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The U.S. Role in a Changing Mideast

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian, Founding Director, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 17, 2012

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Given the changing nature of the Middle East, the United States must realize that it cannot direct the course of political events in the Arab world, especially in the light of the Arab awakening and the Arab spring, says veteran Middle East expert, Edward P. Djerejian. "Whatever we can do to influence the evolution of these societies under more stable, democratic and free economic paths is where the United States should be crafting its policies," he says. On the situation in Syria, Djerejian says that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while initially promising reforms, never implemented them as many had hoped at the start of the conflict. "The regime simply didn't understand the thrust of the Arab Awakening and the Arab Spring," he said, noting that now there seems no viable political compromise. He also predicts that the post-Assad era will bring a downturn in Iran-Syria relations due to its current strong support for Assad.

You were U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1988 to 1991, when President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez ruled the country. When the Arab spring reached Damascus in the spring of 2011, most people thought that Bashar al-Assad would start instituting some kind of political reform agenda. Why did the situation in Syria reach this point where we have a civil war going on now?

Many groups in Syria, as well as Syria's Arab neighbors, and the international community, including the United States and the European countries, really gave Bashar al-Assad a wide political pass to get in front of the reform movement in Syria. There was a perception that as a young president who came to power in 2000 and who himself had proclaimed a reform agenda, that he would try to implement political and economic reforms that the "street" in Syria was now demanding.

The revolt started in Dera'a, and the initial protestors were very young students. It's no accident that the two sites they protested against in Dera'a, this rural town in southern Syria was the Ministry of Interior building, which represented the state oppression and a lack of political participation in the country's affairs, and Syriatel, which is the Syrian telecommunications company that is owned by the Makhlouf family. Rami Makhlouf, the patriarch, is a cousin of the Assads. They have a virtual monopoly on some of the major economic activities in Syria, such as the duty-free zones, various car dealerships, and the energy sector. And so it's interesting that these young protesters demonstrated in front of Syriatel also because that is the other part of the problem in Syria: one is the lack of political participation and oppression; and secondly, is the deep seeded economic problems of unemployment, very unfair income distribution, and systemic corruption in the regime.

So why didn't Assad carry out reforms?

The bottom line on Bashar al-Assad, on why he didn't do anything, is that he turned out to talk the talk but never walk the walk of reforms. I had a meeting with him in 2003 three years after he came into power, but basically I said to him "Mr. President, you've come to power as a reformist, but we don't see many specific reform policies being implemented in Syria." He told me at that time that the people had to be ready for structural reforms, and that he would start out in a very incremental way, like personnel reforms in the government, things of that nature. I sensed at that point that he was very hesitant on moving forward. What really struck me was jumping ahead to the summer of 2011, when I was reading official news and public statements from Syrian regime spokespersons, the same message was being propagated, that reforms have to be implemented incrementally and at a pace determined by the regime.

The regime simply didn't understand the thrust of the Arab Awakening and the Arab Spring, didn't understand this tectonic shift that started in Tunisia and Egypt and spread through the Arab world. Bashar never implemented reforms. The international community gave him that pass for many months, but then when it became evident that he was not serious about structural reforms, either political or economic, the Arab countries and the international community began to pressure the Syrian regime. That led to the sanctions, and the condemnations, from the Arab League, and the United Nations. And when there was no timely response to these reform demands the peaceful protests turned into violent protests with the regime cracking down on the protesters. And we've now seen over 21,000 or 22,000 people killed in Syria, as a result of this massive confrontation between the opponents of the regime and the regime forces.

How would you describe the opponents right now? Obviously we've moved away from street protests of people wanting more freedom to a political opposition that wants to overthrow the government and have a different government.

In those earlier months, there was political space for a negotiated political transition. That quickly deteriorated into the bloody confrontations we've witnessed in Syria now. The opposition increasingly became so disillusioned of any hope of dealing effectively with the Assad regime that the opposition, not only became armed, but said that they are not interested in dealing with the regime in a political transition, [and] that the regime had lost all its legitimacy [and] had to go. That was a critical turning point that in many ways condemned Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan to failure. The situation has become a total confrontation, and what I fear is that it has become a confrontation between "victor and vanquished." There's no middle ground where a negotiated settlement may be achieved.

