When Robert Baer, former CIA agent and current CNN terrorism analyst, arrived in Beirut for the first time, he said he immediately became fascinated with a country you wouldn’t even have the slightest idea that there was a civil war going on.
Baer addressed the Benedictine community about national security and global terrorism in the 21st century Thursday during the Center for Civil Learning Leadership’s lecture series.
For Baer, the real fun began when he was en route to Damascus and had to cross through a military zone owned by the Islamic State, explaining he had the speed of the vehicle as his only security, imploding 500 audience members into laughter.
Baer had been assigned to Syria since the beginning of his career and to this day, after 21 years, he is still struggling to answer the question of its rooted conflict.
“I’m here to tell you how little I know about Syria… Syria is a mysterious place. New York Times has come out with an article called ‘Why Syria Matters’; 400,000 dead, 5 million people forced into turkey and Lebanon…why does it matter to us Americans,” Baer began.
He explained that Syria has a domino effect on the rest of the world; having an influence on Brexit, Germany and Angela Merkel, Marine Le Pen and U.S. presidential elections.
Since the civil war began in March 2011, tensions worsened between the Sunni Majority and Alawite sect, and the presence of the Islamic State aggravated the conflict.
At first, Baer had failed to understand the mindset of the Sunnis and why they wanted to assassinate Alawite officers and former president Hafez al-Assad. Along with a drought that started the civil war, he explained that one reason we have conflict in Syria is because of the identifiable other.
“The Alawites, who control about 15 percent of Syria, are considered apostates by Sunni Muslims because they believe in the trinity…As tensions arise with drought and overpopulation; they’re able to ascribe their suffering to another group,” Baer said. “Then you have to look at it from the point of the Sunnis. Then we ask the question, the American question: why do they hate us? … That’s not the right question. The question is what is going on in their minds. These are the people who make up Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
Baer pointed out that the Sunnis had lost four capitals that had originally been theirs which led to a downfall to their identity.
“They have this identity politics and it’s extremely important. Iran is the one country in the Middle East that has constant borders going back thousands of years. Other Arab countries, borders have been redrawn from the Ottomans, the French, the British, and we’d go on and on. Also have to look at the fact that it’s sheer demographics… Sunni Muslims, since the Prophet, they have been the ruling class, and they are under threat. Just as the Alawites are under threat, Sunnis are under threat,” Baer explained.
Baer argued religious belief equals cohesion and under this force extremists have taken the doctrine and simplified it to the simplest message possible, paving way for radical Islam.
“The Islamic state is going back to what they believe the Quran says at the most basic level. A lot of people in adherence to the Islamic State do not know Islam at all. Their arguments, if you can sit one of these people down, can be taken apart piece by piece by a true scholar,” Baer said.
Baer also stated that he believes that Sunnis and Alawites will never be able to live peacefully together.
“It’s not a pretty picture. Getting rid of Bashar al-Assad today isn’t going to solve it. Removing the Islamic State from eastern Syria isn’t going to solve it. And where it goes next, I don’t know. In the future, I only foresee problems,” Baer said.
Baer admitted that if he were to be called to the White House to solve the problem of Syria, he wouldn’t know what to say. Audience members left with a sense of clarity but no resolve on the issue.
“The wars are more than trying to fight terrorism and we’ll never really know what exactly the wars are about. Some may say oil, others ISIS, etc. He didn’t give a clear answer either,” student Nela Isic said.