Lisle, Illinois ~ When Robert Baer first traveled to Syria, the country was in the middle of a Muslim Brotherhood revolt against the government. Baer stayed with an Alawite major while bombs exploded in Damascus.
Back then, he didn’t know why Sunni Muslims were trying to kill Alawite officers and assassinate then-President Hafez al-Assad.
“That started my very long journey and fascination with this country, and it goes until this day,” Baer said.
Given the tumultuous global political climate and the recent U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 100 Syrians, an expert on the Middle East is just the person to help explain the recent chaos.
Baer, a former CIA agent and terrorism analyst for CNN and Time magazine, mesmerized nearly 500 audience members Thursday during Benedictine University’s Center for Civic Leadership’s (CCL) lecture series while attempting to answer the riddle of Syria and why America should care about the Middle East.
Baer once plotted to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1995 by helping organize a rebellion in northern Iraq. He was investigated by the FBI under murder-for-hire charges accusing him of privately attempting to assassinate the Iraqi president – which is illegal under U.S. law. His name was cleared but he resigned from the agency in 1997. He received the CIA’s Career Intelligence Medal in 1998.
Even after 21 years in the CIA, Baer admits he still doesn’t have all the answers. When he joined the CIA in 1976, he was primarily assigned to Syria. The country is one of the most complicated questions that he is still trying to decode.
In March 2011, the Syrian Civil War began when rebel forces battled the government for control of cities and towns. The war has pitched the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Alawite sect. The rise of the Islamic State group only added to the regional atrocities.
Nearly 400,000 Syrians have been killed and more than 4.5 million have fled Syria to mainly Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Syrian refugees have also sought safety in Europe, activating political divisions as countries argue over sharing the weight of the humanitarian crisis.
“Syria is having a domino effect,” Baer said. “It had an influence on Brexit (the British leaving the European Union). A lot of it has to do with the refugees. Germany and Angela Merkel are in trouble because of this. Certainly, Marine Le Pen (former National Front president and far-right presidential candidate in France) is being influenced by the Syrian refugees. It clearly had an effect on American elections too because President Trump was talking about Syrian immigrants. Never mind that the Syrian refugees are not committing the crimes.”
Syria matters because it is emblematic of problems in the Middle East, Baer said.
“The civil war was started by drought in Syria,” he said. “A lot of people were forced into the cities.”
This drought, which caused 75 percent of Syria’s farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations, drove as many as 1.5 million Syrians from rural areas into cities. More homeless families in Syria’s cities created stress with not enough resources to go around.
“One of the reasons we have problems in Syria is there’s the identifiable other, which is always a primeval response to overcrowding, the violence and the rest of it,” he said. “The Alawites, who control about 15 percent of Syria, are considered apostates by Sunni Muslims because they believe in the trinity.”
Baer didn’t focus only on Syria during his discussion at the University. He also shared stories of his experiences and challenges as a CIA operative.
“The biggest challenge I had within the CIA was recruiting people,” said Baer, who is fluent in Arabic. “It was excruciating because you are asking people to commit treason, which is ultimately not to their benefit because (if caught) they get hanged. And my biggest concern was trade-prep. I’d go to a meeting, pick someone up, meet them in the car, debrief them and remember what they said. It’s hard to do when you have to think on your feet.”
Baer made the argument that religious belief equals cohesion.
“People that can unify under religious belief are more likely to stay together and fight shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “It’s a force like no other.”
The key to radical Islam, Baer said, is reducing doctrine to the simplest message possible.
“This is what they’re doing,” he said. “The Islamic State is going back to what they believe the Quran said on most basic level. A lot of the adherents of the Islamic State do not know Islam at all. Their arguments, if you could sit one of these people down, would be taken apart piece by piece by a true scholar.”
The psychological force of resentment is powerful, Baer said.
“It causes people to entertain delusions, hopes with no basis and people don’t become realistic. Islamic fundamentalism (an ideology that wants to institute Islamic law, including strict codes of behavior) is pragmatic,” he said. “Asymmetric warfare works for a time. The ability to take Mosul in Iraq very quickly using suicide bombers and the fact that the well-trained and organized army still has not been able to take back that city in six months tells you a story. It works. You and I know ultimately that they will be defeated, but it works for a time.”
Baer’s gut reaction to the question of what’s going to happen next in Syria was that the Sunnis and Alawites are never going to be able to live together peacefully.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” he said. “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.
“What happens in Syria will affect the rest of the Middle East and eventually Europe.”
In a Q&A session after the presentation, an attendee asked Baer what does he believe should be the U.S. government and American people’s response to Syria.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Bashar al-Assad ordered that strike or at least one of his officers,” Baer answered referencing the deadly sarin gas attack in northern Syria.
“With clear evidence that Bashar al-Assad was gassing his people, Trump had to react,” Baer said. “But if I were called by the White House tonight and asked how do you solve Syria, I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Another person inquired if there was any connection between what North Korea is doing and what’s happening in the Middle East.
“I think there’s a direct connection,” Baer said. “North Korea is thinking along the lines that the U.S. got rid of Saddam Hussein, who didn’t have any nuclear weapons, so if we get nuclear weapons, we’re safe.”
The question of the Russian agenda in Syria also came up, to which Baer responded, “Putin is resentful that we essentially took over Syria and Iraq which used to be under the Soviet Union umbrella and now he wants them back.”
Baer believes short-term terrorism threats against America is making it overlook deeper issues.
“We’re more afraid of short-term threats than long term,” he said. “We’re less afraid of global threats and global warming than when there are reports of a shooting. We’re not as afraid of cancer or the war on terror.
“It’s very hard for humans to think of the future,” Baer said. “People are driven by cable news. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage.”
When asked if intelligence is by its nature political, Baer said he believed that it was.
“It’s terribly politicized,” he said. “What you see is leaked information is often inaccurate. Intelligence is a weapon. Ultimately, the president is the bully pulpit. When he says something, we have to go along with it because we have no choice. Intelligence is directed from the top down.”
North Korea was on the minds of several audience members.
“In my opinion, the biggest worry I have right now is North Korea,” an attendee said. “We have a president who’s probably dealing with the only leader in the world who’s crazier than he is.
“If we don’t do anything, it’s only a matter of time before North Korea is able to put a nuke on the West Coast. And if we do something, apart from killing 30 million people in South Korea and Japan, it won’t be long before Russia joins in and that’s World War III. Is there a diplomatic solution?” the audience member asked.
“Convincing Kim Jong Un to give up nuclear weapons and stop making the missiles is a huge cost,” Baer said. “The easy solution is going to the Chinese and say ‘Make a deal with them. You do something about it.’”
Earlier in the day, Baer met with area high school students and select Benedictine University students during Youth Government Day to discuss the issues and challenges related to security and global terrorism.
This is one of the many opportunities Benedictine provides to encourage students to get involved as the next generation of civic leaders and engage in topics of local, state and national concern with political figures and experts. To learn more, visit ben.edu/ccl.
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 9,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the sixth consecutive year in 2016. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.