Steven Simon, Mona Yacoubian, Erol A. Cebeci, Nabeel Khoury
The following is an edited 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. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
President Obama has recently argued that U.S. national-security interests are at stake in this crisis because of its negative impact 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 — the refugees and some bombings — and ultimately to force Assad and his associates out of power and bring into being a government that would represent the interests of all Syrians.
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, various kinds of aid to the opposition, and diplomacy. And we've recently announced that 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 other questions are still in the air: should we have other kinds of military action, such as targeted air strikes? Should we go to a Geneva II conference? If we do, when should we go, who should be there, and what should be the acceptable outcome?
In thinking through American interests, objectives, strategies and decisions, we want to focus today on how our allies, partners and friends see things. How do Turkey, the Arab Gulf states, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel see the developments in Syria? 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 defined our objectives and 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.
STEVEN SIMON, executive director, International Institute for Strategic Studies; former senior director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs, National Security Council (2011-13)
I will make my presentation a series of observations more than anything else. The extemporaneous nature of my presentation really reflects the nature of Israel's response to this crisis. It's temporizing and hedging in the same way that just about everyone else's response to the crisis has been. To some extent, it was unexpected by both Syria's neighbors and outside parties, and 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 there's a nice meshing between the way I'm going to address the topic and the way Israel is addressing it.
By way of background, this crisis erupted, from an Israeli perspective, at a moment when they saw themselves as being encircled by unfriendly governments, owing to the evolution of the Arab Spring in the previous months. From an Israeli perspective, they were looking at what they thought was the inevitability of a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, one which would establish links with Jordan. There was a lot of pessimism about the Hashemite kingdom's viability. The only break in this Sunni encirclement, from Israel's perspective, was Lebanon, which involved just a different form of Islamist adversary.
When the Syrian conflict broke out, it seemed to herald the completion of Israel's encirclement by radical Islamic governments that had popular legitimacy. 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 of the luscious wines of academic literature. In his case, it would be very difficult for Israel to pursue its interests with hardheaded governments. Or you would have governments that, from an Israeli perspective, were strong and very committed to changing the geopolitical shape of the region to Israel's advantage. There was a lot of pessimism in Israel when the conflict broke out, and the conflict intensified it. The eruption of the civil war really didn't help Israel think its way out of what it perceived to be a strategic dilemma and the deep crouch it had gone into, especially after the revolution began in Egypt.
Since then, the Israelis have been hedging. With regard to Syria, the hedging has been particularly tentative and difficult to judge, in part because Israel has no influence in Syria. There are no affinity groups with which it can deal as it once was able to elsewhere in the region — the Maronites or the Kurds or the Druze or what have you. There was no such affinity group, at least one with any hope of taking power in Syria at the end of the day. There was little they could work with, and this contributed to their hedging posture.
They did do some things right off the bat, when refugees started to come close to the border fence at Quneitra and Majdal Shams 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, to take advantage of the relative anarchy that now prevails in Syria.
Before I get to that, though, I want to address myself to the "devil-you-know versus devil-you-don't" question. One of the things one hears attributed to Israel is that Israel kind of secretly likes Bashar al-Assad and would prop him up if it could, because the devil you know is better than the devil you don't.
As a general principle, that's absolutely true in statecraft, as well as in one's personal life, I'd have to say. But for the Israelis, Bashar al-Assad was no devil they knew, let alone a closet angel. The Israelis had quite a different attitude towards Bashar's father, who was kind of 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 from the father in this respect, and it was — from at least one Israeli perspective — under the son that the relationship between Syria and Iran really solidified.
As a colleague of mine likes to say, under Hafez al-Assad, Iran and Syria were in kind of an arranged marriage; under Bashar, they grew to love each other. I think that's a very apt analogy. So the Israelis were not really going to favor this direction of events, because it brought Iranian military power dangerously closer 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 Dayr al-Zur, 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.
In support of this contention, it has been reported in the Israeli press and might well be true that the United States was brokering an arrangement between Israel and Syria through 2010 and early 2011. It fell apart shortly before the revolution began in Syria that fateful day in Daraa. What's interesting about it is that the Syrian concession — agreed to allegedly by Bashar — was to completely sever relations between Syria and Iran, a considerable thing, I'd have thought, for the Israelis. But 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. Today, the Israelis would probably say their reticence was really justified. Whatever belief they might have entertained about Bashar's inability to deliver and sustain an agreement like the one that was being brokered, according to reports, just wasn't there. He just wasn't going to be able to deliver. The Israelis foresaw that and passed up this great bargain. This sheds light again on the question of whether there's a devil they knew that they would rather still have in power today.
So what's at stake now for the Israelis in all this? 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 they've carried out since the crisis began — attacking weapons systems, for the most part — they thought would be dangerous to Israel, 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 be that is due to the opportunity the anarchy in Syria has engendered.
There's also the possibility that at the end of the day, Iran 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 civil war in Syria represents an opportunity, but the dangers at the same time are rife. There is, as we all know, an enormous number of chemical weapons in Syria. 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 them against Israel or transfer them to Hezbollah on a large scale. This would create, I would think, a casus belli for Israel vis-à-vis Lebanon.
So, big dangers, some opportunities. The posture the Israelis have struck vis-à-vis the United States, in terms of whether or not to intervene, to me was sort of settled when the Israeli defense minister was here last month. The message of his team was that the United States should not get distracted by Syria, that the United States needed to keep its eye on the ball — Iran — and specifically the nuclear challenge. 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 the time would come.
MONA YACOUBIAN, senior adviser on the Middle East, Stimson Center; former North Africa analyst, U.S. Department of State (1990-97)
I was asked to talk about Lebanon and Iraq. I'm not an Iraq expert, but I do think that these two are appropriate to be grouped together. They both have to contend with the same type of challenge with respect to what the stakes are for them and the spillover from Syria. To riff off one of Steve's last lines with regard to Israel — a big danger, some opportunities, for Lebanon; and Iraq: big dangers, no opportunities. I think that from the perspective of both of those countries, everything is pretty much downside. For me, the bottom line is that the deepening sectarianism of Syria's civil war is really the key factor to take into account when assessing what is at stake for both Lebanon and Iraq. This acute sectarian dynamic, which I think is continuing to grow worse, has significant implications for the stability of both Iraq and Lebanon. In particular, I would highlight two key points.
First, in both countries, the sectarian spillover plays into preexisting dynamics, a sectarian volatility that both countries have contended with well before Syria's conflict. Both countries have gone through fairly brutal sectarian civil wars: Iraq far more recently; Lebanon had its 15-year-long civil war (1975-90). So, whenever we think about the spillover from Syria, we have to try and understand how it is that, on one level, the spillover simply is stirring up preexisting tensions in those countries.
