Radwan Ziadeh, Leon Hadar, Mark N. Katz, Steven Heydemann
The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Monday, July 23, 2012, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed here.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
A great deal of attention is riveted on the escalating violence in Syria today. What began as popular demands for change and opportunity were met by force very quickly and transformed into armed insurrection across the country. Because of the minority nature of the Alawite regime and the fact that the majority of the population is Sunni Arab, the conflict has morphed into sectarian warfare and, arguably, civil war. Calls for reform were not heeded. The regional and international calls for ceasefires, political dialogue and transitions have not been heeded. Now we have regional and international calls for more intrusive intervention: the establishment of humanitarian corridors, safe zones, no-fly zones and airstrikes. As a matter of fact, safe zones would probably require airstrikes.
It's a dilemma for the United States. We hear the words "Rwanda" and "Bosnia," reminding us that we did not intervene quickly enough to avert horrific humanitarian crises in those places. The words "Afghanistan" and "Iraq" are also being heard, examples of places where our intervention was far more costly than was anticipated and far less successful than was predicted. Those who are wary of greater intervention also point to the fact that Syria has sophisticated and integrated air defenses and 330,000 troops in its armed forces. And its geography is far different from Libya's; airstrikes would have to take place over a far greater area.
The conflict has more geopolitical importance, I think it would be fair to say, than Tunisia, Libya or Yemen. How it unfolds is going to be important to the actors and the neighbors of Syria. If the regime survives, that's one thing. If it collapses and is followed by chaos, that's another. If a regime dominated by Sunni Islamists emerged, that would affect regional powers differently. If a secular, pluralistic regime were created from a fairly heterogeneous and even fragmented opposition, that would have more favorable implications for all the actors.
RADWAN ZIADEH, spokesperson, Syrian National Council
I will focus on three points: first, the state of the Assad regime, or what's left of it, and the state of the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army. The second point concerns the regional implications of the conflict in Syria, and the third, U.S. options.
It has been 18 months since the Syrian uprising started in March last year with the Assad regime engaging in systematic and widespread killings. Now there is more and more use of the air force; yesterday for the first time rockets were fired into al-Rastan, Damascus and Aleppo. This is the first time in the history of Syria that the leader of the country has shelled his own capital, Damacus. This is, of course, very alarming for the population in Damascus; no one expected it. The number of civilians who have been killed now exceeds 18,000, including 1,800 children under 18 years old. In "normal" wars, according to the Red Cross, the percentage is 3 to 5. This indicates that children have been systematically targeted by the regime.
The number of people detained exceeds 30,000; we believe that number is much higher. According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 27 secret prisons in Syria, especially at military bases. And the number of missing people and refugees grows day by day. In the attacks on Damascus and Aleppo, according to the United Nations, more than 1.5 million have been displaced inside the country, with more than half a million fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
The Assad regime, of course, suffered a serious blow in the explosion in Damascus [on July 18, 2012] that targeted what's called its crisis-management group, established after the uprising started. It is under the leadership of the National Security Office of the Baath Party. Included in this group are the heads of the four security branches, along with the minister of defense, the minister of the interior and the deputy minister of defense — Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. These 10 or 12 people took decisions day by day, giving orders to the military or security groups on whom to attack and detain. It was a big loss within the security group: five killed, including the ministers of defense and interior and the head of the crisis-management group and the president of the National Security Office.
After that we expected the regime to go one of two ways. It could accept some compromise, because Assad had lost his brother-in-law, the number-one official in Syria since the uprising started. He was responsible for all the killings and destruction in the Homs area. Or, more likely, the Assad regime could become more aggressive against its own people. This is what's happened. The regime gave orders for the air force to attack in different ways. But this major blow shows the strength of the Free Syrian Army. It controls most of the border area with Turkey and with Iraq.
According to the head of the UN mission, more than 40 percent of the territory of Syria — now even more because of the Aleppo suburbs — is in the hands of the Free Syrian Army, in the north and in many areas of Damascus and Daraa.
The Free Syrian Army relies for its arms mainly on defections within the army. Most of the soldiers and officers are Sunni, though some are Alawite, and some of them also defected. What makes the situation much worse is that we don't have what has happened in Yemen — "horizontal" defection in the army. All the defections are coming from the middle ranks. This is why the Free Syrian Army is getting much bigger, while at the same time it has no safety zone or liberated area. It can't organize itself or operate in a more strategic manner. The regime has retaken many areas, at the cost of many more civilian lives.
The Free Syrian Army, as I said, includes colonels and other officers who have defected; three major generals are now in Turkey. Two weeks ago I visited the officers' camp. More than 1,192 officers of different ranks are living there. Most effective, of course, are the colonels and middle-ranking officers who have stayed inside the country, especially in al-Rastan, Homs and the Damascus suburbs.
The state of the opposition is connected to the role of the international community. Last week, the UN Security Council again failed to adopt a resolution under Chapter VII to protect Syria's civilians. All the debate and discussion in New York, of course, was irrelevant to the situation in Syria, because what we have is armed conflict. Yet, the Security Council and the State Department talk about avoiding more militarization of the situation. We have had armed conflict for six months. No peaceful demonstrations are allowed by the Assad regime. It has dealt with the peaceful demonstrations and the armed opposition in the same way. In the last month, in two incidents there was shelling on peaceful demonstrations, which left more than 60 people dead in Saqba and Sitt Zeinab. This is why we don't advise people to go out and demonstrate peacefully unless an area is protected by the Free Syrian Army. The risk is very high for the civilians.
So, when the international community failed to adopt any resolution or take any action to protect civilians, it undermined the political opposition, mainly the Syrian National Council. The role of the Council or the opposition is to mobilize the international community to protect civilians. That's become the main demand.
This is why the Syrian National Council became much weaker and even hopeless in the eyes of the Syrian people, and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, who are defending them on the ground, became their heroes. It's the same situation that we had in Kosovo in 1999, when the international community failed to adopt any resolution to protect civilians. In most of the areas being liberated by the Free Syrian Army, there is no control by any political opposition there. The SNC has no political authority in that area.
This is unfortunately because of inaction by the international community. When the Security Council failed the third time, we expected this, having visited Moscow and heard the comments of Russian officials. We have said many times, we don't need to waste our time anymore with the Security Council. Actions beyond the Security Council are much more important. The moral authority to save the lives of children and civilians is above the legal authority of the Security Council. There have been many times in history when the Security Council was unable to adopt a resolution to protect civilians. This is why we have the Friends of Syria Conference, which should have a very definite agenda to take action to protect civilians.
Although we see more strength in the Free Syrian Army and more areas liberated, I don't expect that the Free Syrian Army will be able to liberate Damascus or Aleppo or force Bashar al-Assad to step aside anytime soon. The situation may get much worse and more civilians will be killed. The Free Syrian Army has no tanks, heavy weapons or aircraft. This is now their priority.
What is more important right now is for the United States to take a historical decision, to take actions beyond the Security Council, to mobilize the international community within the Friends of Syria Conference, to implement the safety zone along the Turkish border. Jordan is also much more enthusiastic now about implementing the safety zone on its border with Syria. This safety zone is a priority right now. The civilians need humanitarian assistance. We have a de facto safety zone in the northern part of Syria, but it is still attacked by the air force. This is why it's important to have a no-fly zone above designated areas.
Finally, there are many questions now about chemical weapons and about the transition. There is not much verifiable information. Today, the spokesperson of the Syrian Ministry of Military Affairs said that the regime will only use chemical weapons if they are attacked by outsiders. I don't believe that; the Assad regime has used many kinds of weapons that have never been used before, especially in the area of Al-Rastan and Idlib. This is why we have to be careful, and we have to be ready in case the regime decides to use chemical weapons.
