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Will Assad Prevail in Syria?

Interviewee: Michael Young, Opinion Page Editor, Daily Star
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 30, 2013

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Given Iran and Russia's strong support of the Syrian government, there are indications that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may be prevailing in the country's civil war, says Michael Young, longtime observer of the Middle East. As for the imperiled peace conference that had been tentatively scheduled for mid-June, Young says that because Assad's forces are "making military gains today, any demand by the opposition in Geneva for him to leave office, to my mind, will not be realistic." The main opposition's announcement that it will not attend the conference, he says, "is a mistake, because it means that Geneva becomes meaningless and the Syrian opposition will be blamed for the failure. I suspect that considerable pressure will be placed on the opposition now to reconsider its position, or else risk losing any Western sympathy and backing. This position makes it much more difficult for the European powers, let alone the United States, to supply arms to the rebel forces."

Lebanese Army soldiers stand in front of a poster depicting former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Lebanon's parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. (Photo: Ali Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters)

What do you make of the main Syrian opposition announcing it would not attend the U.S.- and Russian-backed conference in Geneva?

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the decision is a mistake, because it means that Geneva becomes meaningless and the Syrian opposition will be blamed for the failure. I suspect that considerable pressure will be placed on the opposition now to reconsider its position, or else risk losing any Western sympathy and backing. This position makes it much more difficult for the European powers, let alone the United States, to supply arms to the rebel forces.

In one respect, I can understand the bitterness of the Syrian opposition: it is losing ground, has unreliable allies, and sees Geneva as a forum that will only consolidate President Bashar Assad's gains. However, it was clear on Wednesday that Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallim's statement that Assad would remain in power until 2014 was, in part, an effort to push the opposition to refuse to go to Geneva, and in that way isolate itself. This ploy appears to have worked.

This is a dire time for the Syrian opposition. We could be at a turning point in the war against the Assad regime.

Having said all this, the opposition was right in mistrusting Geneva. The conference seems to be heading in the direction that the Russians want, while the United States is only looking for a way to avoid getting more involved in Syria and will use any ensuing negotiation process as a way of doing so. The opposition feels abandoned, and in many ways it is. The Syrian regime has crossed all red lines in terms of barbarity--up to 80,000 people have been killed, most of them opponents of Assad--and yet no one seems outraged by this. From a moral perspective, I understand the opposition, but from a political perspective, its performance in the past few years has been a disaster.

I believe that the National Coalition, which is largely in exile, has also chosen not to go to Geneva for a more fundamental reason: it cannot impose its conditions on the rebels inside Syria. This will allow Assad to pursue his offensive against the rebels, with the West and the Arab states as divided and useless as they were before. It would have been far better for the opposition to prepare carefully for Geneva, get a mandate from the armed groups inside Syria, and coordinate with its friends abroad to ensure that it would not be sold down the road. Instead, Geneva, if indeed it goes ahead, will take place without the opposition (assuming it remains united around the decision not to attend), while the United States has been embarrassed and Russia and Iran's approach has been validated.

The advantage will ultimately turn to those who have clear ideas--the Russians, the Iranians, and Syrian [loyalists].

This is a dire time for the Syrian opposition. We could be at a turning point in the war against the Assad regime. Russia and Iran stuck with Assad, while the Obama administration has spent two years fiddling about and issuing empty statements without a clear strategy. Worse, those who will derive the most from this situation are the jihadists, who can only gain from the Syrian opposition's disarray and sense of abandonment. Blame the opposition in exile, but blame also those who purported to support them and never came through.

The opposition still hasn't gotten its act together yet, has it?

No, and this may prove fatal to the opposition. Many people, me included, thought that Bashar would not be able to emerge from this. I fear that we may have been wrong. I'm not saying that he will succeed in retaking the whole of Syria, but at least in the lead-up to Geneva, the advantage is with him because ultimately he's making military gains today, and any demand by the opposition in Geneva for him to leave office, to my mind, will not be realistic. In fact, I very much doubt that in Geneva there will be discussion of Bashar's leaving office, because the Russians don't want to discuss this.

It's amazing. I've interviewed about a dozen experts on Syria over the last two years, and everyone said Assad will be out. It will be interesting to see if he's still in power at the end of this year.

I think we will go through a prolonged period where the country will be split in two. I think that the north and the east of the country will remain for the time being under the control of the rebels, but his political position will be consolidated by these military gains. In other words, opening a discussion on his departure will be unrealistic because this is simply something he will not want to discuss. It's also something the Russians will not want to discuss, and given the opposition's lack of unity, and given the fuzziness of the Obama administration--its priority is not to get caught up in the Syrian situation--the advantage will ultimately turn to those who have clear ideas: the Russians, Iranians, and Syrian [loyalists].

How has the speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly announcing that Hezbollah was fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad affected the political climate in Lebanon?

