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The Long Reach for Syrian Peace

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 5, 2013

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The primary strategic threat to the United States and its allies in the Syrian conflict is the potential triumph of radical jihadist fighters, says CFR President Emeritus Les Gelb. He argues that Washington should pressure moderate Sunni rebels to work, at least temporarily, with the Assad government in defeating the hard-line Islamists—the "biggest threat" to both sides. "The [Assad government knows] that if the jihadis come to power, they're going to kill them all; while the mostly secular, moderate Sunnis know that if the jihadis come to power, they will impose an Islamic state with sharia law." Once the jihadist danger is eliminated, Gelb says, perhaps a power-sharing agreement between the moderate Sunni majority and the Alawite (Shiite) minority can be reached.

Young Free Syrian Army fightersYoung Free Syrian Army fighters pose for a picture on a couch in Old Aleppo, November 2013. (Photo: Molhem Barakat/Courtesy Reuters)

Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East seeking support for a Geneva II conference aimed at ending the fighting in Syria. Do you think that is even feasible at this stage?

It doesn't look like the conference can work, mainly because the principal parties to the conflict don't want to negotiate. The so-called "good" rebels—the Sunni moderates that we support, who are led by Ahmed al-Jarba and based in Turkey—are reluctant to negotiate with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. And Assad, who's willing to show up there at some level, isn't really willing to give up anything at this point. So I don't think that Kerry will succeed in bringing about a conference—and even if he does, it may not accomplish anything.

So, he's in a real bind it seems. Should the United States do more by increasing military aid to the rebels?

When I was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, most of the senators were going in that direction: let's supply more and better arms to the moderate, secular, Sunni rebels. My answer to that is to point out what's happened the last ten years. Other nations have been supplying more and better weapons to the "good rebels" while Russia and Iran have countered by supplying more and better arms to the Assad regime. And the main beneficiary of that is quite clear: the jihadis, the radical rebels.

So the current U.S. policy that's trying to fix this in Geneva doesn't make any sense, while the business of saying "forget negotiations and arm the good rebels" has only produced stalemate and ever-higher levels of suffering hardship for the Syrian people.

Is there another solution out there?

I don't know if there's a solution, but there's a more sensible way of proceeding based on some reality. We should start with the question: "Who is the biggest threat to U.S. interests?" Is it Assad? Well, Assad is a miserable, nasty dictator, but we lived with him and his father, Hafez al-Assad, for decades and decades. And while he did some warlike things from time to time, basically we and our allies in the region could live with him.

So are the rebels the answer? Well, we'd like to have them come to power, but there's no clear path to that. They're not threatening us, but they're not threatening Assad very much either. So the real threat, it seems to me, comes from the jihadis and al-Qaeda—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They aren't the numerical majority [of rebels], but they are the main fighting force and opposition to Assad. More importantly, they are a major threat to us and to our allies in the region. You ask the Israelis, the Jordanians, the Turks, the Iraqis, who they worry about most, and they'll say the jihadis and the potential for them to get control of Syria.

Are you suggesting that we make a deal with Assad?

What I'm proposing specifically is that we try to get the "good rebels" to come to a cooperative arrangement with Assad's government to fight the jihadis. Now, you're not going to be able to get an "alliance," sitting down together and working on a joint plan or anything, but you've got to get both sides focusing on [fighting the jihadis]—because they are the biggest threat to the Alawite Assad family and the Sunni moderates.

The Alawites know that if the jihadis come to power they're going to kill them all; while the mostly secular, moderate Sunnis know that if the jihadis come to power they will impose an Islamic state with sharia law. So you have to get [the Assad regime and Sunni moderates] on the same path, focusing their military efforts against the jihadis.

So the United States has to put pressure on the Sunni moderates to come to the Geneva conference?

That's right. The [United States] should tell the Sunni moderates that their first obligation is to beat these jihadis and reach a future political understanding with Assad. It could be something like: "When the battleground has settled down to some degree, let's have a political settlement based on power sharing, perhaps based on a federal state."

I would propose a federal state where the Alawites would be dominant in some regions where they are the majority, and the Sunni moderates would be dominant in most of the rest of the country, and they could share power in Damascus on common interests like fiscal policy, oil and gas, and the like. And Assad would step down and wouldn't run for reelection. I think you can work something like that out. Otherwise, you're just going to have more killing with the jihadis as the main beneficiary and the Syrian people as the main victims.

Now, could the Turks really lean on them?

The Turks are sort of a mystery. At some point they were playing both sides: they were allowing aid, arms, and money to go through to the jihadis while they were allowing some arms to go through to the moderate Sunni rebels. They couldn't figure out what they wanted, and that's a reflection of what's going on in Turkey itself. Because the Turkish government is becoming increasingly Islamized, and so they're tempted to go with the Islamists in Syria. But I think they're pulling back a little. In the case of Jordan, there's no question. They hate the jihadi rebels and want to help the "good rebels." They just don't see the path for doing so.

So it's really important then to have the United States do something more with these moderate Sunni rebels?

As an incentive, I would provide them with more and better arms than we are now. I would say, "If you begin an informal cooperation with Assad against the jihadis, we'll arm you better, and you'll be in a better position to deal with the Alawites in future negotiations."

So the hard thing is to get them into anything like an informal alliance with Assad?

It's hard, but, again, there is the common interest because both of them—the moderate Sunnis and the Alawites—fear the jihadis more than they fear each other.

And, of course, Assad's forces are doing better because of the help they're getting from Iran and the Russians.

That's right. They looked a year and a half ago as if they were going to lose, but people forgot that they had a reliable supplier and every reason to fight because if they lost, they would not just die on the battlefield, they'd die as civilians. They'd be slaughtered.

It's interesting how many of the experts in Washington and elsewhere thought Assad would be out two years ago.

Well, those experts haven't been around long enough to know that these things go back and forth and back and forth, which has been the history of most of these wars.

And many also thought that Bashar al-Assad, when he took over more than ten years ago, was a liberal, based on some of his personal history, including the fact that his wife was brought up in England, right?

Exactly. But a problem in countries like Syria—and the world is full of cases like Syria—is we don't know them. To us, they're really strategic squares on a chessboard rather than countries with cultures and histories and rivalries and whatnot. And we only seem to learn about these countries after we've made terrible investments and helped to cause a great deal of harm.

Our contacts with the Syrians have been at the very highest level, but we didn't know the country at a more essential level—we just didn't know it. So it's like the Vietnam story—you make mistakes because you don't really know who you're dealing with.

And what do you make of current U.S.-Saudi relations? It was strange to see the Saudis suddenly denouncing the United States for its policy in the Middle East.

People say the Saudis are not such a big deal anymore, and that we're building up our own oil supplies and the like. That, to me, is a lot of baby talk. The Saudis have plenty of money; they can support people we want, whether it's in Afghanistan, or in Egypt—provide some stability there. The Saudis are also a source of stability in the Gulf States.

So you can't just ignore them and say "don't worry about our negotiations with Iran." That's not enough. The Saudis want to know what type of agreement the [United States] is prepared to make, and we haven't explained that. They believe we're going to give away the store.

We also have to begin working on stability in Iraq. That's a big country in a strategic location, and while we can't solve their problems, we can help them avoid chaos and becoming another battleground for the jihadis.

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