A Conversation with Dr. Roger Owen, Harvard Historian of the Modern Middle East

In an interview with THO Fellow Baha Erbas, the Harvard historian and THO Advisory Board member discusses the Syrian civil war, U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and the refugee crisis.
Dr. Roger Owen, a member of THO’s Advisory Board, is a Professor of History, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies.

Dr. Owen served as Harvard’s first A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History between 1993 and 2013, after having taught Middle East economic history and Middle East politics at Oxford University. Throughout his career, he has written extensively on the modern Middle East; his books include The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914 (I.B. Tauris, 1993), State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (Routledge, 2004 [3rd edition]), and The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Harvard University Press, 2012). 

Dr. Owen’s visiting professorships have included the American University at Cairo (1975), the University of California at Berkeley (1982), and the University of Texas at Austin (1990). He received his D.Phil. from St. Anthony’s College at Oxford (1965) and his B.A. from Magdalen College at Oxford (1959). Dr. Owen first visited the Middle East in 1955 during his military service in Cyprus, afterwards spending a year living in Cairo, Egypt, researching Egypt’s 19th-century agrarian history and teaching English at the American University of Cairo. He also lived in Lebanon for one year and has taken repeat visits to other Arab countries. 


Baha Erbas: How do you see the calamity going on in Syria? Do you see any solution?

Dr. Roger Owen: Well, I think that Assad has won in the sense that he has control over most of the country, and he has control over the army, but he has done it at a vast expense. There are something like five million Syrian refugees out there. Places like Aleppo have been bombed to bits. There are no schools, no hospitals. He’s won, but he’s also lost. There are many people who regard him as a war criminal, of course. Has he been using the nerve gas sarin on his own people? It seems as though there is some good evidence that that is what he’s done.

B.E.: Do you see a future for Syria? Will the Syrian people vote for the regime?

R.O.: Well, I think you have to see the nature of the Assad family. They are Nusayris, as you know, whom the Sunni Arabs regard as heretics. The country was captured by Assad’s father, as I’m sure you know, and he was one of these Arab military rulers. One of the things that I’m sure he did was when he died, he said to his sons, “You must look after [Syria], this is our resting place. You have to go off to Russia, or something or other, if we are overthrown, or we will be killed.” It’s pretty desperate. The whole Assad policy is to remain in power, to exercise strength – to no particular purpose except for family, as far as I can tell.

B.E.: The calamity is one of the greatest ones probably since WWII. Millions of people have been displaced. Turkey has, at the moment, 3.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has spent more than $35 or $40 billion without succeeding in getting a few billion from the U.S. and the entire EU. 

R.O.: It’s a disaster. Then you think of this winter, and these poor refugee people living in tents, muddy tents. The only people who seem to be helpful are French doctors – Medecins Sans Frontieres; UNICEF, sometimes; some of the international organizations. It really does need a huge amount of intervention from outside, including, well, I was going to say, all of the money of the Arab world, but then we have to talk about the price of oil, of course. That also has made the other Arab states less willing to help.

B.E.: How do you see Washington’s position in this case? Do you believe that Washington has a Middle East grand strategy?

R.O.: Well, it depends on what you mean by Washington, but if it has anything to do with President Trump and the people connected with him – people who don’t do their homework, have no idea of the history – you’ve only to look at the portfolio that was given to Jared Kushner to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute just to see that that was never going to happen. If you really look at all the disagreement and disagreement and disagreement, and if you look at the history of it, you can’t just come in and solve it. That’s a complete disaster – if we mean the Trump administration and the Secretary of Defense and the people around him and their priorities and lack of concern for what’s going on in the Middle East.

B.E.: What do you think of the current situation in Egypt? Do you see any future for the Muslim Brotherhood?

R.O.: There should be, but at the moment, they are blamed for everything. You have to understand the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, where they fit in. They are mostly people who are concerned with living good Muslim lives – look at the mosques they go to, what their imams tell them – but there’s always been a wing of radical young men, who were originally there in the days of Hassan al-Banna in the ‘20s and ‘30s to protect the leadership. These are very dangerous people who have spent a good deal of time plotting to assassinate el-Sisi. Who knows? They may get him down.