The United States has failed to deal with the Syrian crisis from the beginning. The United States should have expected that the Syrian crisis would escalate because of the type of regime. It's mainly the family of Bashar al-Assad, a genocidal man who will do whatever is necessary to stay in power. The United States should be blamed for allowing the situation to come to this point. The United States tried to mobilize the international community, working with the Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed resolutions. This is a failed policy; there is no indication of a change in Russian policy. At the same time, there is no indication that the United States will decide to take any action outside the Security Council or within the Friends of Syria. I think it's important right now for the United States to take actions beyond the Security Council.
As for a managed transition in Syria, I don't see any indication of such an outcome. Right now in the northern part of Syria, where the Kurds are concentrated, their military groups control the area. Different groups within the Free Syrian Army also control many areas in the north. But there is no political authority. This is, as I said before, a consequence of the inaction of the international community.
Syria has become much more difficult to deal with. The unity of the state is crucial — there is no question among Syrians about that. But how do we create a central government at the end? The regime is losing control, and that's leaving a vacuum within the whole country. There is no political authority in the opposition right now to control the areas that have been liberated in the north.
It's important now for the opposition to work with the Arab League. Yesterday the Arab League called again for Bashar al-Assad to step aside. They will give him a safe exit — which, of course, he could have accepted a year ago. But, again, this shows that the Arab League, along with the international community, lacks any muscles or teeth. This gives a green light to Bashar al-Assad to continue the killings and the shelling of different areas. More important right now is to concentrate on the Friends of Syria Conference and put all our efforts there. This is the only way to create a successful transition in Syria.
LEON HADAR, senior analyst, Wikistrat
When the Council asked me a month ago to attend this meeting and participate in the discussion, I suggested that whatever we were thinking about the issue then was probably going to be overrun by events. I also was reminded that, when I published a book in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991 and we sent it to the printer, at the last moment we had to replace all the references to the USSR with the Russian Federation. We are living at a time when many changes are taking place, and many of our assumptions will have to be revisited.
Some people compare the political upheaval in Syria today and in the Middle East in general, to what happened in Eastern Europe in 1991. I'm a bit skeptical, but I do enjoy historical analogies. And I'm very much into irony. A few days ago, when a friend of mine who is very supportive of a much more activist U.S. role in Syria sent me an email about the issue, I responded by recalling that not so long ago we were also being asked to do a regime change — in Iraq. As in Syria now, the United States was asked to oust a corrupt and bloody military dictatorship, controlled by the secular fascist Baath party. The dictator was a member of a family — Saddam Hussein's in Iraq, Bashar Assad's in Syria — that belongs to a minority religious sect: Muslim Sunnis in Iraq and now Muslim Alawites in Syria. The opposition leaders in Iraq, very much like the opposition leaders in Syria, pledged to transform the country into a functioning liberal democracy and to adopt a free-market economy and turn Iraq into a strategic ally of the United States.
Instead, we had in Iraq, as in Syria, an invention of European imperialism, constituted of many tribal, religious and ethnic groups and lacking a coherent national identity. At the end, it was a country sliding into civil war. Washington did help transfer the power in Baghdad from a corrupt secular Sunni regime to a corrupt Islamist Shiite government that is actually allied today with theocratic Iran. Elections did take place in Iraq, but women and religious minorities are threatened and deprived of political power. I'm not going to dwell on the cost to the United States in terms of its military, its economy and its credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Now we are being asked to produce a rerun in Syria. As I said, my friend who supports immediate intervention sent me an email saying, yeah, the opposition in Syria are like Ahmed Chalabi — trying to challenge my argument. But I actually wasn't thinking about Chalabi. I was actually thinking about a guy by the name of Kanan Makiya, also known as Samir al-Khalil. He's a very educated, very decent, very intelligent guy, a Western-educated intellectual from Iraq who was a liberal, probably even a social democrat. He published a book in the 1980s, The Republic of Fear, which detailed what was at that time the torture chamber and prison of Saddamist Iraq. He was one of the first to call for U.S. intervention to oust Saddam Hussein. If you read George Packer's book The Assassins' Gate about U.S. intervention in Iraq, Makiya is one of the leading characters. But he is not living in Baghdad anymore.
I think that, in the face of the pressure on the Obama administration to do something in Syria as soon as possible, a certain skepticism, at a minimum, is demanded and appropriate. Under the best-case scenario, we would probably replace the secular Alawite regime in Damascus, which is allied with Iran and the Hezbollah, with an Islamist Sunni government allied with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The fact that the Saudis and the Turks are indeed allies of the United States, and Iran and Hezbollah are adversaries of the United States, lends this scenario a certain appeal. One could argue that, from a geopolitical perspective, the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the Levant that was tilting in favor of Iran and its allies, thanks to the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, would now tilt more in the direction of the United States and its allies. This is basically good news.
Under the worst-case scenario, the coming to power of a more radical Islamist Sunni regime in Damascus, which may or may not be allied with al-Qaeda or some groups within it, would unleash, I think, a bloodbath against the Alawites and other religious minorities. It would also spill over into Lebanon and Iraq, invite outside intervention by regional and global powers and eventually ignite some sort of Middle East war.
Under either scenario, Syria will become a focal point for regional tensions between Shiites and Sunnis that could spread to the rest of the Middle East. Syria could become what Spain was in the late 1930s or Lebanon was during its long civil war: a testing ground for a confrontation between the major political powers of the day – secularist versus Islamist, Sunni versus Shiite – and their many patrons and other interested players, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Russia and China. This would require the United States to invest more military and economic resources, at a time when it has less of both, in a conflict that overall has only limited effect on core U.S. national interests. This is also at a time when the United States is trying to refocus its attention on global strategy in East Asia and dealing with the rise of China, the main geostrategic challenge facing the United States today. The United States will again spend more time and energy in trying to resolve the never-ending conflict among the global losers — the tribes with flags of the Levant — instead of engaging with the global winners, the economic powerhouses of East Asia.
Let me stress that I think President Obama's response to the crisis in Syria, and the so-called Arab Spring in general, was very shrewd and effective. It reminded me of the handling by the first George Bush of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in the '90s. Some critics would describe it as muddling through. I think it was a very nonideological, pragmatic, empirical approach that we tend to call "realist." What the Obama administration was doing is pursuing a policy of cutting the strategic and economic costs facing the United States with the collapse of longtime allies of Washington and the growing instability in the Middle East. It has been juggling many interests and agendas and taking into consideration the tension between the promotion of change and the maintenance of order.
The United States doesn't have either the will or the power to deploy U.S. troops in Syria or other countries in the region and has to consider the interests of allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as global competitors like Russia and China. Under these conditions, the U.S. strategy in Syria was very cost-effective and made sense: green-lighting the Turks and the Saudis to provide some help to the opposition forces while continuing to resist the pressure for direct U.S. military intervention.
But the crisis in Syria also demonstrates why the kind of popular American thinking that assumes what is going on now in the Middle East is a manifestation of an unstoppable drive towards freedom and democracy — as in Eastern Europe in 1992 — should at least be challenged and questioned. Washington needs to use logical analysis of what is really happening in Syria and the Middle East, as opposed to the wishful thinking of all kinds of global democratic crusaders on the left and the right.
