Think tanks and Syria

Think tanks and Syria
6 min read
26 Dec, 2016
Comment: What exactly have think tanks accomplished for Syria over the last five years, asks Laith Saud.
Syrians carry out search and rescue works after residential areas in Aleppo were bombed [Getty]
Edward Said described orientalism as a ‘corporate institution’ dealing with the East. By corporate, he meant it formed a body. By institution, he meant orientalism not only reinforced policy, but even the manners and styles by which we think and talk about the Middle East. 

The think tank (dealing with the region) is a new wrinkle in the orientalist body; it reaches beyond simply articulating policy and invigorates a vivid picture of the region as militaristic and nihilistic. 

This picture obfuscates obvious things, like Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes, but it also presents the East as ripe for bombing, selling arms and chaos. The ‘think tank’ does not so much liberate the region through good policy as reinforces an image of the region beneficial to the military-industrial complex. 

The think tank and Syria

What exactly did think tanks accomplish for Syria over the last five years? The most ‘pro-rebel’ think tanks in Washington DC are the Brookings Institute and the Atlantic Council.  The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington is another such entity. 

Fred Hof, a former US diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Council, has actually been quite passionate on the plight of Syrians facing Assad. But none of their recommendations turned into strategic policy. The question is why. Are think tanks, as The New York Times suggested in 2014, simply a way for foreign powers to buy influence? If so, why did powers like the UAE and Saudi Arabia fail on Syria? Where is the disconnect, why did their money not buy policy influence?

Are think tanks, as The New York Times suggested in 2014, simply a way for foreign powers to buy influence? If so, why did powers like the UAE and Saudi Arabia fail on Syria? Where is the disconnect, why did their money not buy policy influence?

The proliferation of think tanks today is not a result of demand from the government, it is rather to satisfy a media demand; mainstream outlets require “experts” to boost their credentials as disseminators of knowledge. 

think tanks, in turn, need to be seen and heard through their fellows in media to sustain the impression that they are influential. It is cable and internet media that constitutes the corporate nature and interdependency of think tanks and news. And media deals in images. 

The most magnetic images radiating from the region today are those of the Islamic State [IS] group. Bearded, black-clad angry men causing chaos throughout the region is an attractive image for major media outlets in the West. 

Such images confirm the most alarmist biases regarding the region and shore up the terror-centric view, shifting attention away from state actors like Russia or Iran, or arms dealers like the US in sowing so much violence. 

In the case of Syria, the atrocities of Assad and the one-sided nature of the conflict was constantly sidelined in favour of the narrative that terrorists dominated the opposition, that Assad was fighting IS, as were the Russians. 

In the case of Syria, the atrocities of Assad and the one-sided nature of the conflict was constantly sidelined in favour of the narrative that terrorists dominated the opposition, that Assad was fighting IS, as were the Russians

And it was not enough to simply repeat this narrative despite the facts; think tank fellows, responding to media driven market needs, were enthusiastic about appearing in media and producing books on IS, tying us up in the weeds of internet innuendo on the IS ‘command chain’ and ‘media department.’

It is widely known that IS is not a composed, centralised organisation, but rather a loose affiliation of gangs, criminals and terrorists who use the ‘IS banner’ to extort local villages or carry out operations that are idiomatic and not part of some grand apocalyptic plan. 

For example, in Syria, Assad has coordinated with Islamic State, this is a fact; yet both the Russians and Assad have claimed to the world to be fighting IS, which is simply false. 

For example, in Syria, Assad has coordinated with Islamic State, this is a fact; yet both the Russians and Assad have claimed to the world to be fighting IS, which is simply false

But think tank fellows have done little to disabuse the average television viewer or online reader of these facts. The market does not demand it, even though it is more factual. 

Rather, they have appeased the more shallow and destructive market demand to peddle in narratives about IS’s ‘ideology’ or in debating how ‘influenced’ by Islam IS may be; demands fashioned by neo-orientalist underpinnings, meanwhile Assad’s genocide continues unabated.

The impact of the Islamic State industry

The obsession with terrorism is a mark of the neo-orientalist nature of contemporary media and the way in which think tanks situate themselves.

Analysts like Hussein Ibish have wasted much ink in discussing IS; though IS is brutal, its military might is overblown and quite frankly buttressed by politics to boost other interests.   

But by his – and others – excessive focus on IS and ‘their ideas,’ the real factors driving change in the region, such as arms exports, state-sponsored genocide and the Kurdish surge (which I mention with no moral judgment) are displaced, away from the public eye and discourse, the very thing think tanks are supposed to inform. And again, the image of the barbarous Arab/Muslim is elevated to centre stage, while tie-wearing war criminals, supported by world powers, are unwittingly pixelated out of view.

IS has been so perfect in accommodating the stereotypical view of Islam and the Arabs that an entire industry emerged, quickly, to meet media market demands. 

IS has been so perfect in accommodating the stereotypical view of Islam and the Arabs that an entire industry emerged, quickly, to meet media market demands

Hassan Hassan, fellow at the Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror has acquired a commanding presence in media and the book is a detailed account of the group. But a quick look at its sources reveals that the work is an extension of establishment talking points or nobodies; the sources are diplomats and American military officials or low ranking IS punks who could never edify the reader on the true nature of IS leadership. 

Other works on IS or ‘jihadi ideology’ are worse; Sebastin Gorka’s Defeating Jihad:The Winnable War or Shiraz Maher’s Salafi-Jihadi Ideology: The History of an Idea repeat the same yawn-inducing intellectual history that runs from Maududi to Nadvi to Qutb to Azzam.

These works show little respect for scholarly publications that challenge this narrative and are meant to entertain the (Western) reader, not enlighten them, about a far away place, exotic and dangerous.  They are also meant to insure these writers’ perennial place in the corporate institution that is orientalism.

Meanwhile, the Middle East burns. And yes, some burning is due to terrorism and IS particularly, but such flames flicker with a whimper when compared to the mushroom cloud of fire and chaos caused by states like Iran, Russia or the US. 

As analysts interested in this region we must be cautious as to what demands we wish to meet; is it the demands of a morally disinterested media, largely formed by orientalist frames and allied with the military-industrial complex as well as institutions of power? Or do we meet the demands of the suffering people of Yemen, Syria, Iraq or beyond and push policies to alleviate their suffering? 

The way one answers this question determines what kind of analyst or think tank fellow they are and to whom they are most useful.                    

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.