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Media Conference Call: The Crisis in Syria

Speakers: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, and Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Moderator: Toni Johnson
August 9, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: I would now like to turn the conference over to Toni Johnson. Ms. Johnson, please begin.

TONI JOHNSON: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations Media Conference call. I'm Toni Johnson. I'm deputy editor for cfr.org. With us today on the phone is CFR Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Robert Danin and CFR Senior Fellow for Mideastern Studies Edward Husain. Today we're here to discuss the crisis in Syria, the international community's response and the potential jihadist threat. So I'm just going to get things started with a couple of questions for our two participants, and then we'll open it up for questions.

Secretary Hillary -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting in Turkey this weekend to discuss the immediate period following a post-Assad regime. What's got to happen in this immediate period? And how -- you know, how does this compare to -- say, to the days before the fall of Moammar Gadhafi?

ROBERT DANIN: Hi. This is Robert Danin. I guess I'll go ahead and take a lead. I mean -- take a start with that.

I mean, I -- you know, first, I would note that I think it's important that Secretary Clinton is doing this. You know, in the first instance, she's aligning with the -- you know, with one of the most important countries in this area conflict, which is Turkey, that is playing an important role on a number of fronts, diplomatically, logistically, militarily, in assisting the rebels and playing a role of influence.

But more importantly, she's highlighting, I think, what is the critical notion, which is not only do we need to, you know, focus on the end of Assad's regime, but really, we have to be concerned about what happens afterwards, and that's going to be a very difficult challenge for the country. And the way that Assad is brought down ultimately will shape the way in which the country evolves afterwards.

And I think she's going to consult with the Turks about this given that the situation is deteriorating in many ways. The level of violence and bloodshed has escalated. We're seeing over 200 people die per day on average. So this is quite horrific.

Moreover, there is a lot of, you know -- this is increasingly becoming regionalized. We're seeing the Iranians involved in some ways in the conflict. Clearly, other parties in the region are influencing events; the Turks, the Saudis, the Qataris are all reportedly playing a role here. And there is such a danger of the situation spilling beyond Syria's borders, and we've seen that happen already, but the potential for it to escalate is quite high. So it's important that some sort of leadership be exerted and -- to try to mobilize efforts for the day after.

JOHNSON: Ed, did you want to respond? And I'm really sorry for calling you Edward before.

ED HUSAIN: No, no, no, no. It's fine. That's OK. No, I mean, broad agreement with everything that Rob said, and nothing to add to that, really.

JOHNSON: So in looking at, you know, the -- this conflict, one of the things that has come out is that people are very afraid that this will turn into a wider sectarian conflict. How do you think that that's going to play into the next coming months?

HUSAIN: Toni -- Robert, if I may, I mean, it seems that it's already become a sectarian conflict. The risk now is that it spills over in more dramatic terms into the sectarian compositions of its neighboring countries. And here, I'm thinking about the Sunnis in Jordan, the Shia and the Sunni in Iraq and the various Christian denominations and Sunni and Shia denominations in Lebanon.

So the sectarian dimension to the conflict inside Syria has been alive and vibrant for the last at least 12 months. I think the first six months or so, it wasn't overtly and nakedly sectarian in the way that it's become. In the early days, Alawis and Christians were openly joining quote-unquote "peaceful protests" against the Assad regime.

But over the last 12 months, what we've seen is not just rhetoric and slogans, but protests that talk out against the Alawis and the Shabahis (ph) that are dominated by the Alawi sect, but also the regime going out -- going after people who are from a Sunni background and using hideous sectarian language in the clamping down and the persecution and the killings. And during those moments we've got footage of them using sectarian language, calling them Sunnis, saying to them, where is your God now, saying, you know, have you seen how the Alawis are superior. So, you know, this is how it's like right at the grassroots level inside Syria, so the sectarian dimension is very much alive and strong.

And I think in addition to everything I've said, the fact that over the last month or so we've seen now a real increase in the discussion of partitioning Syria -- I mean, it remains to be seen whether that will happen or not, but from Al-Jazeera Arabic all the way down to people inside mosques and others, whether it's -- whether it's taken seriously or not, at least they're talking about in sectarian terms, that parts of Homs and parts of (Latakia ?) and Tartus would be somehow bordered off from Sunni and other parts of Syria.

Again, I -- I'm not saying this is going to happen; I'm trying to make the point that the sectarian dimension to this conflict is very much alive within Syria, and the risk is whether it's spilled over with this sectarian composition into Syria's neighboring countries or not.

DANIN: I am -- completely agree with Ed. We're already there. This is a sectarian conflict. And I would only add that if you look at the defections that are taking place from the regime, they are largely Sunnis who've -- who are defecting now, be it Talas, be it Hijab, the prime minister, be it, you know, the generals who are leaving.

