What are the U.S. Options?
The following is an unedited transcript of the sixty-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Monday, July 23, 2012, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
THOMAS MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Can everyone hear – oh, yes, everyone can hear me. I think we have the problem solved now, so we will – we will begin. Welcome to the Middle East Policy Council’s 69th Capitol Hill Conference, “The Crisis in Syria: What are the U.S. Options?”
Before we begin, I’d just like to say a few words about the Council. We have been here in Washington for 30 years. We’re a nonprofit, and our purpose is to contribute to the debate on the Middle East here in Washington in an effort to improve American policy in the Middle East. The flagship program we have is our journal, Middle East Policy. And this is the most recent issue, and it is the 30th anniversary issue of this journal. It’s been edited for 29 of those 30 years by Anne Joyce, who took it from infancy to what it is today. Anne, would you stand up for just a minute? (Applause.) Thank you. And there are subscription forms outside if you would care to subscribe to it.
This Capitol Hill Conference program is our second program, and as I said, we have done 69 of them. And our third program is an outreach program for educators and rotary clubs and world affairs councils, and it has its own website with educational materials on it.
Before I introduce the panel I’d like to make just a few brief remarks about the topic. A lot of attention is riveted on Syria today, on the escalating violence there. What began as popular demands for change and opportunity were met by force very quickly and were transformed into armed insurrection across the country. And because of the minority nature of the regime, an Alawite regime, and the fact that the majority of the population of the country is Sunni Arab, it has morphed into sectarian warfare and, arguably, civil war, depending on how you define civil war. The calls for reform were not heeded. The regional and international calls for cease-fires and political dialogue and transitions have not been heeded. And now we have regional and international calls for greater kinds of intervention, for the establishment of humanitarian corridors, safe zones, no-fly zones, airstrikes. And as a matter of fact, safe zones would probably require airstrikes.
So it’s a dilemma for the United States. On the one hand, we hear the words “Rwanda” and “Bosnia,” reminding us that we did not intervene quickly enough to avert really horrific humanitarian crises. In Rwanda it was 800,000 dead, possibly more. And the words “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” are also being heard because they’re examples of places where our intervention was far more costly than we anticipated and far less successful than was predicted. Those who are wary of greater intervention also point to the fact that Syria has sophisticated integrated air defenses and 330,000 people in its armed forces and that its geography is far different from Libya’s, so that airstrikes would have to take place over a much greater area.
The conflict has geopolitical importance. I think it would be fair to say that Syria has more geopolitical importance than Tunisia, Libya or Yemen. So how it unfolds is going to be important to the actors, to the neighbors of Syria. If the regime survives, that’s one thing. If it collapses and is followed by chaos, that’s another thing. If a regime emerges that’s dominated by Sunni Islamists that affects regional powers differently. And if a secular, pluralistic regime is created from a fairly heterogeneous and even fragmented opposition, that has different implications for all the actors and obviously would be the best.
We have a panel here that can discuss the situation in greater depth and delve into what the United States can do. And you have the biographies here on the reverse side of your invitation, so I won’t take too much time talking about it. But I will say that our first speaker will be Radwan Ziadeh, spokesperson for the Syrian National Council, who has a very distinguished career, is the founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria, has worked at the U.N., has been named the best Arab researcher by Jordan’s Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in 2004, was awarded the Academic Freedom Award from Middle East Studies Association in 2009 or ’10, and someone who can speak with firsthand knowledge about Syria.
I’d like Leon Hadar to speak second. Leon is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategy consulting firm, a former research fellow at the Cato Institute and U.N. bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post. And his work has been published everywhere – the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, just to mention a few, and also on TheNationalInterest.com. And I’ve been reading his work on TheNationalIntersest.com recently, and I recommend that you go there and take a look at that. It’s interesting.
Mark Katz will speak third. Mark is a friend of the Middle East Policy Council, was a visiting scholar at the Middle East Policy Council a year ago. He’s a professor at George Mason University, has a doctorate from MIT and has published very widely and has a new book out from Johns Hopkins University Press called Leaving without Losing, which is about our departures from Afghanistan and Iraq.
And our final speaker, who will concentrate on American policy choices, is Steven Heydemann, Dr. Heydemann, the senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute for Peace, who has also been on the faculty at Columbia University and is also an author, a prolific author, with a book published by Stanford University Press in 2007 called “Debating Arab Authoritarianism.”
That’s the panel. It’s a good panel. It’s a very important subject which really poses dilemmas for the United States.
And so may I introduce Dr. Ziadeh.
RADWAN ZIADEH, spokesperson, Syrian National Council
Good morning, everyone. Thank you very much for the Middle East Council for the invitation and organizing this event.
I will focus on three points: first, the state of the regime, or what’s left from the regime from this – from the Assad regime, and the state of the opposition, of course, including the Free Syrian Army; the second point about the regional implication of the conflict in Syria; and the third about the U.S. option, which everyone connected.
Now, it has been 18 months since the Syrian uprising started in March last year with the Assad regime systematic killings and widespread killings, and now of course more and more use of the air force, yesterday, as example, for the first time using the rockets in al-Rastan and in Damascus and Aleppo. This is the first time ever we’re see in Syrian history, which back 10,000 years, we see one of the leaders or the president of the country who’s shelling his own capital. (Well ?), this is of course very alarming for the population in Damascus, and no one expected that that would happened. The number of the people who have been killed, the civilians, exceed now 18,000, included 1,800 children under 18 years old. And of course when – if we calculate the percentage, that mean 7 percent of the victims are children. In normal wars, the percent, according to the Red Cross, is 3 to 5 percentage. This is up to normal. Well, this is – give you a sense that how much those children has been systematically targeted by the Assad regime.
Of course, the number of the people who’ve been detained exceed 30,000. We believe the number is much higher. According to the Human Rights Watch, the last report they released, more than 27 secret prisons in Syria, especially in the military bases. And of course the number of the missing people and the number of the refugees exceeding day by day, especially of the attack in Damascus and Aleppo, which, according to the U.N., more than 1 million and half has been displaced inside the country and more than half a million in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and in Iraq.
The Assad regime, of course, big blow was the explosion in Damascus, which targeted what’s called the Crisis Management Group. Since the uprising started, the Assad regime established what’s called the Crisis Management Group under the leadership of the National Security Office. This is under the leadership of the Baath Party, but mainly who’s included in the management group, it’s the head of all the security branches, the four security branches, along with the minister of defense, minister of interior and the deputy – the deputy minister of defense, which his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, those – basically, those 10 or 12 people who taking decisions day by day, who’s giving the orders to the military groups or the – military groups or the security to go to attack on all the administrations or attack all the areas and give orders to detain people. And it was big blow and explosion within the security, of course, which left five of those leaders has been killed, especially the minister of defense, minister of interior and the head of the Crisis Management Group and the chief of – or the president of the National Security Office.
After that we expected that – so Assad regime can go two ways. Then the Assad regime will accept to do some compromise, because at least he lost his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. He’s basically the number one guy in Syria since the uprising started, and he was responsible in all on the shelling and in the killings in Homs area, destruction in the Homs area.
Or the other scenario, which was most likely, the Assad regime will go – became more aggressive and – against his own people. And this is what’s happened. Now, the Assad regime give the orders for the air force to attack the areas in different ways. But with the same time, this big blow shows the strength of the Free Syrian Army. Now, the Free Syrian Army control most of the border area with Turkey and with Iraq – still – (inaudible) – in the hand of the Assad regime, but all other crossing borders points with Turkey and with Iraq in the hand of the Free Syrian Army – with the Free Syrian Army.
And basically, the Free Syrian Army control, according to the – to the – to the head of the U.N. mission, more than 40 percent of territories in Syria, which of course now it’s became increased because most of the Aleppo suburb in the hand of the Free Syrian Army and of course in the northern party of Syria and many areas – many areas in Damascus suburb and in Dara’a.
What’s happened exactly that the Free Syrian Army relies mainly on the defection and the guns and the arms within the Assad army, because the Assad army, when he decided to involve the army in the military operations, most of the – most of the army soldiers and officers are Sunni, even that some of them, they are Alawite, and there are some Alawite officers who defected also. But what we have which make the situation much more worse, that we don’t have like what’s happen in Yemen – there is horizontal defection in the army. What’s happened, all the defection coming from – especially from the middle-ranking – the middle-ranking levels. This is why the Free Syrian Army getting much bigger, with the same time – with the same time there is no safety zone or there is no area or liberated area, can’t organize itself, can’t do the operations in much more organized way or in a strategy (more develop ?).
What he’s done in another way, that he’s going back and forth in many areas, with that cost many civilians, which were the same time cost many people being killed by the Free Syrian Army. Mainly the Free Syrian Army, it’s a – as I said, officers who defected, colonels. We have now three major generals who defected, three of them in Turkey. And we have, of course – two weeks ago I just visited the officers’ camp in Turkey. We have more than 1,192 colonels who defected and based in Turkey. But most effective, of course, the colonels and the middle-rankings officers who defected and stayed inside the country, especially in the area al-Rastan, Homs and in Damascus suburb.
What’s the state of the opposition? Exactly the state of the opposition connected to the role of the international community. Last week the Security Council again failed to adopt any resolution under Chapter VII to protect the civilians. Well, became the situation where the – even that the – if the resolution been passed in Syria, all the debate and the discussion in New York was irrelevant to the situation in Syria, because what we have in Syria, it’s almost armored conflict and the still the Security Council or the officials here, the State Department, they talk about we don’t need more militarization of the situation, which already we have armed conflict since six months ago. The situation became much more – there is no any kind of peaceful demonstrations allowed by the Assad regime, and the Assad regime dealt with the peaceful demonstrations, along with the armed opposition, with the same way in the last month has – have two incidents where there has been shelling on the peaceful demonstrations, which left more than 60 people has been killed in Saqba and Sitt Zeinab. This is why mainly we don’t advise the people out to go to demonstrate peacefully if this area did not to protect by the Free Syrian Army, because the implication of the shellings, it’s very high for the civilians.
And this is why when the international community failed to adopt any resolution or to take any actions to protect the civilians that’s undermine, let’s say, the political opposition, undermined mainly the Syrian National Council, because the role of the Syrian National Council or the Syrian opposition to mobilize the international community to protect the civilians, well, that’s became the main demand of the Syrian on the ground.
