but that was when Syria wasn't tottering on the brink and backed Hezbollah more directly. Hezbollah has to make calculations like any other major movement. It constitutes an enormous economic and social welfare organization, armed to the teeth. And it has relied on funding and arms from Iran and logistical support from Syria, up until recently. Washington is watching Syria so closely because it is far more consequential for US policy and interests in the region than Libya ever was.


précis: Switching gears, what is it like for social science and humanities professors to teach at what is known as primarily an engineering school?

PK: MIT isn't for everyone, but it is for very smart people, no matter what your field. It attracts talented people who have a deep commitment to research. And MIT has been supportive of all of us in the humanities and social sciences who can figure out how to fit in well without a chip on our shoulder for being comparatively small in number.

MIT has proved it is possible to have greatness in small departments. The economics department is the largest department in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) but small compared to many departments at MIT. Nevertheless, it has been ranked one of the top economics departments in the world since the time of Paul Samuelson. Our linguistics and philosophy department is also a leader. It remains strong because modern theoretical linguistics was basically invented here at MIT. And our philosophy program ranks in the top ten of the country despite being the smallest among its peers. 

There's no question that undergraduate majors are not attracted to SHASS in significant numbers, with the exception of economics. If you want an undergraduate audience, you have to be very creative in generating it. SHASS faculty have to learn to live with the fact that we are always going to be smaller compared to engineering. But at MIT even science, which is enormous here, looks small next to engineering.


précis: How does the engineering side benefit the humanities and social science community?

PK: I believe the engineering side sharpens us analytically. It reminds us to be rigorous scientifically but also to apply what we know about synthesizing complexity. Engineers employ a scientific rigor that underpins their work and have an applied, impactful kind of way of going about what they do to tackle major problems and grand challenges. That is what succeeds here. 

Though it has taken them a while to get here, I think engineers understand that if they are really going to tackle some of the world's largest, messy, complex challenges, they need humanists, social scientists, and even artists to work with them. They cannot do it independently. They need very smart people to think about policy and the social implications of what they're engineering. So I do think we all benefit from their awakening to our importance.