And so what you're now is a core of Alawites who are now circling the wagons, and you know, increasingly the Sunnis being -- peeling away from the regime, those that had been aligned with the regime and adding to this. And we'll get into this, no doubt, in the questions further, but, you know, now you have additional Sunni fighters coming, either being mobilized from within Syria or being attracted from other countries in the region to join the fight, if you will. So it's taking on an increased sectarian role, which again, you know, is why this coming to an end as expeditiously as possible is so important, because the longer it goes on, the more -- the deeper will become the sectarian fissures and the harder it will be to reconstitute a unitary Syrian state afterwards.

JOHNSON: Just one last question and then I'll open it up to questions to the audience. Given that the international community has not been able to come up with a -- sort of a response to hasten the -- this end to the conflict, what can happen going forward? What kind of response can we expect to see to try to bring this to a close?

HUSAIN: Robert, did you want to go ahead or --

DANIN: (Chuckles.) Well, look, I mean, I think that -- you know, let's just first, you know, start out and say, you know, this is difficult. It's obvious, but, you know, one of the reasons -- you know, on the one hand you have a lot of commentators positing a great deal of cynicism, attributing that to the United States as there's a resentment in the region that the U.S. is being very cynical by not involving itself. And from my position in Washington, I think it's not cynicism. It's, you know, wanting to abide by the Hippocratic Oath, and in the first instance, do no harm. And given that there is -- you know, while there are clearly lots of bad people in Syria and the regime is clearly -- you know, I would call evil and have long since -- you know, long called it evil, it's still not clear that the -- you know, the enemy of our enemy is our friend, and so it's hard still to ally with certain -- with all the parties in Syria.

So -- I mean, this is a long-winded way of saying it's just -- it's difficult. You ask -- you know, in a previous question about the Libyan parallel, I mean, in Libya we were able to support the rebels in Benghazi because they controlled territory, because we got to know them, because we were working with them. A lot of the structural problems that exist on the ground now are preventing that from happening in Syria. We're only now starting to work more closely with the Free Syrian Army. We're only now starting to get to know them better. We're only now starting to get a better feel for what the situation on the ground is. But you know, those who are calling for us to provide sophisticated arms, let's say, to the Syrian rebels, you know, I think have to really think twice before we just say, you know, sort of, Assad going will lead to an inevitably better situation. Assad does have to go. There's no doubt. There's an agreement about that. But we also have to be mindful about what will happen the day after and to ensure that Syria not -- you know, that we not accelerate the descent into an even worse situation.

JOHNSON: OK. Oh, sorry, Ed. Did you want to go?

HUSAIN: Just very briefly to add to what Robert has said, it's a conflict that the Syrian people are embroiled in. And yes, there are outsider players who are lending logistical and sometimes arms supports, especially from the Gulf countries, and financial support. Essentially, it's a conflict for the Syrian people to end themselves in a way that they see appropriate while ensuring the rest of the international community that they're not going to be violating human rights and leaning on torture and killing en masse in the way that the regime has done over the last 17 months and longer.

And it was encouraging yesterday to see the Free Syrian Army sign a code of conduct, the human rights code of conduct and vowing to adhere to human rights standards. Now, that's a first from the Free Syrian Army, and that's their way of saying that they acknowledge that they've been involved in human rights violations. Now, let's hope that they and their more extreme allies from al-Qaida hold onto this new oath that they've signed.

But I would say that the strongest blows against the regime thus far has been the assassination of Assef Shawkat, the president -- Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, the removal or the killing of the defense minister and others in his close circle. Now, that can't have happened just because the Free Syrian Army were willingly taking pot shots at the presidential palace or wherever the meetings were taking place. They weren't at the palace, actually. They were held away from the palace, the meeting of ministers.

And I suspect there was some level of external steer, stroke, direction as to the movements of leading figures within the Syrian regime. And given the way in which the regime has been ruthlessly killing its own people, it's, I think, only fair that that level of assistance from outside is given in order to identify the strongest points of the regime, in other words, Bashar al-Assad and people around him. Their arrest, their removal, their downfall, whatever is necessary, and taking them -- the very core, their very nucleus -- out of the picture, I think will help exacerbate -- well, not -- "exacerbate" is the wrong word, but will help increase the -- or help strengthen the Free Syrian Army and the opposition, and thereby enable the regime to fall sooner.

JOHNSON: OK, on that note, we're going to open it up to questions for Ed and Robert. Please state your name and affiliation, and let's keep it to one question at a time.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Now I'll open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Mitchell Garrett of Mitchell Report. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi, it's Garrett Mitchell. And by the way, thanks for doing this. I think the question I would like to pose -- and I'm going to pose it this way -- is it seems to me that over the course of at least the last year, we have established a sort of litany of conventional wisdom about Syria that includes the following: that the topography and geography of Syria is different from Libya, and so we shouldn't think about whether we should do in Syria what we did in Libya; that we don't know enough about the cast of characters, the factions in the insurgency; that we need a better picture of what post-Assad Syria looks like; and, of course, now questions relating to al-Qaida. There are certainly more than that, but it seems to me that every time a conversation gets generated about this, leaving aside those who have already made their mind up that we shouldn't touch it, or those who think we should, you know, be jumping in tomorrow, there's this -- there's this litany of reasons that appear to have "inaction" stamped all over them.