Second, because the nature of the spillover is sectarian, the stakes for various actors in these countries is increasingly existential. As they're making their calculus, they are really talking about questions that have to do with their survival, in some cases from perceived threats, in other cases from real ones. That, in and of itself, has significant implications for how actors respond and where the trajectory goes for each of those countries.
I'm not an Iraq expert, but, having watched what's happening, I think it's clear that we're seeing a real impact from what's happening in Syria on Iraq. Over the past few months, we've seen some of the worst sectarian violence in Iraq in five years. 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 and read reports of yet another episode of sectarian violence. While some of that is clearly in part due to preexisting tensions having to do with Iraq, another part of it has to do with what's happening in Syria.
If we look just very briefly at the two key communities, with respect to the Sunni community, you're seeing greater radicalization. You're seeing jihadist groups, namely al-Qaeda in Iraq, getting new energy from what's happening in Syria, the new jihad that's taking place right next door, one in which the narrative, from a jihadist perspective, is very compelling. I think the brutality of the repression in Syria has enraged elements in Iraq and feeds into a preexisting anger about Sunni disenfranchisement, Sunni disaffection, that has to do with the Maliki government's crackdown on Sunnis. So we're seeing a kind of rejuvenation of Sunni extremism, with real implications for Iraqi security and, I would argue, also for Syrian security.
There are bridges that have been built 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 a union of al-Qaeda in Iraq with the Nusra Front; this was later denied. So there are some leadership issues, but there are also new or offshoot al-Qaeda groups now operating in Syria that claim very strong ties to Iraq. However you parse it, it's very clear that we're seeing an increased interaction and energy growing between these two. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, over time, depending on how things evolve in Syria, you will end up with a large arena comprising much of Syria and a part of Iraq in which jihadists are operating. This, to me, is deeply concerning.
The Shia are also mobilized in Iraq from a sectarian perspective. Iraqi Shia militias are now mobilizing and operating in Syria. A very revered Shia shrine, Sayyida Zaynab, is located in the southern part of Damascus. So there are now Iraqi Shia militants operating as part of a protection force there. I think the motivation is sectarian and perhaps on some level existential. The battle is now being joined in Syria, and a parallel actually has been drawn between this Shiite shrine and the Samarra Mosque in Iraq. It was drawn by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon. There's symbolism here: the Shia community needs to protect these holy sites.
The Shia-dominated government, which I've included as a third actor to consider in Iraq, is also engaged in Syria. They, Prime Minister Maliki specifically, are attempting to balance pressures from Iran, which is "all in" with respect to the Syrian regime; it is perhaps its staunchest ally. 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 it. In that battle, I think Iran is winning. You have, for example, Iraqi air space used by Iran as essentially an air bridge to ferry weapons to the Assad regime. And, while the Iraqis are attempting at times to feign cooperation with us, I think the reality is that the supply line continues largely unabated.
You also have Iraq adopting a more neutral stance in the Arab League, which essentially has booted Syria out and imposed sanctions. Iraq has remained more neutral. That said, I think the situation in Iraq is now deteriorating to such an extent that Prime Minister Maliki is attempting to try and moderate his position, but more from an internal Iraqi standpoint. There is now some attempt to reach out to Sunni elements and so forth.
As a concluding point on Iraq, I think you're seeing that the spillover has been sectarian in nature. The stakes are existential, and this has been the cause of fairly significant instability. I don't see that changing anytime soon.
Turning now to Lebanon, the first point to bear in mind is that its fate has always been very intimately intertwined with that of Syria. The longstanding social and economic ties between these two countries make Lebanon a special case. Lebanon's population is deeply divided on the question of Syria. You have Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organization, staunchly and publically supporting Bashar al-Assad, sending its fighters in to assist the Syrian military, and perhaps providing them with a strategic edge in some of the most recent battles.
That is in contrast with the Sunni community in Lebanon, which is supportive of the Syrian opposition groups and has played a role, providing not only moral support but at times joining the fight themselves on the side of the armed groups. And there is a lot of back-and-forth with border villages harboring Syrian opposition fighters and so forth. So there is clearly a divide there between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon.
Minorities, the Christians in particular, are divided on the question of Syria, as they are on many issues inside Lebanon. One of the most prominent Christian leaders, General Michel Aoun, maintains his alliance with Hezbollah and continues to support, at least rhetorically, the Syrian regime. Then there are Christians who are part of the March 14th Alliance, which is staunchly anti-Syrian.
But in the Christian community — as among the Druze, the other key minority community in Lebanon — I think there is a reflexive response to want to keep their heads down and try to remain a bit neutral. They see these two big titans clashing above their heads, and there is understandable concern and a desire to try and stay out of the fray to the extent possible. From the Christian perspective, in particular, I think there is a growing foreboding about Sunni radicalization.
Let me step back and talk a bit about the two key protagonists in Lebanon: Hezbollah on one side, and the more radicalized elements of the Sunni community, on the other. Both of these communities view the stakes of what's happening in Syria as 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 for Hezbollah would be catastrophic. This explains its blatant support for the Assad regime. Hassan Nasrallah proudly proclaimed that they are all in with the Syrian regime to the end — sacrificing fighters and others who have died in the fighting. I think this is significant; my own sense is that Hezbollah has now essentially crossed a Rubicon of sorts. They have moved from being a "resistance" movement with broad appeal to the Arab street to nothing short of a sectarian militia. I think this has 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. As a result, you have a growing radicalization within the community, particularly embodied by this radical Salafist sheikh from Sidon, Ahmed Assir, and others. There are increasing concerns among mainstream Sunni leaders that they are unable to control the street. We've seen serious outbreaks of violence, most recently in Sidon, that pitted Hezbollah fighters against Sunni radicals. This, in and of itself, is concerning, but you also had radical Sunni elements attacking the Lebanese army. Both of these are important red flags — the specter of Sunnis and Shias fighting inside Lebanon, not just in Syria, and a brazen attack on the Lebanese Armed Forces, supposedly an institution of the government that represents all of the sects.
Let me just speak for a moment about the Lebanese government, which should be thought of a little bit differently from the sectarian communities in Lebanon. The government has worked assiduously to maintain a policy of what's called disassociation, a policy of professed neutrality about Syria. The policy, I would argue, is largely failing, but 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. My own sense is that this is probably not going to be successful over the long term. The dynamics on the ground are too powerful.
Finally, you can't talk about Lebanon and Syrian spillover without mentioning the refugee issue, which is very significant in Lebanon. There are now about 600,000 Syrian refugees on top of the 500,000 Syrian workers who have not been able to return to Syria. This is over a million refugees in a country of 4 million. Refugees have always been a very sensitive topic in Lebanon, so there are no camps being built. The conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are rather dire. 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 you're going to see these communities acting on their own perceived interests, which are increasingly sectarian and by definition existential. This will cause them to perhaps do things that would compromise the stability of the country.