Iran seems to be very vigorously involved as a supporter of the Assad regime, as well as the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Is this now an ideological war?

Iran, in my eyes, is a big loser in the situation in Syria because Syria was Iran's major thrust into the Levant and into the Arab world. As a Shiite country, Iran had thrust itself into a majority Sunni country like Syria, which is really in the heart of the Arab world. The political influence that Iran had in Syria and in Lebanon via Syria's ties with Hezbollah, was a critical element in Iran's strategy towards enhancing its influence in the Arab world. And that strategic alliance between Iran and Syria was put into place by Hafez al-Assad.

People are forgetting that Iran is very much on the defensive in Syria because there's no question, at least in my mind, that Syria is headed for a post-Assad era.

Assad basically [used an alliance with Iran] to surround Saddam Hussein's Iraq, because the Syrian Ba'ath party and the Iraqi Ba'ath party, and the two leaders, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad were very bitter rivals. Hafez al-Assad was a very adept strategic thinker and player in the Middle East. He handled the Iranian relationship with Syria. I believe that under Bashar, the Iranians now dominate the relationship not Syria. So this is a potentially very major loss for the Iranians in my eyes.

People are forgetting that Iran is very much on the defensive in Syria because there's no question, at least in my mind, that Syria is headed for a post-Assad era, and whoever comes to power in that era is not going to be a close ally of Iran because one political demographic factor is that Syria's population is 74 percent Sunni Arab, not Shiite. The distribution of political power in a post-Assad era is going to favor the Sunnis and therefore it's going to be inevitably a weakening of the relationship.

Do you think it's possible, however, that the Assad-Iranian alliance can actually win this war?

No. The Iranians can continue to bolster the regime and attempt to suppress the opposition and in the short term can cause a great deal of damage to the opposition. All of this will just prolong the horrible and tragic bloodshed in Syria, but it's a losing game in the long-term, because the Assad regime has shown that it no longer controls very important aspects of sovereignty in its own country. When you have major resistance in the cities and towns of Syria, including the major cities of Aleppo and Damascus, it shows that this regime is fighting in my eyes a defensive battle.

When we discussed the Middle East when the "Arab Spring" had just begun in 2011, you said "a tectonic change" was taking place in the region. Have you altered your view on that at all?

No, not at all, I think in early interview we had described the Arab Spring as a tectonic shift in the political landscape of the Middle East and that has proven to be all too true in the year and half since. The "Arab Spring" is manifesting itself in many different ways, country by country, but the overall thrust is the search for individual self-determination and political and economic freedom. This is a major development in the Middle East, which is having an impact not only in the Arab world but also in the broader Muslim world itself. For example, I see it impacting in South Asia, in countries like Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. So the "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening" is a phenomenon that calls for, at this point, the formulation of a more comprehensive strategy towards how it impacts on U.S. principles and national security interests.

What should the United States be doing? Does it have any real influence in this region anymore?

We have to understand that the United States cannot direct the course of political events in the Arab world, especially in the light of the Arab Awakening and the Arab Spring. So we must not make an arrogant judgment that we can actually direct events. We can influence those events because we still have many resources and many important interests in the region, but we have to do it collectively, with as many international partners as we can muster. One thing that is very important to influence the outcome of the Arab Spring and Awakening is to demand more political participation by the people in the affairs of their lives politically, economically, and socially. You can call it democracy, but it will be democracy with very Arab and Islamic characteristics. Whatever we can do to influence the evolution of these societies under more stable, democratic and free economic paths is where the United States should be crafting its policies.

We have to understand that the United States cannot direct the course of political events in the Arab world, especially in the light of the Arab Awakening and the Arab Spring.

The military option is very problematic, especially in Syria. There may be a "Srebrenica moment" [in Srebrenica, Bosnia in July 1995, some eight-thousand Bosnian Muslims were executed by Serbian troops] where the killing on the ground compels the international community to move militarily like it did in the Balkans. Something like that could happen, but in the absence of that, I think that if the bloodshed continues, what we may see is incrementally more consideration being given to forms of military intelligence assistance and the possibility of no-fly zones if there are zones that are created by the opposition in Syria that could be defended by no-fly zones.


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