What we are facing now are the closing seconds of the American unipolar moment in the Middle East, coupled with many challenges to the old political order in the region. This is producing a major shift in the balance of power: the Sunni-Shiite rift, the possible disintegration of several states, the rise of Iran and Turkey and perhaps even Egypt as major regional powers, as well as the return of Russia to the region and the arrival of China. It will be very difficult for the United States to affect the changes taking place in the region, and this explains why, going back to the title of the discussion, the United States doesn't have many options available in Syria today.
MARK N. KATZ, professor, George Mason University; author, Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan
Russia has been blocking UN Security Council action on Syria. It has expressed support for the Assad regime. Obviously, China has done these things, too, but there's a sense that China seems to be following Russia, which is taking the lead. I was in Moscow at the end of June and was able to talk to various Russian experts on this, as well as to Western journalists, and hope to share some of those insights.
The real question is, why are the Russians backing Assad so strongly? Why have the Russians dug in on this? Various reasons have been cited: the Russian arms relationship with Syria that it fears it might lose; Russian investments in the Syrian petroleum sector; the naval facilities that Russia has at Tartus, the only ones it has outside of the former Soviet Union. The fear of losing all these is an important reason for Moscow to support Assad, but I don't think they're crucial. If none of these things existed, if there was no Russian base at Tartus, no Russian arms sales to Syria, no Russian oil companies working in Syria, I think Russia would still support the Assad regime. In talking to Russians about the question now, when you ask them why they are supporting the Assad regime, the argument tends to be in terms of the United States. As far as the Russians are concerned, America went into Afghanistan; messed that up. We went into Iraq; messed that up, too. We went into Libya, and as far as they're concerned, we messed that up also. Now we want to do something about Syria. They think they know what the outcome is going to be; it's going to be messed up as well. America can always go home, back to beyond its oceans, whereas Russia lives in that neighborhood. So when these places get messed up, they get messed up for Russia, in particular. Is the United States simply ignorant of this or — in the conspiracy thinking that is common, unfortunately, in Russia, as well as so many other places — are the Americans doing this deliberately? Are they messing things up in order to hurt Russia? Various Russian leaders have made suggestions that this is, in fact, what the American motive actually is. We don't have to accept that or credit it very much, but if this is how they think, it suggests why they might dig in.
Another thing that bothers the Russians is Libya. Every Russian I've spoken to feels that the United States took advantage of Russia last year in Libya, that Russia as well as China allowed a "no-fly" resolution to pass in the Security Council, but America and the West and their allies, instead of simply managing a no-fly zone, actively assisted the opposition against Gadhafi. We went way beyond the terms of the resolution that Russia and China had helped approve and they're not going to fall for that trick again. So, even though the resolutions for Syria that have been vetoed have to do with economic sanctions, something far less than a no-fly zone, the Russians see any resolution as the thin edge of the wedge for American intervention, which they're not going to approve. They feel that Western intervention in Libya occurred with a Russian imprimatur through the Security Council resolution. They're not going to fall for that trick again. But there are some other reasons, having to do with some fairly deep-seated views of foreign policy and international relations. First and foremost is that the Russians feel that America and the West have simply miscalculated with regard to Syria. If the West thinks the downfall of the Assad regime is going to give rise to democracy, the West is mistaken; what is going to happen is the rise of a hostile Sunni Islamist regime. The West is naïve; the Russians are not naïve. They know what's going to happen. Of course, they don't really know, but they strongly suspect that this is what it's going to be like.
If you read Yevgeny Primakov's book Russia and the Arabs — which came out in English not long ago (I reviewed it for Middle East Policy) — he makes this argument. Moscow's support for secular Arab nationalist regimes, he argues, was misunderstood by the Americans from the very beginning. The Russians understood that this was a regime that was holding radical Islamism down and that, no matter how bad regimes such as the Assad regime might be, they are better for us than what is going to come afterward. This reflects a very deep Russian pessimism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. Of course, they don't really see it as being a prospect for Russia either and, in fact, don't believe that democracy takes place in the United States. It's all cartels and cabals, but what the Americans can do is help create the popular demand for democratic change that's strong enough to bring down a government. That will be followed by something else altogether. So what we're seeing is just a reflection of deep-seated Russian pessimism about this part of the world. They don't understand why America and the West don't get it.
Another reason they are supporting the Assad regime so strongly is something Radwan referred to: America and the West haven't done all that much for the Syrian opposition. The Russians have noticed this as well; they've had long experience with the United States, as we have had with them. They know that when we are serious, we are willing and able to act outside of the Security Council. The fact that the United States seems to be focusing on the Security Council for a decision suggests to them that we really don't want to go in, that we're using them as the excuse not to. They're happy to play that game; after all, it makes Russia look strong and important, singlehandedly blocking the United States. This is how they want to be seen at the moment. They don't consider this something that the United States really wants to get involved in. You might say this is a bit contradictory — that the Americans don't understand, that the Americans mess things up, but now the Americans don't really want to get involved. All I can say is that contradictions abound, not just in our foreign-policy making but theirs as well.
Another reason they support the Assad regime, which I think Leon referred to, is that they see the Syrian opposition as supported by Saudi Arabia. The Russians have long had a contentious relationship with the Saudis. During the Cold War, they didn't have diplomatic relations at all; they were enemies. During the heyday of Nasser, the Soviets supported him. It was the Saudis who were supporting his opponents in North Yemen in the 1960s. The Soviets and the Egyptians, on one side, were fighting a proxy war with the Saudis, on the other. Ultimately the Saudis came out on top.
Similarly, with regard to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, for many Russians it wasn't so much U.S. action that thwarted Soviet ambitions. It was the actions of Saudi Arabia, in terms of the money and the individuals they sent, such as Osama bin Laden. These were the people who caused trouble for the Soviets and made Afghanistan a failed venture, which people like Primakov still defend. They think the West would have been better off with a Marxist government in Afghanistan than with the Taliban, who came to power in the 1990s and may well come to power again.
The Russians also accused the Saudis of being the principal backers of the Chechen rebels in the 1990s. The Saudis deny this and have indicated they were giving assistance to Chechen refugees. Of course, refugees and rebels are not mutually exclusive categories, are they? In fact, refugees often become rebels. In the '90s, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia was extraordinarily tense, but not something the United States paid a lot of attention to. The Russians seized upon 9/11, at least initially, to side with the United States against the Saudis. Putin, in particular, never tired of citing the fact that 15 of the 19 bombers came from Saudi Arabia.
But as they always do, Russian-American relations turned sour. Something quite remarkable then happened in 2003: a Saudi-Russian rapprochement. I don't want to get into the details of it, but at the time I didn't think it was going to happen. But it's now falling apart. The Russians feel that the Saudis, who initially were opposed to the Arab Spring, have hijacked it, supporting Salafists in various places — getting very involved in Yemen, halting it in Bahrain, and now trying to essentially knock off an Iranian ally in Syria and install their own. Why don't the Americans, Moscow wonders, understand this?
I'm not saying this vision of Saudi behavior is accurate. But this is how the Russians view it, and they are acting on this vision. But, in addition to these foreign-policy concerns, there's something else. My visit there recently really impressed me with this: Syria has become a domestic issue in Russia. There's a general sense now that the Assad regime is going to fall, but that Putin is better off backing him to the bitter end, even if he falls, than to be seen as knuckling under to the Americans and making Russia look weak. This latter course would implicate Moscow in whatever negative change, from Russia's point of view, occurs in Syria; Putin would rather do the former. In fact, there's a sense that the Russians have actually written Syria off altogether. They know it's going to fall, but they are much happier being seen to continue to defy the United States than to be seen cooperating and looking weak.