B.E.: Do you think el-Sisi can go on?

R.O.: I think he probably will, but under enormous pressure. I think there are many things; I think he has a plan to resurrect Egypt, but I don’t think he thinks how to do it. Meanwhile, they have the most terrible water problems in Egypt, as they do elsewhere, with the Nile drying up, and all kinds of problems with pollution because the water table is so close to the surface. Sewage and water (and everything) get all mixed up, so he will be on the defensive. The next crisis will be who succeeds him. It’s going to be – I don’t know his family – but it’s going to be a member of his family, anyway. Egyptian leaders very often look to their sons or their relatives to succeed them.

B.E.: Do you see in the near future any real settlement in Syria between the U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

R.O.: I don’t.

B.E.: Why?

R.O.: Because it’s too complicated. Too many people being killed; too many people – good people – have left the country. That northern border between – we haven’t talked about the Kurds yet. I just think there are too many guns, too many people with particular interests, with nobody really anxious to settle. The peace plans of the outsiders are impossible to implement. As we know, we can’t even have a ceasefire.

B.E.: Do you see a real cooperation and collaboration between Turkey, Iran, and Russia?

R.O.: Well, that’s one of the new axes, I imagine. We’re talking about the ‘Shiite Crescent.’ That’s also Russia defending its gains in Syria. That’s the Iranians worried about Trump and their nuclear power stations and the U.S. tearing up their Paris agreement. And it’s the Russians establishing a port at Tartus. There are a lot of people with particular interests, which they’re worried about protecting.

B.E.: After the Arab Spring, people are talking about Iran as increasingly the sphere of influence in the region – as you say, the Shiite Crescent. Do you believe in that? 

R.O.: Well, it’s very difficult to understand what moves Iran as a result of these recent demonstrations inside Iran. It’s unclear. We have the Revolutionary Guard, which are partly revolutionary and partly a way of making a lot of money for people. There’s all kinds of corruption. There’s a ‘fed up-ness’ among the young people. There’s a whole notion of having an Islamic society. You see these young girls with their scarves around their necks and so on. It looks as though Iran is very preoccupied and whether it will be able to continue to provide subsidies for Hezbollah and fight against Israel – it seems to me to be in their interests to heat things up with Israel. And to take energies of young people away, from young people. 

That’s the thing, if you think about it. You have huge numbers of unemployed young people with nothing to do who can be open to joining ISIS or something, going off to fight somewhere or other. It’s extremely explosive. Meanwhile, the climate is changing. The rivers are drying up; there’s a shortage of water everywhere. Where are they going to get that from? 

B.E.: Financially, Turkey happens to be, in the last five or six years – head and shoulders – bearing the greatest economic burden of the Syrian civil crisis – as I said, over 3.2 million refugees. Turkey has the most refugees right now in the world. 

R.O.: Well, yes, maybe America [does]. But in the European, Asian world, I’m sure you’re right. 

B.E.: Turkey has spent more than $40 billion but could not succeed in getting $1 billion from the U.S.! Why don’t people in the West want to see how sacrificing and constructive Turkey has been since the beginning of the Syrian civil war? Why don’t people talk about it?

R.O.: Well, I don’t know. I mean, they do. The question is whether you hear them and whether they are clear. The Germans certainly have a view about Turkey. For a while, Ms. Merkel was extremely good at taking in refugees from the Balkans, as I’m sure you know, but then it becomes – in the new populism, anti-refugee talk becomes the coinage of Trump. 

It needs a unified approach, but that doesn’t seem to be the leadership in Europe or anywhere else. They need to really think through all these things. I think for a while Turkey was paid to look after the refugees, but whether the Europeans are willing to continue to do that or whether the Turks as a community are willing to play that game, I have no idea.

B.E.: The total money the EU contributed is just over €1 billion. Turkey spent over $40 billion.