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
As most of you know, Syria and Turkey share a 600-mile land border. And, unlike a lot of borders in the Middle East, both sides of this border are heavily populated. In January 2011, when the crisis broke out in Syria, the Turkish government had the best relations with Damascus of all Syria's neighbors. Turkey really worked to convince the Syrian regime to reform its political system and resolve the conflict peacefully. Now they are very far from that point.
Turkey has taken several initiatives to change the course of this conflict — and for very good reasons.
Under current circumstances, we are far from solving this conflict at a reduced cost. The nightmare scenario for almost all of Syria's neighbors, including Turkey, is a prolonged sectarian civil war. Unfortunately, there is every indication that this will be the case, and all neighboring states will be affected by spillover effects. This is already happening in Lebanon with 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 on the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict on Turkey.
Two months ago, the largest terrorist attack on Turkish soil in recent history took place. A bomb went off in a border town populated with many Syrian refugees. More than 50 people were killed, 98 percent of whom were of Turkish origin. This demonstrates the potential impact of the Syrian crisis on Turkey.
Most of us on the panel agree that the conflict in Syria will only get worse in the foreseeable future, and that the lack of consensus in the international community over the past two years has prevented any meaningful, decisive action.
It is true that Turkey has worked 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, such as the no-fly zone, but active Russian and Chinese opposition made this impossible. The United States and the European powers also seemed reluctant to invest in the resolution of the conflict.
One of the nightmare scenarios, for Israel and other neighbors of Syria, is the use of chemical weapons by the regime. This was, at one point, considered a red line by the U.S. government. Despite reports that the Syrian government has apparently used them, the equation on the ground did not change. The Turkish prime minister, when he was here in mid-May, presented evidence of chemical weapons use 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 confirming the use of chemical weapons.
From the Turkish perspective, there is every reason to establish a no-fly zone or safe zones. The regime will simply continue killing and escalating the violence by using chemical weapons if it feels even more threatened than it does today. As in any other country, there is the potential for a huge spillover effect on you if you're next door.
Due to the militarization of the conflict, there are now terrorist organizations active inside Syria. Although they are few in number, their experience and skill in asymmetric warfare make them a visible and effective force 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 alternative in the absence of international support, the terrorist organizations will look more appealing to ordinary Syrians. At the same time, the presence of terrorist organizations is used as a common excuse for inaction in Syria.
As Mona has mentioned, refugees are having a huge spillover effect on almost all the countries in the region. Turkey is no exception and is currently hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. In the neighborhood of half of a million Syrians now live in Turkey. Turkey has managed the refugee situation well, but it is obviously a financial burden. As the number of refugees continues to rise, this burden will get heavier.
Turkey has a direct interest in stopping the refugee flow and preventing the humanitarian crisis. Not only is it caring for almost a half million in certain areas of the border region, but the Assad regime is trying to create an anti-refugee feeling within Turkey. We saw an example of this in the bombing of the border town of Reyhanli by a lesser-known leftist Turkish organization with confirmed ties to the Syrian mukhabarat. Immediately after the bombing, some ultranationalist groups agitated locals in that town of less than 100,000 people, blaming the attack on Turkey's Syria policy. So the Syrian conflict is not only producing refugees; the agitation the presence of those refugees is causing within Turkey has to be managed properly.
I would also like to mention the sectarian question. When Turkey was dealing with Syria prior to January 2011, Turks were very aware of the sect of the Syrian regime. That sect has not changed and neither has the Turkish government. While Turkish policy towards Syria has been criticized as having a sectarian agenda, this is far from the truth. Turkey wants an inclusive government in Syria and so far has tried to engage a variety of ethnic and sectarian groups within the opposition.
It is true that the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian conflict have deepened sectarian fault lines in the region. Certain regional actors in the Middle East, some from the Gulf and some from the neighborhood, have contributed to the rise of sectarian tensions. And the regional sectarian politics are real.
Before the Syrian conflict, Turkey engaged intensively with Shia groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Turkey has traditionally avoided sectarian politics or ethnic-divisionist policies. It is true that Turkey currently may have stronger ties with certain groups within the Syrian opposition, but that doesn't mean that Turkey has not been trying to reach out to the other groups. The sectarian tendencies of the Turkish government have also been used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime.
The Syrian conflict might now seem to have turned into a battleground for regional powers to wage proxy wars against one another. This makes the events in Syria more complicated. When various countries start supporting different groups within the opposition, 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. Turkey does not have any accounts to settle with neighboring countries over the deaths of Syrians.
I would like to say a few things about U.S. policy before I conclude. Turkey perfectly understands the U.S. reservations about taking bolder actions in Syria. Frankly, it shares some of those concerns. However, Turkey does not agree that indifference or inaction is a better option. While Turkey has never called for direct U.S. intervention, it calls on the United States to work on the political side and rally the international community around the goal of ending the conflict in Syria.
It is hard to believe, but when Syrians were pushed to withdraw from Lebanon, there was more political pressure on them than the political pressure that has been put on them in the last year and a half. I'm not saying that, when they were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, the political pressure was excessive. What I'm saying is that the current situation requires the same level of political pressure.
Turkey has tried to achieve the following — with the international community — and it will to the best of its ability continue to do so: support the opposition politically and diplomatically; convince the international community to support the armed opposition; halt the use of chemical weapons and prevent their proliferation; prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Syria; end the cycle of violence that has practically destroyed the country; set up an inclusive transitional government; and prevent further waves of refugees from leaving Syria. Turkey wants to see a stable Syria under a democratically elected, inclusive government.
I know what I have described, looking from where we are right now, seems far away. But not trying to achieve these goals will lead the entire region to a much worse outcome.
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)
I think my colleagues have been a little too polite and diplomatic. But, just to assure you that I can be academic and 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, "The Regional Impact of the Arab Uprising."
I've been asked to talk about the perspective of the GCC and Jordan on events in neighboring Syria, and I want to compare that with the U.S. perspective as I see it.
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 threats to their national interests.
The United States has not. The United States has been torn between interests that seem to be in conflict with one another: security on the one hand, and assistance to democratic transition in the region, on the other; and between being involved in the Middle East and pivoting eastward. In a word, there's been too much caution and hesitation, and this is especially evident in the case of Syria.
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. Now we say "GCC plus two"; they added Morocco and Jordan to their ranks, to add some robustness, some power to the GCC. Morocco is too far off and hasn't really been impacted by what's happening in the Levant. Jordan, by contrast, is very much at the center of things and therefore impacted and concerned.