And I'm reminded of that famous -- the observation of Shimon Peres when he -- that he -- which he says, you know, history is the horse galloping by your window, and leadership is the decision to jump on that horse. My question there to both of you i, is there anything that's going to move the international community from inaction to action other than an Erdogan, an Obama or somebody else deciding to jump on the galloping horse that's running by the window? Or am I missing something?

JOHNSON: Robert, do you want to start?

DANIN: Sure. Look -- (chuckles) -- a couple things. I mean, you know, I spent over 20 years at the State Department, and I've found, you know, you can -- it's true, you can always invoke numerous reasons for not taking action. And you know, I think the notes of -- I would -- I would highlight the points that you identified more as points of caution that do need to be addressed. They may not be sufficient to not take action, but I don't think they should be disregarded either. A lot of the ones you -- you know, we could go through them individually, but I think overall, I agree with many of them. That need not mean inaction, but it does mean behaving smartly.

I mean, I think we are -- you know, we're always fighting the last war, and there is a lot of caution, you know, I think that -- and intervention fatigue that the country feels. Intervention theory is not widely popular according to Gallup polls. There is not a great clamoring here for intervention. The horse going by the window is not -- it's not clear where this horse is going, and it's not clear that it's a winner. And I think that's part of the reason that policymakers are hesitant to get on it. That said, I think the secular trend here is towards involvement. And I think you're starting to see the administration, you know, red lines turn pink.

And increasingly, you know, I think we are moving towards an intervention of sorts. We are now involved on the ground. We are now providing logistical support. You heard yesterday, I think it was John Brennan, saying, you know, now no options are off the table. They are talking about consideration towards, you know, a no-fly zone or perhaps some sort of sanctuary.

So I mean, it seems to me one of two things will happen. Either there'll be some horrific massacre -- heaven forbid -- that will just -- the force of which will compel action out of shame and a sense that something has to be done, or otherwise some sort of change on the ground will take place that will provide the opportunity for real change.

But I think that in either case -- you know, in any case I think we're heading toward greater intervention, whether we like it or not. And let's face it, the administration doesn't want to commit itself to something dramatic prior to November. I mean, it's just a reality of life in the -- in our country.

JOHNSON: Ed, did you have anything to add?

HUSAIN: No.

JOHNSON: (Chuckles.) OK.

HUSAIN: No, in the sense that -- in the sense that Robert's response to comprehensive and I'm in full agreement with everything the said. I don't want to reiterate the points, going to take up time away from the questions.

JOHNSON: Gotcha.

HUSAIN: Carry on.

JOHNSON: Can I take the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Naomi Choy Smith of CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hello. Thanks for doing this. Can you speak to reports that the rebels have acquired anti-aircraft missiles?

HUSAIN: I haven't seen those reports. Interestingly, the reports that I've been monitoring seem to indicate that -- the most recent reports, I think about an hour ago, are that the rebels from Aleppo -- the decisive battle that's been taking place for the last few days -- they've had -- they've had to withdraw from the Salah al-Din, a region in Aleppo, because they were being bombed from above and they don't have anti-aircraft missiles.

And they've been making the point -- including the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria -- are making the point that the reason why they've had to withdraw and the reason why they lost Salah al-Din, at least for now, is because of the lack of anti-aircraft missiles. So it seems to me that, you know, calls for a no-fly zone would probably increase that -- the need then for anti-aircraft missiles will increase. So in response to your question directly, that piece of equipment still seems to be missing.

DANIN: If I could just add one thing, I think that's all correct. I mean, there was one report today and the last week that suggested that the rebels had received up to two dozen MANPADs. But I have not seen those reports substantiated. And it's clear, when you talk to administration officials, that, you know, what the -- what the opposition is asking for when they ask for assistance is not more hand -- you know, hand-held weapons or even ammunition. They want more sophisticated weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles. That's really the key ask right now.

JOHNSON: Can I have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Howard LaFranchi of Christian Science Monitor. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Yeah, thanks for doing this. I wanted to go back to the previous question about what may be coming next in terms of international and U.S. involvement. And I know you place the emphasis on Secretary Clinton talking about what comes after, but what sense do you have -- what might she be discussing in terms of what the international community, a coalition of the willing, the U.S., what may be -- what they may be doing before to bring that day closer. And I'm specifically about -- I know, Robert, you mentioned a no-fly zone. You know, how serious do you see that?

DANIN: Well, I'll try to be uncharacteristically brief here and just say, you know, I think -- I don't think she's going there to talk about that, necessarily. I think she was very clear two days ago in South Africa, when she sort of suggested that, you know, that we need to be thinking about a whole range of issues, from humanitarian concerns to planning for the postwar period, preserving the Syrians', you know, institutions, preserving security and public safety afterwards, the whole sort of -- basically, a whole transition plan.