It essentially heightened the tension inside the country because the way Nasrallah justified this [move] was [by implying] that essentially, Hezbollah was fighting Israel in Syria. In other words, as he put it, if the Salafists--extreme Sunnis--took power in Syria, Israel and the United States would exploit this, and they would effectively turn against Hezbollah, which is largely Shiite. So what he effectively was saying is that the conflict in Syria was necessary for Hezbollah to engage in because this was a way of defending itself against, as he implied, this alliance between the takfiris (extremists), the Salafis, jihadists (Sunni extremists), the United States, and Israel.

That's a strange alliance.

It's a very strange alliance, but remember: This has been an alliance that the Syrian regime itself has suggested exists. I don't think Nasrallah really sought to justify this or explain this in a pedagogical way. The point being, of course, that if Syria fell, as he put it, this would bring intervention by the United States and by Israel that would essentially end the Palestinian cause and, in a sense, Hezbollah. There was an element of self-defense in this.

There are elections due in Lebanon in mid-June. What is that about?

They've been scheduled, but the general belief is that they will be postponed probably for a year and a half to two years because Hezbollah doesn't want elections to take place today, and there are a number of leading political groups in Lebanon and politicians who would also favor a delay in elections. It's now in the hands of parliament to decide whether there is a postponement for a year and a half to two years, and the general consensus is that there probably will be a postponement of elections.

Bring American readers up to date on the political situation in Lebanon. Back in 2007, there was a great deal of excitement over this March 14 movement after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, who was seeking to free Lebanon from Syrian domination. What's happened? Has that movement disintegrated, or is Hezbollah now in charge? Who's running the country?

By and large, what we saw in those years was a number of key developments. In 2009, the Saudis--this is very important--essentially reconciled with the Syrian regime. This had implications for the domestic Lebanese scene because Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, who had been elected prime minister himself, was forced, given his closeness with the Saudi Arabians, to reconcile himself with the Syrian regime. And this shifted political alignments in the country, so when the elections in 2009 happened, the March 14 coalition was victorious. They had a majority. The government that was formed, that came after the elections, was formed by Saad Hariri, and it was a government that didn't take such a hostile position with respect to Syria, given this reconciliation that had been pushed by the Saudis. So this, in a sense, was one of the first blows to March 14's unity, because remember that the March 14 coalition was an alliance against Syria. The March 14 coalition lost its majority in parliament because one of the key figures in March 14, Walid Jumblatt, broke away and reconciled himself with the Syrian regime. So the fortunes of the March 14 movement after this declined substantially because it became an opposition party, and a government was formed by Najib Mikati in which Hezbollah had the predominant role.

Mikati always had a legitimacy problem because his government was formed essentially after Hezbollah brought down the government of Saad Hariri, so this was seen by many Sunnis as almost a coup by Hezbollah. [His government] struggled for two years until basically it resigned this year, and today we're without a government. Mikati's government is in power in a caretaker capacity, and we're still waiting for a new government to be formed by Tammam Salam, who is another Sunni politician.

So the March 14 coalition has been a story since 2005, when Rafik Hariri was assassinated, but they've lost a great deal of momentum. Saad Hariri, who was effectively leader of the March 14 movement, left the country two years ago, and he hasn't been back, and so that has [also] greatly damaged its effectiveness.

The irony is the Saudis, who had urged him to support the Syrians, now of course are a leading force against the Syrians.

Yes, exactly. Two years ago, everything broke down in the Arab world. Initially the Saudis were reluctant to oppose the Syrians when the revolt began in Syria and the Syrian regime began its policy of repression, but they [eventually] turned squarely against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as did other countries like Qatar, Turkey, and so on. These were all countries that at one stage had been close to the Syrian regime, but they turned against the Syrian regime given the ferocity of the repression by the Assad leadership.

So right now the Syrians are completely isolated, except for Hezbollah's support.

Syria is no longer defined by the situation on the ground; it's defined by a process that Bashar al-Assad has every intention of controlling.

I wouldn't say they're isolated. In the Arab world, of course, they still have some countries that are helping them, namely Iraq and Algeria. Now that may not sound like very much, but it's important in Arab forums; these are countries that have managed to prevent unanimity amongst the Arab states on Syria. Of course, the most important allies that Assad still has are the Russians and the Iranians, and these are really the key allies that have managed to bolster [the Assad] regime. They may help turn the tide of what's going on in Syria. It's certainly helped [Assad] in the area of Qusayr, near Homs, which is the strategic passageway between Damascus and the Syrian coast, which is also where Hezbollah today is fighting.

The fighting is still going on there, right? It's been more than a week.

That's right. The Syrian rebels are putting up quite a fight, but ultimately I think the regime will succeed in taking that area and in securing its passage between Damascus and the coast, which allows them to reinforce Damascus and also get supplies from the ports on the coast.

One last question on Lebanon itself: How's the economy doing?

Not well. The economy has suffered quite a bit from the situation in Syria. Remember, Syria is the transit point for Lebanese exports to the Arab world. It's essentially been much more dangerous for Lebanese exporters to export to the Arab world. The security situation has not been good, so even tourism--the economy relies on tourism--has been very poor the last two summers, and the expectation is that it won't be any better this summer. So the country is definitely suffering from what's going on.

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