And that’s reflected – this is why became the Syrian National Council much more weaker and hopeless in the eyes of the Syrians, and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, who are defending the Syrian people on the ground, became the heroes of the Syrian people in the hearts and the minds of the Syrians. And that’s the same situation like what we have in Kosovo in 1999 when the international community failed to adopt any resolution to protect the civilians. And we saw that on the – on the ground right now, because most of the areas being liberated by the Free Syrian Army, there is no control, as example for any political opposition there. And there is no political authority for the – for the SNC, the Syrian National Council, on that area.
Well, this is unfortunately because the lack of actions or inactions by the international community. When the Security Council failed the third time and we much expected that from our visit to Moscow and from the comments of the Russian officials, and we say that many times, we don’t need to try and waste any – our time more and more with the Security Council. And we come to the way we’re actually – the actions beyond the Security Council is much more important. We said many times that the moral authority to save lives of the children and the civilians is above the legal authority that the Security Council gave. And we come up to the situation where many cases have been in the history where the Security Council was unable to adopt any resolution to protect the civilians. This is why we have the Friends of the Syria Conference, and should they have very definite agenda to take any actions to protect the civilians.
Of course now we have – we see more strength to the Free Syrian Army and more areas liberated. But I don’t think or expect that the Free Syrian Army will be able to liberate Damascus or Aleppo or to enforce Bashar al-Assad to step aside any soon. May the situation getting much, much deeper and more civilians will be killed, because the Free Syrian Army has no any tanks, weapons or any craft. This is now the much priority for the Free Syrian Army.
What – (inaudible) – more important right now for the U.S. to take a historical decision, to take actions beyond the Security Council, to mobilize the international community within the Friends of the Syria Conference, to implement the safety zone, along with the Turkish border and Jordan much more expected and enthusiastic than before to implement the safety zone also with between the Jordanian and the Syrian border.
This – the safety zone, it’s a priority right now, especially for the civilians, for any humanitarian assistance, for the cities and the people who are in need. Even that we have a de facto safety zone in the northern part of Syria, but still attacked by the air force. And this is why it’s an important and a must to have a no-fly zone above designated area to protect the civilians.
Finally, what – many questions now about the chemical weapons and about the transition. There is no much more information exactly. And today the spokesperson of the Syrian ministry of affairs – he said that the Syrian regime will not use any chemical weapons if – only if they been attacked by outsiders. I don’t believe in that, because the Assad regime used many kind of weapons never been used before, especially in the area of Al-Rastan and Idlib. This is why we have to be careful, and we have to (ready ?) for any expectation by the Assad regime to use the chemical weapons.
Finally, I think the United States or – the United States is failed to deal with the Syrian crisis from the beginning, because they – the United States should expect that the Syrian crisis will take in such level, because the type of Bashar al-Assad – it’s mainly – or the family regime of Bashar al-Assad – it’s a type of genocidal guy, which can do whatever can do just to stay in power.
This is why I think the United States should be prepared itself to a way up to the situation to come up to this stage. Until now the United States tried in mobilizing the international community, working with the Security Council, which of course been vetoed by Russia and China, which became a failed policy to try again with the Security Council, because there is no any indication or signs for the change of the Russian policy. With the same time, the United States – they – there is no indication for the United States that it decide to take any actions beyond the Security Council or within the Friends of the Syria – Friends of the Syrian People. I think it’s important right now for the United States to take actions beyond the Security Council.
Finally, the transition in Syria. I don’t see any indications for managed transition in Syria, unfortunately, because we saw right now the northern part of Syria, which mainly the Kurdish concentrated there, and those – they – their groups or military groups now control different areas. And the Free Syrian Army or different groups within the Free Syrian Army control many areas also in the northern part of Syria. And there is no political authority. And this is, of course, as I said before, as – this is consequences for the inactions from the international community.
Now Syria has became much more difficult to deal with it, because the unity of Syria of course will be – there is no question between the Syrian about that. But again and again, how to have central government at the – at the end, because many – the regime is losing control. And that’s lifting a vacuum within the whole country. And there is no political authority in the opposition right now to come and control in many areas has been liberated in the northern part of Syria.
This is why I think it’s important now for the opposition and – to work along with the Arab League. The Arab League yesterday – they call again – (inaudible) – for Bashar al-Assad to step aside and give him safe exit, which if he accepted, of course, can be accepted a year before. But again, this shows how the Arab League, along with the international community, has without any muscles and without any teeth, which thus give the green light for Bashar al-Assad to continue the killings and (shelling ?) different areas. More important right now to concentrate on the Friends of the Syrian Conference and put all our efforts – and put all our efforts to work there to make any actions, because this is the only way to make the transition in Syria in much successful way.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Leon.
LEON HADAR, senior analyst, Wikistrat
First of all, I want to thank the Council for inviting me. When they asked me – I think it was a month ago – to attend this meeting and to participate in the discussion, I suggested at the time that whatever we were thinking about the issue then is probably going to be overrun by events by the time that we meet today. And I also was reminded that when I published a book in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, and we actually sent it to the printer, we had at the last moment to change all the references to the USSR at the last moment and replace it with the Russian Federation. So I think we are living in a time when so many changes are taking place, and many of our assumptions have to be revisited.
Some people compare the – what’s happening in Syria today and in the Middle East in general, in terms of the political upheaval, to what happened in Eastern Europe in 1991. I’m a little bit skeptical, but I do enjoy historical analogies. And I’m very much into irony, so to speak. So a few days ago, when a friend of mine who actually is very much supportive of a much more activist U.S. role in Syria sent me an email about the issue, I responded by recalling that not so long time ago, we were also being asked to do a regime change, and that was in Iraq.
Very much like in Syria now, the U.S. was asked to oust a corrupt and bloody military dictatorship, controlled by the secular fascist Baath Party, and also a member of a family – Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Bashar Assad in Syria – that belongs to a minority religious sect – Muslim Sunnis in Iraq, now Muslim Alawite in Syria. The opposition leaders in Iraq, very much like the opposition leaders in Syria now, pledged to transform the country into a functioning liberal democracy, free – to adopt a free market economy and to turn Iraq into a strategic ally of the United States.
Instead what we had in the country in Iraq – which is, very much like Syria, an invention of European imperialism constituting of many tribal, religious and ethnic groups lacking a coherent national identity – what we had at the end was a country that was sliding into a civil war. Washington did help transfer the power in Baghdad from a corrupt secular Sunni regime to a corrupt Islamist Shiite government that is actually allied today with theocratic Iran. Election did take place in Iraq, but women and religious minorities are threatened – (inaudible) – political power. And I’m not even going to dwell about the cost to the United States in terms of the military, the economic and the credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere.
So now we are basically being asked to produce a rerun in Syria. Now, as I said, my friend who supports the intervention sent me immediately an email saying, yeah, the opposition in Syria are like Chalabi, you know, kind – trying to challenge my argument. But I actually noted that I wasn’t thinking about Chalabi. I was actually thinking about a guy by the name of Kanan Makiya, also known as Samir al-Khalil, who’s a very educated, very decent, very intelligent guy, Westernite intellectual from Iraq who was liberal, probably even social democrat, who published a book in the 1980s called “The Republic of Fear,” which detailed the – what was basically at that time the torture chamber and prison of Iraq, of Saddamist Iraq, and was one of the first to call for U.S. intervention in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.
Let’s just say that Makiya – if you read George Packer’s book, “The Assassins’ Gate,” about U.S. intervention in Iraq, he’s one of the leading characters – Makiya is not living in Baghdad anymore. So I think that in the face of the pressure on the Obama administration to do something in Syria and ASAP, a certain skepticism, at the minimum, is demanded and appropriate here. Under the best-case scenario, we would probably replace the Alawite secular regime in Damascus, which is allied with Iran and the Hezbollah, with an Islamic – Islamist Sunni government that is allied with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Now, the fact that the Saudis and the Turks are indeed allies of the United States, and Iran and Hezbollah are adversaries of the United States, lends this scenario, I think, a certain appeal. One could argue that from a geopolitical perspective that the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and in the Levant that tilted in favor of Iran and its allies, thanks to the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, would now tilt more in the direction of the United States and its allies – which is, you know, basically overall a good news.
Under the worst-case scenario, the coming to power of a more radical Islamist Sunni regime in Damascus, which may or may not be allied with al-Qaida or some groups in it, would unleash, I think, a bloodbath against the Alawites and other religious minorities; would spill over into Lebanon and Iraq; would invite outside intervention by regional and global power and ignite eventually some sort of a Middle East war.
I think under either scenario, Syria will become a focal point for regional tensions between the Shiites and the Sunnis which could spread to the rest of the Middle East. Syria could become, I think, what Spain was in the late 1930s or Lebanon was during its long civil war: a platform, a testing ground for a confrontation between the major political powers of the day, secularist versus Islamist, Sunnis versus Shiite, and the many patron and other interested player, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Russia and China.
That would require the United States to invest more military and economic resources, at a time when the United States has less of both, into a conflict which I think overall has only limited effect on core U.S. national interest. And this is also at a time when the United States is trying to refocus its attention on global strategy in East Asia and dealing with the rise of China, which I think is the main geostrategic challenge facing the United States today.
The U.S. will again spend more time and energy in trying to resolve the never-ending conflict between the losers – the global losers, if you will, the tribes – (inaudible) – as they call them, of the Levant – instead of engaging with the global winners, which are the economic powerhouses of East Asia.
Now, let me stress that I do think that overall President Obama response to the crisis in Syria, and to the so-called Arab Spring in general, was very shrewd and very effective. And it reminded me of the handling of the first George Bush of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in the ’90s. Some critics would describe it as muddling through. I think it was basically a very nonideological, pragmatic, empiricist, empirical type of approach, which we tend to call realist.
Basically what the Obama administration was doing is pursuing a policy of cost-cutting, cutting cost – the strategic and economic cost facing the U.S. – in face of the collapse of longtime allies of Washington and the growing instability in the Middle East, juggling many interests and agenda and taking into consideration the tension between the promotion of change and the maintenance of order.