And I think most likely that, you know, this is an effort to kind of provide international momentum given that, you know, the Security Council basically halted all the international momentum. I think what we're seeing now is an effort to try to put together an ad hoc coalition of the willing that's regionally based. And you know, what the elements of that will be, I think, are yet to be determined, and what kind of division of labor there would be. But I see this as the beginning of a -- of a -- of a new phase of the international diplomacy that is, you know, based outside of the U.N. and not in it.

HUSAIN: I wouldn't -- I mean, again, just to add to all that, I wouldn't undermine (sic) the public relations element to all of this. I mean, the Russians and also the Iranians have been making noises recently to take the diplomatic initiative, and I think on the part of Secretary Clinton and the U.S. allies, it's their way of saying, you know, we're in charge here, rather than having the Iranians or the Russians to somehow take some of the diplomatic responsibility on their side. And I think the Iranians have said at least three times in the last 36 to 48 hours that they now want to be seen at the forefront of delivering some kind of diplomatic initiative.

JOHNSON: And on that note, I'm just going to break in and ask another question. The Organization of Islamic council -- sorry, conference (sic) this week is having an extraordinary session called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and he has invited President Ahmadinejad to participate. It's actually going to be, you know, all the heads of states of the major Muslim countries. How do you think that this is playing in? I mean, what kind of dialogue can we expect on the Syria issue, which is expected to be probably the number one issue on the table?

HUSAIN: Well, it's interesting you ask that question, Toni, because -- and you're right to assume that Syria would be the number one issue. But my understanding is that the conference has been called to address the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar or Burma.

And again, I mean, the Iranians -- I think in this part of the world we often underestimate how desperate the Iranians are to take a diplomatic lead on -- or a position of intellectual superiority in the -- in the region that -- I think -- (inaudible) -- two days ago Ahmadinejad put out a statement in public saying, you know, where are -- where are Muslims; where are Arabs; where are people of this region when it comes to almost a hundred thousand Muslims, I think, that have been killed or thereabouts over the last several years in Burma or Myanmar? And it was to that response and then the Muslim Ramadan passing by, calls in mosques in Saudi Arabia as to what's going on in Myanmar; where is -- where is the global response or at least a Muslim response, that the king then said that he would hold this extraordinary conference immediately in Mecca rather than allow the Iranians to hold a similar conference in Tehran. And you know, Tehran, for all its virtues, can't really compete with Mecca or with Saudi Arabia and its claims to being custodians of the two holy places.

So number one, it was a response really to an Iranian -- Iranian rhetoric led by Ahmadinejad in relation to Myanmar. Number two, by inviting Ahmadinejad -- and it -- just to go into a little bit of detail here, the invitation from the king went in the form of special envoys being sent to all these dignitaries or possible dignitaries. But the king didn't -- the king of Saudi Arabia did not send an envoy to Iran; he merely asked the Saudi ambassador there to deliver a letter not to Ahmadinejad but to the head of his protocol. So all of the detail has been leaked by the Saudis in order to make the point that, yes, they're being invited, but they're not being invited like we invited everybody else. So we can expect the Iranians, you know, to say yes, that Ahmadinejad will most likely attend, and he will make blustery noises about Myanmar.

But I think you're absolutely right that despite the conference being framed to address the issue of Myanmar, it's most likely going to be focusing on Syria, and it's one way -- I mean, he will be marginalized; he will be in the minority here because the OIC is dominated by Muslims who are of the Sunni persuasion. He and, you know, maybe Iraq will be from the Shia pro-Bashar al-Assad front. So it remains to be seen how it all plays out, but most certainly interesting timing for this conference to take place.

JOHNSON: Anything to add, Robert, before I go to -- (inaudible)?

DANIN: No, I think Ed is -- (chuckles) -- entirely right. I mean, I think the meeting is the message. The symbolism is what is important here. And I think the fact that it was called is indicative of the increasing tension throughout the region that is being felt as a result of the Arab uprisings, exacerbated by the violence in Syria and elsewhere, and the increasing rift between the Sunni and Shia world that is intensifying. And I think this is an effort to -- you know, clearly for the Saudis to put themselves at the forefront and steal it -- and prevent the Iranians from trying to do so.

JOHNSON: OK. Thank you. Can I take the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Carol Williams of the LA Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi. My question brushes on something that you hinted at before the previous question. Is Kofi Annan's departure an acknowledgement by the international community that they don't have enough influence or common purpose to mediate a peaceful resolution?

DANIN: Should I go ahead, or do you want --

HUSAIN: Please, please go ahead.

DANIN: Look -- I mean, I think -- (chuckles) -- Kofi Annan was -- mission and ultimate resignation was symptomatic of the limited power in his -- and mandate at his disposal. I mean, he was trying to find a middle ground between a regime that is going to hold on -- wants to hold on at all costs and an opposition that wants him out as a precondition towards any further movement. And he had no real backing behind him; he had no threat of force; he had no sanctions, threat of Chapter VII sanctions.

So he was dealt a very weak and playing a very weak hand. And it reflected the fact that there was no international consensus about moving forward in theory and that the Security Council was in fact, you know, tied in a Gordian knot.

