What Are the Stakes for Syria's Neighbors?
The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-third in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on July 16, 2013, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Well, I'm Tom Mattair. I'm the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. And on behalf of the board and the staff, I'd like to welcome all of you to this conference which is about the crisis in Syria and what it means for Syria's neighbors.
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We have a very good panel here to discuss this issue today. Before I introduce them, I will just say a few – very few introductory words about this topic. President Obama has recently argued that U.S. national security interests are at stake in this crisis because of the negative impact the crisis has on the security and stability of Syria's neighbors, our allies, our partners, our friends. Our objectives have been to try to ease the humanitarian crises, to help the allies, partners and friends avoid as much as possible or deal with the spillover from Syria such as the refugees, and some bombings, and ultimately to force Assad and his associates out of power and to bring into being a government that would represent the interest of all Syrians.
But as always, we should ask if our strategy is appropriate and effective in obtaining these objectives. Our strategy has been a combination of sanctions against the regime, of various kinds of aid to the opposition and diplomacy. And we've recently announced that we will – we will for the first time be directly supplying some arms to the opposition. The question is what kinds of arms and to whom. We say that we have identified carefully vetted groups that can receive them.
But there are other questions that are still in the air, such as should we have other kinds of military action, such as targeted air strikes. And of course, should we go to a Geneva II conference, and if we do go, when should we go and who should be there and what should the acceptable outcome be of a Geneva II conference?
In thinking through American interests, American objectives, American strategies, American decisions, we want to focus today on how these allies, partners and friends see things. How do Turkey, the Arab Gulf states, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel see the developments in Syria? What do they think the various outcomes there would – what impact would the various outcomes there have on them? How do they define their interests and objectives? What do they think about the way we've define our objectives and the way we have chosen our strategy?
Unfortunately, it's not a very tidy world, and these allies, partners and friends don't all agree on what's happening or what they want as an outcome or what they think our strategy should be. So we have to navigate all these differences very carefully.
Having said that, I would like to now introduce the panel. I'm going to just briefly say a few words about each of them, and in the order in which I would like them to speak. And you have a much more extensive bio of each of them on your invitation, and they are distinguished, so it would take a long time to tell you everything.
But I will say that the first speaker will be Steven Simon, who, until earlier in – well, he's now the executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, IISS. Until earlier this year he was on the National Security Council, where he was the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to that he had senior positions at Good Harbor Consulting and the Council on Foreign Relations, Georgetown University, Princeton University and the RAND Corporation.
I would like Mona Yacoubian to be the second speaker. She is the senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center. She's also project director for the Pathways to Progress Project. And if you don't know what that is, it's a joint initiative with the George C. Marshall Foundation that explores the dynamics of the Arab revolts and seeks innovative policy solutions to them. She also, before this position, has had positions at the United States Institute of Peace and Council on Foreign Relations and served in the State Department in the 1990s as a North Africa specialist.
And then we would go to Erol Cebeci to speak about Turkey. He is the executive director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, SETA Foundation. He served two terms in the Turkish parliament. He also served as the chairman of the Turkish delegation to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. He has taught at Rensselaer Polytech Institute in New York and has established and run businesses and consulting on international trade.
And the final speaker will be Nabeel Khoury, who, like Steve Simon, has until very recently been in the U.S. government serving as the director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department and is leaving the State Department to take a position with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as their senior fellow for the Middle East and national security. He has had diplomatic positions in the State Department in Yemen and in Morocco, and he was the departmental spokesman for the Central Command in Doha and Baghdad in 2003, and he has also taught, prior to joining government, at College of St. Rose in New York and University of Jordan.
So each one of these people was carefully chosen to speak about how our neighbors and friends – how our partners, friends and allies see this situation. And instead of taking more time from myself, I'd like to turn the microphone over to Steven Simon.
STEVEN SIMON, executive director, International Institute for Strategic Studies; former senior director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs, National Security Council (2011-13)
Thanks very much. There we go. Thank you very much. I will take my presentation really as a series of observations, you know, more than anything else. And, you know, the extemp nature of my presentation really reflects the extemp nature of Israel's response to this crisis. And it's temporizing and hedging in character in the same way that just about everyone else's response to the crisis has been because, you know, first I think to some extent it was unexpected by both Syria's neighbors but also outside parties and, you know, also because it's evolved very quickly in ways that have been difficult to respond to, in the way that governments respond to things, which is to say quite slowly.
So I think there's a nice mesh, you know, kind of a nice amorphism between the way I'm going to address the topic and the way Israel is addressing it. But just, you know, by way of background, this crisis erupted, you know, from an Israeli perspective at a moment when they saw themselves as really being encircled by unfriendly governments owing to the evolution of the Arab Spring in the previous months. And, you know, from an Israeli perspective, they were looking at what they thought was the inevitably of a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, one which would establish links with Jordan. There was a lot of pessimism, I think, about the Hashemite Kingdom's viability. And, you know, the only break in this encirclement, in this Sunni encirclement, from Israel's perspective, was Lebanon, and there that was just a different form of Islamist adversary.
When the Syrian conflict broke out, this seemed to herald the completion of Israel's encirclement by radical Islamic governments that had popular legitimacy. And, you know, from a social science perspective, you were either going to have something from an Israeli perspective like the weak state, strong society dispensation that was described by Joel Migdal, for those of you who partake in the luscious wines of academic literature, in which case it would be very difficult for Israel to pursue its interests with, you know, hardheaded governments. Or you would have governments from – again, from an Israeli perspective that were strong and were very committed to changing the geopolitical shape of the region to Israel's advantage. So there was a lot of pessimism, I think, in Israel when the conflict broke out. The conflict intensified it. And the eruption of the civil war really didn't, you know, help Israel think through its way out of its strategic dilemma, or what it perceived to be a strategic dilemma, and the deep crouch that it had gone into, especially after the revolution began in Egypt.
So since then, the Israelis have been hedging. And with regard to Syria, the hedging, you know, has been particularly, you know, tentative and difficult to judge, in part because Israel has no influence in Syria. There are no affinity groups in Syria with which it can deal as it once was able to elsewhere in the region and deal with the Marinates or the Kurds or the Druze or what have you. There was – there was no such affinity group, at least with any hope of taking power in Syria at the end of – at the end of the day. So there was little they could really do – there was little that they could work with, and this contributed to their – to their hedging posture.
Now, they did do some things right off the bat when refugees started to come close to the border fence at Quneitra and Mazhdalshams (ph). Last year, the Israelis shot at them, which sent an important signal, and I don't think there have been any problems in that regard since. And of course, the Israelis have taken the opportunity, as I'll describe in a little more detail in a minute or two, to take advantage of the chaos – or the relative anarchy, let me put it that way – that now prevails in Syria.
Now, before I get to that, though, I want to address myself to the devil you know versus devil you don't question, because one of the things that one hears a lot – I mean, I haven't heard this from any Israelis myself, but the – this thought is attributed to Israel, namely that Israel kind of secretly likes Bashar al-Assad, and if it could would prop him up in power because the devil you know is better than the devil you don't.
Now, I mean, as a general principle, that's absolutely true in statecraft as well as in one's personal life, I'd have to say. But, you know, for the Israelis Bashar al-Assad was no, you know, devil they knew, but sort of a closet angel. It wasn't really like that.
Now, the Israelis had quite a different attitude towards Bashar's father, who was, I mean, in a way, kind of like a loyal opposition who could be counted on in some ways to defend Israeli interests perversely as assiduously as the Israelis defended them. But the son was quite different to the father in this respect, and it was, again, from an Israeli perspective, under the son that the relationship between Syria and Iran really solidified.
As a colleague liked to – likes to say, as a colleague of mine likes to say – this is hilarious, I think – but what he likes to say is that under Hafez al-Assad, Iran and Syria, it was kind of an arranged marriage, and under Bashar, they grew to love each other. You know, I think that's a very apt analogy.
So, you know, the Israelis were not really going to favor, you know, this direction of events because it brought Iranian military power closer and more dangerously to Israel's borders. Moreover, the son, unlike the father, pursued a nuclear weapons capability. The Israelis dealt with that back in 2007 when they attacked the facility at al-Kibar, at Dair Alzour, in eastern Syria. So I don't believe that this devil you know line really reflects Israeli attitudes. I might be wrong, but I really don't think so.
Now, in support of this contention, it has been reported in the Israeli press, and might well be true – I can't comment personally – that the United States was brokering an arrangement between Israel and Syria early in – well, through 2010 and early 2011 that fell apart shortly before the revolution began in Syria that fateful day in Daraa. And what's interesting about that is that the Syrian concession – agreed to allegedly by Bashar – was to completely sever relations between Syria and Iran – a considerably big thing, I'd have thought, for the Israelis. But, you know, at the end of the day, the American negotiators, it's reported, failed to sway the Israelis that this would be a good deal to strike. And today the Israelis would probably say, well, you know, their reticence was really justified because whatever belief they might have entertained about Bashar's inability to deliver and to sustain an agreement like the one that was being brokered, according to reports, you know, it just wasn't there. He just wasn't going to be able to deliver. The Israelis foresaw that and they passed up on this great bargain. And I think it's worth, you know, thinking about this because it sheds light again on this question of whether there's a devil they knew that they would rather have still in power today.
So what's at stake now for the Israelis in all this, and I'll conclude, you know, along these lines. You know, first, this crisis is as much of an opportunity for Israel as it is a danger, and I think they view it that way. The four rounds of airstrikes that they've carried out since the crisis began, attacking weapons systems, for the most part, that they thought would be dangerous to Israel, directed at Israel, you know, over time. The latest was the attack on the anti-ship missiles. There was the Fateh-110 missile shipment that was attacked, the SA-17 convoy. The Israelis have been the Energizer Bunny of interdiction thus far, and the ability to do that, to be that owes to the opportunity that the anarchy in Syria has engendered.
There's also the possibility that at the end of the day, Syria will, in fact – Iran, rather, will, in fact, be cut off from Lebanon. That's an outcome of this conflict that cannot be completely ruled out. So in these senses, this conflict in Syria, this civil war in Syria represents an opportunity, but the dangers at the same time are rife. There is, as we all know, an enormous, a gargantuan, a colossal amount of chemical weapons in Syria, and should the regime lose control of them, should they become privatized given the nature of the various contending groups in Syria, it's not impossible that someone would try to use that against Israel or transfer it to Hezbollah on a large scale, which would create, I would have thought, a cassus belli for Israeli vis-à-vis Lebanon.
So, you know, big dangers, some opportunities. The posture that the Israelis – and this is my closing observation – the posture the Israelis have stuck – have struck vis-à-vis the U.S. in terms of intervention or not – or not to intervene, a question that's appeared in the press periodically over the past years and a half or so – I mean, to me was sort of settled when the Israeli defense minister was here last month, the – I think it was early this month, late last month. And the message of his team was that the U.S. should not get distracted by Syria, that the U.S. needed to keep its eye on the ball, the ball being Iran, and specifically the Iran nuclear challenge. And from an Israeli perspective, the prospect of the United States getting wrapped up in Syria would lessen the probability that the United States would have the energy and focus to deal with Iran and the nuclear issue when, from an Israeli perspective, the time would come. Thanks.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
Does anyone want to – do you want to take –
MONA YACOUBIAN: I'll stay seated, if that's OK.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, if you prefer.