But in the confrontation between these two axes — Iran and the Shia militias versus the GCC-plus-two — the transitioning states, the countries that have been impacted by the Arab uprising, are a third bloc up for grabs between the two main ones. The Gulf countries see the conflict as a zero-sum game. Their loss would be a net gain for Iran, and vice versa. They also see a Cold War atmosphere in the region, mirroring this zero-sum game between them. And the Cold War means proxy wars and attempts to change regimes in the other bloc, hence their feeling of being threatened.
This is where the Syria conflict comes in. If the regime of Bashar al-Assad survives or is victorious, this will be a net gain for the Iran axis from the GCC point of view, and therefore a net loss for them. 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 take action against the GCC countries, essentially through the Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq primarily. So the GCC countries anticipate bad things happening, starting with Bahrain but moving on to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This will be, from their perspective — and I agree with it — part of the strategy of Iran and the Shia militias to try to encircle the GCC countries.
There are two scenarios in terms of what happens in Syria, one in which the regime emerges victorious and the other in which there is a prolonged stalemate. 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 called a friend of mine when the battle for Qusayr was taking place and I didn't see much of a reaction here. I said, is there anyone looking at a map over there at the NSC? Do they see what's happening strategically? What are we doing about it? Hezbollah certainly saw the importance of the battle for Qusayr. The Syrian regime saw the importance of it. We seemed to be asleep at the wheel, quite frankly. 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. Qusayr stood in the middle between the strong points that the regime has to the north and Damascus to the south, and 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 made it easier for the opposition to encircle the capital Damascus and be well on their way to victory. Now, with Qusayr won, there is a thin sliver of territory, except for the south, in and around Daraa, where there are still very important battles going on. Once Daraa and its environs are contained and controlled by the regime, they will have a continuous line from north to south.
That means the Lebanese border is now totally open territory between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Lebanese Sunnis, wishing to help the rebels by sending money, weapons and fighters across the Lebanese border, will no longer be able to do that, at least not without great difficulty and risk. It used to be that there were major gaps along the borders for rebel supporters in Lebanon to exploit. With Qusayr, you have a continuous line. That's a very important factor, for the Syrian regime to be able to stop the flow of weapons and Sunni fighters from Lebanon and to be able to have open borders for Hezbollah support to come through.
If you consolidate that straight line from north to south, you're on your way to victory because then you push the line gradually eastward to Aleppo, Homs and beyond. Essentially, it's classic warfare. You consolidate in one trench, and then you start moving the line forward gradually. Aleppo and Homs are very crucial, of course, because if you include them, you've included the major industrial urbanized areas of Syria.
More important, the Alawi region — the mountains, Latakia and the north and south — would be protected by a solid buffer zone between the Alawite Mountains and the attacking Sunni hordes, from the Alawite point of view. There, Assad and the regime can feel comfortable that from this position of strength they can live with a several-year protracted conflict where they've consolidated in the west and Damascus is safe and secure, and they can take their time in dealing with the rest of the problem. As Bashar al-Assad has been saying: "We have a security issue; we have terrorist groups, but we will deal with them gradually." 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 for the regime, don't think that it's 10 years down the road. Victory involves 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 happened a few weeks ago. We did nothing about it.
The second scenario is this: the conflict drags on for several years, with or without this type of victory that I'm talking about. Victory for the regime is dangerous to the Gulf. The Shia militias will be used against them, and their Shia communities will be stirred up by Iran. But a prolonged conflict in Syria is also bad for them because it opens them up for attacks from the other side — the Sunni Salafi extremist groups. There is already a plethora of these groups in Syria. The list is very long.
The common response is, well, these groups were sent over by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Not so. There are nuances and differences between the policies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They both have the same goal in mind, but they do things slightly differently, relying on different groups with which to cooperate. But these groups are coming in on their own, because the places they had been fighting before have been sealed off or are more difficult. This is where the fight is for them now. The Nusra Front is the most common name one hears. The Islamic State of Iraq is in there. In addition to Syrian Islamist groups that are difficult for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to deal with, you now have Chechens fighting in Syria. You have Pakistani Taliban. These people are coming from all over now and saying, our brothers in Syria need us.
The problem with them is that their agenda is much broader than Syria. There was an interview recently in a Lebanese paper with Abu Sayyaf, the Jordanian jihadist. He said there are, by his estimate, 700 Jordanian Salafis fighting in Syria now. He said, we can put thousands of fighters there, if our brothers in Syria ask for them. In addition, he commented on something interesting that has been happening in the last week or 10 days: a Sunni-Sunni fight inside Syria. These groups don't necessarily trust one another or work well together. They're coming to Syria because that is where the fight is right now, but for them it's the Islamic world that's their arena. The regimes in the Gulf are heretical, as far as they are concerned, and they should be overthrown.
Some of the fighting going on between the FSA and some of these groups, and among the different groups, is indicative of the other fear of the GCC and Jordan: the spillover impact. They think that these groups, empowered in Syria, will then turn their attention to the neighboring countries. These groups are empowered by chaos. Under a strong, stable state they become a security issue that can be dealt with. But in a situation where there is civil war and chaos, they feel empowered and free to operate. The longer the conflict drags on, the stronger and more capable these groups become. This is again something that should have moved us to act a lot sooner.
There are things I used to pester my colleagues with at meetings that Steve Simon used to chair. I made myself unwelcome and eventually became a pest. The kinds of things I advocated are already too little, too late now. People would say it's too complicated. I'd say, wait another year to see real complications; this is relatively simple. This was when it was mainly the FSA and some disorganized groups — but groups that we knew and could deal with and could help to get organized and empowered. We could have had an impact on the cheap early on.
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.
To come back to Jordan, to the immediate east of Syria, Abu Sayyaf spent several years in jail there, and his group is not welcome in Jordan. They want to go join the fight and the fun going on in Syria, but this is something that the Jordanians will not allow. They don't want that border to become chaotic. So they would be an obstacle for these groups. This means a confrontation between these groups and the Jordanian armed forces, and a confrontation inside Jordan among Jordanians of different political persuasions.
Ironically for the GCC-plus-one, there 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. There's a lot to say about Lebanon, and Mona has laid the groundwork for that. Lebanon is the main theater where all these conflicts play out, and the situation there is very explosive.
DR. MATTAIR: Steve, does Israel see any plausible good outcome from this crisis, any opportunity, as Erol mentioned, for a democratic, inclusive Syria? Failing that, what is the worst-case scenario for Israel? Israel is reportedly not at all comfortable with the United States providing weapons to the opposition. If we don't, will we be able to influence the outcome? Is it accurate that Israel is opposed to our transferring arms?
MR. SIMON: I doubt that the Israelis see the possibility of an inclusive, democratic government emerging in Syria. The odds just seem to be against it, and that's probably how the Israelis view it.