In this way, if Syria has become a domestic issue for Russia, then we in Washington, especially here on Capitol Hill, know a little something about how domestic politics can affect foreign policy toward this particular region. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Russians are afflicted with this as well.
The real question is, what does all of this mean? One thing is pretty obvious: we've often heard that the Obama administration hopes Russia's going to help us with Iran or with Syria. Well, they're not. They're just plain not going to. They don't see it as in their interest in any sense, either in their foreign-policy or domestic interests. If things are going to go sour in Syria, they don't want to be associated with it. They want the United States to essentially own that situation. That's the bad news.
The good news, if there is any, is that they're not actually going to do anything forceful to oppose us in Syria. If, as Radwan suggests, the time has come for action outside of the Security Council, we're not going to see the Russians defending the Assad regime. It's definitely not worth their fighting for. There has been a story emerging in the past few weeks: Russian Marines have been sent to the Port of Tartus, to the Russian naval installation there. But this is very similar to what they did during the South Yemeni civil war in 1986 and similar occasions. These people are being deployed mainly to help evacuate Russian nationals, not to get involved in protecting the regime, although different sides might interpret it that way.
We see the Russians and the Chinese acting together, but in Moscow there's a sense that they just don't know what the Chinese are going to do, and that whatever cooperation they have from China is only temporary. There's a sense that, if a new government arises in Syria, the Chinese will immediately, without hesitation or embarrassment, work to get along with it. It's only Russia that has stuck its neck out with regard to Assad, that may suffer.
If it sounds like the Russians are pursuing an emotional foreign policy with regard to Syria, I think that's true. We may think we know how they should see their rational interests in this situation or others, but that's just not how they see it. A lot of their actions are simply done to defy the United States out of this tremendous sense of betrayal for past actions — which in our view, they shouldn't feel betrayed about, but they do.
STEVEN HEYDEMANN, senior adviser, Middle East Initiatives, United States Institute of Peace; adjunct professor, Georgetown University
We're meeting this morning following what is quite an extraordinary week in the unfolding of the 16-to-18-month Syrian uprising. The events that define the previous week as extraordinary include the bombing on Wednesday of the headquarters of the crisis-response team that Radwan described. It includes a growing number of high-level defections from the regime. It may be that there are a small number of very senior generals now present in Turkey, having crossed the border, but the total number, as I understand it, is now about 24, which leads us to wonder how many more generals are present inside of Syria and able to act. Some of these extraordinary events also include the escalation of confrontations on the part of the armed opposition against the regime. In June there were 250 clashes between the armed opposition and government forces, the highest number ever recorded. I think we're on pace to increase the scale of confrontation this month in Syria. These events include as well the capture of some of the critical border crossings between Syria and Turkey and Syria and Iraq by armed opposition forces, even though control over those crossings is severely contested by the regime.
These developments have collectively produced what I would argue is perhaps the most dramatic shift in the dynamics of the Syrian uprising since it began back in March 2011. Despite the regime's counteroffensive in Damascus over the past few days and in Aleppo, which has dramatically escalated the humanitarian crisis that Syria confronts and created tens of thousands of new refugees, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the stalemate between the opposition and the regime has now been decisively broken. The armed opposition has succeeded in placing the Assad regime on the defensive for the very first time since the start of the uprising, and the uprising has now created a sense of vulnerability about the regime that is causing a shift in the strategic calculus of key actors. This is a strategic realignment within Syria among both the critical insiders who have been the backbone of the regime, and some of the segments of Syrian society that have continued to support the regime. One of the consequences of this is going to be that we will see an acceleration in the unraveling of the regime. We have arrived at what appears to be something of a critical tipping point in the trajectory of this uprising.
However, it's very important to recognize that, even as we have reached this point, even as we have approached what I think is a critical shift in the dynamics of this uprising, the Assad regime still has significant capabilities, military capabilities. We saw them on display this weekend in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. It still has significant, if declining, domestic support. We should not kid ourselves; there are important communities within Syria that continue to support the regime, and the regime still has significant international backing, as we heard from Mark — in particular, from Russia, from Iran, from Hezbollah and others. All of this underscores that, even as we see this welcome shift in momentum on the ground, it would be a serious mistake to imagine that the end of the Assad regime is close at hand. Bringing down the regime cannot be accomplished without continued efforts by the armed opposition to sustain its current momentum and without significant international support for the efforts of the armed opposition to sustain the momentum that it has achieved over the past several weeks.
This gets us to the critical question of what role the United States might be able to play during this critical phase in the uprising. I want to focus on three major areas: first, in sustaining the momentum of the past few weeks and ensuring that the regime is not able to regain its footing — and I think that potential does still exist, at least in some areas of the country. Second, we might help to avoid some of the worst-case outcomes during the final phases of this conflict, including a much more dramatic escalation of humanitarian crises across the country, the escalation of sectarian violence across the country, and the possibility of political fragmentation as some areas of the country shift increasingly out of the orbit of government control. Third, we can help to create the conditions for some sort of more stable political transition. Even though Radwan was a bit dubious about this prospect, I think we do have an obligation to try to ensure that the Syrians who have the principal responsibility for managing a future transition have some capacity to address the chaos and instability the Assad regime has caused as a result of its response to the mass demand for political and economic change that began back in March 2011.
What I'd like to suggest in offering some starting points in how the United States might be able to respond in meeting these three challenges is that, if we think about addressing the first two — sustaining the momentum of the armed opposition and helping to avoid Syria's descent into the kind of sectarian violence we saw in Lebanon or Iraq — it is going to require a level of engagement with the armed opposition that goes well beyond the limits of current U.S. policy. This policy, despite the changes we've seen on the ground, continues to be defined as providing nonlethal support to nonlethal elements of the opposition.
Dealing with the third of these challenges — helping to create the conditions that might promote a more stable political transition — is not only linked to how effectively the United States can engage in the other two areas. It will also require Washington to significantly rethink its approach to the diplomatic side of its engagement with the Syrian uprising and push further and faster than it has been willing to do thus far to shift the focus of diplomacy outside the UN Security Council and place much greater weight on other institutional frameworks. These include, as Radwan said, the Friends of Syria group. I would underscore that at the last Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6, ministers representing over 100 countries were present. There is no sense in which the Friends of Syria group should be seen as somehow deficient in its ability to speak on behalf of the international community.
I would also say that efforts to reach beyond the UN Security Council should include deeper engagement with the Arab League. Dysfunctional as it might be, it also has the potential to play a positive role. As Radwan noted, an offer from the League was extended to the Assad regime today providing an escape route for the leadership. They are not likely to accept that offer, but it underscores the possibility for the Arab League to broaden its own engagement in the Syrian crisis. This might help mitigate the kind of worst-case transition that it would be in everyone's interest to avoid: protracted conflict leading to state collapse. This is the outcome that we are most concerned to avoid, and we should be exploiting every available international instrument to try to do so. With this round of double vetoes in the UN Security Council last week, we have finally reached the point of recognizing that the Security Council cannot be the only legitimate framework for international diplomacy. Some of these alternatives that are available to us need to be exploited much more fully and much more quickly.
Let me just say a little more about this idea of broadening our engagement with the armed opposition. First, it seems to me that there's a direct correlation between the likelihood of a negotiated transition, on the one hand, and on the other, the capacity of the armed opposition to sustain its recent momentum, keep the regime on the defensive, and continue to pose a credible threat to the survival of the Assad regime. Second, I think there's also a correlation between the level of command and control within the armed opposition and the likelihood that they will avoid engaging in the kinds of violence and abuses that will amplify sectarian conflict. We have to acknowledge that the Syrian opposition has participated in activities that are exacerbating sectarian conflict in Syria, and that stronger command and control might help to mitigate those kinds of abuses. I also think there's a correlation between the level of command and control that exists within the armed opposition and the likelihood of a smoother, less violent, less chaotic transition into a post-Assad period once the regime collapses. There's a great deal more that the United States could do to advance all of these aims by broadening the range of our support to the armed opposition.