So I think, again, you know, that that's partly what has driven Secretary Clinton now to take the lead here. And I'm -- you know, I think it's long overdue, frankly, that we get into a more activist, American diplomatic role. The use of force is not the only tool in our national arsenal, as it were, our national toolbox. And you know, we have a lot more, perhaps, to work with than Kofi Annan did.

If I may -- someone's newsroom has sort of gone online; it's a bit -- thank you.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Ed, did you have anything to add?

HUSAIN: No, carry on.

JOHNSON: Can I take the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, ma'am. Our next question will come from Michele Keleman of National Public Radio.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi, everybody. Thanks for doing this. I just had a question about this growing argument amongst some in Washington that, you know, the U.S. can't plan for a post-Assad government without helping the opposition take him down first. Do you think that's true?

HUSAIN: If I may, Robert, I mean, I think the U.S. is already involved, and I think people on the ground know that. And I judge this on the basis of, you know, phone calls with friends in Syria on the appearance of opposition activists -- (inaudible) -- Arabic. And they know that they're in debt to the United States, not just the government for the logistical support and the technological know-how that its been lent, but also the support of the U.S. media. I mean, you only have to ask any journalist that's landed themselves among the Free Syrian Army; they're treated like royalty because they know that the Western media -- the U.S. media in particular is by and large on the side of the opposition and wants to see the end of the Assad regime.

Do they want more support? Of course they do. Do they want a no-fly zone? Yes, they do. But because those things aren't being delivered, does that mean that after the removal of Assad that there will be a lackluster attitude toward the U.S. or an inclination not to be guided by the U.S.? I'm not sure if that follows, because if we look to the country argument -- say in Iraq or in Libya, the U.S. was fundamentally involved in removing both Saddam Hussein and, you know, to a huge extent, Gadhafi. And I don't think either the Iraqi or the Libyan governments are particularly keen on taking direct instruction from the U.S.

So, you know, given that U.S. involvement doesn't necessarily always result in acquiescence, it's worthy at this juncture of being cautious of, you know, lending either, you know, U.S. blood or treasure at this juncture and allowing the Syrians to own their conflict and find their own solutions. And as and when they reach this juncture, you know, much like the Egyptians now, you know, they -- their relations with the U.S. Embassy, the State Department and the White House is one based on mutual interest.

So I think it's a fundamentally flawed argument to say unless the U.S. helps the Syrians -- Syrian opposition now, tomorrow, you know, the U.S. will not be in a position to influence them. I just don't think that that argument meets reality on the ground in Syria today or tomorrow.

DANIN: I couldn't agree more with that. I mean, I think it is a specious argument. I mean, in absolute terms, sure. If we provided arms in absolute terms, it may help. But I don't find it a compelling reason for providing arms. There's no assurance that it will buy good will. There's no assurance that the people who actually wind up toppling Assad will be the people who wind up running the country. I mean, look at the situation in Egypt today. Those who toppled Mubarak are not the people who are running the country.

And we have a lot of tools at our disposal to try to help the situation both today and the day after. And finally, it's just -- in terms of fact, it's just inaccurate. I mean, it's true. We're not giving them -- we're not meeting their wish list, as Ed rightly pointed out. But, you know, it's all over not just regional press, but even the Western press is, you know, full of reports of Americans on the ground in Syria and in the region.

JOHNSON: Can I have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Marc Champion of Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I just want to know if you -- you talked a bunch of times about tools, available tools, you know, short of military intervention. Can you be a bit more specific? I mean, they've used most of the, you know, diplomatic tools that were available. But, you know, what else that we haven't used is available?

And just one other thing, you know, one of the -- you know, among the scenarios for intervention that are, you know, rattled off at various times, the one that would be politically easiest to do is simply punitive missile -- you know, cruise missile strikes from offshore. It is -- can you envisage a situation where that would be beneficial?

JOHNSON: Rob, you want to start? Robert?

DANIN: Sure, sure. Well, we do have tools, and they're not as blunt, perhaps, as, you know -- I mean, obviously military force is the most blunt instrument in our arsenal. I don't think we've exhausted, by any means, our diplomatic tools. Diplomacy is a process, it's not a -- it's not a one-off. Giving a speech or making certain comments does not fill the bill. You -- that's one element of diplomacy, but leading, cajoling, coalescing, there are all elements of diplomacy. That's why I welcomed the, you know, the secretary's trip to Turkey. But it has to happen at a number of levels.

I would -- you know, I'd -- we could appoint a special envoy to the Syrian opposition and base that person in the region. We can, you know, start to put together another grouping because, you know, the Friends of Syria, while important, is perhaps too unwieldy and too large. But I -- you know, I think symbolism and rhetoric and -- you know, are not insignificant, as hollow as that might sound.

You know, there's economic tools. We've imposed economic sanctions on Syria and in particular on regime loyalists and key regime individuals. And I think the more targeted sanctions have been very effective. And so I think, you know, those are just a few of the kind of diplomatic and economic tools that we have at our -- at our disposal, naming and shaming.