MONA YACOUBIAN, senior adviser on the Middle East, Stimson Center; former North Africa analyst, U.S. Department of State (1990-97)
It's easier, I think. Thanks. Good morning, and thank you to the Middle East Policy Council and to you, Tom, personally for inviting me and for organizing this very important panel.
I was asked to talk about Lebanon and Iraq. And I'm not an Iraq expert, but I do think that those two are appropriate to be grouped together because I think they both have to contend with the same type of challenge with respect to what their stakes are for them and the spillover from Syria. And to just very quickly riff of off one of Steve's last lines with regard to Israel were a big danger, some opportunities, I would say for Lebanon and Iraq: big dangers, no opportunities. I mean, I think that from the perspective of both of those countries, everything is pretty much downside.
I would start with maybe making really just a few broad points that apply to both cases and then talk very briefly about Iraq and perhaps a little bit more about Lebanon, a country that I know a bit more about.
For me the bottom line is that the deepening sectarianism of Syria's conflict, of its civil war, is really the key factor to take into account when assessing what is at stake for both Lebanon and Iraq. This sort of acute sectarian dynamic, which I think is frankly continuing to grow worse, has very significant implications for the stability of both Iraq and Lebanon. In particular, I think I would highlight really two key points.
The first is that in both countries, the sectarian spillover plays into preexisting dynamics, a preexisting sectarian volatility that both countries have contended with well before Syria's conflict. Both countries have gone through fairly brutal sectarian civil wars – of course, Iraq far more recently. Lebanon of course had its 15-year-long civil war. And so whenever we think about the – sort of the spillover from Syria, I think we have to try and understand how it is that on one level the spillover simply is stirring up preexisting tensions in those countries. So that's the first point.
The second point is that because the nature of the spillover is sectarian, I would argue the stakes for various actors in these countries is increasingly existential. And increasingly as they're making their calculus, they are really talking about questions that have to do with their survival, in some cases perceived threats, in other cases perhaps real threats. And I think that in and of itself has very significant implications from how actors respond and where the trajectory goes for each of those countries.
Let me just talk for a moment about Iraq. Again, I'm not an Iraq expert, but having watched a bit what's happening, I think it's clear that we're seeing a real impact of what's happening in Syria on Iraq. We've seen some of the worst sectarian violence in Iraq in five years over the past few months. More than 700 people were killed in June alone. I think the number is something like 2,600 since April and climbing. Every day you pick up the newspaper there's reports of yet another episode of sectarian violence. And I think that while some of that is clearly in part due to, again, preexisting tensions in Iraq have to do with Iraq, another part of it also, I think, has to do with what's happening in Syria.
If we look just very briefly at the two key communities to consider, I would argue in this, which are the Sunnis and the Shia, I think – and with respect to the Sunni community in Iraq, you're seeing greater radicalization. You're seeing jihadist groups, namely al-Qaida in Iraq, getting new energy off of what's happening in Syria, this new jihad that's taking place right next door, one in which I think the narrative from a jihadist perspective is very compelling. I think the brutal aspect of the repression in Syria has enraged elements in Iraq, and frankly, feeds into a preexisting anger about Sunni disenfranchisement, Sunni disaffection in Iraq that has to do with the Maliki government's policies of essentially cracking down more on Sunnis. And so we're seeing in that regard, as I said, this kind of rejuvenation of Sunni extremism in Iraq with real implications for Iraqi security and, I would argue, also for Syrian security. There are bonds, bridges that have been made across borders with Syrian jihadist groups. There's some debate about the extent to which these two groups interact. There was a claim at one point of literally a union of al-Qaida in Iraq with the Nusra Front, which was then denied. So there are some leadership issues, but there are also new or offshoot al-Qaida groups now operating in Syria that claim very strong ties to Iraq. So however you parse it, it's very clear that I think we're seeing an increased interaction, energy that is growing between these two, such that I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say over time, depending on how things evolve in Syria, you end up with a large arena that comprises much of Syria and a part of Iraq in which jihadists are operating, and that, to me, is of course deeply concerning.
The Shia are also mobilized in Iraq. They're mobilized, again, I think, from a sectarian perspective. You have now Iraqi Shia militias mobilizing and operating in Syria. A very revered Shia shrine, Sayyidah Zaynab, is located in the southern part of Damascus. And so there are now Iraqi Shia militants operating as part of a protection force in Syria.
And again, I think the – here, again, I think the motivation is sectarian and perhaps on some level existential, that the battle is now being joined in Syria, that there is sort of a parallel actually that was drawn between this Shiite shrine and the Samarra Mosque in Iraq. This parallel was drawn by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon. And I think that's important. There's a symbolism that our community, our Shia community, we need to protect these holy sites. So you're seeing this, as I said, this kind of almost existential motivation on the part of Shia as well in Iraq.
The Shia-dominated government, which I've sort of put as a third actor to consider in all of this in Iraq, is also engaged in Syria. They are attempting, Prime Minister Maliki specifically, to balance I think pressures from Iran, which is, of course, all in with respect to the Syrian regime; it is perhaps the staunchest ally of Syria. So they – so Maliki is trying to balance pressure from Iran to be even more supportive of the Assad regime against pressure from the United States to desist from supporting the Assad regime. I think – in that battle, I think Iran is winning. I mean, you have, for example, Iraqi air space used by Iran as essentially an air bridge to ferry weapons to the Assad regime. And while I think the Iraqis are attempting at times to sort of feign cooperation with us, I think the reality is that that supply line continues largely unabated.
You also have Iraq adopting a more neutral stance in the Arab League, which, by and large, has – essentially has booted Syria from the Arab League and imposed sanctions, but Iraq has adopted a more neutral stance.
That said, I think the situation in Iraq is now deteriorating to such an extent that I think Prime Minister Maliki is attempting to try and perhaps moderate his position, but again, I think more from an internal Iraqi standpoint. So there is now some attempt to reach out to Sunni elements and so forth.
But by and large, just as a concluding point on Iraq, I think you're seeing that the spillover has been sectarian in nature, the stakes are existential, and it has been the cause of fairly significant instability, and I don't see that really changing anytime soon.
So turning now to Lebanon. Here I think the first point to bear in mind is that Lebanon's fate has been very intimately intertwined with that of Syria, always. And so one has to consider that, that the long-standing ties – social, economic – between these two countries in many ways I think makes Lebanon a special case.
As with so many issues, Lebanon's population is deeply divided on the question of Syria. Of course, you have Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organization, stanchly supporting Bashar al-Assad, publicly doing so, sending its fighters in to assist the Syrian military, in some ways perhaps providing them with a strategic edge in some of the most recent battles.
That is then contrasted with the Sunni community in Lebanon, which is, of course, supportive of the Syrian opposition groups and has played a role both in terms of providing not only moral support but in times joining the fight themselves on the side of the armed groups. And there, of course, again, a lot of back-and-forth with border villages and so forth harboring Syrian opposition fighters and so forth. So there is – there is – there is clearly a divide there between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon.
The Christians and, I would say, other minorities more generally are – well, the Christians in particular are divided on the question of Syria, as they are in many issues inside Lebanon, where you have one of the most prominent Christian leaders, General Michel Aoun, maintaining his alliance with Hezbollah and continuing to support, at least rhetorically, the Syrian regime, as opposed to those Christians who are part of the March 14th Alliance – and I don't want to get too down into the weeds about Lebanese politics, but there is the March 14th Alliance, which is staunchly anti-Syrian.
But I would say more generally, in the Christian community, as – and with the Druze, the other really key minority community in Lebanon – I think there is a reflexive response to want to essentially try to keep their heads down and try to remain a bit neutral. I think they see there – these are two big titans clashing above their heads, and I think there is, frankly, understandable concern and a desire to try and stay out of the fray to the extent possible. I think from the Christian perspective in particular, I think there is a growing foreboding about Sunni radicalization that's taking place in Lebanon.
So let me step back for just a second and maybe talk a bit about, really, then, these two key protagonists in Lebanon, Hezbollah on the one side and more radicalized elements in the Sunni community on the other. And here, I think both of these communities view the stakes of what's happening in Syria as really nothing less than existential.
For Hezbollah, Syria is of course a key ally. It is the primary conduit for Iranian arms. It provides Hezbollah with strategic depth. The loss of Syria I think for Hezbollah would be catastrophic. And I think that explains its much more blatant support for the Assad regime with Hassan Nasrallah proudly proclaiming that they are in it with the Syrian regime, they are all in to the end – again, sacrificing fighters and others that have – that have died in the fighting. And I think this is significant because my own sense is that Hezbollah has now essentially crossed a Rubicon of sorts. They have moved from being a resistance – in quotation marks – movement with broad appeal to the Arab street to, frankly, nothing much short of a sectarian militia. And I think that has very significant implications for them going forward and could play out very much to their disadvantage.
On the other side, you have a Sunni community that is lacking in strong political leadership. Saad Hariri, the presumptive head of the community, is out of the country for security reasons. And as a result, you have a growing radicalization within the community, particular I would say embodied by this radical sheikh from – Salafist sheikh from Sidon, Ahmed Assir, and others as well. And I think it's concerning because there are I think increasing concerns amongst mainstream Sunni leaders that they are unable to control their street. And we've seen outbreaks I think most recently in Sidon, a very significant outbreak of violence, that pitted Hezbollah fighters against Sunni radical fighters, which that in and of itself is concerning, but also I think you had radical Sunni elements attacking the Lebanese army. Both of these I think are important red flags, both the notion or the specter of Sunnis and Shias fighting one another inside Lebanon – they're certainly fighting in each in Syria, but now to be fighting each other in Lebanon is deeply concerning – and also sort of a brazen attack on the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is supposedly an institution of the government and one that represents all of the sects.
Very quickly, because I don't want to – I don't want to go on too much more – let me just talk for a moment about the Lebanese government, which I would say also should be thought of a little bit differently from these – the sectarian communities in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has worked assiduously to maintain a policy of what's called disassociation, a policy of professed neutrality in Syria or about Syria. The policy I would argue is largely failing, but I think you are continuing to see in particular President Suleiman make attempts to call out both the Syrian government and Syrian armed groups if they violate Lebanese sovereignty and so forth. My own sense is, again, that this is – this is probably not going to be successful over the long term because I think the dynamics are so powerful on the ground that are – that are at work.