Finally, if we hope to achieve these aims, I also think the United States has to be willing to do much more than it has thus far to put in place frameworks for regulating and managing how various international actors engage with the armed opposition. We have invested an enormous amount of diplomatic effort and political capital in largely futile diplomacy to try to bring Russia on board, in one sense or another, in a more cooperative approach to resolving the crisis in Syria. However, as far as I'm aware, we have done very little to try to persuade governments that are providing weapons to the armed opposition, like the Saudis and the Qataris, of the need to create frameworks that would regulate how weapons are being provided and who is receiving them. Currently there is something of a free-for-all in relations among various factions of the armed opposition and their uncoordinated frameworks of support. This almost ensures that these armed groups, even as they play an increasingly important role in dynamics on the ground, will themselves be willing to enter into frameworks of command and control that might subordinate them to some overarching military authority and, perhaps more important, to some overarching civilian authority.
One thing seems likely to increase the probability that a post-Assad period will be dominated by competition, and perhaps conflict, among armed groups that feel very little loyalty to any centralized structure. The armed opposition is being supplied by a number of different countries that are actively resisting being brought under an umbrella of regulation of their relationships with groups they are cultivating as their clients. This is a very dangerous trend, and it would be very worthwhile for the United States to invest a great deal more in trying to manage it.
We are seeing shifts beginning to develop in U.S. diplomacy towards Syria. There was a piece in The New York Times on the weekend indicating that some of these shifts are in fact beginning to take hold within the State Department. My own sense is that these shifts are going to be very important in determining what kind of transition emerges in Syria, how the Assad regime falls, and what happens afterward.
DR. MATTAIR: Radwan, one of the themes running through every presentation was lack of knowledge about who the opposition is. We know it's heterogeneous and fragmented, but we don't know at this moment who should and who should not be getting weapons. There's a particular concern from a couple of panelists about the emergence of radical Sunni Islamists in Syria. Can you clarify for us the major movements of the opposition and talk about how they could facilitate some of the recommendations Steve just made?
DR. ZIADEH: I can refer you to the situation in Libya. The head of the military council in Tripoli was Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who was linked to al-Qaeda and was detained in the UK. After that, Belhadj established his own political party, which was one of the losing parties in Libya. The majority in the new council in Libya were liberals. The coalition of Mahmud Jibril, the liberal coalition, got 82,000 votes in Bengazi alone. The Justice and Development Party, which is close to the Muslim Brothers in Libya, got 8,000 — a gap of 70,000.
In Libya, you have a tribal society. How about Syria, where you have a much more educated society with a strong business community? Our problem is that, after 40 years of dictatorship, we don't have established political parties of opposition. The Assad dictatorship destroyed any civil society or political life in Syria. Now the Syrians are starting to organize themselves and establish political parties. I'm quite sure that we will have much more liberal government in Syria than in Libya. The most fair and free elections in Syrian history were in 1954. The Baath party won 16 seats, the Muslim Brothers only four. Of course, the social fabric has changed in Syria. But the Muslim Brothers yesterday had a conference in Turkey, at which they said they expected to win only 20 percent of the seats in any parliamentary election after the fall of the Assad regime.
This is why I think the opposition in Syria will be very divided. We will have a difficult transition because there are no strong political parties to dominate it. But I am 100 percent sure that we will not have a radical Sunni government. Unfortunately, the media and some experts who are repeating this accusation day after day have no knowledge of Syrian society or the opposition.
And then you have a strong business community in Damascus and Aleppo. When the Muslim Brothers called for strikes in Damascus and Aleppo, no one obeyed them. But when the leaders of the business community called for strikes in Hamadiya — the traditional markets in Syria — all of them closed their stores.
The Kurds do not favor the Islamic radicals. And the tribes have their own dynamics. But within the armed opposition, led by the Free Syrian Army, who's expected to sacrifice himself? The Islamists. We also saw that in Libya and other countries. They have a strong voice in the uprising, but the revolutionary group is different than the election. We saw that in Libya, in Egypt and in other countries. The Islamists in Syria right now have a strong voice, but that doesn't mean it will be reflected in the election after the fall of the Assad regime.
DR. HADAR: In 1954, Nelson Rockefeller still had influence in the Republican Party, and Paul Anka was still on the hit parade. A lot of things have happened since 1954. There are two narratives when it comes to the changes taking place in the Middle East. There is one narrative, which I rejected earlier: the 1989 East European revolution that's going to happen in the region. But I also reject the notion that the other alternative is Iran. Things are going to happen in the middle, and in that middle, Islamist parties are going to play a major role. We see it in Egypt. We've seen it even in a liberal country like Tunisia. Again, we should remember, not every country in the Middle East, even Arab countries, are the same. Every country has its own history, its own demographics, its own culture and so on. What's happened in Libya is not necessarily going to happen in Egypt or in Syria, for that matter.
Even in Libya, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. There is a coalition that has come to power. We don't know whether it will survive. And we should remember the ramifications of what happened in Libya: what's happening in Mali today. The rise of Islam there is very much a result — blowback, if you will — of what's happening in Libya. So we have to take all of that into consideration.
The closest appropriate historical analogy is Iraq. Iraq and Syria are very similar in terms of history, culture, geography and so on. And I am concerned that, as a result of the fall of the Assad regime, we are going to see a civil war, with radical forces emerging at some point. We are going to see revenge against the Alawites and the Christians. We have to take all of this into consideration. I don't know who is going to win the election here, so I really don't know who's going to win the elections in Syria. We cannot base our foreign policy on that kind of speculation.
One thing we have to remember is what I call the Christian barometer, if you will. We have Christian minorities in every Arab country. They are the most educated and cosmopolitan groups. Most of them speak two or three languages. Tom Friedman talks about globalization in the Middle East; these are the kinds of people who can do that. What we are seeing in the Middle East today is that more and more Christians are leaving. They are leaving Egypt; they certainly left Iraq. I'm very worried, as a result of what's happening in Syria today, that many of them are going to leave Syria. They certainly have left Lebanon.
So let's operate in a more gray area here than in either/or: Islamic radicalism or democracy. The Arab people in the Middle East will have to write their own narrative. We cannot impose it on them. But we certainly cannot base our policy on wishful thinking, expectations and promises. I heard the same kinds of expectations raised in Iraq: intelligent people like our Syrian speaker today, promising that great things were going to happen in Iraq, which didn't happen — and not only because of U.S. policy. There were many other factors involved. So let's be realistic about this issue.
DR. MATTAIR: Steve, who is our most important partner in helping to implement your recommendations, so that we end up with what Radwan is talking about rather than what Leon is talking about?
DR. HEYDEMANN: I think we have to be attentive to the possibility of some of the worst-case outcomes that Leon mentioned. I also think we have to be realistic in attaching probabilities to those worst-case outcomes. It seems to me that the probabilities that those kinds of outcomes will be realized in Syria are far, far lower than they are in some of the other countries in the region — including in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood had 80 years to develop its organizational infrastructure and so on.
Syria and Iraq differ significantly demographically. In Syria, you have 7-8 percent Kurds, 10-11 percent Alawis, 10-11 percent Christians, maybe 5 percent other minorities. The Sunni Muslim community is already a much smaller percentage of the population. It, itself, is divided. It contains large numbers of socially conservative, fairly poor rural communities that are likely to be drawn to a form of Islamist politics that may not look anything like the kind of extremism that imported jihadist groups have had a very difficult time securing a foothold for inside Syria.