Do I -- you know, at some point, could U.S. force, offshore missiles striking key regime targets be effective? Yes, that could be, but it has to be part of an integrated strategy that's coordinated with other allies in the region, that is leading towards a clear military objective. We've had the experience with Syria in the '80s where we did lob missiles at Syria after American troops were killed in Lebanon. Those were just retaliatory and achieved no purpose. So you know, force has to be used in the pursuit of a strategic objective.

HUSAIN: And again, to add to Robert's comments, if we're going to use force, I would caution against dispatching the likes of, you know, offshore cruise missiles, whether it be from the United States or whether it be from, say, Turkey or Israel or elsewhere.

I think what's important is to understand that the regime is essentially held together by about six men right at the core. Two of them were removed back in -- I think the 18th of July, when Assef Shawkat was killed and the minister of defense. And Assef Shawkat -- you know, he was married to Assad's sister. Assef Shawkat was the head of intelligence for a while. I mean, he was a core part of the regime. That hurt the Assad family.

And today, I mean, those who are against him see Assad -- rightly, I think -- as a warlord and not necessarily as a president of a country in which he has the interests of all its people at heart. He doesn't. He's taken a clear line, and he's pursuing, you know, a policy that upholds the grip of him and his family members and those, you know, subservient sycophants around him in power.

Now, to minimize the impact of the regime around the country -- in other words, the Baath Party's control of schools, of mosques, of other state institutions -- it's to remove him and his three or four members right from the top. And that involves -- I mean, we can already see that he's fearful of that by the fact that since Assef Shawkat's being killed, for about a week -- a week and a half, Assad was nowhere to be seen. Nobody knew his movements; it was rumored that he -- there were rumors that he'd been killed, and then he resurfaced very briefly and then disappeared again. And then he reappeared the day before yesterday with the Iranians.

Now, he knows that he's being watched and targeted. And I think it's by putting in that kind of fear in the man and those around him that, you know, they can't continually evade international attention; that they will be hunted down; that they will be removed; they will be destroyed. I think that seems to be a more effective way of bringing the downfall of this regime.

And you know, to answer your question directly, you know, cruise missiles and the likes, I think, would come in if -- the Israelis are watching this very closely. And if some kind of provocation were to occur with the Golan Heights or with the Jordanians, you know, clear allies of the U.S., then I think -- or if Aleppo was held under a mass -- after a mass massacre and after a, you know, mass killing, and people weren't allowed to return to it, or Turkish interests on the borders were threatened, then I think we would see missile attacks from other countries and perhaps its support from the U.S. and elsewhere.

But I mean, I just hope it doesn't reach that stage; that, you know, we can remove the key perpetrators behind these crimes, and that is people, you know, in the close circle of Bashar al-Assad.

JOHNSON: I'm just going to jump in with a question on sort of more regional response. I mean, we've talked a lot about what the United States in particular might do. But what about some of these other players, particularly Iran? What kind of -- Iran recently said that, you know, they didn't -- they weren't going to let Assad fall. I mean, how much does the Iranian response matter? What could we see from them? And also, what about Russia? What's the role that Russia could play going forward?

Rob, do you want to start?

DANIN: Sure. I mean, working backwards, I mean, you know, Russia's in a very difficult position. I mean, everyone points to the fact that Russia has provided, you know, diplomatic cover for the Syrians. And it's clear they would not be able to have escaped U.N. opprobrium were it not for the Russian-led effort to block it.

That said, I think the Russians are paying a price for their alliance with Syria in terms of the kind of relationship that they are -- you know, the poor relations that are evolving with the rest of the Middle East and the Arab world as a result. And oddly, we're in a situation now where Russia has better relations with certain elements in Israel than they do with most of the Arab world, which is a, you know, complete turnabout from the Cold War period.

But in terms of their influence right now, I mean, you know, it's not clear that the Russians really have a whole lot of influence to effectuate change in Syria. What they can do is help to protect Syria from international efforts to provide legitimacy to things like the use of force. And so for example, were the United States to consider, you know, leading a coalition, you know, then that's where I -- you know, Russia could -- you could see some sort of escalation.

I mean, regarding Iran, this is, I think, the most -- one of the most interesting developments here is that Iran, you know, and Hezbollah have both doubled down on what seems to be a losing hand, which shows just how important it is to Iran. I mean, for Iran, Syria is a -- is the strategic foothold into the Arab world. It's the only country in the Arab world that has allied itself with the revolutionary regime in Iran. And you know, for the rest of the Arab world, this has been a huge betrayal -- Syria's alliance with Iran. And whereas the father, Hafez al-Assad, in many ways was seen to have controlled that alliance and it was seen as a marriage of convenience, the perception among the, you know, Sunni Arab leaders is that Bashar allowed the Iranians to dominate that relationship. And now Bashar has become a proxy of the Iranians.

And so, you know, the Iranians don't want to lose that. They don't want to lose -- because for Syria to fall, become, you know, controlled by the Sunnis, would mean they would not only lose a key Arab ally -- the only Arab ally they have, they would also lose their bridgehead to Hezbollah, their proxies in Lebanon. So this would be a huge setback for the Iranians, which again is one of the strategic benefits for the United States and the West were Syria -- for Assad to fall, or when -- you know, if and when Assad falls.