I think under this condition, especially when the U.S. doesn’t have either the will or the power to deploy U.S. troops in Syria or in other countries in the region and has to consider the interest of allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the interests of global competitors like Russia and China, the U.S. strategy in Syria was very cost-effective and made sense: basically green-lighting the Turks and the Saudis to provide some help to the opposition forces in the country while resisting and continuing to resist the pressure for direct military intervention.
But I think the crisis in Syria also demonstrate why the kind of American thinking that has been very popular in recent months, that assumes that what is going now in the Middle East is a manifestation of an unstoppable drive towards freedom and democracy like in Eastern Europe in 1992, what – why this thinking should at least be challenged and be questioned. Washington needs to examine what is really happening in Syria and in the Middle East in general, as opposed to wishful thinking on the part of all kind of global democratic crusaders on the left and on the right.
I think what we are facing now is the closing seconds of American unipolar moment in the Middle East, coupled with many challenges to the old political order in the region, which is producing a major shift in the balance of power. You know, we have the Sunni-Shiite rift. We have possibility of disintegration of several states. We have the rise of Iran and Turkey and perhaps even even Egypt as major regional powers, as well as the return of Russia to the region and the arrival of China. All of those changes make it very difficult for the United States to affect the changes that are taking place in the region and explains why, going back to the title of the discussion, why the U.S. has – doesn’t have many options available in Syria today. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Radwan, for talking about the humanitarian situation and Leon for talking about the pragmatic response of the Obama administration, which has orchestrated sanctions and is trying to determine who the opposition is and who ought to get weapons and who should not get weapons.
MARK KATZ, professor, George Mason University; author, Leaving Without Losing
All right. Well, thank you, Tom. Thank you for inviting me to this very interesting panel. I also want to express my congratulations to the Middle East Policy Council on its journal running for 30 years and its terrific editor Anne Joyce – of course, and that she’s published 11 of my articles; I’m not biased at all. But it really is a very fine journal. If you haven’t picked it up, I really recommend that you do.
Well, I want to talk about Russia and Syria, that obviously Russia has been blocking U.N. Security Council action on Syria. Russia has expressed support for the Assad regime. You know, obviously China has done these things, too. But there’s a sense that, you know, China seems to be following Russia, that Russia is taking the lead on this. I was in Moscow at the very end of June and was able to talk to various Russian experts on this, as well as Western journalists, and hope to share some of those insights.
So the real question is, you know, why are the Russians backing Assad so strongly? Why have the Russians dug in on this? And there’s been various reasons cited for this. People have mentioned the Russian arms relationship with Syria that it fears it might lose, Russian investments in the Syrian petroleum sector. There are the naval facilities that Russia has at Tartus – the only naval facilities that Russia has outside of the former Soviet Union. And I think that these are important reasons for Moscow to support Assad, the fear of losing all these, but I don’t think they’re the crucial thing. In other words, if none of these things existed, if there was no Russian base at Tartus, no Russian arms sales to Syria, no Russian oil companies working in Syria, I think Russia would still support the Assad regime. And I think that there are – you know, certainly talking to Russians about the question now, you know, when you ask them, you know, why are they supporting the Assad regime, that the argument tends to be in terms of United States, that, you know, as far as the Russians are concerned, you know, America went into Afghanistan. We messed that up. We went into Iraq. We messed that up, too. We went into Libya, and as far as they’re concerned, we messed that up also. And so now we want to do something about Syria. Well, they think they know what the outcome is going to be. It’s going to be messed up as well, and that America can always go home. You know, back to beyond its oceans, whereas Russia lives in that neighborhood. And so when these places get messed up and they get messed up for Russia in particular and that the U.S. doesn’t seem to – you know, either the U.S. isn’t – is simply ignorant of this or in the conspiracy thinking that is common unfortunately in Russia, as well as so many other places, are the Americans doing this deliberately? Are they messing things up in order to hurt Russia? And there have been various Russian leaders who have made suggestions as to this is, in fact, what the American motive actually is. Now, we don’t have to accept that or credit it very much, but all I can say is that this is the sort of thinking that we do see over there, and that if this is how they think, then I think it sort of suggests why they might dig in.
Another thing that bothers the Russians is Libya in particular, that there seems to be, you know, just a genuine sense almost – every Russian I’ve spoken to feels that the U.S. took advantage of Russia last year in Libya, that Russia as well as China allowed a “no-fly” resolution to pass in the Security Council with regard to Libya. And what did America and the West and their allies do but instead of, you know, simply managing a “no-fly” zone, we actively assisted the opposition against Gadhafi, that we went way beyond the terms of the resolution that Russia and China had helped approve and that they’re not going to fall for that trick again, that so, you know, even though the resolutions for Syria that have been vetoed have to do with economic sanctions far less than a no-fly zone, the Russians see any resolution as the thin edge of the wedge for American intervention, which they’re not going to approve – in other words, that they – what they – they dislike the – what they feel was Western intervention in Libya, not just that, but the fact that it somehow got a Russian imprimatur through the Security Council resolution, that they’re not going to fall for that trick again. So these are things that have motivated them.
But there’s also some other reasons, and I think they have to do with, you know, some fairly, you know, deep-seated views of foreign policy, of international relations. And first and foremost is that the Russians feel that America and the West have simply miscalculated with regard to Syria, that if the West thinks that the downfall of the Assad regime is going to give rise to democracy, the West is mistaken; that what is going to happen is the rise of a hostile Sunni Islamist regime and that, you know, the West is naïve. The Russians are not naïve. They know what’s going to happen. Now of course, they don’t really know what’s going to happen, but they strongly suspect that this is what it’s going to be like.
And if you, you know, read Yevgeny Primakov’s book – it came out in English not long ago, which I reviewed for the Middle East Policy Journal, Russia and the Arab world – he, I think, makes this argument, in other words, that the whole, you know, Moscow support for secular Arab nationalist regimes, he argues, from the very beginning was misunderstood by the Americans, that the Russians understood that it this was this kind of regime that was holding radical Islamism down and that no matter how bad regimes such as the Assad regime might be, they are better for us than what is going to come afterward; in other words, that what this reflects is a very deep Russian pessimism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. Of course, they don’t really see it as being a prospect for Russia either, and in fact, they don’t really believe that democracy takes place in the United States either, in other words, that it’s all, you know, sort of know, cartels and cabals and that – but what the Americans can do is that they can help create the popular demand for democratic change that’s strong enough to bring down a government, but that will be followed by something else altogether. So in other words, what we’re seeing is just, in other words, a reflection of sort of deep-seated Russian pessimism about this part of the world, and they don’t understand why America and the West doesn’t see this.
But another reason why they are supporting the Assad regime so strongly is something that Radwan actually referred to, as he mentioned, I think, is that, you know, really America and the West haven’t done all that much for the Syrian opposition. Well, the Russians have noticed this as well, that they – they’ve had some long experience with the United States, as we have with them. They know that when we are serious, we are willing and able to act outside of the Security Council. And so the fact that the U.S. seems to be focusing on Security Council for a decision suggests to them that we really don’t want to go in, that we’re using them as the excuse not to go in. And they’re happy to play that game, because after all, it makes them look strong and important – in other words that, you know, Russia’s singlehandedly blocking the United States. This is – this is how they want to be seen in – at the moment. And so they don’t see, you know, this as something that the U.S. really necessarily wants to get involved in. Now, you might say this is a little bit contradictory to what I previously said, you know, that the Americans don’t understand, the Americans mess things up, but that now the Americans don’t really want to get involved as well. And all I can say is that, you know, contradictions just sort of abound, not just in our foreign policymaking but theirs as well.
Another reason, though, what they – what they – why they support the Assad regime is –as I think Leon referred to, is that they see the Syrian opposition as being supported by Saudi Arabia. Now, the Russians have long had a contentious relationship with Saudi Arabia. During the Cold War they didn’t have diplomatic relations at all, but that they were enemies. In other words, during the heyday of Nasser he was – you know, the Soviets were supporting Nasser. It was the Saudis who were supporting the opponents that sort of, you know, in north Yemen in the 1960s, sort of the Soviets and the Egyptians on one side, were fighting a proxy war with the Saudis on the other, which – a war, by the way, which sort of ultimately the Saudis came out on top in.
Similarly, with regard to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, I think for many Russians – in other words, it wasn’t so much U.S. action that thwarted Soviet ambitions in Afghanistan. It was the actions of Saudi Arabia that, you know, in terms of the money sent, the individuals sent, such as Osama bin Laden – that these were the people who caused trouble for the Soviets and who made Afghanistan a failed venture – which, by the way, people lie Primakov still defend; in other words that, you know, once again that the West would have been better off with a Marxist government in Afghanistan than with the Taliban who came to power in the 1990s, and of course, may well come to power once again.
Now, the Saudis also – as the Russians have accused them, in the 1990s, of being the principal backers of the Chechen rebels. And the Saudis deny this, and they indicated they were giving assistance to Chechen refugees. But of course, refugees and rebels are not mutually exclusive categories, are they? In fact, refugees often become rebels. And so, you know, in the ’90s the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia was extraordinarily tense – not something that the U.S. paid an awful lot of attention to. And so the Russians seized upon 9/11, at least initially, sort of side with the U.S. against the Saudis and, you know, Putin in particular never tired of citing the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 bombers came from Saudi Arabia.
But then, as they always do, Russian-American relations turned sour. Something quite remarkable happened in 2003, and that was a Saudi-Russian rapprochement. Now, I don’t want to get into the details of that. It was something, I have to admit, that back at the time I didn’t think was going to happen, but it did happen. But it’s now falling apart, that the Russians feel that the Saudis, who initially were opposed to the Arab Spring, that in fact, the Saudis have hijacked the Arab Spring, supporting Salafists in various places that – you know, getting very involved in Yemen; of course, halting it in Bahrain, and now what they see as the Saudis trying to essentially knock off an Iranian ally in Syria and install their own. And why don’t the Americans understand this?