Final point is – because I think you can't talk about Lebanon and Syrian spillover without mentioning the refugee issue, which is a very significant one in Lebanon. There are now I think 600,000 Syrian refugees on top of the 500,000 Syrian workers who have not been able to return to Syria. So it's over a million refugees in a country of 4 million. Refugees have always been a very sensitive topic in Lebanon, and so as a result, there are no camps being built. The conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon I think are pretty dire. And this is going to be another issue to contend with going forward and another potential impetus for even greater instability.
My own sense is, as with Iraq, we've got more rough days ahead in Lebanon. Much will depend on how the situation in Syria evolves. But I think increasingly, you're going to see these communities acting on their perceived interests, which are increasingly sectarian and by definition existential in nature, causing them to perhaps do things that would – that would compromise the country's stability at the – in the pursuit of their own specific community's self-interest. And I'll leave it at that.
DR. MATTAIR: A couple of comments. First of all, thank you, Mona. And I neglected to say thank you to Steve when you finished, so thank you, Steve.
Also, you have cards on your seats. And I would encourage you to write questions on your cards. And I'd like my staff to pick them up whenever they're available. You could hold the card up. Someone on the staff will come and get it. And Steve Simon does have to leave at 11:00, so you might want to start thinking about questions for Steve so that we could deal with them before he has to leave.
And so now Erol, please.
EROL CEBECI, executive director, Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA Foundation); former chairman of the Turkish Delegation, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Thank you. I would like to thank to both Middle East Policy Council and to Dr. Mattair for organizing this program and for the opportunity to speak in this.
As most of you would know, Syria and Turkey shares a 6,000 miles land border. And unlike a lot of borders in the Middle East, both sides of this border is heavily populated.
On June – on January 2011, when the crisis broke out in Syria, probably the Turkish government at the time, which is still the same government, had the best relations among the neighbors of the Syria at that time, with the Syrian government. And at that time the Turkey really worked to convince the Syrian regime to reform the political system and resolve the conflict peacefully. But now they are very far away from that.
If you look at the process, the Turkey has taken several initiatives to change the course of this conflict, and with very good reasons.
Under current circumstances, we are far away solving this conflict with a reduced cost. And the nightmare scenario for almost all the neighbors of Syria and for Turkey is a prolonged sectarian civil war in Syria. And unfortunately, there is every indication that this will be the case. And all of the neighbors of Syria will be affected by the spillover effects. This is already happening in Lebanon by the active involvement of Hezbollah. And the longer the conflict goes on, the worse for Turkey's interests and its vision of stability and peace for the region.
For the purpose of this presentation, I will be concentrating more entirely on the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict on Turkey.
A month and a half, two months ago, there was the largest terrorist attack in Turkish soil in the recent history. A bomb went on in a border town populated with – there was a lot of refugees from Syria, and more than 50 people were killed, and 98 percent of them are Turkish origins. And this is – it almost demonstrates the potential impact of the Syrian crisis in Turkey.
Now, as most of us agree on the panel so far, that the conflict in Syria will only get worse in the foreseeable future, and the lack of consensus and inaction among the international community over the past two years have prevented any meaningful, decisive action in Syria.
It is true Turkey tried to work to how to reach an international agreement to end the Syrian crisis, but this has not been possible. Turkey has pushed for measures that could bring an end to the fighting, which most commonly known is the no-fly zone, but the active Russian and Chinese opposition made this impossible. And also, U.S. and European powers seemed reluctant to invest in the resolution of the conflict in the region.
One of the nightmares scenarios, as for the Israel and other neighbors in – of Syria, the use of chemical weapons by the regime. This was at one point considered a red line by the U.S. government, and even though the Syrian government has used, this did not change the equation on the ground. In his recent visit, the Turkish prime minister, when he was here in mid-May, presented evidence chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime to the U.S. administration. However, the U.S. government is not willing to act, despite some of their own reports that confirm the use of chemical weapons.
From the Turkish perspective, obviously, there is every reason to establish a no-fly zone or safe zones because the regime will simply continue killing and escalate by using chemical weapons if the regime feels threatened more than they feel today. And like in other country, if you're next door, there is the potential chemical weapons, this is a huge spillover effect for you.
Doe to militarization of the conflict, now there are terrorist organizations active inside Syria. Although they are small in numbers, but their experience and skills in asymmetric warfare make them visible and effective in the Syrian civil war. Supporting the opposition materially, politically and diplomatically is important to counterbalance these terrorist groups. If the opposition cannot emerge as a viable opposition in the absence of international support, the terrorist organizations that most of the rest of the world agrees that they are can end up looking more appealing to the common and ordinary Syrians. At the same time the presence of terrorist organizations is used a common excuse for inaction in Syria.
As Mona has mentioned, refugees is a huge spillover effect for almost all the countries in the region, and Turkey is no exception to that. Turkey is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Probably in the neighborhoods of half of a million Syrians currently live in Turkey that they did not live a year and a half ago. And Turkey has managed the refugee situation well up until now. Obviously, it is a financial burden. And the numbers will continue to rise, and this burden will get heavier.
Turkey has a direct interest stopping the refugee flow and preventing to humanitarian crisis because it is not only having the – caring almost half of a million in certain area of the border region; the Assad regime is trying to create an anti-refugee feeling within Turkey. And actually, we saw the example of this in the Reyhanli bombing. It is this border town. This is a very little-known leftist Turkish organization with very known ties to Mukhabarat, and Syrian regime made this. And immediately after the bombing, some ultranationalist groups agitated some locals in that town – and this is a town of less than hundred thousand people – to blame the attack on Turkey's Syria policy. And so the Syrian conflict is not only posing refugees, but the stir-up by the presence of those refugees within Turkey is becoming a problem that should be managed properly.
Now, I would like to mention also the sectarianism question. Now, when Turkey was dealing with the Syrian regime prior to January 2011, Turks were very aware of the sect of the Syrian regime. And that sect has not changed, and the Turkish government has not changed. So fundamentally, Turkish policy in Syria, even though it has been criticized as sectarian – it has a sectarian agenda – this is far from the truth. Turkey wants an inclusive government in Syria and so far tried to engage in a variety of ethnic and sectarian groups within the opposition.
It is true, actually, that the results of Iraq's invasion and the Syrian conflict practically has – have caused all the sectarian fault lines in the region to be triggered, and some regional actors in the Middle East, some from the Gulf, some from the neighborhood, has hugely contributed to the rise of these sectarian tensions. And the regional sectarian politics is real.
But up until the Syrian conflict, Turkey has engaged intensively with Shia groups among – and among others, the Lebanese Hezbollah is a very well-known example. Turkey has traditionally avoided sectarian politics or ethnic divisionist policies. And it is true that Turkey currently might have stronger ties with certain group within the Syrian opposition, but that doesn't mean that Turkey has not tried or has not been trying to reach the other groups. And this is also used by the Syrian regime, the sectarian warfare or sectarian tendencies of Turkish government as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime.
Now, if you look at the region, the Syrian conflict has now turned into a battleground for regional powers to wage proxy wars against each other. That is how it might seem. And this makes it, the events in Syria, really much more difficult because when different countries start supporting different groups within the opposition, then it becomes much harder for the Syrian opposition to create a unified front against the regime.
Turkey's interest lies in a stable democratic Syria. So Turkey does not pursue a policy, and Turkey does not have any accounts to settle with the neighboring countries over the death of Syrians.
I would like to say a few sentences before I conclude about the U.S. policy also. Turkey perfectly understands the United States' reservations about much bolder actions, against much bolder actions in Syria. And, frankly, it shares some of those concerns. But indifference or inaction will be a better option, Turkey does not share that. Turkey is not calling for a direct U.S. intervention, and it has never called for that, but for the U.S. to work on the political side of the things, to rally the international community around the goal of the ending of conflict in Syria.
It is hard to believe, but when Syrians were pushed to withdraw from Lebanon, there were – there were much more political pressures on them compared to the political pressures that were put on them in the last year and a half. I'm not saying that the previous ones, when they were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, that political pressure was excessive; what I'm saying, that at least the current situation requires the same level of political pressure.
Turkey tried to achieve the following with the international community and will do to the best of its ability to manage that one: supporting the political opposition politically and diplomatically, and Turkey has been doing that; convincing the international community to support the armed opposition and stop the use of chemical weapons and prevent their proliferation; prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Syria; ending the cycle of violence that has destroyed the country practically; and setting up an inclusive transitional government; preventing further waves of refugees to any country; and finally, Turkey wants to set a stable – see a stable Syria under a democratically elected inclusive government.
I know what I have said in the last minute or so, when we look at from where we are right now, seems far away. But not trying to do things to achieve those will take us, the entire region, to much worse. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Erol.
Are there any questions? I see a question here. Can I – Nick (sp), thank you.
We have someone taking the podium. Excellent. (Chuckles.)
NABEEL KHOURY, senior fellow for Middle East and National Security, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; former director of the Near East South Asia office of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State (2008-12)
Yes, I – partly so that this side of the room can see me and so that I can see them. I'm not a – I'm not as tall as you are, but I think they can see at least my head and see who's speaking – but also partly to be a little provocative here this morning. I think my colleagues have been a little too polite and too diplomatic – and just to assure you that I can be very academic, very diplomatic for those who want to see that side of me, you can look at my article in the latest issue of Middle East Policy called "The Regional Impact of the Arab Uprising."
But what I want to do here is I've been asked to talk about the GCC and Jordan, their perspective, and I want to compare that with the U.S. perspective as I see it and use the military term of bottom line up first.
I see the GCC as essentially having recognized early on what their national interests are in this Arab uprising happening around them, and they have determined a course of action and have pretty much stuck with it. Despite the seeming difficulties they've had in explaining their actions sometimes and lack of action in certain other places, they've been consistent in what they've perceived as their national interests being threatened.
The U.S. has not. The U.S. has seemed conflicted between different interests that seem to be in conflict with one another – security on the one hand and the assistance to democratic transition in the region on the other – and between being involved in the Middle East but pivoting eastward.
The – first of all, from the Gulf point of view, their perspective on the region is one of axis politics. They've seen an axis of essentially Shia militias in the region led by Iran. That axis they see as directly conflicting with their national interests. And they see themselves – they've added – now we say GCC plus two – they added Morocco and Jordan to their ranks, theoretically, more or less, to add some robustness, some power to the GCC. We'll talk more about should be GCC plus one because Morocco is too far off and hasn't really been engaged, hasn't been impacted by the – what's happening in the Levant. Jordan, by contrast, is very much at the center of things, therefore impacted and concerned.
But seeing the confrontation between these two axes, Iran and the Shia militias and the GCC plus two, with the emerging transitioning states in – the countries that have been impacted by the Arab uprising – that third bloc is up for grabs between the two main ones. The Gulf countries see the conflict as a zero-sum game. The loss – their loss to Iran would be a net gain for Iran, and the other way around. They also see that the Cold War – there is a Cold War atmosphere in the region, mirroring this zero-sum game between them. And the Cold War means proxy wars, and it means attempts to change regimes in the other bloc, hence their view of being threatened.