It is almost inevitable that Islamist parties and actors will have influence in a post-Assad Syria. Saying this is a very different thing than suggesting that some of the outcomes in this list of potential worst-case scenarios are inevitably going to result in the event the Assad regime collapses. I would further argue that the longer this conflict continues, the more likely the deepening and growth of extremism becomes. This adds an additional incentive for a U.S. posture that shortens the time horizon of this conflict.
With direct respect to the question, I would argue that the Friends of Syria group offers the most effective framework for the organization of some kind of cooperative structure for regulating engagement with the armed opposition. The Arab League members of the Friends of Syria have already endorsed a wide-ranging strategy of engagement. Western European members of the group have done so as well, with slight differences in emphasis. And we've seen a division of labor emerge within the Friends of Syria group in which some countries are providing weapons, and others are providing logistical and different kinds of support.
This seems to offer a good starting point. We could build on that, expand it, institutionalize it, turn it into an effective framework that is active on the ground, probably through some sort of presence in Istanbul. It would offer a mechanism for linking the civilian leadership of the opposition to the leadership of the armed opposition and for building the kinds of downward command-and-control structures that might give us a somewhat better chance, without being naïve about the obstacles, to regulate the conduct of the armed opposition in ways that would have lots of beneficial side effects.
Q: Dr. Ziadeh, sources suggest that the majority of funds and weapons flowing into the opposition are now going to Salafi groups. What is the Syrian National Council doing to address this? Second, what is the SNC doing to improve its own performance? The SNC has been characterized by infighting and a lack of organization over the past months. Finally, what is the SNC doing to prepare for a post-Assad Syria?
DR. ZIADEH: There is no sectarian war in Syria. When the International Red Cross describes what we have in Syria as armed conflict and civil war, that doesn't mean we have a civil war. There has been no case of the Free Syrian Army or the armed opposition attacking Alawite civilian groups. Not one. Of course, the Assad regime wants to send a message to the Syrian people that the only alternative to their rule is civil war. Their message to the international community is that, by intervening, you are fomenting civil war. This is a war launched by the Assad regime against his own people.
Regarding weapons going to the Salafi group, when the United States has no role in supporting the opposition, it has no say in the transition at all. Secretary Clinton has said repeatedly that the days of Bashar al-Assad are numbered. She said that in June last year. Now we are in July 2012. She has repeated that seven or eight times. It doesn't mean anything to the Syrians.
When you don't have any role in supporting the opposition, you have no role. I'm concerned that the United States has no role in the transition in Syria. Syria has a very important location. And the United States should have leverage with the opposition. When the U.S. ambassador in Syria visited in Hama, he was welcomed with red flowers. Compare this to the comments from the public when Secretary Clinton or President Obama speaks: we call them blah-blah statements.
They are no different from the statements coming from Russia, which is supporting and supplying the Assad regime. When the United States says that they support nonlethal equipment, managed through the State Department, and a long process of grant provisions, by the time the equipment reaches the opposition, the crisis may be over.
Steve wrote a very important piece last year about managing the militarization. But right now I don't think that the United States can say anything on this issue, because people need something to defend themselves. They don't care who's giving the weapons. They just need the weapons. Now we are calling for anti-aircraft weapons. The United States should support that, because they don't want to implement a no-fly zone.
About the performance of the SNC, I totally agree; it is very frustrating. We have failed to build as strong an organization as we would like, mainly because of a lack of the support from the international community. Compare the case of the Libyan Transitional National Council, where the international community took action very quickly after the call for a no-fly zone. The main idea of the SNC is to have one address for the opposition to mobilize the international community to take action. When the SNC failed to do that, it failed in the eyes of the Syrians, as I said.
The Syrian people are also frustrated about the financial assistance. Syria needs $42 million a month for humanitarian assistance. The SNC has received only $10 million since its creation last October. And we have only received some money from Qatar and from Saudi Arabia for humanitarian assistance.
About the transition, we have a transitional plan, presented at the Friends of Syria Conference in Istanbul. Now we are much more in discussion about creating a transitional government or government in exile. But we will not establish a government in exile without support from the international community. It must be internationally recognized. The French minister of foreign affairs, along with the Arab League, has called for a government in exile or transitional government. And we have been debating this idea for a while. Now I think the moment has come. But we have to get assurances about support before announcing the ministers.
Q: In today's newspapers, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel may have to intervene in Syria if there is the possibility that Syria's chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the radicals. How credible is it, and what would an Israeli intervention do? Second, we are again here trying to choreograph what will happen in Syria after the fall of Assad's regime. We tried in Iraq and elsewhere. But it is radicals who overthrow a regime. Is the reaction of the political radicals because they hate Americans or because of American policy? As long as there is American blind support for Israel, both Islamists and secular regimes will be opposing America. What is the connection between what kind of government emerges there and American interests?
DR. HADAR: As to your first question, I doubt very much that you're going to see an Israeli intervention in Syria, considering all the chemical weapons and so on. If anything happens, it will be in coordination with the United States. So I don't think that's a problem. As far as U.S. policy is concerned, I think the attitude of the people of the Middle East reflects many considerations. Clearly the issue of Israel is one of them. And one reason that you saw a lot of anti-Americanism in Egypt, for example, was because of support for Mubarak and other authoritarian regimes in the area. I don't see that connected directly with Israel. The United States would have supported Saudi Arabia, for example, notwithstanding Israel, because of oil interests and so on. The issue, I think, is more complicated than that.
I do want to, if I may, interject one issue that I don't think was mentioned so much: the role of Turkey in this conflict. I think Turkey is playing a very important role in what's happening in Syria, probably as important as that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And as to Russia, if you go back to the nineteenth century, to the Crimean War, for example, where you had Britain and France supporting Turkey against Russia, in some respects many of those old strategic interests are coming back now. Russia has interests in the region that go back to its notion of Byzantium. One of the things that was promised to Turkey before the end of World War II was that if Russia would continue fighting after the revolution, Russia would be given Constantinople. That was one of the promises that was made at that time. So Russia clearly has a lot of interest in the region. And one of the main concerns is not so much Saudi Arabia, but the role that Turkey's playing in this.
DR. HEYDEMANN: Just quickly on the issue of chemical weapons, I don't think there's any question that the security of Syria's very large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons is, perhaps, the leading priority of a number of governments, including the United States. There has been an extensive process of contingency planning to try to anticipate scenarios in which the security of those weapons might be compromised and how various governments would respond to those kinds of circumstances.
It does seem to me that the possibility that chemical weapons might be moved across the border into Lebanon is of very low probability. I don't regard it as among the most likely of the potential scenarios. But I do think that if a number of governments, perhaps even including ours, were to perceive a significant threat to the security of those stockpiles, some of the contingency plans would probably be put into effect.
There is an enormous stockpile of these weapons. It's one of the largest in the world. And the threat that those weapons might fall into the hands of extremist groups is something that rates very, very high on the spectrum of threat scenarios that a number of governments are dealing with.
Q: How much does Russia's relationship with Israel figure into its calculations and actions vis-à-vis Syria?
DR. KATZ: Certainly since the rise of Putin to power, Russian-Israeli relations have grown quite close. The economic relationship has increased significantly. Russians are now buying certain types of Israeli military technology. Israeli technology enhances Russian arms sales to significant purchasers such as India. There's also a huge Russian-speaking diaspora in Israel. It's really quite curious, because a lot of these people left Russia because they didn't like how they were being treated there. They go to Israel, and then they suddenly fall in love with Russia. It's really remarkable. They've become sort of a lobbying group for Russian-Israeli relations.