Now, I’m not saying that this vision of Saudi behavior is accurate. All I’m saying is that this is how the Russians view it, and that they are acting on this. But I think, you know, in addition to these foreign policy concerns, there’s something else. And certainly my visit there recently really impressed me with this, and that is, Syria has become a domestic issue in Russia, that there’s a general sense now that, in fact, the Assad regime is going to fall, but that Putin is better off backing Assad to the bitter end, even if he falls, then to be seen as knuckling under to the Americans and making Russia look weak, making Russians feel weak and hence being implicated in whatever negative change, from Russia’s point of view, occurs in Syria, and that Putin would rather do the former. In fact, there’s sort of a sense that the Russians have actually written off Syria altogether. They know it’s going to fall, but that they are much happier being seen to continue to defy the United States than to be seen cooperating and looking weak.
And in this sense, you know, if in fact Syria has become a domestic issue for Russia, well, you know, we here in Washington, especially here on Capitol Hill, I think we know a little something how the domestic politics can affect foreign policy toward this particular region, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Russians are afflicted with this as well.
Now, the real question is, you know, what does all of this mean? Well, one thing I think is pretty obvious, and that is that, you know, we’ve often heard that the Obama administration hopes that, you know, Russia’s going to help us with Iran or is going to help us with Syria. Well, they’re not. They’re just plain not going to. They don’t see it as in their interests in any sense, either in their foreign policy interests or in their domestic interests; that if things are going to go sour in Syria, they don’t want to be associated with it. They want the U.S. to essentially own that situation. That’s the bad news.
The good news, if there is such good news, is that they’re not actually going to do anything forceful to oppose us either in Syria. In other words, that if, as Radwan suggests, that, you know, the time has come for action outside of the Security Council, I don’t think – in other words, we’re not going to see the Russians going in to defend the Assad regime. It’s definitely not worth fighting for.
Now, there has been this recent story that’s emerged in the past few weeks about the – it appears that Russian Marines have been sent to the Port of Tartus, to the Soviet – to the Russian naval installation there. But in my view, this is very similar to what they did during the South Yemeni civil war in 1986 and similar occasions – in other words, that these people are being deployed mainly to help evacuate Russian nationals, not really to – you know, to get involved in protecting the regime, although, you know, the signals, you know, that different sides might interpret it that way.
But I don’t see the Russians as going to stop this as well. What I do see is that they – you know, they – you know, we see the Russians and the Chinese acting together, you know. In Moscow there’s a sense that they just don’t know what the Chinese are going to do and that, you know, whatever cooperation they have from China is only temporary. And there’s a sense that, you know, if in fact a new government arises in Syria, the Chinese will immediately, without hesitation, without embarrassment, work to get along with it, and that, you know, it’s only Russia that has stuck its neck out with regard to Assad that may well suffer.
So what I guess I’ve just tried to convey to you is this – you know, that if it sounds like the Russians are pursuing an emotional foreign policy with regard to Syria, I think that’s what I want to convey to you. In other words, it’s not – when we view what they should see as their rational interests in this situation or others, that’s just not how they see it. And a lot of their actions are simply done to defy the United States out of this tremendous sense of betrayal for all these past actions – which, you know, in our view, they really shouldn’t feel betrayed about, but they do. And so this is – this is the situation that we have to deal with, with regard to Russia. Thank you. (Applause.)
STEVEN HEYDEMANN, senior adviser, Middle East Initiatives, USIP; adjunct professor, Georgetown University
Well, let me also offer my thanks to the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me to participate in what is, I think, really an extraordinarily timely session on Syria and the various dimensions of responses to Syria that we’ve heard discussed this morning.
I’d like to stress that we’re meeting this morning following what is really quite an extraordinary week in the unfolding of the 16-, 18-month Syrian uprising, and that the events that define the previous week as extraordinary include the bombing of the headquarters of the crisis response team that Radwan described on Wednesday. It includes a growing number of high-level defections from the regime. It may be that there are a small number of very senior generals now present in Turkey, having crossed the border, but the total number, as I understand it, is now about 24, which leads us to wonder how many more generals are present inside of Syria and able to act. Some of these extraordinary events also include the escalation of confrontations on the part of the – of the armed opposition against the regime. In June there were 250 clashes between the armed opposition and government forces, the highest number ever recorded. And I think we’re on pace to increase the scale of confrontation this month in Syria. It – these events include as well the capture of some of the critical border crossings between Syria and Turkey and Syria and Iraq by armed opposition forces even though control over those crossings is severely contested by the regime.
And I think these developments have collectively produced what I would argue is perhaps the most dramatic shift in the dynamics of the Syrian uprising since it began back in March 2011. And I think that despite the regime’s counteroffensive in Damascus over the past few days and in Aleppo, which has dramatically escalated the humanitarian crisis that Syria confronts and created tens of thousands of new refugees – despite that counteroffensive, it is very, very hard to avoid the conclusion that the stalemate of the past 16, 18 months between the opposition and the regime has now been decisively broken, that the armed opposition in Syria has succeeded in placing the Assad regime on the defensive for the very first time since the start of the uprising and that the uprising has now created a sense of vulnerability about the regime that is causing a shift in the strategic calculus of key actors, a strategic realignment within Syria among both the critical insiders who have been the backbone of the regime, but also among some of the segments of Syrian society that have continued to support the Syrian regime. And I think one of the consequences of this shift in the strategic calculus of key actors is going to be that we will see an acceleration in the unraveling of the regime. We have arrived at what appears to be something of a critical tipping point in the trajectory of this uprising.
However, it’s very important to recognize that even as we have reached this point, even as we have approached what I think is a critical shift in the dynamics of this uprising, that the Assad regime still has significant capabilities, significant military capabilities; we saw them on display this weekend in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. It still has significant, if declining, domestic support. We should not kid ourselves; there are important communities within Syria that continue to support the regime, and the regime still has significant international backing, as we heard from Mark in particular, from Russia, from Iran, from Hezbollah and others, all of which, I think, underscores that even as we see this very welcome shift in momentum on the ground, it would be a severe mistake to imagine that the end of the Assad regime is close at hand or that bringing down the regime can be accomplished without continued efforts by the armed opposition to sustain its current momentum and without significant international support for the efforts of the armed opposition to sustain the momentum that it has achieved over the past several weeks or month or so.
And this gets us to the – to the critical question of what role the U.S. might be able to play during this critical phase in the uprising. And I want to focus on three major areas in discussing what role the U.S. might play, first, in sustaining the momentum of the past few weeks and ensuring that the regime is not able to regain its footing, and I think that potential does still exist, at least in some areas of the country; second, in helping to avoid some of the worst-case outcomes that might result during the final phases of this conflict, including a much more dramatic escalation of humanitarian crises across the country, the escalation of sectarian violence, potentially, across the country, the possibility of political fragmentation as some areas of the country shift increasingly out of the orbit of government control; and third, helping to create the kind of conditions for some sort of more stable political transition in Syria. Even though Radwan was a bit dubious about this prospect, I think we do have an obligation to try to ensure that the Syrians who have the principal responsibility for managing a future transition have some level of capacity to address the chaos and the instability that the Assad regime has caused as a result of its response to this mass demand for political and economic change in Syria that began back in March 2011.
And what I’d like to suggest in offering some starting points in how the U.S. might be able to respond in meeting these three challenges – and here I think you’ll see some overlaps with some of the ideas that Radwan put forward – is that if we think about addressing the first two of these – of these challenges, sustaining the momentum of the armed opposition and helping to avoid Syria’s descent into the kind of sectarian violence that we saw in Lebanon or in Iraq, I think this is going to require a level of engagement with the armed opposition that goes well beyond the limits of current U.S. policy, which, despite the changes we’ve seen on the ground, continues to be defined as providing nonlethal support to nonlethal elements of the opposition.
And I think that dealing with the third of these challenges, helping to create the conditions that might promote a more stable political transition, is not only linked to how effectively the U.S. can engage in the other two areas that I’ve mentioned, but will also require that the U.S. significantly rethink its approach to how it handles the diplomatic side of its engagement with the Syrian uprising and that the U.S. push much further and much faster than it has been willing to do thus far to shift the focus of diplomacy outside the U.N. Security Council, a theme that other speakers have referenced as well, and place much greater weight on other institutional frameworks that exist, including, as Radwan said, the Friends of Syria group. And I would underscore that at the last Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6th, ministers representing over a hundred countries were present, so that there is no sense in which the Friends of Syria group should be seen as somehow deficient in its ability to speak on behalf of the international community.
But I would also say that those efforts to reach beyond the U.N. Security Council should include, as dysfunctional as it might be, deeper engagement with the Arab League, which also has the potential to play a positive role. And again, as Radwan noted, an offer from the league was extended to the Assad regime today providing an escape route for the leadership of the regime. They are not likely to accept that offer, but what it underscores is the possibility for the Arab League to broaden its own engagement in the Syrian crisis in ways that might help mitigate the kind of worst-case transition that I think it would be in all of our interest to avoid, which is to say protracted conflict leading to state collapse. I think that is the outcome that we are most concerned to avoid, and we should be exploiting every available international instrument to try to do so.
It does seem to me that with this round of double vetoes that we had in the U.N. Security Council last week, we have finally reached the point of recognizing that the UNSC cannot be the only legitimate framework for international diplomacy. And some of these alternatives that are available to us, I think, need to be exploited much more fully and much more quickly.
Now, just to sort of move toward a – toward a close, let me just say a little bit more about this idea of broadening our engagement with the – with the armed opposition. And I want to make three quick points here in a fairly summary fashion and hope that if there’s interest, we can pursue them further when we – when we get to the Q-and-A.
First, it seems to me that there’s a direct correlation between the likelihood of a negotiated transition on one hand and the capacity of the armed opposition to sustain its recent momentum and its ability to keep the regime on the defensive and to be able to continue to pose a credible threat to the survival of the – of the Assad regime on the other hand.
Second, I think there’s also a correlation between the level of command and control that exists within the armed opposition and the likelihood that the armed opposition will avoid engaging in the kinds of violence and abuses that will amplify and deepen sectarian conflict during the final phases of this uprising. And I think we have to acknowledge that the Syrian opposition has participated in activities that are exacerbating sectarian conflict in Syria and that stronger command and control might help to mitigate those kinds of abuses. And I also think that there’s a correlation between the level of command and control that exists within the armed opposition and the likelihood of a smoother, less violent, less chaotic transition into a post-Assad period once the Assad regime collapses. And I think there’s a great deal more that the U.S. could do to advance all of these aims by broadening the range of support that we’re prepared to provide to the armed opposition.