Now, this is where the Syria conflict comes in. If the regime of Bashar al-Assad survives or is victorious – and I'll define what victory means here, because it can mean different things – this will be a net gain for the Iran axis from the GCC point of view, therefore a net loss for them, meaning this axis will feel empowered by a victory in Syria and, having been confronted inside Syria by Sunni forces that they see as mainly being pushed at them by the Gulf, will therefore take action against the GCC countries, essentially through the Shia militias in Lebanon and in Iraq primarily. So for the GCC countries, they anticipate bad things happening, starting with Bahrain, but moving on to Saudi Arabia and also Yemen. And this will be, from their perspective – and I agree with it – part of the strategy of Iran and the Shia militias with it to try to encircle the GCC countries that way.
Because of that, the – you take – you take two scenarios here in terms of what happens in Syria. One is where the regime emerges victorious. Now, victory here does not have to mean status quo ante. That cannot be returned to. I don't think Bashar al-Assad can ever go back to a calm Syria totally under his control as it was before all this trouble started. But there is, short of that, a victory that's already being shaped on the ground in Syria.
I wish we had a map to show you, but I called, well, a friend of mine when the battle for Qusayr was taking place, and I didn't see much of a reaction here. I was teaching at NDU last year, and this year I'm transitioning into a totally new civilian academic role. I called a friend, and I said, is there anyone looking at a map over there at the NSC; do they see what's happening strategically, and what are we doing about it? Essentially, with Qusayr, Hezbollah certainly saw the importance of that battle. The Syrian regime saw the importance of it. We seem to be asleep at the wheel, quite frankly.
The importance of Qusayr is that it's – the strategy now of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah is to secure a corridor all along the western side of Syria, from north to south. And with the battle – Qusayr stood in the middle between strong points that the regime has to the north of it and Damascus to the south, and then further south all the way to the border. For the opposition to have taken Qusayr and consolidated there would have cut off supply lines to Damascus and would have made it easier for the opposition to encircle Damascus and therefore be well on their way to victory. The opposite connects Damascus to both north and south. Now, with Qusayr won, there is a thin sliver of territory, except for the south in – and in Daraa and that area, where there is – there are still battles going on, and those are going to be very important. Once Daraa and its environ are contained and controlled by the regime, they will have a continuous line from north to south.
That means the Lebanese border is totally open territory between Hezbollah and the Syria regime. So the Sunnis, who I referred to earlier as having used that border to send money, weapons and fighters across the Lebanese border to Syria to join the rebels, will not be able to do that, at least not without great difficulty and great risk. It used to be that there were holes here and there, some for Sunnis, some for Shia, from Lebanon, to enter into Syria. With Qusayr, you have a continuous line. That's a very important factor for the Syrian regime to be able to stop Sunni flow from Lebanon, and weapons, and to be able to have open borders for Hezbollah support to come through.
Now, if you – the next – if you consolidate that, you're on your way to victory because then you push the line gradually eastward. And if you again look at the map, you will see that Aleppo, Homs – and then you go down south to Qusayr and further down to Daraa, kind of in a straight line – essentially, it's all classic warfare. You consolidate in one trench, and then you start moving gradually. That would be victory. Now, particularly Aleppo and Homs are very important and very crucial, but that's in expanding. Qusayr was more critical because you establish that line. Now you push it, and you – if you include Aleppo and Homs, you've pretty much included the industrial urbanized areas of Syria.
And more importantly, the Alawi region, the mountains, Latakia and that north and south – that would be solidly protected by a solid buffer zone between the Alawite Mountains and the attacking Sunni hordes, from the Alawite point of view. There, Assad can feel comfortable and the regime can feel comfortable that now from this position, we gradually push eastward. They can live with that. They can live with a several-year protracted conflict where they've consolidated in the west and Damascus is safe and secure, and they treat the rest of the problem as Bashar al-Assad has been saying: We have a security issue; we have terrorist groups; it's a security problem; we'll deal with it gradually. And that's how they would deal with it. They would attack certain pockets, using Hezbollah, using the Shia militia within Syria that has been trained and equipped by Hezbollah and using the Syrian armed forces.
So when we talk about victory, don't think that it's 10 years down the road for the regime. Victory is establishing this line and expanding it to include the big cities. That's victory for the regime, even if the rest of the country takes 10 years to fall under their control. It was a very strategic thing that was happening a few weeks ago. We did nothing about it.
Now, second scenario is if the conflict drags on without even this type of victory that I'm talking about, but even with it, drags on for several years. So victory by the regime is dangerous to the Gulf because the Shia militias will be used against them, and their Shia communities will be provoked against them by Iran. But a prolonged conflict in Syria is also bad for them from the other side, the Sunni, the Salafi extremist groups. There's been already a plethora of these groups in Syria. The list is very long.
Now, the common thing to say is, well, these are groups sent over by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Not so. There are nuances and there are differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They both have the same goal in mind, but they do it slightly differently when they have different context, groups and so on. But these groups are coming in on their own because of where they had been fighting before has gotten sealed off or is more difficult. This is where the fight is for them now. And I'm talking al-Nusra Front is the most popular name one hears. The Islamic State of Iraq is in there. You have the – in addition to Syrian Islamist groups that are difficult for the Free Syrian Army to deal with, you have Chechens now fighting in Syria. You have Pakistani Taliban fighting in Syria. These are people that are coming from all over now and saying, our brothers in Syria need us.
And the problem with them is that their agenda is much broader than Syria. Jordan – there was an interview recently with Abu Sayyaf, the Jordanian jihadist, interviewed by a Lebanese paper. And he said that there are, in his estimate, 700 Jordanian Salafis fighting in Syria now. He said, we can put thousands of fighters if our brothers in Syria ask for it. In addition, he commented about something interesting which has been happening also the last week or 10 days is a Sunni-Sunni fight that is happening inside Syria, because these groups don't necessarily trust one another or work well with one another. They're coming in Syria because this is where the fight is right now, but for them it's the Islamic world that's their arena, that's their stage, and the regimes in the Gulf are heretical as far as they are concerned; they should be overthrown.
So the – some of the fighting going on between the FSA and some of these groups, and then some of these groups the one against the other, is indicative of the other fear of the GCC and in Jordan of the spillover impact, is that these groups will turn their attention – empowered in Syria, they will then turn their attentions on the neighboring countries. And these groups are empowered by chaos. A strong central, stable state – they become a bit of a security issue that can be dealt with. But in a situation where there is civil war going on and there is chaos, this is where they feel most empowered and most free to operate. So the longer the conflict drags on, the stronger and more capable these groups are.
And this is again something that should have urged us to act a lot sooner. The things that I used to pester my colleagues with at meetings that Steve used to chair – I made myself unwelcome, I think, eventually, became a pest. The kinds of things I advocated are already too little, too late now. I used to advocate that, and people would say it's too complicated. And I'd say, wait another year to see real complications; this is relatively simple. This was at a time when it was mainly the FSA, disorganized, different groups, but groups that we knew and could deal with and could help them to get organized and empower them. We could have had an impact on the cheap early on.
Now – and I can't see us sitting on the fence forever. I can't imagine that U.S. national security isn't being threatened more and more every day. Eventually we will have to do something. But that something now will be riskier, costlier and with less guaranteed effect.
I would just say that the situation in Jordan, which is to the immediate east of Syria – the fact that this – Abu Sayyaf is – was – spent several years in jail – his group is not welcome in Jordan. But the fact that they want to go join the fight and join the fun going on in Syria is not something that the Jordanians allow. They don't want that border to become chaotic. And so they would be an obstacle for these groups, which means a confrontation between these groups and the Jordanian armed forces, which means a confrontation inside Jordan between Jordanians of different political persuasions.
So you have, ironically for the GCC plus one, is the fear of Shia militias if Iran wins and the fear of Sunni militias if nobody wins and the conflict drags on. They are between a rock and a hard place, which is why they've been advocating from the beginning for quick action in Syria. I will end with that, and there's a lot to say about Lebanon. I think Mona has laid the groundwork for that. Lebanon remains the main theater where all these conflicts play out, and the situation in Lebanon is very, very tender, very explosive. I was there in May, and the incident you mentioned in Sidon is very interesting and very important in terms of what's breaking apart in Lebanon again.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Nabeel.
Well, we do have a good amount of time for question-and-answer. And as I said, Steve Simon has to leave at 11:00, so – and let me ask one or two questions before we get to these cards and questions from the floor.
Steve, does Israel see any plausible good outcome from this crisis, any plausible opportunity, as Erol was talking about, for a democratic, inclusive Syria? And failing that, what is the worst-case scenario for Israel? And there's another question, but – that would be behind that, and that is that Israel is reportedly not at all comfortable with the U.S. providing weapons to the opposition. And if we – if we don't, will we be able to influence the outcome? And is that accurate? Is it accurate that Israel is opposed to us transferring arms?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, thanks, Tom. I doubt that the Israelis see the possibility of an inclusive, democratic, you know, government emerging in Syria. I mean, the odds just seem to be against it, and that's probably how the Israelis view it.
You know, I would have thought that the worst-case scenario for Israel would be some kind of rump Syrian state that combines some part of – well, that combines Lebanon with some part of what now is Syrian territory into a kind of Iranian satrapy. I think that would be very dangerous, from Israel's perspective, for a lot of reasons.
Whether the Israelis care one way or another that the United States transfers weapons to the opposition – you know, I seriously doubt, since all evidence publicly released or leaked thus far, mostly in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that the program is very small in any case and wouldn't include any weapons that, if they were ultimately turned against the Israelis, would be a serious threat to them.
DR. MATTAIR: Anti-aircraft weapons – would not include anti-aircraft weapons that would be a serious threat.
MR. SIMON: Well, I haven't seen that referred to in any of the reporting. So, you know, I doubt that that's part of the package.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, I mean, reportedly, we will not supply anti-aircraft weapons.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, so – you know –
DR. MATTAIR: They would – and they would be, conceivably, threatening to Israel.
MR. SIMON: I think, you know, from an Israeli perspective, the threat would be much more to international civil aviation. I don't think the Israelis worry too much about that. From an Israeli perspective, you know, in Syrian stocks, you probably have a hundred thousand of these things, so another, you know, 50 – I don't think that has them shivering in their boots.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, a question from the floor is: Is there any possibility of Israel getting more directly involved? And – well, let's just keep it at that.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, I think you'd have to say that there is that possibility. There are a number of scenarios which would draw the Israelis in, along the lines that they've been drawn in already, that is, attacking assets that they – that is, Syrian assets that they think could be problematic to them. And that includes these anti-ship missiles that have been attacked, surface-to-surface missiles and high-altitude or just highly capable surface-to-air missiles, and the chemical weapons stocks, which presumably, if they, you know, were diverted or disseminated or there was a threat to that effect, the Israelis would try to limit that threat militarily.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, we do have a question about evidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons. I think there's a little skepticism here on the part of the questioner. Can you or anyone else on the panel speak to that issue?