I would have thought that the worst-case scenario for Israel would be some kind of rump Syrian state 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 if the United States transfers weapons to the opposition I seriously doubt. All evidence publicly released or leaked thus far, mostly in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that the program is very small and wouldn't include any weapons that, if they were ultimately turned against the Israelis, would be a serious threat to them.
DR. MATTAIR: Would anti-aircraft weapons not be a serious threat?
MR. SIMON: Well, I haven't seen that referred to in any of the reporting, I doubt that that's part of the package.
DR. MATTAIR: Reportedly, we will not supply anti-aircraft weapons. They would be, conceivably, threatening to Israel.
MR. SIMON: 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. In Syrian stockpiles, you probably have 100,000 of these things, so another 50 I don't think has them shivering in their boots.
Q: Is there any possibility of Israel's getting more directly involved?
MR. SIMON: I think you'd have to say that there is that possibility. There are a number of scenarios that would draw the Israelis in. They have already attached Syrian assets they think could be problematic to them. That includes these anti-ship missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, and high-altitude or just highly capable surface-to-air missiles. And then there are the chemical-weapons stocks, which, presumably, if they were diverted or disseminated or there was a threat to that effect, the Israelis would try to limit it militarily.
Q: What evidence is there that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons?
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 that's emerged from the United Nations, the people who have been on the ground, people in hospitals who treated the wounds of Syrians from chemical weapons, and I think here in the United States as well, that there has been a small amount used. Whether that triggered a red line or not is another question.
DR. MATTAIR: Medical exams done on deceased and wounded people, blood tests, et cetera, indicate small amounts of sarin. That's what the reports are.
Q: When you have the emergence of radical jihadists in Syria, what can the United States do to bolster the moderate opposition, given the fact that they are fragmented, only under the nominal control of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army? What kinds of weapons would be sufficient to tilt the balance on the ground and give them a better chance of being the dominant force in the opposition and prevailing?
MR. SIMON: My impression, in part drawn from historical experience with and the academic literature on civil wars, is that arms transfers to contending factions 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, I'm not General Patton. But if you look at the military balance between the regime and the opposition forces, there's a substantial gap. 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. And all this gets way too complicated, certainly for Western governments, among which I include Turkey.
DR. KHOURY: With all due respect, I totally reject this logic. If we hadn't intervened in Libya, the situation would be totally different today. The weapons and support supplied to the rebels in Libya clearly made a difference. I agree with Steve that, at this point, the kinds of weapons that are being supplied are too little and are not going to make a difference in the strategic balance. The kinds of things we are beginning to do now, and that the GCC has been doing, were needed early on and would have made a difference then. It would have shifted the momentum of the battles. We're talking about, obviously, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, but also intelligence support and tactical advice to the fighters on the ground.
Now the battles are much more complicated, more sophisticated. The entry of Hezbollah in force has changed the picture. So 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 the point where that would have tipped the balance. Now, as I said before, if you want to make a difference, you need a more direct and aggressive approach. I don't mean boots on the ground; that, in my opinion, remains a very bad thing to do. But there's a long list of things that can be done to affect the battle on the ground.
DR. MATTAIR: A couple of years ago in the Gulf, I was speaking to a former U.S. official. He said there was a time when the Gulf Arab states viewed the United States as a reliable partner, but now they view the United States as a problem to be dealt with. How do they view the U.S. reticence in the last couple of years to supply those weapons when they might have made a difference? 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 more aggressive actions that they would like to see us take now?
DR. KHOURY: Let's be honest. I don't think anybody trusts us in the Middle East anymore. Starting with the best of intentions, this administration has confused and enraged everybody. Look at the Egyptians. 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 Syrian 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. But they're not sure where we are. They're not sure why we're so perplexed and so lacking in leadership, by which I mean not necessarily military, but even political leadership.
MS. YACOUBIAN: 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. Many doubts have been raised in all kinds of forums, about vetting and the ability to ensure that sophisticated weapons, particularly surface-to-air missiles, do not end up in the wrong hands. I think we have to be a little more humble about our ability to affect the situation on the ground, given our very limited presence there.
But I think the pursuit of a qualitative military edge with respect to arming is an illusory quest. It assumes that your infusion of arms is not going to be met with a commensurate or maybe even disproportionate increase in armaments 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.
I certainly would agree with Nabeel with respect to the strategic importance of the battle for Qusayr. At one point, people were saying the battle for Damascus was going to begin and the regime was on its way out. Let's not forget that. My own sense is that, while I think there is a space for military intervention, it's not through arming.
Beyond that, we haven't talked at all about the civilian-protection aspect of various types of military interventions. By the estimates of most international civilian-protection NGOs, arming is the worst possible option with respect to civilian protection. More harm comes to civilians when weapons are simply funneled into a chaotic arena in which the ability to control the use of those weapons is very limited.
I would also push back a little against Nabeel's assertion that the reason Libya turned out the way it did was that we — actually Qatar — funneled arms in. It was really the no-fly zone that made the difference. 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 the country, where militias continue to run roughshod, and in terms of the fact that some of those Libyan arms are now finding their way into Syria. I think we need to be cautious on the question of arming and the ways in which that can impact a zone of conflict.
DR. KHOURY: I agree. I did say that at this point, transferring arms is no longer sufficient. 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. There is a war going on in Syria, and therefore in the region, by proxy. The outcome of that war impacts U.S. national security, as has been determined by the president and everybody else. Therefore, we need to have an impact on how that war ends. If the transfer of weapons is no longer the thing to do, please tell me what is. Show me the group that is studying this strategically from ground zero on up. If this is our goal — the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime — what is our strategy to achieve it? We don't have one. If the name of the game isn't weapons, give me something else that is, and do it.
DR. MATTAIR: Do we have an interagency task force working this problem?
DR. KHOURY: Don't get me started on that. Steve is a good friend, and I respect him greatly. But the problems, when he was at the NSC, were above his pay grade. What I thought would be a consideration of strategies and policies at one level pushed up to higher levels was really just a discussion of implementing tactics. I think one of the problems here is that we have a president who really understands the region and 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. 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: Are we influencing events? Are we influencing the outcome? Is our strategy effective? It is 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 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 Dayr al-Zur, in Hasakah, in Raqqah, in large parts of Idlib, parts of the south, there are areas where regime forces are unlikely to regain control or even attempt to regain control.
My understanding, when Secretary Kerry came in, was that the U.S. assistance program was changed — that is, the guidelines that regulated that proposal were 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. This creation of patchwork security and the building of a post-Assad Syria from the ground up — even as Assad is still holed up in Damascus and his forces in some other places — is viewed as the best and most practical course for Western policy thus far. There's more or less a consensus on this involving the United States and its Western European partners.