And finally what I would say, if we hope to achieve these aims, I also think the U.S. has to be willing to do much more than it has thus far to put in place frameworks for regulating and managing how various international actors engage with the armed opposition. We have invested an enormous amount of diplomatic effort and political capital in what I would view as largely futile diplomacy to try and bring Russia on board, in one sense or another, in a more cooperative approach to resolving the crisis in Syria. However, as far as I’m aware, we have done very, very little to try to persuade governments that are providing weapons to the armed opposition, like the Saudis and the Qataris, of the need to create frameworks that would regulate how weapons are being provided to the armed opposition, who is receiving weapons within the armed opposition and in moving us away from what is currently something of a free-for-all in relations between various factions of the armed opposition and various uncoordinated frameworks of support for the armed opposition that almost ensures that these armed groups, even as they play an increasingly important role in dynamics on the ground, will themselves be willing to enter into frameworks of command and control that might ensure that they are subordinate both to some over-arching military authority, but also, and perhaps more important, to some over-arching civilian authority.
And if there is one thing that seems likely to me to increase the probability that a post-Assad period will be dominated by competition and perhaps conflict among armed groups who feel very little loyalty to any centralized structure, it is the way in which the conditions that exist at the moment through which the armed opposition is being supplied by a number of different countries who are actively resisting being brought into an umbrella of coordination and regulation of their relationships with groups that they are cultivating as their clients. And I think that is a very dangerous trend; it’s one I think it would be very worthwhile for the U.S. to invest a great deal more in trying to manage.
And I will leave it at that and suggest that I would hope that as we see shifts in U.S. diplomacy towards Syria begin to develop – and there was a piece in The New York Times on the weekend that indicated that some of these shifts are in fact now beginning to take hold within the State Department – that these are the issues that will receive far more priority than they have in the past, because my own sense is that they are going to be very important in determining what kind of transition emerges in Syria and determining how the Assad regime falls and what happens after the regime falls.
Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you to all our speakers. And I’m about to open this up to the floor, but before I do, let me ask a question.
Radwan, one of the themes running through every presentation was a lack of knowledge about who the opposition is. We know it’s heterogeneous, fragmented, but we don’t know at this moment, really, who should be getting weapons and who should not. And there’s a particular concern by a couple of panelists about the emergence of radical Sunni Islamists in Syria. So can you clarify for us, can you break down major movements of the opposition and talk about how they could facilitate some of the recommendations that Steve just made?
DR. ZIADEH: OK. Simply, I can refer you to the situation in Libya. In Libya the head of the military council in Tripoli was Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Hakim Belhadj linked to the al-Qaida and all of that, being detained in U.K. After that, Hakim Belhadj established his own political party, and he one of the losing parties in Libya. Now, the majority – the majority in the established new council elected in Libya was liberals, which as far away looked at the statistics in Benghazi as example. The coalition of Mahmud Jibril, the liberal coalition, they got 82,000 votes. And after that, the political of the Justice and Development, which is close to the Muslim Brothers in Libya, they got 8,000. Seventy thousand votes, the gap between the two.
And this is in Libya, where you have tribal society and regionalism. How about Syria, where you have much more educated society and much more civilized society and of course with strong role of the business community in Syria. Well, this is why, of course, the problem – because after 40 years of dictatorship we don’t have established, strong political parties or opposition political parties. And this is – of course, this is by nature, where the Assad dictatorship destroyed any civil society, any political life in Syria. Now the Syrians start in the beginning how to organize themselves, how to establish political parties. And this is why if – after the situation in Libya, I’m quite sure that which we have much more liberal government in Syria. It’s – I can assure you that in the most fair and fair – free elections in the Syrian history was in 1954. And at that time, the Baath Party wins 16 seats, and the Muslim Brothers wins only four seats. And this is in 1954. Of course there is many change in the social – in the social fabric have been changed in Syria. But even that the Muslim Brothers now yesterday have their own conference in Turkey, and they expected to have only 20 percent in any parliamentarian election in Syria after the fall of the Assad regime.
This is why I think the – (inaudible) – of the Syrian opposition in Syria – it will be very divided. This is why will we have more difficult transition – will have more difficult transition, because there is no strong political parties to dominate the transition after that. But a hundred percent sure that we will not have a Sunni radical government.
And unfortunately that by the media and some experts who will be repeating this accusation day by day have no knowledge or any information about the Syrian society or the opposition in a way. Now what’s – of course the Muslim Brothers, if they can claim that, but those – (inaudible) – Muslim who are moderate, who believe that there should be – (inaudible) – law, democratic and civil state in Syria. They can get 20 percent of the parliament.
And then you have strong business community in Damascus and Aleppo. As one example, when the – when the Muslim Brothers and – they called for strikes in Damascus and Aleppo, no one obey them. But when of the leaders of the business community who call for that, all the business community in Hamadiya – this is the traditional markets in Syria – all of them, they closed their market and stores. And this is – you have strong business community in Damascus and Aleppo.
With the same time you have Kurdish area – (inaudible) – this is no favor for any Islamic radicals. With the same time you have the tribes, with – they have they own dynamics. I mean, the mob in Syria – that’s – it can – it – four combination: tribes in the northern part of Syria, the business community and of course the Islamists in different – in different groups, the moderates.
But now when we have of course the armed opposition taking the lead and the Free Syrian Army taking the lead, of course who’s now much more expected to sacrifice himself? Those are the Islamists. And we saw that in Libya. We saw that in different countries. And this is why they have now the strong voice in the uprising. But always I say that the revolutionary group is different than the election. And we saw that in Libya; we saw that in Egypt and in other countries, that in – when you have stronger voices from the Islamists in Syria right now, that doesn’t mean will reflect in the election after the fall of the Assad regime.
DR. MATTAIR: Leon, you want to respond?
DR. HADAR: Yeah. I don’t know what happened – you know, 1954, Nelson Rockefeller still had an influence in the Republican Party. And you know, Paul Anka was still, you know, in the hit parade. A lot of things happened since 1954. And you know, I tend to reject – you know, there are two narrative that tend to play when it comes to the changes taking place in the Middle East. There is one narrative which I rejected earlier, this 1989 East Europe revolution that’s going to happen in the region.
But I also reject the notion that this is like Iran, you know, that the other alternative is Iran. Things are going to happen in the middle in – and in that middle, Islamist party are going to play a major role. We see it in Egypt. We’ve seen even in a liberal country like Tunisia. Again, and I don’t think – we should remember, not every country in the Middle East or even Arab countries are the same. Every country has its own history, its own demographic, its own culture and so on. So what’s happened in Libya not necessarily going to happen in Egypt or in Syria, for that matter.
And even in Libya we have to take into consideration I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. There is a coalition that came to power now. We don’t know whether it will survive. And apropos Libya, we should remember the ramification of what happened in Libya, what’s happening in Mali today. The rise of Islam is very much a result – a blowback, if you will – of what’s happening in Libya. So we have to take all of that into consideration.
I mentioned the – you know, the closest historical analogy of Iraq I think is appropriate. I think Iraq and Syria are very similar in terms of history, of culture, geography and so on. And I do – I am concerned that indeed, as a result of the fall of the Assad regime, we are going to see a civil war there, and we are going to see radical forces emerging at some point. We are going to see revenge against the Alawites and the Christians. And we have to take all of that in consideration. I mean, I don’t know who is going to win the election here, so I really don’t know what’s going – who’s going to win the election in Syria for sure. And we certainly cannot base our foreign policy based on that kind of expectation.
Now, I want – you know, one thing that we have to remember, and I do urge that – I call it the Christian barometer, if you will. We have Christian minorities in every Arab countries. Those are the most educated, the most cosmopolitan. Most of them speak, you know, two or three languages. You know, Tom Friedman talks about globalization in the Middle East. Those are the kind of people that can do that. Now, what we are seeing in the Middle East today is more and more Christians are leaving. They left – they are leaving Egypt. They certainly left Iraq. And I’m very worried, as a result of what’s happening in Syria today, many of them are going to leave Syria, and certainly left Lebanon.
So you know, let’s be – let’s embrace a much more – you know, let’s operate in a more gray area here instead of either/or, you know, Islamic radicalism or democracy. The Middle Eastern people – the Arab people in the Middle East – will have to write their own narrative, if you will. We cannot impose it on them. But we certainly cannot base our policy on wishful thinking and expectations and promises. Again, as I mentioned earlier, I heard the same kind of expectations raised in Iraq by, you know, intelligent people like our speaker today, promising us all these, you know, great things that are going to happen in Iraq, which didn’t happen – and not only because of U.S. policy. You know, there were many other factors involved. So let’s be realistic about this issue.
DR. MATTAIR: Steve, who is the most important – our most important partner in helping to implement your recommendations so that we end up with what Radwan is talking about rather than what Leon is talking about?
DR. HEYDEMANN: Thanks very much. I’m going to take the opportunity of having the mic just to respond quickly to this ongoing exchange. And I’ll then get to your – to your question.
I think we have to be attentive to the possibility for some of the worst-case outcomes that Leon mentioned. I also think we have to be realistic in attaching probabilities to those worst-case outcomes. And it does seem to me that the probabilities that those kinds of outcomes will be realized in Syria are far, far lower than they are in some of the other countries in the region – including in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood had 80 years in which it was able to sustain the development of its organizational infrastructure and so on.
Syria and Iraq differ significantly demographically. You have 7 (percent) to 8 percent Kurdish population. You have 10 (percent) to 11 percent Alawi, 10 (percent) to 11 percent Christian, maybe 5 percent other minorities. You can see that the Sunni Muslim community is already a much smaller percentage of the population. It itself is divided. It contains large numbers of socially conservative, fairly poor rural communities who are likely to be drawn to a form of Islamist politics that may not look anything like the kind of extremist versions that imported jihadist groups have had a very difficult time securing a foothold for inside of Syria.