MR. SIMON: The U.S. government and European governments and the Israeli government all seem to think that chemical weapons were used by the regime in small amounts. It's certainly not implausible. But I have no direct knowledge.
DR. KHOURY: There's some common wisdom, I think, that's emerged that they have been used in small amounts. Some of – you know, I say common wisdom a bit from the United Nations, the people who have been on the ground, people in hospitals that treated the wounds of Syrians from chemical weapons, and I think here in the U.S. as well. There is evidence that there has been a small amount used. Now, whether that triggered the red line or not is the question.
DR. MATTAIR: I could add that it's medical exams done on deceased and wounded people, blood tests, et cetera, that indicate small amounts of sarin. That's what the reports are.
For – is there any possibility – here I'm taking some questions from the floor, for any speaker, really. And I think it speaks directly to what Erol was talking about. When you have the emergency of radical jihadists in Syria, what can the United States do to bolster the moderate opposition in Syria, given the fact that they are fragmented, and many, many, many battalions that are under the nominal control, I think, of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army? What kinds of weapons would be sufficient to tilt the balance on the ground in Syria and give them a better chance of being the dominant force in the opposition and prevailing?
MR. SIMON: You know, my impression, in part drawn from, you know, historical experience with and the academic literature on civil wars, is that arms transfers to contending factions in those civil wars create greater fissures and divisions within the rebel forces and tend to forestall or hobble the kind of unification that's required to fight effectively against the government. So I'd have thought that in this case, arms transfers, as already seems to be the case, judging by reporting in The New York Times particularly just within the past week, would seem to hurt the opposition at this point rather than to help it.
In terms of the kinds of weapons they would need, look, I'm not, you know, General Patton. You know, I'm not a military guy. But if you look at the military balance between the regime and the opposition forces, there's a substantial gap, and it's not clear how the kinds of weapons that would be needed to close that gap could easily be transferred to rebel forces in Syria without actually establishing some kind of presence or protected zone within Syria. And all this gets way too complicated certainly for Western governments, in which I include Turkey.
DR. KHOURY: Look, with all due respect, I totally reject this logic. If we hadn't intervened in Libya, the situation would be totally different today. And the weapons supplied and support supplied to the rebels in Libya clearly made a difference.
Now, there's a difference – I agree with Steve that at this point the kinds of weapons that are being supplied are too little, too late, are not going to make a difference in the strategic balance. The kinds of things we are beginning to do now and that the (Gulfies ?) have been – have been doing was needed early on and would have made a difference early on, would have shifted the momentum of the battles early on. And we're talking about, obviously, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, but also intelligence support, tactical advice to the fighters on the ground.
Now the battles are way more complicated, more sophisticated. The entry of Hezbollah in force has changed the picture. So yes, I mean, at this point if you provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft, it would make a difference, but not a huge difference, in my opinion. We're beyond that point where that would have helped early on in the fight. Now, as I said before, I think you – if you want to make a difference, you need a more direct, more aggressive approach. And I don't mean boots on the ground. That, in my opinion, remains a very bad thing to do. But there are – there's a long list of things that can be done – and we don't need to go into them here – that can affect the battle on the ground. And at this point it's way beyond just transferring weapons to the Syrian rebels.
DR. MATTAIR: And that leads to a question of – well, actually, a couple of years ago in the Gulf, I was speaking to a former U.S. official who both of you know, I'm sure, and he said there was a time when the Gulf Arab states viewed the United States as a – as a reliable partner, but now they view the United States as a problem to be dealt with. How do they view the United States' reticence in the last couple of years to supply those weapons when they might have made a difference, and how is it going to affect our overall relationship with them in the future after other decisions we've made that they didn't favor, such as invading Iraq?
And what specifically are the – are the more aggressive actions that they would like to see us take now? I mean, there are a lot of aggressive actions that have been floated, even in the State Department.
DR. KHOURY: Look, let's be honest about it. I don't think anybody trusts us in the Middle East anymore. Starting out with the best of intentions, this administration has confused everybody and pissed off everybody. I don't think – look at the Egyptians. You know, you talk about the different forces. The Muslim Brotherhood thought we were with them. Now they don't think so. The military doesn't trust us. The secular opposition in Egypt doesn't trust us. Nobody likes us in Egypt anymore.
And the Syrians – the secular opposition – I'm surprised they're still as friendly to us as they are. They're mad as hell, but they can take it, because they have to take it. But they're not so sure where we are. They're not so sure why we're so perplexed and why we're so lacking in leadership. And by "leadership," I mean either – not necessarily military, even political leadership.
DR. MATTAIR: Mona, there are a lot of questions for you, but for the moment – (chuckles) – we're talking about these military issues, and you can join in that –
MS. YACOUBIAN: I have a view on them.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. A lot of these – a lot of these questions for you about –
MS. YACOUBIAN: (Off mic.)
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, please, but I do have questions for you here about internal Lebanese politics and refugees, and we'll – which I want to get to.
MS. YACOUBIAN: Just a moment, on this military debate that's going on between Steven and Nabeel – and I guess I would put myself very much in the camp of the skeptics with respect to arming and its ability to positively impact the situation on the ground inside Syria.
For many of the doubts and reasons that have been raised in all kinds of forums, certainly the questions about vetting and the ability to ensure that arms, sophisticated weapons, particularly if you went to surface-to-air missiles – the ability to ensure that those arms do not end up in the wrong hands, I think we have to be a little bit humbler about our ability to impact that – the situation on the ground, given our very limited presence there.
But I would also note I think the pursuit of a qualitative military edge with respect to arming is an illusory quest; that it assumes that by funneling in arms, that's not going to be met with a commensurate or maybe even disproportionate increase in arming on the other side. And in fact that's what we've seen in Syria. We've seen a doubling down by Iran and Russia, in part in response to some of the weapons that have made their way into Syria. And I certainly would agree with Nabeel with respect to the strategic importance of the battle for Qusayr. And it's very clear that the regime – you know, at one point, people were talking about the battle for Damascus was going to begin and the regime is on its way out. Let's not forget that.
So my own sense is that while I think there is a space for military intervention, it's not through arming. And beyond that, I think we haven't talked at all about the civilian protection aspect of various types of military interventions. And by the estimates of most international civilian protection NGOs, arming is the worst possible option with respect to civilian protection; that more harm comes to civilians when weapons are simply funneled into a very chaotic arena in which the ability to control the use of those weapons is very much limited.
I would also probably push back a little bit against Nabeel's assertion that the way – the reason Libya turned the way it did was because we funneled arms in, or actually Qatar funneled arms in. It was really the no-fly zone that made the difference. And in fact we are now suffering the consequences of arms having been funneled into Libya, both in terms of the inability to establish stability inside Libya, where you have militias continuing to frankly run roughshod, and the fact that some of those Libyan arms are now finding their way into Syria.
So my own sense is, I think we need to be cautious, at a minimum, on the question of arming and the ways in which that can impact a zone of conflict. And my own sense is, again, that arming is not the way to go with respect to Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: Erol – yes, go ahead.
DR. KHOURY: I'd just repeat – I agree. I did say that at this point, transferring arms is no longer sufficient. I agree. Even if we provide the antitank and antiaircraft weapons now, it won't be enough. If we want to impact that war, we'll have to do much more than that. That was very clear.
I think – look, there is a war going on in Syria and therefore, in the region, by proxy. The outcome of that war impacts the U.S. national security, as has been determined by the president and everybody else. Therefore, the logical thing is, we need to have an impact on how that war ends up.
Now if transfer of weapons is no longer the thing to do, please tell me what is. Please show me the group that is studying this strategically from zero ground (sic) up, to say, if this is our goal, how – what is our strategy to achieve that goal, which is the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime. We don't have that. We are not doing it. So if weapons isn't the name of the game, give me something else that is the name of the game and do it.
DR. MATTAIR: Do we have an interagency task force working this problem?
DR. KHOURY: I – don't get me started on that. Steve is a good friend, and I respect him greatly, and I just – and the problems, when he was at the NSC, were above his pay grade, frankly.
I – essentially what I thought would be a consideration of strategies and policies at one level pushed up to higher levels, so they can make a decision between choices, was really just implementing what's coming down the pike.
So my feeling is – and I don't – no, I haven't right now been in there; he may know more than I do – if this is now going on, as – I don't see – I think one of the problems here is that we have a president who really understands the region and who has very good values. He knows where we should be in the Middle East. But I haven't seen people working for him providing him with the strategies of how to get there. I think the president's feelings are all on the right side on this, and the pity is, nobody has strategized and said, OK, sir, this is where you want to go; this is the way to do it. What are the specific objectives that flow from the overall vision that you have of the Middle East, and how do we achieve them? What are the risks? What are the costs? I haven't seen that, to be honest.
DR. MATTAIR: Do you have a comment?
MR. SIMON: About Israel and Syria? (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Or about Nabeel, yeah.
Are we influencing events? Are we influencing the outcome? Do – is our strategy effective?
It is – it is, as I said, you know, a complex strategy that does involve sanctions, it does involve various kinds of aid, it does involve coordinating with people who are supplying arms, and it does involve efforts to engage diplomatically.
MR. SIMON: That's all true. There are a number of moving parts to the broader policy, most of which you mentioned. The thrust right now is within, you know, the realm of our capability to begin to help Syria get back on its feet in the areas from which regime power has receded.
And there are significant areas within Syria where that is the case. In the east, around Deir ez-Zor, in Hasakah, in Ar-Raqqah, in large parts of Idlib, parts of the south, there are – there are areas where the regime forces are unlikely to regain control or even attempt to regain control.
And my understanding, when Secretary Kerry came in, was that the U.S. assistance program was changed – that is, the guidelines that regulated that proposal was changed – to allow assistance to flow to these areas in ways that would increase their governing capacity and lay the foundation for a stable transition when the civil war was finally over.
So you know, this creation of patchwork security and a building of a post-Assad Syria from the ground up, even as Assad is still, you know, holed up in Damascus and his forces in some other places – you know, that, I think, is viewed as the best and most practical course for Western policy thus far, and there's more or less a consensus on this between or involving the United States and its Western European partners.
Beyond that, caution, I think, will continue to reign because it's easy, I think, to calculate the costs of involvement, and those – that is to say, of very direct involvement aimed very directly at toppling the regime and then reconstituting the Syrian states through some kind of massive engineering effort, social and government engineering effort. I think the costs are pretty well understood, because we've just tried to do this in Afghanistan and Iraq. And those costs have been calculated by economists like Joseph Stiglitz, and of course they've been internalized by the U.S. government.
On the other hand, the costs of staying out to the extent that the United States and its allies have done are not well understood. If the principal issue is refugee overflow into states that are somewhat fragile, well, steps can be done to deal with that. Steps can be taken to deal with that situation that are short of going into Syria and doing all the things – the very expensive things that I just enumerated. And I think that's probably where the administration's at. That's where certainly the administration's allies are.