JOHNSON: Ed, did you have anything to add?

HUSAIN: Yes. No, again, in complete agreement with everything Robert's just outlined. I'd only add to that that there's also a domestic concern here with Iran that -- you know, to see Iran's torch ally, Bashar al-Assad fall. And the Iranians, especially Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, refers to this as the axis of resistance. You know, they used to be resisting the Israelis on behalf of the Palestinians. But now I'm not who they're resisting anymore because the Palestinians by and large seem to detest both the Iranians and Bashar al-Assad.

And I was in the Palestinian territory only three weeks ago. And again and again the Palestinians had nothing but complete, you know, contempt for Bashar al-Assad killing his own people. And people in Arab Jerusalem were telling me -- Arab parts of Jerusalem, rather -- were telling me that, you know, even in Israel -- because sort of in their view, Israel was, to them at least, an occupying force and whatnot. And they felt that even Israel would not treat Palestinians the way that Bashar al-Assad was treating his own people. It was their way of saying, look how hideous the man has become, and how dare he claim that he speaks for the Palestinian people.

So given that the very people that they're supposed to be resisting on behalf of now detest them, the whole claim of Ahmadinejad that he's some -- in some kind of axis of resistance with Bashar al-Assad is open to question. Of course, they may respond by saying, oh, they're resisting the American influence in the region. But that's more, you know, in the realm of conspiracy theory thinking in their own heads.

But I go back to my earlier point, and that is if they Assad regime falls, after the fall of the Mubaraks, the Gadhafis and the Ben Alis, I think, you know, this will be an important impetus for people inside Iran to rise again -- once again against Ahmadinejad and the regime of the Ayatollahs. And I think they're very wary -- much like the Russians are -- for the kind of precedent this sets, that when you have mass uprisings backed by the West, to some extent in varying degrees, what happens is the uprisings win. And if they can hold it down and at least set one precedent in the region that it didn't work, it plays to their advantage both domestically and regionally.

JOHNSON: I think we have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jim Landers of Dallas Morning News. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I want to take that a little further because I'm trying to understand what Iran might be prepared to do to try and maintain its position here. I could see, you know, possibilities with Hezbollah in Lebanon perhaps. We've got a pretty serious situation in the Gulf right now too. But I mean, how far would you guess they'd be willing to go?

HUSAIN: If I may, Robert.

DANIN: Please.

HUSAIN: I mean, I think that the Iranians don't see Syria as an isolated example. There are -- there are two things. One, that when I listen to Arab television channels and the various discussion fora of both the pro-regime and the anti-regime elements inside Syria, what often is mentioned is -- the accusation is levied against the Syrian opposition that they're supported by outsiders -- in other words, you know, the Americans, Turks, Saudis, and whatnot. And immediately the response to that is, of course, you're supported by outsiders, and they're Iranians.

Now, the pro-regime elements always are fast to respond and say -- and this is from people who are spokespersons from the Assad regime -- they always so, no, the Iranians are not outsiders, they're our people. They are not the invaders in Iraq, they were not the bombers of Lebanon. And the mindset is the Iranians and the Syrians, especially in the eyes of the Syrian regime, are somehow, you know, related by their faith or by history, or somehow one people.

Given that kind of mindset, I don't think we should rule out the -- you know, the full commitment of the Iranians to either lend support by way of soldiers on the ground -- the Syrian opposition would say that's already happening. You know, the 40 or so that were arrested were supposed to be part of some kind of reconnaissance mission. So, you know, physical support on the ground would be one. We've already seen arms supplies. But I think they'll take it further. Hezbollah being involved in some way or another would be a third.

But also, Iran will cause problems for the allies of the opposition elsewhere. So in Saudi Arabia, in the (Qatif ?) region; in Bahrain against the Bahrainis from the monarchy there; and I don't think we should underestimate Iran's ability to cause problems both regionally but also internationally. What we've seen recently would be the attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, with attacks on Israeli diplomats in India, the attempt to -- you know, so the list of Iranian provocation and the desire to maintain their perceived strength in the region, I think, is unlimited.

DANIN: I agree entirely with Ed. I mean I think, you know, the other element to consider -- I mean, you know, which Ed, you know, pointed to is that the Iranians are quite willing to take risks and act boldly, if not recklessly, you know, in terms of the use of force. I mean, the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in downtown Washington is just one example, in addition to the many examples Ed provided, of the Iranians', you know, willingness to provoke violence and use violence and take chances.

And, you know, if they come to the point at which they see that, you know, stirring up the entire region will, you know, serve their interests, they'll do so, especially if it then can somehow be -- you know, the conflict can then be manipulated into, you know, that of sort of Muslims fighting non-Muslims or somehow a defense of the Muslim world against, you know, outsiders, that's something they will seek to exploit. And, you know, accordingly, we've seen a ratcheting up of tensions with the Turks in the last few weeks, in the rhetoric between the Turks, despite the -- you know, what had been improving relations between the two. So as this situation in Syria heats up, so too does the region.