So I think we have to be aware: On the one hand, it is almost inevitable that Islamist parties and actors will have influence in a post-Assad Syria. I think saying that is a very different thing than suggesting that some of the outcomes that loom very large in this list of potential worst-case scenarios are inevitably going to result in the event the Assad regime collapses. And I would further argue that the longer this conflict continues, the more likely the deepening and growth of extremism becomes. And that adds an additional incentive for a U.S. posture that shortens the time horizon of this – of this conflict.
Now, with direct respect to the question, I would actually argue that the Friends of Syria group offers the most effective framework for the organization of a – some kind of cooperative structure for regulating engagement with the armed opposition, in part because the Arab League members of the Friends of Syria have already endorsed a wide-ranging strategy of engagement; in part because Western European members of the group have done so as well, with slight differences in emphasis; and because we’ve seen a division of labor emerge within the Friends of Syria group in which some countries are providing weapons, others are providing logistical and different kinds of support.
That seems to me to offer a good starting point. We could build on that, expand it, institutionalize it, turn it into an effective framework that is active on the ground, probably through some sort of presence in Istanbul. But it would offer a mechanism for linking the civilian leadership of the opposition to the leadership of the armed opposition and for building the kind of downward command and control structures that might give us a somewhat better chance, without being naïve about the obstacles, of regulating the conduct of the armed opposition in ways that would have lots of beneficial side effects if we were able to achieve that goal.
DR. MATTAIR: Well there are a few questions from the live stream audience. We are live streaming this internationally, and we have questions. But I’d like to get to the physical audience first. And we have a mic here, so if you have a question, would you come to the mic please?
Q: I have a few questions for Dr. Ziadeh. The first is multiple sources suggest that the vast majority of funds and weapons flowing into the opposition now are going to Salafi groups. My question to you is what is the SNC doing, if anything, to address this? The second question is what is the SNC doing to improve its own performance? Many would recognize that the SNC’s been characterized by infighting and a lack of some sort of an organization over the past months. And then the final question is what is the SNC doing to prepare for a post-Assad Syria?
DR. ZIADEH: Thank you very much. Let me emphasize that there is no sectarian war in Syria. When we say that – or the International Red Cross describes what we have in Syria as armed conflict and civil war, that doesn’t mean we have a civil war. Until now there is not one incident for the Free Syrian Army or for the armed opposition attacking Alawite civilian groups. And there is not one single incident about that.
Of course the Assad regime is investing on the civil war, because he wants to send a message to the Syrian people that the only alternative of the Assad regime will be civil war, and another message to the international community that in intervening you are deepening the civil war, and it is – because this is – how the Houla massacre – how all that is done on the sectarian background. This is a war launched by the Assad regime against his own people.
Regarding the funds going to the Salafi group – I think when the U.S. has no role in supporting the opposition, it has no say in the transition at all. When the Secretary Clinton repeatedly that she said the days of Bashar al-Assad counting – she said that in June last year. And now we are in July – (chuckles) – 2012. And she repeated that seven or eight times. That doesn’t mean anything for the Syrians.
This is why I – when you don’t have any role in supporting the opposition, I think that you have no role. With this is unfortunately – I’m concerned that the U.S. put itself in a role that it has no role in the transition in Syria, where it actually – Syria has a very important location. And the U.S. should has any leverage with the opposition. But the public opinion in Syria, if we compare when the U.S. ambassador in Hama – U.S. ambassador in Syria visited in Hama and he cheered by red flowers – and compare the comments you have from the public opinion when the – when Secretary Clinton or President Obama – he say – he – they say, blah-blah statements.
They called blah-blah statements, because they say, any difference between what’s the statements coming from Russia – at least the Russia, when they say they doing, they supporting the Assad regime and they supplying the Assad regime. But when the U.S. say something, when the U.S. – they said that we support nonlethal equipment, and they done that through the State Department, where a long process of grants and providing the institution that can provide the grants, until when we reach the opposition there, they reach – give them the equipment, that’s maybe the – all the crisis were over.
This is why I think this is an important – and Steve, he wrote a piece very important about managing the militarization, actually last year. It was – this is an important. But right now I don’t think that the U.S. can say anything on this issue, because the people, when they need anything to defend themself (ph) – they don’t care. They don’t care who’s coming from or who’s giving the weapons. Anyway they need the weapons. And now we are calling for anti-craft. The U.S. actually – they should support that, because the Free Syrian Army – if the U.S. or any international community – they don’t want to implement a no-fly zone. And the Free Syrian Army – how can they tackle that without anti-craft, which now a necessary and must for the Free Syrian Army?
About the performance of the SNC, I totally agree, the performance of the SNC very frustrating. We see that – we fail to build a strong organization as would like to be – for many reasons, but mainly because the lack of the support from the international community. I mean, if you compare the TNC or the Libyan transitional council, where the international community take actions very quickly after the call of the no-fly zone, after the call – and with the lack of the support. The main idea of the SNC to have one address of the opposition to mobilize the international community to take actions. When the SNC failed to do that, he failed in the eyes of the Syrians, as I said before.
And that’s when the frustration among the Syrian people about the performance of the SNC, mainly of the lack of the support from the international community, even that – the money assistance. The – Syria, as example, needs today $42 million a month for humanitarian assistance. And what the SNC – he got only $10 million since the creation in last October. And monthly we need $42 million for aid assistance, for humanitarian assistance for displaced people inside Syria or for the Syria refugees in the – in the other countries. And we got only some money from Qatari and from Saudi regarding the humanitarian assistance.
The last thing about the transition – this is now much more talk about the transition. We have a transitional plan, and that’s represented in the Friends of the Syria Conference in Istanbul. And now we much more in discussion and debate about having transitional government or government in exile. But we will not establish any government in exile without getting support from the international community. We will not get to the – (inaudible) – to have government in exile being attacked by the Syrian people or by the international community without having recognized by the international community.
I think it’s important for – when – now the French minister of foreign affairs, along with the Arab League – they called for government in exile or transitional government. And we are in discussion and debating this idea for a while. Now I think the moment is come to have transitional government. But at least it has – we have to get assurance about the support that any government have, because the government in only is not to have some people being announced as the ministers. Rather, it’s full function, full support from the international community.
DR. MATTAIR: What’s the source of this claim that most money going for weapons is going to Salafists? [No response]
Q: Thank you for taking my question. I have two small ones. One, in today’s newspapers I see that Mr. Netanyahu said Israel may have to intervene in Syria if there is the possibility that Syria’s kept chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the radicals. So how credible it is, and what would an Israeli intervention to do all this?
And the second thing is, we are again here trying to choreograph what will happen in Syria after the fall of Assad’s regime. We tried in Iraq and everywhere. And I think that we have to be ready for an Islamist (dump ?), because it is the radicals who overthrow the regime. And so my question is, is the reaction of the political radicals is because they hate Americans or because of American policy? As long as there is an American blind support for Israel, Islamists or secular regimes will be opposing America. So I mean, what is the connection between what kind of government emerges there and American interests? Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Who is going to take that?
DR. HADAR: Well, your first question I really don’t have any idea, but I doubt very much that you’re going to see an Israeli intervention in Syria, all the chemical weapons and so on. If anything will happen, it will be, I think, in coordination with the U.S. And so I don’t think that’s a problem. And as far as U.S. policy is concerned, I mean, I think the attitude of the people of the Middle East, if you will, is – reflects many consideration. Clearly the issue of Israel is one of them. And one reason I think that you see a lot of anti-Americanism in Egypt, for example, was because of the support for the – Mubarak and other authoritarian regimes in the area. And I don’t see that connected directly with Israel. I think the U.S. would have supported Saudi Arabia, for example, notwithstanding Israel, because of oil interests and so on. So the issue, I think, is more complicated than that.
I do want to, if I – if I may, interject one issue that I don’t think was mentioned so much, which is the role of Turkey in this conflict. I think Turkey is playing a very important role in what’s happening in Syria, probably even as important as that as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And apropos Russia, I think one of the concerns that Russia has – and in some respect, you know, we talk about returning to history. If you go back to the 19th century, to the Crimean War, for example, where you had Britain and France supporting Turkey vis-à-vis Russia, in some respect many of those old strategic interests are coming back now. And I think Russia has interests in the region that are very historical, that go back to its notion of Byzantium, that, you know, one of the things that was promised to Turkey – those of you who forget during – before the end of World War II that if Turkey will – if Russia will continue fighting – and so if Russia will continue fighting after the revolution, they’ll give Russia Constantinople. You know, that was one of the promises that was made at that time. So Russia has clearly a lot of interest in the region. And I think one of the main concerns is not so much Saudi Arabia but Turkey, the role that Turkey’s playing in this.
DR. HEYDEMANN: Well, also, just quickly on the issue of chemical weapons, I don’t think there’s any question that the security of Syria’s very large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons is, perhaps, the leading priority of a number of governments, including the U.S., and that there has been an extensive process of contingency planning that has happened to try to anticipate scenarios in which the security of those weapons might be compromised and how various governments would respond to those – to those kinds of conditions, those kinds of circumstances.
And it does seem to me that this possibility, again, that chemical weapons might be moved across the border into Lebanon is a – is a very low-probability event. I don’t regard it as among the most likely of the potential scenarios, by any means. But I do think that if a number of governments, perhaps even including ours, were to perceive a significant threat to the security of those stockpiles, that some of the contingency plans that have been developed would probably be put into effect.
This is an enormous stockpile of these weapons. I think we have to be aware of that. It’s one of the largest in the world. And the threat that they might – those weapons might fall into the hands of extremist groups is something that rates very, very high on the range of – on the spectrum of threat scenarios that a number of governments are dealing with. And I think I’ll probably just leave it at that and not touch on the question of Israel and how that relationship might factor into things.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, can you go to the mic – (inaudible)?
Q: Thank you very much. I’m Benjamin Tua (ph). And my question follows on some of the themes and comments that the gentleman who asked the question on the speaker’s address, and that is: How much does Russia’s relationship with Israel figure into its calculations and its actions vis-à-vis Syria?
DR. MATTAIR: That’s a good question. Mark?
DR. KATZ: Thank you very much. That is actually a very, very good question. You know, certainly since the rise of Putin to power, Russian-Israeli relations have grown really quite close, that, you know, there is – economic relationship has increased significantly. Russians are now buying certain aspects of Israeli military technology. Israeli technology enhances Russian arms sales to significant purchasers such as India. There’s also, you know, a huge Russian-speaking diaspora in Israel. And it’s really quite curious, because a lot of these people, they left Russia because they didn’t like how they were being treated in Russia, they go to Israel and they suddenly fall in love with Russia. It’s really remarkable. They’ve become sort of a lobbying group for Russian-Israeli relations.