DR. MATTAIR: Erol, you talked about no-fly zones. Now a no-fly zone is not an easy thing. A safe zone is not an easy thing to set up. Is this – is this what Turkey wants, and has Turkey articulated to the United States every – or understood everything that would be involved in that? That would involve airstrikes, and it – and it would not protect people in the safe zone, Syrians or refuges outside, from artillery. So the U.S. would have to make a bigger commitment even than airstrikes.
MR. CEBECI: Let me look at this thing from a little bit – from a wider perspective. The United States is the leading world empire, regardless of the discussions in D.C. or in different circles of these declining power arguments.
So as any other leading world empires in the history, the U.S. is making choices. And in the issue of the Syria or the Middle East, the U.S. has made choices and will be making choices, and all of these choices based on the – on the pros and cons and benefits and costs.
And as it was said earlier, it is usually calculated by the policymakers very well what would be the consequences of taking this action versus that action, but what would be the consequences of taking no action is never calculated by anybody properly. And that is at – that is a very serious problem.
Now this is – I look at what has been going on in Syria – and yes, it is more than 100,000 who were killed, and it is a devastating problem for a country of 25 million people, but this is not new to the world. The world has seen much worse of it. We have seen it in Balkans. We have seen it in Africa. So this is not something permanent. They look – this will go away. And if you look at the Arab Spring's event, the way I look at it, this is a process, and it will not be over in a few years. But at the end, when the process ends, maybe 30 years down the road or 35 years down the road, 40 years, that we will not have any of those old ones – emirs, kings and sultans and princes and presidents who are elected with 99 percent of the votes. But the process will be painful, and the process will be costly.
In the history of mankind, in a society, power has never changed hands without significant costs. And in Syria, that is what is happening.
Now – and the question that is – a no-fly zone is difficult or it requires airstrikes –unfortunately, it is the case there is no easy options, there is no less costly options over here.
But two things: As earlier it was said, the measures and the weaponry or the policies – that would seem very costly at that time, six months ago, nine months ago, a year ago, and now when we look at it, and when some of us could say that had we done those at that time, they wouldn't come over here – exactly the comparison that we are making – in Libya, what has been done, and this is the result. But we don't know what would have happened if nobody took action – what would be the number of people would be killed and how would be the Gadhafi gloating over Libya and what would – he would be doing. So obviously we have – we have these fallacies.
Now with the airstrikes, you see, I mean, I'm not a military person either, and – but I know this. Cruise missiles can destroy, can open up craters. In those runways that Assad runs his airplanes and helicopters, OK, and using 30, 40, 50, 60 of them, 80 of them, could destroy, at least to the best of my knowledge, 20 of those airfields, which I know in Syria there is not more than 15 of them. OK?
So again, I'm not a military person now, but what is needed more than specific military action – the will and the show of support that in this thing, when we said Assad must go, we are serious on this thing, and we will back our words with our actions, because at 25 million of people – and if it is divided 20 percent to 80 in different – among the lines – that for a lot of the Syrians, they know that if they rise up against Assad and Assad wins this thing at the end, they will be slaughtered, but not joining the opposition, they can live, maybe. So the options are not good in any case.
So we have to be careful with our analysis. Again, every country is making choices both in the region and in the Western World, and these things, yes, it seems so tragic, but it is – for the world, it is not new.
One last comment: that in the Middle East that the U.S. is not trusted or loved – I don't think U.S. should be looking for love. I mean, our – my wife should love me, my children should love me, but that said, I mean, the rest is – I'd – (laughter) –
MR. : We all need love, you know. (Chuckles.)
MR. CEBECI: OK. But the thing is that those groups that –
MR. : "All you need is love."
MR. CEBECI: – the groups that you have said in Egypt – they don't love each other, either. So forget about U.S. (Chuckles.)
(Laughter.) So when we looking, we have to look to proper things. So a leading world empire should act as a leading world empire. And I know it is very easy for me to say that, because at the end, for every person who loses his or her life, the commander in chief has to feel responsible for that.
But in this thing, in the – all – and at times in the last two years, there were options for the Western World, for the United States to take certain actions to show this level of seriousness. And the thing is, when Iran and Russia are pouring the battlefield with weapons, saying that empirically, if you look at the studies of the civil war, putting more arms to the – on a scene increases the number of deaths is – factually it might be correct, but it doesn't help at all in the – on the solution of the problem.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
DR. KHOURY: (Off mic) –
DR. MATTAIR: Well, just one second, Nabeel. I do want to take some questions – I've been reading questions submitted to me, but I do want to take some questions from the floor. So if anyone wants to ask Steve Simon a question in the next five or 10 minutes, you might want to go to the mic. OK.
Q: Thank you very much. This is for Steve or any other panelist, and that is that it seems that the – there is a coincidence of interest between the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco – you could include – and Israel on shaping events and so on and possible outcomes. What is the possibility that this coincidence of interests could lead to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Palestinian conflict?
DR. MATTAIR: Is there a coincidence of interests, or are they – do they have opposing views about what they'd like to see?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, I'd – Tom, I think I agree with your reaction. I don't think that there's a clear convergence of interests, in part because the Israeli interest in the outcome is as yet unsettled. It has a limited set of interests it's trying to protect without really getting into determining who wins or loses the conflict and what new dispensation replaces the current one in Syria when and if the shooting stops.
You know, the Sunnis, you know, seem to be kind of divided themselves on how they want this thing, you know, to wind up and how they – how they are looking to influence that outcome. So I think, if anything, it's too early to talk about a convergence of interests.
On whether, if there were such a convergence of interests to emerge, that convergence would improve prospects for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I must confess I'm rather doubtful, because I think the structural problems on the Palestinian and Israeli side may, you know, obviate that kind of favorable outcome.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. Sure.
Q: Just last week the IDF released their Ramadan greeting on video, which was in Arabic and was nominally directed at the very tiny proportion of the Muslim citizens of Israel who are in the army.
But the overall tone of this thing was twofold. One, it was identifying Hezbollah as this malign force, and there was an indirect sort of statement of support to the Sunnis in Syria.
And the question that comes out of this is sort of twofold. One is, how is the political leadership in Israel sort of looking at what happens if the Sunnis win and what are they trying to do to influence? And the second one is sort of for Mona: Has not Hezbollah blown whatever credibility it had as a resistance movement by its very direct intervention on the side of the regime?
MS. YACOUBIAN: (Off mic) – I can quickly respond –
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
MS. YACOUBIAN: – to the second question, and the answer is, I think, yes. They have. I mean, I think, as I said, they – that really Nasrallah crossed a Rubicon, in particular in a speech he gave in May attempting to justify Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, which up until that point was kind of an unspoken secret. I mean, it was a secret that everyone knew. And I think in part it was he was forced to assert that this was in fact the case because of the numbers of Hezbollah fighters that were being killed and so forth.
But it's very clear that it's difficult for him to be now a credible spokesman for the resistance when in fact he's, you know, using this men to kill other Muslims, if you look at it that way, in another country, and those that are in fact themselves under the oppression of a fairly brutal regime.
There's polling now that's already indicting in particular Hezbollah's popularity essentially taking a nosedive, and that specifically of Hassan Nasrallah, amongst Palestinians. Remember that just after the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah was one of the most admired men in the Arab world, in the Muslim world.
And I think at this point they've made a gamble that their sectarian interests take precedence over this broader appeal to the resistance. They've been disavowed by Hamas. And now they are – you know, the axis of resistance is – I'm not sure I fully agree with Nabeel's characterization as an axis of Shiite militias, but certainly it's Iran and Hezbollah and Syria, and it's difficult, I think, for Hezbollah to make now a credible case that it represents the resistance.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, Radwan (ph).
Q: Thank you. I have two questions. First, we would love if – as Assyrians, we would love if we have a civil war because if we can bear civil war and other what's happened in Latin America or in Africa, in Peru, as example, from1980 to 2000, we have 60,000 deaths in 20 years. In Syria in less than – in less than two years, we have more than 100,000, which of course more than 300,000 of missing people, which became as a catastrophe for the country, for any government in the future.
This is why even that the characterization of a civil war, it has to be – look in different way regarding the number of casualties who have been killed in this war.
The second question, arming or not arming – I think this is the wrong debate and the wrong message we always send to the Syrian people, because I do remember in Europe, which –they have this debate for almost six months – they have a meeting for the EU councils. Then we decided to postpone the debate after three months. And we keep postponing. And on next Monday they have the same debate.
I think question here – what we should do to stop the crisis, not to repeat the same, because of course the arming, it has consequences on the civilians. Sometimes when you don't have a central command to the – to the arm the opposition – have consequences of that, but also not arming and not doing anything – this is actually the wrong answer to the crisis.
MS. YACOUBIAN: Thank you, Radwan (sp).
I would be clear in saying that – in saying that I don't think arming is the way to go, that I in no way would mean to suggest that the U.S. should be passive and play no role. I think we've been talking a lot about this notion of the U.S. role in the Middle East more broadly and very specifically in Syria, but we always talk about it in the context of military interventions.
And my contention is, feeling very much – very, very sorry and sad about the huge human toll that is being taken on Syria, that the goals should be how do we bring this fighting to a stop, in the soonest time possible, and how do we help ensure that Syria is on a trajectory toward peace and democracy and in the ways that Erol and others have laid out, which at this point do seem like such a distant ideal.
My sense is that we need to have a much more coherent strategy on Syria that has strong political and diplomatic dimensions, in which military aspects are embedded or are used in the service of achieving those political and diplomatic goals. And I would argue at this point I think that is absolutely lacking.
My own sense is, though, again, that those goals will not be achieved by arming, and I have my own doubts about a no-fly zone just because of how involved it is.
I do think there may be, under certain circumstances, a role for targeted strikes using standoff weaponry, but targeted strikes that are part of a much broader strategy that seeks to shift the strategic calculus of key players on the ground, shorten this very, very bloody trajectory and get the Syrians to the negotiating table.
My own sense is that the solution for Syria is not going to be military. Civil wars are not resolved through military means. Ultimately there has to be a negotiation. Let's hope it doesn't take the 15 years that the Lebanese civil war took. And how do we shorten that trajectory? How do we lessen the suffering?
And I also think the U.S. has played a role in terms of providing humanitarian assistance. We are the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world to Syria. Now they have – well, it's a fact, in terms of our provision of resources, more so than our Gulf allies and others.
So my own sense is that the other piece of this strategy is how to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. There's the largest appeal in recent history being put out by the U.N. for over $5 billion to help assuage some of that suffering. More needs to be done to resolve that.
But I think – I guess I would just conclude by saying I think we need to try and understand Syria through a much broader prism: that military instruments are just that; they are instruments, but they need to be understood in the service of a broader strategy.