Also, just on the human level, in certain months the number of Russian tourists in Israel has exceeded the number of American tourists. So there is not just government-to-government but society-to-society-level contact. I was at a Russian-Israeli conference four years ago in Jerusalem, and what really amazed me was that Israeli conservatives and Russian officialdom think very much alike, especially in their negative view of the forces at work in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
Part of what has helped the Russians hang tough on Assad is that, while the Russians recognize that they have very little influence in Washington, they know that Israel does, and that Israel is ambivalent about change in Syria. Unfortunately, the Israeli conservative government isn't focusing on how things might be better with Assad gone; it focuses on how things might be worse. So I think what the Russians see is that the Israeli government will act to restrain the American enthusiasm with regard to change in Syria. Whether that's right or wrong, Israel is a complex country. There's been a debate about what should happen in Syria, and I think that, on the whole, the Israelis seem to prefer the devil they know to the one they don't know.
DR. HADAR: One of the things I urge all of you to do is consider what I call almost an epistemological change in terms of analyzing foreign policy. I think we are going back to the kind of diplomacy that we had in the nineteenth century, as opposed to the twentieth when we had good guys and bad guys and everything was clear — World War II, the Cold War. Those of you who studied nineteenth-century diplomacy know how difficult it is. It used to change almost every day. There was a certain fluidity in that, I think you are going to see more and more of it in the diplomacy that's going to take place now. The role of Russia is a good example. The relationship between Israel and Turkey or between Turkey and the United States is another. If you'll recall, only a few months ago people were saying that Turkey was joining the terrorist camp. I think one of the Republican candidates even called it a terrorist state for its hardened stance in its relationship with Israel. Now Turkey's again emerging as an ally of the United States.
As far as this issue is concerned, it's much more complex than that. I disagree with Mark Katz. I think the Israelis actually want Assad to fall, because he is allied with the Hezbollah and Iran. And in the chess game in the Middle East, his collapse would be seen as a positive development. Of course, everyone is worried what will happen after that, but I think they do want him to fall.
At the same time, the relationship between Israel and Russia is improving. As you pointed out, it has to do also with the role of Turkey. There was a lot of talk about an alliance supposedly among Greece, Israel and Cyprus with Russia against Turkey. Again, I won't turn that into a major transformation in relationships, but it's going to be part of the process. Things are going to change. There's going to be a good relationship between Israel and Turkey, between Israel and Russia, and with the United States. So let's not go from one extreme to another. I don't see a Russian-Israeli alliance; I see just an improving relationship between the two countries, which I think is overall quite positive.
DR. MATTAIR: That's the first time I heard the word "Iran" in the last two hours. How much does Iran stand to lose from developments in Syria, from the fall of the regime and the emergence of some different kind of regime? And is Russia acting in part to protect Iran's interests?
DR. KATZ: I think the Iranians do stand to lose a lot. Assad is their most important ally in the Arab world. But in many respects, this isn't so much a Russia-versus-America game. It's Saudi Arabia versus Iran. When the Arab Spring began, the Iranians were cheerleaders for it. They predicted that the downfall of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt was going to benefit Iran tremendously. It hasn't quite done so. They're not so happy when it's their ally that is under a threat. Syria has been the conduit through which a lot of Iranian assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas has passed. We've already seen that Hamas has distanced itself from the Syrian government. And I think Iran stands to lose a lot of its leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian, and in the Syrian and the Lebanese arenas if there is change.
In terms of the Russian-Iranian relationship, I think Russia sees itself as having good relations with what we think of as adversaries — Israel on the one hand, Iran and Syria on the other. From the Russian point of view, there's a common thread: all of these are opposed to radical Sunni Islam. Therefore, they don't want to see any of them fall. Why, they wonder, don't the Americans recognize that?
DR. HEYDEMANN: I tend to agree, Mark, with your overall assessment. I think the balance sheet of the impact on Iran's position in the region in the event of regime change in Syria needs to include some additional considerations. Perhaps the most important one is whether, in fact, the success of the revolution would mean the end of resistance in terms of how Syria's new leadership would define its relationship to a number of core regional issues.
I'm not entirely sure that we should expect the success of the revolution to mean the end of resistance. On questions like Palestine, we have a very deeply nationalistic profile among the leadership of the opposition with respect to its overall orientation toward a number of regimes in the region. The idea that any self-respecting president of a post-Assad Syrian state would embrace dependence on Saudi Arabia strikes me as profoundly unlikely and perhaps politically unwise. The idea that a new Syrian government would completely reorient its foreign policy posture in ways that would align it more closely with the United States is also possible but unlikely. So, even though a change in regime would certainly have a significant effect on Hezbollah, on Iran and on Iran's ability to project its influence in the region, the notion of a strategic tipping on the part of Syria I think has often been overstated.
With respect to Iran and Russia as partners in supporting the Assad regime, it's certainly the case that there are elements of collaboration. But when we think about the moment when it might be in Russia's interest to bring the Assad regime to the table, the presence of Iran in Syria and the role that Iran has played in equipping the Syrian armed forces with weapons, ammunition and supplies, and the extent to which Iran stands to lose a great deal more from the loss of that alliance than the Russians would lose from a potential change of regime — it seems to me that we could see increasing tensions between Iran and Russia over how to manage the end game in Syria than might be immediately apparent.
Q: Is there any concern regarding the fact that Saudi Arabia is implicated in hiring foreign mercenaries and providing arms to Syrian rebels over the last couple of months?
DR. ZIADEH: There is a misunderstanding, mainly by the media, about the armed opposition. The main portion of the armed opposition are soldiers who have defected, refused to obey the orders of the Assad regime, led by the officers. We have in each city and town what's called a military council. The head of each military council is usually a colonel or general who has defected. This is why the armed opposition in Syria, what's called the Free Syrian Army, is much more organized than the rebels in Libya. Many reports from the CIA and, of course, think tanks here in the Washington community have confirmed this.
The Free Syrian Army is much more organized. Without any support from the international community, they can take advantage, because they know the weaknesses of the Assad militias. They served in the same army. The accusations about Salafi or jihadi groups are not true. This morning I had a Skype conference call with some of the officers. They explained to me the situation in Damascus and Aleppo. They know the situation and they all complain about the lack of ammunition. But basically, because there is no safety zone, it's very difficult for them to appear in the media or to get much public attention.
Ninety percent of the guns and the arms come from the Assad regime itself. The Assad army is a very corrupt institution. This is why it's very easy to get weapons by bribing soldiers or officers. The stores of the Assad regime are located in different areas. The main location is in Homs. When the Free Syrian Army took over many of these stores, they got weapons.
DR. MATTAIR: The Saudi foreign minister has openly called for arming the opposition. There's no secret. It's not a question of "implicating" the Saudi government. It is responding to its own domestic population and people throughout the Gulf, who are primarily Sunni and are watching Sunnis be mowed down inside Syria. It's not in their interest to knowingly arm what's been termed here "Salafists." There are different kinds of Salafists, and they're not all radical jihadis. It's not in their interest to arm radical jihadis. In fact, they're engaged in a very protracted and intense war against al-Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia.
Q: Now that the United States is reassessing its foreign policy following the vetoes in the UN Security Council last week, what would be the one or two steps the United States could take, from both a diplomatic and a practical perspective, to try to reach U.S. goals and improve the situation on the ground?