And also, just on the human level, a number of Russian tourists – I believe that, you know, in certain months the number of Russian tourists in Israel have exceeded the number of American tourists. So there is a – there is a huge not just government-to-government but society-to-society-level contact. And I think that that certainly – I was at a Russian-Israeli conference four years ago in Jerusalem, and what really amazed me was that Israeli conservatives and Russian officialdom think very much alike, especially about a negative view of sort of the forces at work in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
And I think that part of what has helped the Russians sort of hang tough on Assad is that while the Russians recognize that they have very little influence in Washington, they know that Israel does and that Israel is ambivalent about change in Syria, that, unfortunately, the Israeli conservative government isn’t focusing on how things might be better with Assad gone. It focuses on how things might be worse. And so I think that what the Russians see is that whatever Moscow does, that the Israeli government will, in fact, act to sort of restrain in the American enthusiasm with regard to what might happen in Syria. Now whether that’s right or wrong – and that’s certainly – you know, Israel is a complex country, and there’s been a debate now about what should happen in Syria. But I think that on the whole, you know, that the Israelis seem to prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t know. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Leon.
DR. HADAR: Well, one of the things I urge all of you to do is, I call it almost a epistemological change in terms of analyzing foreign policy. I think we are going back now to the kind of diplomacy that we had in the 19th century, as opposed to the 20th century when, you know, we had good guys, bad guys, everything was clear, World War II, the Cold War. Those of you who studied 19th century diplomacy now how difficult it is, because it used to change almost every day. You know, there was a certain fluidity in that. And I think you are going to see more and more of that in the diplomacy that’s going to take place now.
The role of Russia is a good example of that. You know, the role – the relationship between Israel and Turkey or between Turkey and the United States is another example. If you’ll recall, only a few months ago people were saying that Turkey is joining the – you know, the terrorist camp. I think one of the Republicans’ candidate even called it a terrorist state, you know, against the – (inaudible) – relationship of Israel and so. Now Turkey’s again emerging as an ally of the United States and so on.
Now as far as this issue is concerned, it’s much more complex than that. I disagree with you. I think the Israelis actually want Assad to fall. They want him to fall because he is allied with the Hezbollah and the – and Iran. And in the chess game in the Middle East, this collapse, I think, is seen as a positive development. So I don’t think there is – and of course, everyone is worried what will happen after that. But I think they do want him to fall.
At the same time, they are improving relationship between Israel and Russia. As you pointed out, it has to do also with the role of Turkey – you know, a lot of talk about an alliance between – supposedly between Greece, Israel and Cyprus with Russia, against Turkey and so on. Again, I won’t turn that into, you know, like a major transformation of relationship, but that’s going to be part of the process. Things are going to change. There’s going to be good relationship between Israel and Turkey, between Israel and Russia, between the U.S. So let’s not go from one extreme to another. I don’t see a Russian-Israeli alliance. I see just an improving relationship between the two country, which I think is overall quite positive.
DR. MATTAIR: I think – that’s the first time I heard the word “Iran” in the last two hours, and that leads me to ask this question: How much does Iran stand to lose from developments in Syria, from the fall of the regime, from the emergence of some different kind of regime? And is Russia acting in part to protect Iran’s interests?
DR. KATZ: Thanks, Tom. That’s a great question. You know, I think that the Iranians do stand to lose an awful lot. Assad is really their most important ally in the Arab world. But in many respects, you know, this isn’t so much a, you know, Russian-versus-American game. It’s a Saudi-versus-Iranian one. And I think that, you know, the Iranians – you know, when the Arab Spring began, they came out being cheerleaders for it. You know, they – the downfall of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, they predicted that this was going to benefit Iran tremendously. And then of course, it hasn’t quite done so. They’re not so happy when it’s their ally that is under a threat. But I think that, you know, Syria has been the conduit through which a lot of Iranian assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas has gone. I think we’ve already seen that Hamas has distanced itself from the Syrian government; that I think Iran’s stands to lose a lot of its leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian, the Syrian and the Lebanese arenas if there is change.
So – now, you know, in terms of the Russian-Iranian relationship, I think that for Russia, what they see themselves as doing as, you know, good relations with, you know, what we think of as adversaries – you know, Israel on the one hand, Iran and Syria on the other – that from the Russian point of view, there’s a common thread, and that is all of these are opposed to radical Sunni Islam, and therefore, they don’t want to see, you know, any of these fall. Why don’t the Americans recognize that? So that’s what I have to say.
DR. HEYDEMANN: Just to add a word or two, I tend to agree, Mark, with your – with your overall assessment. I think the balance sheet or the audit of the impact on Iran’s position in the region in the event of a regime change in Syria needs to include some additional considerations. And perhaps the most important one is whether in fact the success of the revolution would mean the end of resistance in terms of how Syria’s new leadership would define its relationship to a number of core regional issues.
And I’m not entirely sure that we should expect that the success of the revolution would mean the end of resistance. On questions like Palestine, we have a very deeply nationalistic profile among the leadership of the opposition with respect to overall orientation toward a number of regimes in the region. The idea that any self-respecting president of a post-Assad Syrian state would embrace dependence on Saudi Arabia strikes me as profoundly unlikely and perhaps politically unwise. The idea that a new Syrian government would completely reorient its foreign policy posture in ways that would align it more closely with the U.S. I think is also possible but unlikely. And so I think that even though a change in regime would certainly have a significant effect on Hezbollah, on Iran, on Iran’s ability to project its influence in the region, this notion of a broader strategic tipping on the part of Syria I think has often been overstated.
With respect to Iran and Russia as partners in supporting the Assad regime, it’s certainly the case that there are elements of collaboration. But when we think about the moment of which it might prove to be in Russia’s interest to bring the Assad regime to the table, the presence of Iran in Syria and the role that Iran has played in equipping the Syrian armed forces with weapons, with ammunition, with supplies, the extent to which Iran does stand to lose a great deal more from the loss of that alliance than the Russians would from a potential change of regime – seems to me that we could see increasing tensions between Iran and Russia over how to bring about – over how to manage the end game in Syria than might be immediately apparent.
DR. MATTAIR: You had a question – (inaudible).
Q: Hello. Hector Antonio Rivaz (ph). The question that I pose is open to anybody to answer. Is there any concern regarding the fact that Saudi Arabia is implicated in hiring foreign mercenaries and providing arms traffickers into the Syrian region the last couple of months? And mind you that I do ask this question in the context that reports over the last 10 years have implicated members of the Saudi royal family involved in harboring two of the 9/11 hijackers that attacked this nation in 2001.
DR. ZIADEH: There is a misunderstanding, mainly of the media, about the armed opposition. The main portion of the armed opposition, soldiers who are defected, refused to obey the orders of the Assad regime: led by the officers. And the structure of the armed opposition, mainly under the name – what’s called the revolutionary councils or the military councils – we have in each city, in each town what’s called in the military council, the military council of Idlib, the military council of – (inaudible). And the head of each military council, it’s basically a colonel or general who defected. And this is why the armed opposition in Syria, or the – what’s called the Free Syrian Army, is much more organized than the rebels we have in Libya. And that’s done through many reports within – even the CIA, they confirmed that in – many times, and of course, many reports of the think tanks here in Washington community.
And of course, the Free Syrian Army is much more organized. We – this is why we saw that without any support from the international community taking advantage at all, take – became much more – because they know exactly the weakness of the Assad militias or the Assad gangs and – because they served in the same army. This is why the – (inaudible) – accusations that those Salafi group or jihadi group or all of that, it’s not mainly true because mainly those army officers defected. And as to the example, today morning I have Skype conference call with some of them. They explained to me the situation in Damascus and Aleppo. I don’t contact, actually, civilians who are taking arms other than those army officers who defected. They know the situation and they know – they – all they claim the lack of ammunition they have. But basically because there is no safety zone, it’s very difficult for those to be appear in the media or to get much more in – much more public attention.
And to response to your questions, basically let’s say 90 percent of the guns and the arms coming from the Assad regime itself. The Assad army, we know that is very corrupted institution. And this is why it’s very easy to get any – to get any arm, weapons by some – bribing some soldiers or some officers. And basically, the stores of the Assad regime, it’s located in different areas. The main location – the main location is in Homs. This is why when the Free Syrian Army succeed to take over many stores of the Free Syrian Army, they got – they got many source of the weapons and the arms. And this is why 90 percent of that still coming from inside sources.
DR. MATTAIR: The Saudi foreign minister has openly called for arming the opposition. That's no secret. It’s not a question of “implicating,” quote, unquote, the Saudi government. The Saudi government, in part, is responding to its own domestic population and the domestic population throughout the Gulf, which is primarily Sunni and which is watching Sunnis be mowed down inside Syria. And it’s not in their interest to knowingly arm what’s been termed here “Salafists,” and there are different kinds of Salafists and they’re not all radical jihadis, either. That’s not in their interest to arm radical jihadis. In fact, they’re engaged in a very protracted and intense war against al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia.
Q: Yes, good morning. I’m Meredith Buel with Voice of America. All the panelists have dealt with this, but to try to put a fine point on it, now that the U.S. is reassessing its foreign policy following the vetoes in the United Nations Security Council last week, what would be the one or two steps that the United States could take immediately or very soon that – from both a diplomatic perspective and a practical perspective – in an effort to try to reach U.S. goals and improve the situation on the ground?
DR. ZIADEH: They prepare for very different agenda for next meeting of the Friends of the Syria conference in Morocco, and they should work closely with the Arab League, with Turkey and other European countries to have exactly very definitive recommendations about implementing safety zone. In the –Turkey they are willing to do that. And now today, the Jordanian prime minister did interview that al-Jazeera also mentioned. Some of that is not clear but it – but he shows how the Jordan been frustrated about the lack of actions from the international community to help because Jordan and Lebanon: the most effective two countries. And the Assad regime also – and to date, it’s very important signals coming not only from Jordan and also from Lebanon, where the president of Lebanon asked the ministry to ask for the Security Council about the Syrian violations of the Syrian borders – Syrian-Lebanon borders. I’m –
Q: (Off mic) – the United States – (off mic).