DR. MATTAIR: Right. It's just that it has been the recent conversation, especially when Obama said we were going to start providing arms, and there's been more and more discussion about targeted airstrikes. Reportedly, Kerry and Dempsey had a conversation about that very recently, with Kerry in favor and Dempsey not wanting to do it. But beyond that – and you talked about responsibility to protect and the humanitarian problems inside Syria and inside Lebanon – can you keep talking about this grand strategy, in which military is only an instrument and that there's the economic aid? But what's the diplomatic part of the grand strategy you're talking about?
MS. YACOUBIAN: I think Syria is where it is today in part because of the lack of an international consensus on how to deal with it. So the U.N. Security Council has been rendered essentially ineffective, in large part because of Russian and Chinese intransigence on Syria. My initial thought, you know, now 18 months ago was how to – how to work with the Russians to try and leverage them. They are an important player in this. I think we have been routinely disappointed, so I have no illusion about that.
But I do think that there is a role to be – that the diplomatic-political strategy of this – and one in which I think the U.S. needs to exert more of a leadership role – is one in which it seeks to coalesce key actors, internationally and regionally. There is a process. It at this point seems like it's moribund to the Geneva process. There was hope in May – and then June, July, and now it looks like maybe it will be the fall, if at all – that these negotiations would take place. Clearly the conditions on the ground are not ripe for that.
But I would hope that behind the scenes, again, we would have a broader, coherent strategy that, one, understands, quite frankly, the Arab transitions writ large, which I think is part of the reason you have this very mixed, conflicted response to the U.S. in the region, is because I think we're conflicted about the transitions and how to respond to them. So I think that you have to have a much broader strategy about what Arab – what the Arab transformations mean, what role the U.S. should play, and then I think very specifically on Syria, a goal of getting to a peaceful, stable and democratic Syria that is inclusive.
And that – and how do you get to that goal? Again, I don't pretend to have the answers. I think it's extraordinarily difficult, but I think that an essential piece of that is a diplomatic and political strategy that seeks to engage key actors – Russia being one of them, frankly Iran being another – that have a role to play in this. And my own sense is that that's the way forward.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, before we follow up on that, we have a couple of questions here. Nigel (sp)?
Q: Yes. Thank you, Tom. That was going to be my question, on Russia. Russia has quite a few interests there, one being the naval base, of course, at Tartus, and has a lot of implications for them. So we're talking a lot about U.S. role, and you just mentioned a while ago. What do you think Russia's role is in this and the strategic implications for them? Thanks.
MS. YACOUBIAN: Russia has played a critical role as a key ally and supporter of the Syrian regime. They're provided, as we now know, sophisticated weapons. They've provided the financing. Their role in support of Syria is undeniable, and they've certainly obstructed U.N. action that is bent on trying to pressure the Syrian regime.
My initial thought was that as the situation in Syria began to deteriorate, there would be an increasing overlap in interest between the United States and Russia; that neither the United States nor Russia would want to see Syria descend into an all-out civil war and chaos, in which from a Russian perspective, whether it's the naval base at Tartus or the billions in economic investment and military investment, that they would have an interest is not seeing all of that essentially go up in smoke.
Well, that hasn't appeared to be the case, because we now see that Syria is very much in the throes of a civil war. And what's become clear to me – and I'm not a Russia expert – is that from the Russian perspective, the precedent of international intervention in another country's affairs takes precedence over everything else in terms of their priorities. And I think Libya is very much instructive in this regard.
So it's clear that the Russians really are viewing this in a very different way than we are and that the sort of short to medium term concrete interests that one could point to as being overlapping don't matter to them as much as preventing another notion of international interference leading to – or international involvement leading to the downfall of another regime in the Arab world.
That said, I do believe that there are two key areas, strategic areas of interest that we share with the Russians. The one is the prevention of Syria becoming essentially perhaps one of the most, you know, active arenas for jihadism. And unfortunately, we are seeing it move in that direction. I would agree that those elements remain a minority, but they are a powerful and effective one. And there are indeed Chechens and others that would – in other words, Russia has, I think, a direct internal security concern if Syria descends into another Iraq or even worse in terms of its ability to attract jihadist fighters.
The other area that I think we have some agreement with on the Russians – although we'll see – is the whole question of chemical weapons and the proliferation of chemical weapons, the loss of control of Syria's very significant chemical weapons stockpiles that could either end up in the hands of Hezbollah or from, I think, certainly a U.S. and Russia perspective together even more threatening in the hands of al-Qaida-style jihadists.
So again, I think there is potentially some space there for agreement. We've had this on and off back and forth with them at very senior levels. We seem to – it always seems to be, you know, one step forward, two steps back. At what point is the situation ripe for greater cooperation? What would it take? I don't – I wouldn't pretend to have the answers, but I think it's worth continuing to pursue. It's an avenue that we still need to put some time and energy into.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Tanya Kushaktian (ph) from the Armenian Assembly. Thank you to the Middle East Policy Council and to all the panelists for your eloquent remarks.
I just wanted to get your thoughts – it's a two-part question for everyone – if I can get your thoughts on the situation for Christians in Syria – particularly the Armenian population, which comprises the largest minority Christian population in Aleppo, was between 80(,000) and 100,000 before the war started – as well as the role that Armenia has played. I know it's not a direct neighbor, but they have offered to help with the refugees. I think about 5(,000) to 10,000 visas have been issued by the Armenian government to help foster the refugees – Armenian refugees from Syria.
So I'd like to hear your thoughts on both the present situation for Christians in Syria and the role that other neighbors or other actors might be playing, such as Armenia.
DR. MATTAIR: Sounds Like one for you.
MS. YACOUBIAN: I don't mean to be dominating this. I'll just respond quickly.
I think the situation for Christians and, frankly, minorities more generally in Syria is quite dire. And I would also say the situation for Christians more broadly in the Arab world is one in which I think they feel increasingly less secure. This is certainly the case in Egypt. It's the case in Lebanon. It's absolutely the case in Iraq. And it's for sure the case in Syria.
My own sense is that unfortunately, I think in the early days – if we do again some of this kind of "what if" or "if only" – I think in the early days the Syrian opposition could have done much more to attract minorities, in particular the Christian community. They have not been able to do that, and I think in many ways Syrian Christians in particular have great and, I think, understandable concerns about what a post-Assad Syria would look like, particularly when one sees the prevalence – not so much of jihadists, although that's obviously a concern, but even more broadly of Islamist elements who seek to impose Islamic rule.
And if you look at cases in areas of the country that are more under the sway of the armed opposition, by in large those are being governed under the strictures of Islamic rule, to an extent that, frankly, more secular Muslims, I think, are becoming increasingly threatened by it, but certainly the Christian community in Syria is threatened.
And so I think unfortunately, the impact of that has been a little bit better the devil you know than the devil that you don't, whereas some of this – the Christian community may have been on the fence early on, I think they have retreated back to the regime. I think they are really not willing to disavow the Assad regime in the face of an opposition that appears increasingly extreme in its Islamist views.
DR. MATTAIR: Before I come to you, I'd like to say we have the room for 15 more minutes, so if you do have a question that's how much time you have to get it to us. And I'd like to take a question from John (sp) in the back.
Q: I hope you can hear my voice from there. John Buke Anthony (sp). I invite the comments of any of the speakers on the following: A question was asked about Israel's interest – how Israel gains or loses under various scenarios. From a GCC perspective, there is the element here of Israel's age old strategy of deflection, focusing the international attention on areas as far to the east of Israel as possible.
Nineteen years of Israel's occupation of Lebanon, during which time Israeli doubled, tripled, quadrupled the number of settlements in the West Bank. And the aspect of Israel's ongoing concern with Iran, for Israel to attack Iran there is a belief among a majority of my contacts in the GCC that the U.S., for domestic reasons here, would be forced, compelled to side with Israel and were there a blowback from Israel from other countries – Iran or other countries in that.
In any of these scenarios that I just mentioned having to do with the Israeli conflict, where anti-Americanism, which is already at an all-time high, to get still higher or being more prolonged – (inaudible) – extended. And this feeds into a long-term Israeli strategic interest also. Anti-Americanism is not, to my knowledge, hurt Israel as much as it has helped Israel.
And the last point having to do with refugees, it's been made to know that 200,000 Syrian refugees, this is one-fifteenth the population of Syria versus the number of refugees from the USA invasion of Iraq, which entailed one-sixth of Iraq's population, equivalent to 50,000 Americans having been uprooted and made refugees.
And it's interesting, is it not, that we know precisely, almost, the number of Syrians killed thus far, and yet the U.S. went way out of its way not a single day to report officially on the number of Iraqi casualties, which many people, if not all the statisticians – (inaudible) – up to five times the 200,000 killed in Syria thus far. In other words, five time estimated in Iraq, where we were involved.
Would anybody care to comment on this? (Inaudible.)
DR. MATTAIR: Nabeel, maybe you would – would you? I actually – Ben, I was a little surprised by your question because I don't see a convergence of Israeli and GCC interests. But –
DR. KHOURY: I in fact do see a convergence in the big picture. I know the Gulf countries would be very uncomfortable in admitting any convergence of interest with Israel because of the overall implications in Arab public opinion, because of the Palestine question. But when you think strategically in terms of the power play in the region, between the Iran block and the GCC plus two block, Israel would feel much more comfortable with the GCC block for lots of reasons.
In fact, on the ground, there are things that neither side likes to talk about that are manifestations of this – not rapprochement, but bashful sort of looking at each other and couldn't we go to the dance together kind of thing. (Laughter.) And the Arab uprising, although the GCC countries are supporting it, they're not very comfortable with it. Israel is the same. It's been keeping its head down because it doesn't know which it would be more threatened by – the victory of this side or that side in the Arab uprising.
But they increasingly, I think, if you look at the prolonged conflict in Syria, it is for the first time bringing al-Qaida to Israel's borders. And I think they were not thinking about that early on in the conflict. But as this drags on, they have to be because they've never had that situation before. That's something that neither Israel nor the GCC plus two are comfortable with. Now, with some convergence, what does that exactly lead to? That's a matter of political realities and what either side is willing to do or not do or admit to.
DR. MATTAIR: I was thinking more in terms of what outcome. Do they – do they agree on the – on the best outcome or do they have – do they have opposing views of what the preferred outcome of it be?
DR. KHOURY: In Syria specifically?
DR. MATTAIR: In Syria itself. In Syria itself.
DR. KHOURY: I think early on the Israelis were thinking better the devil we know in terms of Assad, but as this drags on, the feeling is, well, that's not an option really. I mean, to go back to status quo ante is not an option. So therefore, you are faced with either a prolonged agony and bringing all these groups that are coming in from all over the region, which is – which is not good, or doing something to help bring this conflict to an end.
So I think the GCC plus two, as well as Israel, would like to see this conflict come to an end. Now, if you pose the question to the Israelis: Which would you rather have, Bashar al-Assad or the Sunni groups – well, this is not a realistic question because the al-Qaida-type of groups, the Sunni-Salafi extremists, whatever you want to call them, they are not the future of Syria. They are the future of a Syria in chaos because the love to operate in this kind of environment. But if you bring this war to an end, they will not be a factor.