Beyond that, caution, I think, will continue to reign. It's easy to calculate the costs of very direct involvement aimed very directly at toppling the regime and then reconstituting the Syrian state through some kind of massive social and governmental engineering effort. I think the costs are pretty well understood; we've just tried to do this in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those costs have been calculated by economists like Joseph Stiglitz, and 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 so, are not well understood. If the principal issue is refugee overflow into states that are somewhat fragile, steps can be taken to deal with that. Steps short of going into Syria and doing all the very expensive things that I just enumerated. I think that's probably where the administration is. That's where certainly the administration's allies are.
DR. MATTAIR: Erol, a no-fly zone is not an easy thing, and a safe zone is not an easy thing to set up. Is this what Turkey wants, and has Turkey understood everything that would be involved in that? It would involve airstrikes, and it would not protect people in the safe zone, Syrians or refugees outside, from artillery. So the United States would have to make a bigger commitment even than airstrikes.
MR. CEBECI: Let me try to analyze this from a wider perspective. The United States is the leading world empire, regardless of the declining-power arguments in D.C. or in different circles. So, like any other world empire in history, the United States is making choices. On the issue of Syria or the Middle East, the United States makes decisions based on benefits and costs.
As was said earlier, the consequences of a certain action are usually calculated very well by the policy makers, while the consequences of inaction are never calculated properly by anybody. That is a serious problem.
When we look at what has been going on in Syria — with more than 100,000 killed, — it is a devastating problem for a country of 25 million people. But this is not new and the world has seen much worse. We have seen it in the Balkans and in Africa. This is not something permanent. This will go away. The Arab Spring is a process and it will not be over in a few years. When the process does end, maybe 30-40 years down the road, we will not have any emirs, kings, sultans, princes and presidents who are elected with 99 percent of the votes. But the process will be painful and costly. In the history of mankind, either within a society or between countries, power has never changed hands without significant costs. That is what is happening in Syria. The question is whether a no-fly zone is difficult or requires airstrikes. Unfortunately, there are no easy or less costly options. But as was said earlier, the weaponry and policies that would have seemed very costly six or nine months, or a year ago, now look different. Some of us say that, had we done those things at that time, the situation would be different. Look at Libya. We don't know what would have happened if no action had been taken — how many people would have been killed, whether Qadhafi would be gloating over Libya now and what he would be doing.
Now, as for the airstrikes, I'm not a military person but I know this: Cruise missiles can open up craters in the runways where Assad operates his warplanes and helicopters. Using 30, 40, 50, 60 or 80 of those missiles could destroy, at least to the best of my knowledge, 20 airfields. And I know in Syria there are not more than 15 of them.
Again, what is needed more than specific military action is the will and the show of support. When we said Assad must go, we were serious about it, and we will back our words with our actions. For a lot of Syrians, they know that if they rise up against Assad and he wins in the end, they will be slaughtered. But by not joining the opposition, they may live even if the opposition wins at the end. The options are not good in any case.
We have to be careful with our analysis. Every country is making choices, both in the region and in the Western world, and although these things seem tragic, they are not new.
I have one last comment on whether, in the Middle East, the United States is not trusted or loved. I don't think the United States should be looking for love. The groups that you have mentioned in Egypt don't love each other either. So forget about the United States. We have to look to proper things. A leading world empire should act accordingly. I know it is very easy for me to say that, but the commander in chief has to feel responsible for every person who loses his or her life.
In the last two years, there were options for the Western world and the United States to take certain actions to show a level of seriousness. When Iran and Russia are saturating the battlefield with weapons, looking at studies on civil war and the fact that adding more arms increases the number of deaths is not helpful. Factually it might be correct, but it doesn't contribute to a solution of the problem.
Q: It seems there is a coincidence of interests between the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco and Israel on shaping events and possible outcomes. What is the possibility that this coincidence of interests could lead to a resolution of the Arab-Palestinian conflict?
DR. MATTAIR: Is there a coincidence of interests, or do they have opposing views about what they'd like to see?
MR. SIMON: Yes, Tom, I think I agree with your reaction. I don't think 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 and what new dispensation replaces the current one in Syria when and if the shooting stops. The Sunnis seem to be divided themselves on how they want this thing to wind up and how they might influence that outcome. I think it's too early to talk about a convergence of interests.
On whether such a convergence of interests might improve prospects for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I must confess I'm rather doubtful. The structural problems on the Palestinian and Israeli side may obviate that kind of favorable outcome.
Q: Just last week the Israel Defense Forces 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. It identified Hezbollah as a malign force, and there was an indirect statement of support to the Sunnis in Syria. How is the political leadership in Israel looking at what happens if the Sunnis win, and what are they trying to do to influence the outcome? Second, to 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: Yes, they have. Nasrallah crossed a Rubicon, 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 — a secret that everyone knew. In part, he was forced to assert that this was the case because of the numbers of Hezbollah fighters who were being killed and so forth. But it's very clear that it's difficult for him to now be a credible spokesman for the resistance when in fact he's using his men to kill other Muslims in another country who are themselves under the oppression of a fairly brutal regime.
There's polling now that's already indicating Hezbollah's popularity, specifically Hassan Nasrallah's, taking a nosedive among Palestinians. Remember that just after the 2006 war in Lebanon, Nasrallah was one of the most admired men in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
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 it's difficult, I think, for Hezbollah to make a credible case that it represents the resistance.
Q: First, as Syrians, we would love it if we could have a civil war like those in Latin America or in Africa. In Peru, for example, from 1980 to 2000, there were 60,000 deaths in 20 years. In Syria, in less than two years, we have had more than 100,000, and more than 300,000 are missing. This is a catastrophe for the country, and for any future government.
The second question is about arming or not arming. This is the wrong message to send to the Syrian people. Europe has been having this debate for almost six months. We decided to postpone the debate after three months, and we keep postponing. Next Monday they will have the same debate.
What should we do to stop the crisis? Of course, arming has consequences for civilians. But when you don't have a central command to arm the opposition — that has consequences too. Not arming and not doing anything is the wrong answer to the crisis.
MS. YACOUBIAN: In saying that I don't think arming is the way to go, I in no way would mean to suggest that the United States should be passive and play no role. 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. My contention — feeling very sorry and sad about the huge human toll that is being taken on Syria — is that the goals should be to bring this fighting to a stop as soon as possible, and to help ensure that Syria is on a trajectory toward peace and democracy in the ways that Erol and others have laid out. At this point, they do seem like 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 used in the service of achieving those political and diplomatic goals. 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, 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 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. How do we shorten that trajectory? How do we lessen the suffering?
I also think the United States has played a role in terms of providing humanitarian assistance. We are the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world to Syria, more 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 United Nations for over $5 billion to help assuage some of that suffering. More needs to be done.