R.O.: Yes. I mean, in an ideal world, the refugees would go home. Then we come to Syria and places like that. If you were a refugee, particularly a young refugee contemplating your future, I think you would be most unwilling to stay where you were in somewhere like Syria, and that’s not to speak of being recruited into the army or all the other things that might happen to you if you’re a young man.

B.E.: The U.S.-Turkey relationship is going through the most diverse time of all in the last 70 years. It seems step by step it’s going through a bitter divorce. Why are we in this situation?

R.O.: I think the simple answer is, as everybody points out, we’re in the era of identity politics – that is, populism, in which you divide people into great chunks, like Christians and Muslims and so on. And in a world where identity politics – and particularly with Erdogan – I think that just plays into the West’s games. “We’re Muslims, and therefore, being Eastern, question where Turkey belongs.” Turkey is being pushed out of Europe, as I’m sure you’re aware, into some Islamic place, where people like Ataturk and the whole reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fought and persuaded the Europeans that Turkey was part of Europe.

B.E.: Do you think Europe and the West – let’s say the U.S. and the EU – have changed recently their view and strategy toward Turkey, or do you think Turkey is changing itself?

R.O.: I see it somehow as – there are two First World/Third World borders. There’s the Rio Grande in Texas in America, and you can see American fears of that border becoming increasingly porous and a strong sense of caravans of refugees. People from Turkey and Venezuela and everywhere want to come to the United States, so you have to have a policy there. 

Europe has a policy in which they look across the Mediterranean and they see vast numbers of unemployed Algerians, Tunisians, and everything, who then become – I don’t know –agitated or aroused and so on, and so tourism falls away, and it’s got a negative game plan, and I don’t know how in ideal circumstances one would do something about that. There are 100 million Egyptians out there who aren’t fitting into the area. There isn’t enough room. It’s quite interesting. There are great cities in the desert, but nobody wants to live there. You have Coptic cathedrals in the desert, and everyone gets upset. There are people that think that Christian people shouldn’t be building Christian churches on Muslim soil. It goes on and on and worse. The rulers are just keeping the lid on. I don’t think they’re doing anything very much.

B.E.: Israel just killed dozens of Palestinians.

R.O.: Yes.

B.E.: Why does Israel think it can continue this way?

R.O.: Well, I think that’s up to the Palestinians. People have been saying for a long time we’re heading up to another Intifada, and there are people in Israel who have different responses to that, as you know. The people who think the only way you protect Israel is to keep Palestinians stuck in the Gaza Strip, is to shoot them regularly, seem to be in charge. I don’t see how the Palestinians can actually defeat or make Israel change its policy, but I think we are back to a situation where the more Palestinians just become citizens of Israel – I think it’s almost equal, eight million Palestinians and seven million Jews, or is it the other way around? – just see how that works out. Palestinians in that way of thinking shouldn’t cause too much disturbance. They should act within Israeli politics as Israeli citizens. They ask for their right to be in their army and those kinds of things.

B.E.: Do you see an independent Palestinian state?

R.O.: No! I think it suits Netanyahu and those people to pretend those are two states because then nothing happens. There are just endless discussions, and nothing happens.

B.E.: Can the disproportionate measures taken by Israel really continue after Netanyahu leaves office?

R.O.: I think this little Intifada we’ve seen – the Palestinians have tried peaceful protests. They’ve tried other forms of protests, and Israel is just too strong and too determined, so I think you have to get at Israel from the inside and get more Arab representatives in the Knesset and so on, and say, “We are Israelis; we demand the same rights as Jewish Israelis. We need to be in the army...” and so on, because that’s what you are. The only way to be a proper citizen in Israel is to be in the Israeli army, to get the benefits of the system – social security and things like that. I think that’s the sensible Palestinian leader approach. They can’t control the young men who have no hope and no way of getting out of Gaza. I mean, the sensible thing would be to open up Gaza and have some kind of shipping service, so more people can leave Gaza. It’s just a vast prison with very unhappy people.

B.E.: If you look at democratic change of the regimes in the Middle East, do you really see Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms changing and reforming the system, or do you think those dictatorships will stay another half century in power?