So that goes back to the Christian communities. The Christian communities have a lot to fear from the extremists, the Salafi groups certainly. And if you – if you follow these guys rhetoric and you go on their websites and see what they say, their rhetoric is of Jewish and Christian armies against them – that's how they perceive it. So, yes, the Christians have something to worry about from this group, but not from the secular Sunni-dominated majority opposition in Syria, which at one point, when this conflict started, was all there was. We just didn't know how to work with them.
That group is very – historically has been open to Christian communities and Jewish communities as well. The Christians have nothing to fear from that group. Their siding with the regime is natural, an outgrowth of – (inaudible). They kind of are the protected minorities by the various regimes in the region. But those regimes are collapsing. And the rational thing would be for these communities to be part of a new democratic secular Syria. They have nothing to fear from those groups.
MR. CEBECI: Can I?
DR. MATTAIR: Erol.
MR. CEBECI: I would like to make a few comments on the last few questions, including the Israeli question also. If you take the Arab Spring's events in the region as something temporary and this will stop and we will go back, then that is an entirely different reading. But if you take the events in Tunis, Egypt, Syria, Libya and probably in the future other countries, that this is something that the whole thing has been changing and it will never go back, then that is an entirely different reading.
Now unfortunately, from my perspective, Israel is not reading these changes properly and in a status of wishful thinking that these are something temporary and that we will go back to status quo where we know every player and how we know how each player will act. So some of the problems is lack of reading the changes in the region and what has been going on.
Now, with the – with the Russian questions – because Russians are an important player – I personally do not believe at all that neither the Tartus nor the billions of dollars of – worth of weapon sales has any strategic interest for Russia. And I entirely agree with Mona that the Russian interest is entirely – is – and just the Chinese have the same thing – that if it becomes a precedent that a country that was to rise up against the government is changed by a force from the outside, then tomorrow this can happen to us too.
So that we should prevent this. And Libya is for them – is the – is the red line. That not even – they say that we did not know that they were going to do that. And if they can find anybody to believe in that. But they know Libya. And then they won't want – because if Syria happens the same way, then the third (fort ?) would fall off. So Russian interest is purely a self-worth thing. It has nothing to do with what is going on in Syria.
Now, I agree with the analysis that the Hezbollah is losing a lot of cover and there are – (inaudible) – of resistance, but don't forget that Iran and Hezbollah and Syria, they have this propaganda machine. And after, if the Assad solidifies his grab on Syria, then Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah will come up, and he will be the savior of the Shia and the axis entirely. And so there will be a different thing and maybe more powerful than axis of resistance, being the savior of this thing.
So Western powers – and maybe some analysts, when you look at the Syria – if you are saying, OK, on one side Hezbollah and the attacks of Assad and on the other side is al-Qaida and Nusra. So one is killing the other, what is the better than that one, because from the Western perspective those two groups are well-known where they are put. But keep in mind, these people are very few when you look at the numbers who are suffering this process because entire al-Qaida/al-Nusra thing, out of a 25 million country of Syria.
And assuming that this in a position of, I mean, millions, these are no more than number 12(,000), 15(,000), 18,000. So you cannot label an entire thing by looking at those numbers or the Hezbollah numbers. But if the leading empire and other forces in the world, who can make a difference in this instance, are just looking at it with a very short-sighted perspective, OK, those are – we know both groups and they are killing each other. This is the worst analysis they can make.
And again, a longer perspective that this is – the region is changing. Syrian crisis will end. It will be – how many people will be suffering from here to there, if Western world and the analysts and the policy makers have enough intelligence and accumulated experience to find solutions on that front, once the political will is there.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, we – I do want to take these two questions. You've both been waiting, so.
Q: Thank you, Thomas. My name is Rami Al-Kharabsheh, a political officer with the Embassy of Jordan. Firstly, we listened to your esteemed panel discussing the implications of the Syrian crisis on Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Nevertheless, Jordan has not been addressed as expected, especially that we are hosting 540,000 refugees within our camps, the second largest in the world, then with the total number of Syrians in Jordan, about 1.5 million Syrians. And those are not within the refugee camps.
My question is, is it –
DR. MATTAIR: Well, it is – it is an important subject. And you know, we did have a speaker address it. We didn't intentionally – (chuckles) – we did not intentionally –
Q: No, it's not an accusation, it's just a request. If I may, it's a crime to have such an esteemed panel and not listen to their opinion about this issue.
How do you view – my specific question is, how do you view the impact of regional changes, especially in Egypt, on the situation in Syria, calculations for the – for the leaderships, calculations of the powers on the ground and their interaction with their regional counterparts?
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, because actually, we had one or two other questions on that subject. Who would like to take that?
MS. YACOUBIAN (?): Why don't you take the second question – (off mic) –
DR. MATTAIR: All right, we can take them both together.
Q: Yeah, hi, do we know – do we know anything about how much the various supporters of the rebels have spent in backing the rebellion?
MR. CEBECI: I don't –
DR. MATTAIR: No. (Laughter.)
Q: I thought that was probably the case.
MR. CEBECI: But they – this is – I mean, I – I mean, I don't think anybody will tell us the numbers or will publish the numbers. But we know that – I mean, Qatar has put a lot of things; Turkey has done a lot of things. As Mona has said, U.S. has done a lot of things on the humanitarian aid side, and U.N. agencies.
But in terms of – I mean, I have known even smaller groups who went there and who opened up bakeries and who opened up small machine shops to help. But I mean, from the budget that I know Turkey is spending, at least more than one or – I mean, more than $1 billion, probably less than $2 billion, but that is as much as I can probably guess.
The question of Egypt – now, again, it is too early to make a decision and to come to a conclusion about Egypt, so I am not really sure how this process will end up. For a military coup not being able to establish a government in almost two weeks is unusual. Usually, I mean, they have their lists and the government is explained the next stage. So an Egyptian military knows how to do these things properly.
So – but on the other hand, it is very difficult to bring the seculars, liberals and Coptic Christians, X, Y, Z, all those people in Tahrir, with the Salafis and come up with a common government. I mean, this would be really – remains to be seen how this will be managed that will be approved by different groups.
So there's a lot of – to see in Egypt, and the things that were – that looked much different two weeks ago, it is – it is looking much different. The European Union is shifting its position and – I mean, if I'm not mistaken, (I don't know ?), Associated Press has started to call it as a coup, so people are realizing that – I mean, two weeks, 10 days after – that it was a coup, it was a military takeover.
But in terms of what is going on in Egypt, if you look at the Middle East down the road – and this is for the Russians, the Chinese and Israelis and U.S. also has to take into account in their future calculations – the – eventually, there will be elections and political parties in that region, either 10 or 15 or 20 years from now. And the political party – it is known as a – (inaudible) – one way or another and its cousins or different – (inaudible) – will come to power in different countries in that area. And I'm not trying to be like the best guesser on these things. It is at this point, what it remains.
So everybody is trying to – and get ready to understand the language that is spoken by them, OK, and make sure that they understand what is the message from this side.
DR. MATTAIR: Any final comments?
MS. YACOUBIAN: Yeah, just very quickly, on the – on the issue of how much assistance, I think Qatar has publicly asserted that it's provided somewhere between 3 (billion dollars) and $5 billion. I've heard those two figures bandied about. The Saudis have not been public about how much they have provided, and we also have to bear in mind that there have been significant flows of private aid – donors, private donors, particularly from Kuwait, that have funneled resources to the rebel groups.
Very quickly on Egypt, you know, my sense is I think it's very early days and it's a significant development, but it absolutely has an impact, I think, on Syria. First, you had Assad himself crowing about this essentially military coup – he didn't call it that – but I think it did give a boost to a regime like the Assad regime's, because of the – frankly, from my perspective – the unfortunate precedent that is set with that.
In addition, I think, by the same token, I think it has served to dampen somewhat the enthusiasm amongst the Syrian opposition. I think it's sort of stoking, and Assad is using, in fact, this sort of anti-Islamist sentiment that has come along with what's happened to Morsi in Egypt.
And I think you're actually seeing a negative impact on Syrians in Egypt. They are, first of all, turning away planes of refugees, they're minimizing the number of refugees that can come in, and then those Syrians that are in Egypt have been, I think, unfairly tarred with having been used, if you will, by the Muslim Brotherhood and that there have been all kind of accusations leveled against the Syrians and notions that they were trucked in to be amongst those who are pro-Morsi supporters.
So I think – you know, from a net, and it's still very early, I think it's probably been something that has been a bit of a boost to the Assad regime and a bit of a – a bit of a downside to the Syrian rebels.
DR. MATTAIR: Nabeel.
DR. KHOURY: I – two points, very quickly.
I think the – I wanted to be provocative in basically saying that there is (inaction ?) lack of strategy on the U.S. part. I don't mean to minimize the complications; I just get very impatient when the only superpower in the world, when asked why aren't you doing something, says the situation is complicated. It just boggles my mind, to be honest.
But one of the biggest reasons why this is the case is the Iraq Complex, and I think the answer that the cost –
MR. : And Afghanistan.
DR. KHOURY: – to intervening is – look at Iraq and Afghanistan – is the wrong thing, because nobody is talking about boots on the ground or reconstituting, reconstructing Syria. That is something that the Syrians are perfectly capable of doing on their own, with some help from the outside.
So to say, you know, we're complex, I mean, this administration does not came in to end the military involvement in the Middle East. So they don't want another Iraq in Syria, but the comparison is not a good one; Syria is not Iraq and that's not the type of involvement that is requested from the U.S.
The second thing, I second Mona's plea for a diplomatic solution. I think at some point, when the military situation on the ground allows for a diplomatic solution, yes. And I point out also, Russia and Iran, despite all the difficulties – they are very difficult, and Iran is more difficult than Russia – but if we wanted a diplomatic solution, the U.S. is not seen as an honest broker, does not have enough influence anymore in that conflict. So we cannot be the mediators.
We can encourage the Russians to do it and say, you get the credit; we're behind you. You play the leading role. I'm not sure – we're trying to partner with them, but we really ought to be more generous than that and let them take a leading role, and let's see if they can manage it.
More difficult and more important is Iran. Iran is probably the only one that can bring about a diplomatic solution in Syria, if it wants to. And up until now, it has not wanted to, because the IRGC in Iran and Hezbollah can operate perfectly fine in a chaotic, prolonged conflict in Syria. And so they're not so sure that it's in their interest to end it at this point. But if we could somehow – there's a new president in Iran; if we wanted to extend the olive branch again to Iran, you go to them on the Syria question and say, bring about a peaceful resolution in Syria, and all – everything else on the table, we're willing to talk about.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, well, thank you. It's been more than 2 ½ hours. You can read the transcript and the video on our website, www.mepc.org. Thank you for coming. And let's have a hand for the panel, thank you. (Applause.)