JOHNSON: We're running out of time, but I just wanted to ask one last question, and that's about the jihadi threat in Syria and what it could mean for the future stability of the country. Ed, do you want to start?

HUSAIN: Yeah. I mean, when this uprising started in Syria, I think it's worth remembering, the jihadi presence was next to nothing. The numbers were minimal and the numbers were more or less people from inside Syria who, you know, had a jihadi leaning that were rising up against the regime, and the regime used that allegation repeatedly -- against people of all faiths that rose against against the regime -- to say, look, we're fighting terrorists and jihadis. But over the last four to five months, that number, from being in, you know, the dozens, has now increased.

And what strikes me is how, you know, the U.S. government has tended to minimize those numbers rather than -- the video footage that comes out of, say, Damascus or Aleppo or Homs -- (inaudible) -- where jihadis gather and swear allegiance and put out videos, the numbers in those videos tend to be in the hundreds; and only three days ago, a leading member of the U.S. government who shall remain nameless said we were still talking about jihadis in the dozens.

So there's this mismatch between the perception in the corridors of power and what's going on on the ground, I think, judging by the videos that are coming out of Syria, about the jihadi presence. And that's not just jihadis who are Syrians, but now increasingly what we're seeing is people from Iraq, from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even, you know, my own country, Britain. And I say that on the basis of journalists who were kidnapped and were held by people who had accents from Birmingham, here in the U.K.

So there's this real problem, I think, that Syria is becoming a new magnet for jihadis globally. Ayman al-Zawahiri's been on the record three times now, the current leader of al-Qaida, calling on people to -- jihadis from across the region to go and gather in Syria. Syria's important for jihadis.

The down side to all of this is that eventually, you know, Assad will go down, Assad will be removed, but while he's there, and even when he does go down, either way the jihadis win, because while he's there, their argument is, to their brethren, come to fight this good jihad against this infidel Bashar al-Assad, this Alawi figure who's been repressing the great land of -- because, you know, Syria was historically important.

So they're able to mobilize jihadis around the region based on fighting against Assad. When Assad falls, they will continue to be able to mobilize on the grounds that their contribution to the jihad was high, that there are -- there will be huge areas that will become ungoverned territories, that while they've been fighting, they are now, much like in Iraq, building ties with many of the tribes that don't see them necessarily as terrorists or as al-Qaida but religious men who've come to fight side by side with their Arab brethren.

So I think, you know, in our enthusiasm for -- and rightful enthusiasm to see the end of the Assad regime we're, I think, you know, at risk here of ignoring the rise of jihadi elements who don't call themselves al-Qaida, incidentally, who go out of the way not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Jordan, which was to attack innocents, you know. This -- the video footage that they're releasing goes out of the way to show that it's not killing innocent people, and they repeatedly point to buildings -- (inaudible) -- government buildings, in their words, make sure they're not targeting buildings with people in there. I'm not sure if those claims are right or whether they're propaganda or not, but the bottom line is that al-Qaida in Syria is on the increase, and with or without the Assad regime in place, al-Qaida is set to play an important role in months to come.

DANIN: Yeah, I would just note, I mean, don't forget, you know, Syria was the major transit point for jihadists in, you know, the first part of this century and the staging point for jihadists going into Iraq. So this is familiar territory for jihadists from throughout the region. I mean, these -- there's a certain irony here because these jihadists were facilitated by the Syrian government today. I mean, they all came through Damascus Airport and through the borders on their way and were encouraged to go then into Iraq. And that was one of the biggest sources of contention between the United States and Syria during the -- during the Iraq war.

You know, the more this goes on, the more there are -- the jihadists are there, as Ed pointed out, the greater their claim to the postwar spoils, as it were, and the harder it will be for whatever regime that takes over to beat them back, which is one of the arguments for why this -- the longer this goes on, the more -- the greater will be the challenges afterwards. And so it just seems to me that, you know, this element is not something that we should either be encouraging and -- I don't think the administration is unaware or insensitive to this concern at all about the jihadists, but I think this is what makes it all the more difficult to find the parties in the country, as it were, to ally oneself with, because again, while the goal of toppling Assad is the tactical objective that everyone shares, the longer-term vision of what Syria should become -- I think there's a great deal -- a great range of views in Syria, and that's also being influenced by, you know, many of the jihadists and mercenaries who are there.

JOHNSON: OK, well, I think that's all we have time for today. But you can also follow Robert and Ed on Twitter and on CFR.org.

I'd like to thank everyone for joining us for this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call. A special thanks to senior fellow Robert Danin and senior fellow Ed Husain. A reminder that the audio and video of this call will be available later on the council's website, CFR.org.

Thank you all for joining us today.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today's call. You may now disconnect.

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Transcript

What To Do About Syria

Speakers: Ryan Crocker, Charles W. Dunne, and Paul Pillar
Presider: Richard N. Haass

More than three years after the start of the Syrian civil war, debates continue about what role, if any, the United States should play in the...