I would conclude by saying I think we need to try and understand Syria through a much broader lens. Military instruments are just that, instruments. They need to be understood in the service of a broader strategy.
DR. MATTAIR: This 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 Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Dempsey had a conversation about that very recently, with Kerry in favor and Dempsey against. Beyond that, you talked about the responsibility to protect and the humanitarian problems inside Syria and Lebanon. 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. The UN Security Council has been rendered essentially ineffective, in large part because of Russian and Chinese intransigence on Syria. My initial thought18 months ago was 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 illusions about that.
But I think that the diplomatic-political strategy of this — in which the United States needs to exert more of a leadership role — is one in which it seeks to bring key actors together internationally and regionally. There is a process, though at this point it seems moribund. There was hope in May and then June, July, and now it looks as if 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 understands the Arab transitions, writ large. This, I think, is part of the reason you have this very mixed, conflicted response to the United States in the region. We're conflicted about the transitions and how to respond to them. I think you have to have a much broader strategy about what the Arab transformations mean and what role the United States should play. Then, very specifically on Syria, you need a way of getting to a peaceful, stable and democratic Syria that is inclusive.
How do you get to that goal? I don't pretend to have the answers. It's extraordinarily difficult, but I think an essential piece of it is a diplomatic and political strategy that seeks to engage key actors — Russia being one of them, Iran being another — that have a role to play. My own sense is that this is the way forward.
Q: Russia has quite a few interests there, one of course being the naval base at Tartus, and there are a lot of implications for them. What do you think Russia's role is in this, and what are the strategic implications?
MS. YACOUBIAN: Russia has played a critical role as a key ally and supporter of the Syrian regime. They provided, as we now know, sophisticated weapons. They've provided financing. Their role in support of Syria is undeniable, and they've certainly obstructed UN 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 of interests 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. I thought the Russians, whether because of the naval base at Tartus or the billions in economic and military investment, would have an interest is not seeing all that go up in smoke.
That hasn't appeared to be the case. We now see that Syria is in the throes of a civil war. And what's become clear to me — though 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. I think Libya is very instructive in this regard. It's clear that the Russians really view this in a very different way than we do. 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 case of international involvement leading to the downfall of another regime in the Arab world.
That said, I believe there are two key strategic areas of interest that we share with the Russians. One is the prevention of Syria's becoming essentially one of the most active arenas for jihadism. 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. Russia has 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 on with the Russians — although we'll see — is the whole question of the proliferation of chemical weapons and the loss of control of Syria's very significant stockpiles, which could end up in the hands of either Hezbollah or al-Qaeda-style jihadists.
I think there is potentially some space for agreement. We've had this on-and-off back-and-forth with them at very senior levels. It always seems to be one step forward, two steps back. At what point is the situation ripe for greater cooperation? What would it take? I wouldn't pretend to have the answer, but I think it's worth continuing to pursue. It's an avenue that we still need to put some time and energy into.
Q: I would like your thoughts on the situation for Christians in Syria, particularly the Armenian population, the largest minority Christian population in Aleppo — numbering between 80,000 and 100,000 before the war started — as well as the role that Armenia has played. Armenia has offered to help with the refugees. I think about five to ten thousand visas have been issued by the Armenian government to help the Armenian refugees from Syria.
MS. YACOUBIAN: The situation for Christians, and minorities more generally, in Syria is quite dire. Christians more broadly in the Arab world 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 the case in Syria.
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. In many ways, Syrian Christians in particular have great and understandable concerns about what a post-Assad Syria would look like. Particularly when one sees the prevalence, not just of jihadists — although that's obviously a concern — but even more broadly of Islamist elements who seek to impose Islamic rule. If you look at areas of the country that are more under the sway of the armed opposition, by and large, they are being governed under the strictures of Islamic rule. More secular Muslims, I think, are becoming increasingly threatened by it; certainly the Christian community in Syria is threatened. Unfortunately, the impact of that has been, "better the devil you know than the devil that you don't." The Christian community may have been on the fence early on, but I think they have retreated back to the regime. They are not willing to disavow the Assad regime in the face of an opposition that appears increasingly extreme in its Islamist views.
Q: A question was asked about 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 international attention on areas as far to the east of Israel as possible. During 19 years of Israel's occupation of Lebanon, Israel doubled, tripled and quadrupled the number of settlements in the West Bank. And there is 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 United States, for domestic reasons, would be compelled to side with Israel, were there a blowback from Iran or other countries. Were anti-Americanism, already at an all-time high, to rise still higher, this would also feed into a long-term Israeli strategic interest. Anti-Americanism has not, to my knowledge, hurt Israel as much as it has helped.
The last point has to do with refugees. It's been made known that there are two million Syrian refugees, one-fifteenth the population, versus the number of refugees from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which entailed one-sixth of Iraq's population — equivalent to 50 million Americans. It's interesting that we know almost precisely the number of Syrians killed thus far, yet the United States went out of its way to avoid reporting officially the number of Iraqi casualties, which many people estimate at up to five times the 100,000 killed in Syria thus far. In other words, five times more were estimated in Iraq, where we were involved. Would anybody care to comment on this?
DR. MATTAIR: I don't see a convergence of Israeli and GCC interests.
DR. KHOURY: I, in fact, do see a convergence in the big picture. I know the Gulf countries would be very uncomfortable to admit any convergence of interests with Israel because of Arab public opinion on the Palestine question. But when you think strategically about the power play in the region between the Iran bloc and the GCC-plus-two bloc, Israel feels much more comfortable with the GCC bloc for lots of reasons. There are things that neither side likes to talk about that are manifestations of this. And, although the GCC countries are supporting the Arab uprising, they're not very comfortable with it. Israel feels the same way. It's been keeping its head down because it doesn't know which side's victory it would be more threatened by.
If you look at the prolonged conflict in Syria, it is bringing al-Qaeda to Israel's borders for the first time. They were not thinking about that early in the conflict. But as this drags on, they have to. They've never had that situation before. It's something that neither Israel nor the GCC-plus-two are comfortable with. Now, what does this lead to? That's a matter of assessing political realities.
DR. MATTAIR: Do they agree on the best outcome or do they have opposing views of what the preferred outcome of it be?
DR. KHOURY: At the start, the Israelis were thinking "better the devil we know," but as this drags on, the feeling is, to go back to status quo ante is not an option. Therefore, you are faced with either the prolonged agony of all these groups coming in from all over the region, or doing something to help bring the conflict to an end. I think the GCC-plus-two, as well as Israel, would like to see this conflict come to an end. If you ask the Israelis: "Which would you rather have, Bashar al-Assad or the Sunni groups," this is not a realistic question. The al-Qaeda-type groups, the Sunni Salafi extremists, are not the future of Syria. They are the future of a Syria in chaos because they love to operate in this kind of environment. But if you bring the war to an end, they will not be a factor.