R.O.: Well, I think there will be change, but I don’t think it will be change in the direction of the kind of democracy that ideally one would hope for. I think that the events in Turkey and everywhere else show that’s extremely difficult. The British have been sustaining something like a two-party system for a very long time. To get to a situation where the political leaders of the Saudi accept the rules of the game, you have to have an election that goes to and from; it’s very long, and just when you think you’re getting there, like Turkey, the rules break down, for all kinds of reasons.

B.E.: Do you see the Saudi kingdom being the same 20 years later?

R.O.: Well, various aspects of it will change, I’m sure, and that’s – then his father may die, and then there’ll be another crown prince. I begin to think, “Does it really matter, what goes on in Saudi Arabia?” I mean, there is oil; they are worried about things that they should be doing, but it’s difficult to see what interest anybody in Saudi Arabia has for political change in a democratic way apart from Saudi women, who obviously are taking matters into their own hands, to drive cars and things of that kind.

B.E.: If you happened to see the Saudi crown prince talking about a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – what would happen in the Middle East if there were such a war?

R.O.: It depends where it was decided to fight it. I think you could be reasonably sure that that war would not be fought in Saudi Arabia; it wouldn’t be fought in Iran. It would be fought in Syria; it would be fought in Iraq. It would be fought all over the place, and it would be a horrible disaster. More refugees, more fighting.

B.E.: Turkey has persistently opposed the United States helping the PYD/YPG in Syria. Turkey sees that although we have been allies for 70 years, the U.S. is supporting a group of terrorists in Syria who keep attacking Turkey from the Syrian and Iraqi territories. Why is the U.S. so persistent on its help to the YPG and PYD?

R.O.: You know more about that than I do. The YPG was against ISIS. That’s why they infiltrated special forces. Meanwhile, you have Trump and people in the White House who are so ignorant they don’t even know what’s going on. You have a vested interest somewhere in the American military to pursue these kinds of things. I think when the invasion of Iraq took place, they discovered that there were only eight people in the State Department who spoke Arabic – some very small number. 

I think probably it is in the interests of the American special forces that they have special forces with boots-on-the-ground experience operating on that border between Syria and Turkey. Erdogan doesn’t have the clout nor does anybody else around here. The YPG, they’ve organized women and everything. They have produced a reasonable military organization, I think. But it’s not the Barzanis and the Talabanis anymore. We haven’t talked about the Turkish referendum yet and all that kind of thing. There’s something stirring up there that is deeply disturbing Erdogan in Turkey.

Another thing is, when one talks about Washington, [one sees that] it’s full of competing fiefdoms, different interests, and it’s not clear who’s in charge. I meant the best is that the ‘grown-ups,’ as people say, are trying to prevent Trump from not declaring war on North Korea or somewhere. It’s on the back burner, and when it comes to the officials in the White House, [they] are not really knowledgeable; then all kinds of other people continue to go on, like the army and the special forces, taking advantage of the situation to train their people, to make sure they have the people they need to be a world power. They have to think about China now too.

B.E.: Do you see in the region – apart from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey – an independent Kurdish state in the future?

R.O.: I don’t think so. Well – it depends on what you mean by independent. I think it’s not in the interests of the Kurds. I think there are certain people who have – like the Christians in Lebanon, and the Kurds, and so on – who have a long historical experience of moments when they think, “Yippee! We’re going to have our own state!” and then they realize that just creates too much trouble for everybody, so you just have whatever independence you are able to have, and you try and develop tourism, or whatever.

B.E.: Do you really believe the UK or the United States has a real interest in having a Kurdish state there? 

R.O.: No, I don’t think so. I think the intelligence people and the army would say that that would just lead to more instability. The Kurds should cap what they have and do what they do, and see what chances they can have in the new Middle East. At one stage, it was very important to have oil; now it seems less important to have oil. Now, in this era of cyberwar, we may discover that they have more people, say like YPG women, who might have more ability at waging cyberwar than anybody else. There is a whole new set of skills and assets, and then there’s also the question of water and all the other things I’ve been talking about. I think there are going to be water wars in the Middle East, over the Jordan and various other rivers.