DR. ZIADEH: They could prepare a very different agenda for the next meeting of the Friends of Syria conference in Morocco, and they should work closely with the Arab League, with Turkey and other European countries to have definitive recommendations about implementing safety zones. In Turkey, they are willing to do that. Today, the Jordanian prime minister did an interview on al-Jazeera mentioning it. Some of this is not clear, but he shows that Jordan has been frustrated by the lack of action from the international community. Jordan and Lebanon are the most affected countries. Very important signals have come not only from Jordan but also from Lebanon, where the president asked the ministry to ask the Security Council about Syrian violations of the Syrian-Lebanese borders.
The regional countries are calling for more action. Before now, there wasn't such a trend. The United States should build on this regional consensus, on the Arab League, on Turkey and on Europe to formulate an agenda for a safety zone. A safety zone inside Syrian territory is a priority for the Syrians right now. No one is asking for troops or boots on the ground. No one is asking for military intervention, as we had in Iraq. I think the Free Syrian Army is capable of doing the job, but they need assistance.
DR. HEYDEMANN: At the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6, Secretary Clinton added some unscripted comments to her speech. She was very assertive, stating that Russia and China are paying no price for their support for the Assad regime. And she called on all of the governments represented at the meeting to take additional steps to make clear that there would be consequences for Russia and China if they continued along their current path. One of the most significant consequences could be, and I think is likely to be, the shift of international diplomacy around the Syria question out of the UN Security Council and the increasing marginalization of Russia as an actor in international diplomatic efforts. I'm not talking about Russia's presence on the ground. And if we find that this pace of change on the ground continues to accelerate and that we are sooner rather than later dealing with the end stages of the Assad regime, the possibility that Russia could be excluded from that process, I think, would be a possibility that the Russian leadership would view with a great deal of concern. So I would view that as an additional step: accelerating the effort to shift international diplomacy into arenas where Russia no longer exercises a veto over the international community's strategy towards Syria.
DR. KATZ: I would elaborate a bit on what Steve proposes. I think that what the United States should do at this point is to announce that it will no longer seek to resolve the situation in Syria through the Security Council, but only through the Friends of Syria — but leave the door open for Russia to join that group.
I also think that we ought to try to do — not just the United States but the Arab League, the Syrian National Council (which the Russians, by the way, do talk to) — is to engage Moscow. We should ask them, "What are you doing?" It's one thing to enjoy thwarting the United States, but Putin, until the Arab Spring, had been pretty successful in courting Arab public opinion. Then suddenly it's all stopped. I think there's a case to be made that, with regard to Libya, part of the reason the Russians allowed the Security Council resolutions on Libya to pass was that it was requested by the Arab League. In other words, they were sensitive to Arab opinion then. But this has simply ended; they seem to not care anymore about what the Arabs think. It is kind of shocking that, in many respects, Russian policy has become fairly bloody-minded with regard to Syria. There are some of us who actually do care about Russia, and this is something that we ought to talk to them about privately — while on the other hand going forward with our policies through the Friends of Syria.
Q: My question is about the opposition. We know that the Islamic parties are rising in the Middle East. What do we do about that, and how much are we engaged in the transformations that these Islamic parties are going through?
DR. ZIADEH: If we compare the parliamentary election where the Muslim Brothers in Egypt won a majority, with the results of the presidential election where Mohamed Morsi became president, in these five months, the Muslim Brothers lost 5 million votes. It was neck and neck between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. I think if we had a candidate other than Shafiq, who's seen as one of the sons of the military establishment and the Mubarak regime, I don't think that Mohamed Morsi would have won.
Arab societies are changing. The Islamists who are in their 70s and 80s understand that there is a change in the dynamics. This is why most of them are building coalitions with secular political parties. If they believe that they can take over, maybe they don't care. But in Tunisia, they have a coalition. In Egypt right now they are building a coalition. They are in the SNC as a coalition of different secular groups, liberal groups and others. They are not the majority, but they are the most organized group.
The United States should take this into consideration and engage with the Islamists and other groups, but I don't think the Obama administration has a plan for the Arab Spring. It's been surprised by the Arab Spring, with all the crises here in the United States, especially the financial crisis. And the Democratic administration, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows no interest in a strong foreign policy in the Middle East. The Obama administration has put its campaign hopes on promising to withdraw from Afghanistan and in Iraq. This is why they show no interest in doing more in the Middle East. And this has weakened the U.S. position in the region. We don't see U.S. officials often in the region visiting Libya or Tunisia or promising any major U.S. role in the region.
DR. HADAR: You are right that it's a dynamic situation; it changes from day to day, and so should U.S. policy. The United States has to adjust and adapt to the changing realities. I totally disagree with this notion that the United States has the power or the will to micromanage our politics. This again reflects tribal, ethnic, religious and sectarian politics, which are much more complex than elections in Brooklyn, New York. The notion that the United States is going to go there and affect the outcome of elections is ridiculous. The United States doesn't have the power or the ability to do that.
I think the Obama administration has followed a very reasonable policy. There was a change in Egypt; they couldn't have prevented Mubarak from falling. They decided that they have to just try to adjust to the changing realities. They don't have any other choice than to support the coming to power of an Islamist government, however, which has led to the secular and liberal parties accusing the American administration of being allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. But they didn't have any other choice. They should be careful of getting involved too much in those domestic politics. The end result is that you decide based on what the policies of the Egyptian government are going to be, to what extent they seem to align with the interests and values of the United States. If they do, you work with them; if they don't, you oppose them.
DR. MATTAIR: This question is from the live-streamed audience: Is the option of a separate Alawite state feasible, and is this option being discussed?
I suppose this grows out of a concern that there will be retribution against Alawites. I have a question, taking off on this. One of the biggest mistakes we made in Iraq was purging the Sunni Baathists. How likely is it that significant segments of the Alawite-dominated regime are going to act against Assad, and how much of the Alawite regime has to go because they're implicated in this repression? And how much of the Alawite regime would be acceptable to the SNC and Free Syrian Army?
DR. ZIADEH: There is no such theory or theorists working on or looking for this option. Even in the coastal part in Syria, there was a mixture of people. Most of the hearts of the cities — Latakia, Tartus — are Sunni, and they have demonstrations every day. They support, of course, Alawites. At the same, they are mixed. There is no pure Alawite region where they can have their own state. But unfortunately, we speak in the media of this option.
Regarding the second question, the opposition in Syria, too, take the lessons of Iraq very seriously. Two weeks ago, when one of the top leaders in the Baath party, the Syrian ambassador in Iraq, Nawaf Fares, defected, he was automatically welcomed within the Syrian opposition.
We know that the Baath party became a tool of power. It's a socialist party and everyone joined it to get some benefits from the state, rather than joining a theological-operated party as in the '50s. This is why you will not punish a million people just because they are members of the Baath party. Since the uprising started, the first wave of defection was Baath party members in Idlib, in Daraa, in Deir ez-Zor and other areas. Now we have at least two top leaders of the Baath party — who are the heads of the regional office in Idlib and in Daraa — who defected and are in Turkey. We are working in the opposition with them, side by side.
When we call for the fall of the Assad regime, we mean the Assad family and the Makhlouf family and the other top advisers and officers within the security system. Three days ago, the head of the military security — Mohammed Mufleh — defected and went to Turkey. He was responsible for the Hama massacre in June 2011, where more than 76 were killed, because he was the head of the military security in Hama at that time. There is a debate about what to do with him. There's our blood on his hands. It's not an easy issue. But within the SNC, there is a very detailed plan about different types of transitional justice. I think this will be implemented in the future.
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