The Christian communities have a lot to fear from the extremists, the Salafi groups certainly. And if you go to their websites and see what they say, their rhetoric is about Jewish and Christian armies against them — that's how they perceive it. So the Christians have something to worry about from this group, but not from the secular Sunni-dominated majority opposition in Syria — which, when this conflict started, was all there was. We just didn't know how to work with them. That group historically has been open to Christian communities and Jewish communities as well. The Christians have nothing to fear from them. Their siding with the regime is natural, an outgrowth of minority politics. They are the protected minorities by the various regimes in the region, but those regimes are collapsing. The rational thing would be for these communities to be part of a new democratic and secular Syria. They have nothing to fear from those groups.
MR. CEBECI: It is an entirely different reading if you take the Arab Spring events in the region as something temporary that will stop and be reversed. But if you take the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and other countries in the future as something that has changed the whole region and won't be reversed, it is entirely different. Unfortunately, from my perspective, Israel is not reading these changes properly. It is in a state of wishful thinking, believing that these changes are temporary, that we will go back to the status quo and every player's actions are known.
As to the Russian question, the Russians are an important player, and I do not believe at all that Tartus or the billions of dollars worth of weapons sales have any strategic interest for Russia. I agree with Mona that the Russian interest, as well as the Chinese, involves the same thing. If it becomes a precedent for a country that rises up against its government to be changed by force from the outside, then tomorrow this can happen to us, too. Therefore, we should prevent this. Libya was the red line for them. They say, we did not know they were going to do that. But they know what happened in Libya. So Russia's interest is purely a matter of self-worth. It has nothing to do with what is going on in Syria.
Now, I agree with the analysis that Hezbollah is losing a lot of cover, but don't forget that Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have a propaganda machine. If Assad solidifies his hold on Syria, Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah will be the savior of the Shia and the axis of resistance.
So the Western powers, and maybe some analysts, when they look at Syria might say OK, on one side Hezbollah and Assad and on the other al-Qaeda and al-Nusra. One is killing the other, and what could be better than that from the Western perspective? But keep in mind that these people are very few when you look at the number of those suffering from al-Qaeda/al-Nusra-Hezbollah fighting in a country of 25 million. They number no more than 12,000, 15,000 or 18,000. You cannot evaluate the whole situation by looking at those numbers or the Hezbollah numbers. The worst analysis the leading empire and other forces in the world who are able to make a difference can make is to just look at it from a very short-sighted perspective — they are our enemies and they are killing each other. A longer perspective is that the region is changing. The Syrian crisis will end. How many people will suffer before that? Surely the Western analysts and policy makers have enough intelligence and accumulated experience to find solutions on that front once the political will is there.
Q: The problems of Jordan have not been addressed as expected, especially the fact that we are hosting 540,000 refugees in our camps, the second largest in the world, added to about 1.5 million Syrians not within the refugee camps. How do you view the impact of regional changes, especially in Egypt, on the situation in Syria?
Q: Do we know anything about how much the various supporters of the rebels have spent in backing the rebellion?
MR. CEBECI: I don't think anybody will tell us or publish the numbers. But Qatar has invested a lot, as has Turkey. As Mona has said, the United States and UN agencies have done a lot in terms of humanitarian aid. I know even smaller groups that went there and opened up bakeries and small machine shops to help. I also know Turkey has spent more than $1 billion, although probably less than $2 billion, on the refugees.
It is too early to come to a conclusion about Egypt. For a military coup to be unable to establish a government in almost two weeks is unusual. Usually they have their lists and the government is explained the next day. The Egyptian military knows how to do these things properly. On the other hand, it is very difficult to bring the secularists — including the liberals, Coptic Christians and all those people in Tahrir Square — together with the Salafis to come up with a common government. It remains to be seen how this will be managed so that it will be approved by different groups. Things looked very different two weeks ago. The European Union is shifting its position and the Associated Press has started to call it a coup. People are realizing two weeks afterward that it was a coup, a military takeover.
In terms of what is going on in Egypt, the Russians, Chinese, Israelis and the United States need to take into account in their future calculations that if you look at the Middle East 10, 15 or 20 years from now, there will be elections and political parties in that region. The Islamist political parties and their cousins will come to power in different countries, one way or another. Everybody should try to understand their political language and make sure that they understand their message.
MS. YACOUBIAN: On the issue of how much assistance, I think Qatar has publicly asserted that it's provided somewhere between $3 billion and $5 billion. The Saudis have not been public about how much they have provided. We also have to bear in mind that there have been significant flows from private donors, particularly from Kuwait, that have been funneled to the rebel groups.
On Egypt, my sense is that it's very early days, but it's a significant development and it absolutely will have an impact on Syria. First, you had Assad himself crowing about this essentially military coup, though he didn't call it that. It did give a boost to a regime like the Assad regime's, because, from my perspective, of the unfortunate precedent that has been set. By the same token, I think it has served to dampen somewhat the enthusiasm among the Syrian opposition. It's sort of stoking, and Assad is using, this anti-Islamist sentiment that has been generated by what's happened to Morsi in Egypt.
I think you're seeing a negative impact on Syrians in Egypt. The Egyptians are turning away planes of refugees, minimizing the number that can come in. Those Syrians that are already in Egypt have been, I think, unfairly tarred with having been used, if you will, by the Muslim Brotherhood. There have been all kind of accusations leveled against the Syrians, including notions that they were trucked in to be among the pro-Morsi supporters. I think it's probably given a bit of a boost to the Assad regime and even a negative for the Syrian rebels.
DR. KHOURY: I wanted to be provocative in saying that there is a lack of strategy on the part of the United States. 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. One of the main reasons this is the case is the Iraq complex. I think the answer that the cost of intervening is too high — look at Iraq and Afghanistan — is wrong. Nobody is talking about boots on the ground or reconstructing Syria. That is something that the Syrians are perfectly capable of doing on their own, with some help from the outside.
The administration doesn'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 United States.
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. Russia and Iran, despite all the difficulties — and Iran is more difficult than Russia — could help. The United States is not seen as an honest broker and 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." We're trying to partner with them, but we really ought to be more generous than that and let them take a leading role. Let's see if they can manage it.
More difficult and more important is Iran, probably the only country that could bring about a diplomatic solution in Syria, if it wanted to. Up to now, it has not wanted to, because Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah can operate perfectly well in a chaotic, prolonged conflict in Syria. They're not so sure it's in their interest to end it at this point. But there's a new president in Iran; if we wanted to extend the olive branch, we could go to them and say, bring about a peaceful resolution in Syria, and we would be willing to talk about everything else on the table.
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