DR. ZIADEH: I mean, this is – that’s – now, we see the trend from the regional countries to call for more actions. Before that, there was – wasn’t such trend. Now they see that this is the situation can fall along. This is why they call. This is – the U.S., they should build on that, on the regional consensus, on the Arab League, Turkey and on Europe to have definite agenda to implement the safety zone. The safety zone inside the Syrian territories, this is a priority for the Syrians right now. No one is calling or asking for troops or boots on the ground. No one is asking for military intervention like the same way we have in Iraq. I think the Free Syrian Army in much more better way to do the job, but they need the help and they need assistance.
DR. HEYDEMANN: And if I could just add one more element to that, at the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6th, Secretary Clinton added some unscripted comments to her speech in which she was very assertive in stating that Russia and China are paying no price for their support for the Assad regime. And she called on all of the governments represented at the meeting to take additional steps to make clear that there would be consequences for Russia and China if they continued along their current path.
And it seems to me that one of the most significant consequences could be, and I think is likely to be, the shift of international diplomacy around the Syria question out of the U.N. Security Council and the increasing marginalization of Russia as an actor in international diplomatic efforts. I’m not talking about Russia’s presence on the ground. And if we, in fact, find that this pace of change on the ground continues to accelerate and that we are sooner rather than later dealing with the end stages of the Assad regime, the possibility that Russia could be excluded from that process, I think, would be a possibility that the Russian leadership would view with a great deal of concern. So I would – I would view that as an additional step: accelerating the effort to shift international diplomacy into arenas where Russia no longer exercises veto over the international community’s strategy towards Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: Mark, you have a comment?
DR. KATZ: Yes, basically, I think I would certainly just maybe elaborate a bit on what Steve proposes, and that is, I think that what maybe the U.S. should do is – at this point is to announce that it will no longer seek to resolve the situation in Syria through the Security Council; it will only do so through the Friends of Syria and that – but leave the door open for Russia to join that group.
I also think that, you know, sort of privately, what we ought to do is to, you know, not just the U.S. but the Arab League, the Syrian, you know, National Council – which the Russians, by the way, do talk to – is that we really need to engage them as to, you know, what are you doing? It’s one thing to, you know, you enjoy, you know, thwarting the United States but you know, Putin, up until the Arab Spring, had been pretty successful in courting Arab public opinion. He had been, you know, very good at this. And then suddenly it’s just all stopped. And, you know, I think there’s a case to be made that with regard to Libya, that part of the reason why the Russians approved the – not approved but allowed to pass the Security Council resolutions on Libya was because this was requested by the Arab League. In other words, they were sensitive to Arab opinion. But this has simply ended, that they seem to not care anymore about, you know, what the Arabs think. And to me, this is kind of shocking that in many respects that Russian policy has become fairly bloody-minded with regard to Syria. And I think that, you know – and there are some of us who actually do care about Russia. Is that – this is something that we ought to talk to them about privately but, on the other hand, go forward with our policies through the Friends of Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
Q: My name is Isham Zhabi (ph). Thank you very much for the presentation. My question is about the opposition. It seems that in the West – you just monitor the media – there is phobia about what’s going on in the opposition. The question is, like, opposition – even – we know that the Islamic parties are rising in the Middle East during, before and the Arab Spring. What do we do about that, the question, and how much we are engaged in the transformation that these Islamic parties are going through? You know, look what happened in Egypt, for example. Nobody expected the Salafists to rise because they used political Islam as a means to rise. Look at the Brotherhood position: They change. So it’s not a dynamic – Islamic group is not a static issue; it’s a dynamic, and they changing every day. So my question is what do we do about it in terms of a policy?
DR. ZIADEH: I think this is very an important question because if we compare the parliamentarian election where the Muslim brothers in Egypt, they got the majority, and compare the results, we have after the presidential election where Mohamed Morsi, members in the Muslim brother, became president, between this five months, the Muslim brothers, they lost 5 million votes within five months only. And this is why – because – and look, it’s neck by neck, Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. I think if we have other candidate rather than Ahmed Shafiq, who’s been seen as one of the son of the military establishment and of – (inaudible) – of Mubarak regime, I don’t think that Mohamed Morsi will win.
This is why I think it’s – dynamic within this – the Arab societies is changing every time. And it’s quite difficult to see that the Islamists who are in the ’70s and the ’80s still the same right now. The – they do understand that there is change in the – in the dynamics. And this is why most of them, they speak and they build the coalitions with other secular political parties. If they are – if they are – believe that they can take over, maybe they don’t care. But they believe that they – look, in Tunisia, they have coalition. In – and in Egypt right now they are building the coalition. With the (same ?) they are grouped within the SNC as a coalition of different secular groups, liberal groups and others. And they are not the majority within the SNC, but of course they are the most organized group. And this is – this is – they give some advantages in the future.
But anyway, what I think the United States they should took this into consideration, and they should engage with the Islamists, and they should engage with other groups and to be – but I don’t think that the Obama administration, they have at least a plan for the Arab Spring or prepared for that. It’s been – it’s been surprised by the Arab Spring and with all the crisis here in the United States, especially the financial crisis and the lack of sources within. And then you have, of course, the Democratic administration, which they don’t have – after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they show no interest for them to have a strong foreign policy in the Middle East. Mainly Obama administration put all of its campaign within the – within the election that will withdraw the troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This is why they show no interest to do more on – in the Middle East. And this has weakened the administration in a way and weakened the U.S. position in the region, rather than we don’t see – we don’t see the U.S. officials often in the region visiting Libya or in Tunisia or see any U.S. major role in the region.
DR. MATTAIR: I have – is that a response to – OK, because I do have a question from the live stream audience.
DR. HADAR: You are right that it’s a dynamic situation and it changes from day to day, yes, and so should the U.S. policy. The U.S. policy has to adjust and adapt to the changing realities. Now, I totally disagree this notion that the U.S. has the power or certainly not the will to micromanage our politics, which again reflects, you know, tribal, ethnic, you know, religious, sectarian politics which are much more complex than, you know, elections in Brooklyn, in New York. And the notion that the U.S. is going to go there and affect the outcome of election makes – is ridiculous. I mean, the U.S. doesn’t have the power and doesn’t have the ability to do that.
So I think the Obama administration followed, I think, what is basically a very reasonable policy. There was a change in Egypt; they couldn’t prevent – they couldn’t have prevented Mubarak from falling. They decided that they have to just try to adjust to the – as I said, to the changing realities. And they don’t have any other choice but to support the coming of power of an Islamist government, though, which now leads to the – you know, if you saw the secular and liberal parties are now accusing the American administration of being allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. But you know, they didn’t have any other choice other than that. And they should be careful of – in terms of actually getting involved too much in those domestic politics. The end result is that, you know, you decide based on policies what are going to be the policies of the Egyptian government, to what extent they seem to ally with that of the interests and the values of the United States. If they do, you walk with them; if they don’t, you oppose them. That’s what I would do.
DR. MATTAIR: This question is from the live-streamed audience: Is the option of a separate Alawite state feasible, and is this option being discussed?
I suppose this question grows out of a concern that there will be retribution against Alawites. So that’s the question. My question, taking off on it, would be this: One of the biggest mistakes we made in Iraq was purging the Sunni Baathists. How likely is it that significant segments of the Alawite-dominated regime are going to act against Assad, and how much of the Alawite regime has to go because they’re implicated in this repression? And how much of the Alawite regime would be acceptable to the SNC and the Free Syrian Army?
DR. ZIADEH: Yes, I think regarding there is much attention, unfortunately, in the media about the last option of the Assad regime will be Alawites stay, which I don’t think that this is – be an option at all. There is not even that within the Alawite community discussion or debate about that, and there is no such theory or theorists working on looking for this option, because even that in the coastal part in Syria, there was mixed people. Most of the hearts of the cities – in Latakia, Tartus, Jebla (ph) – are Sunni, and they have demonstrations every day. They support, of course, Alawite. At the same, they are mixed up. There is no it’s pure Alawite region who they can – they have own state. But unfortunately, that’s much more – we speak in the media on this option; we have much more debate on that.
Regarding the second, I think now the opposition in Syria, they, too, take the lessons in Iraq very seriously, and they take the lessons from other countries very seriously. And this is why when two weeks ago when one of the top leaders in the Baath Party, the Syrian ambassador in Iraq, Nawaf Fares, he defected. He automatically welcomed within the Syrian opposition.
And this is why there is – we know that the Baath Party is – became a tool of power. It’s a socialist party and became – everyone joined to the Baath Party to take some benefits within the state, rather than a theological-operated party as before in the ’50s. This is why when you – of course, you will not punished 1 million members in the Baath Party just because they are members in the Baath Party. And now, since the uprising started, the first wave of defection was Baath Party members, in Idlib, in Darra, in Deir ez-Zor and other areas. Now we have at least two top leaders within the Baath Party who are the head of what’s called the regional office in Idlib and in Durra who defected, and now they are in Turkey. We are – we are working in the opposition with them, along side by side.
When we call that we need the fall of the Assad regime, mainly we mean that the Assad family and the Mahdlo (ph) family and the others top advisers and officers in – within the security. One case is three days ago, the head of the military security – (inaudible) – defected and went – his name Mohammed Mufi (ph) – and went to Turkey. This guy as example, he was responsible on the Hama massacre in June 2011, where more than 76 has been killed, because he was the head of the military security in Hama at that time. And that now is a debate, what you can do with him. You accept him because – but there’s our blood on his hand. And this is why – I mean, it’s not an easy issue. But when the – within the SNC, we should – a very detailed plan about the transitional justice and different types of transitional justice. And this is – I think this is – will be implemented in the future.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you. Well, it’s almost noon, so we should end and I should say thank you for coming. And in my introductory remarks I neglected to say that we have a website, www.mepc.org. Articles from previous issues of the journal are there; videos of previous Capitol Hill conferences are there. And I invite you to visit that and see everything that we have to offer. And thank you again for coming. (Applause.) And thank you to the panelists.