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Media Conference Call: Violence in Syria

Speakers: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
August 4, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: It is now my pleasure to turn this conference over to Robert McMahon. You may begin, sir.

ROBERT MCMAHON: Thank you, operator. And welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call. I'm Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org, and we are very privileged to have with us today two experts to discuss the fluid, ongoing situation in Syria. Those two experts are Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies; and Robert Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle Eastern and Africa studies. Excuse the pronunciation, Rob.

ROBERT DANIN: No, it was very good.

MCMAHON: They are -- they are here to help us try to make sense of what's happening on the ground, what are some of the policy responses, and to also react to some of the -- some of the most recent information that we have. I was going to start off by having them both speak about the situation. I'll follow up with a question, then open up to you as soon as possible for questions. And we're going to lead off with Elliott Abrams.

Elliott.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: OK, thanks. Try to be very brief.

What's going on in Syria is, of course, increasing violence -- by newspaper reports, another 100 dead in the last day in Hama. The question really becomes, what can be done about it?

As you've seen in the newspapers, the -- what shall we call them? -- the opposition in Syria, the demonstrators, seem to find the U.N. statement pretty weak. And I would agree with that, partly because it was a statement. I mean, you issue a statement when the Security Council doesn't or cannot vote. So this is not a resolution. This was a substitute, a weaker substitute for a resolution. It's unlikely to move Assad very much.

I had a piece in The Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago that gave my views on what more could be done, but I would just add there are things to be done. Just as an example, this government, the Assad regime, is quite dependent financially on oil exports. It's not a lot of -- not a lot of exports -- about 155,000 barrels a day, which in terms of world supply is trivial -- but in terms of the finances of Assad, is important.

Well, why does that continue? Why is there not an embargo on Syrian oil exports? Why do the countries that are getting Syrian oil not stop getting Syrian oil? It's just an example that I believe that there is more that can be done to help bring to an end the Assad regime. And it looks as if the Obama administration has -- too slowly, in my view -- reached the conclusion that that is the only possible good outcome here.

But why don't I stop there, because I think there will be a lot questions.

MCMAHON: OK. We'll turn to Rob Danin, Robert Danin.

DANIN: Thank you. Well, I agree with everything that Elliott just said. I would just add a few observations.

First of all, I fear -- and I'm sorry to say -- that I think we're just headed for more violence in the short term, regardless of what steps are adopted in the short term. I don't believe that time is actually on the side of those who want to see a unified Syria emerge without Bashir al-Assad; which is to say, the longer this goes on, the greater the potential for internecine violence and sectarian violence, which argues for a quicker resolution to this conflict than waiting to see how it plays out.

This is a regime that wants to survive, first and foremost. Always has. And so I think the key here is to try to drive a wedge between a regime that has lost legitimacy internationally and clearly domestically, and those people who still have a vested interest in the regime but are fearful of what might come afterwards. It's incumbent on us in the international community to try to assuage the fears of those who are sticking with the regime because they fear what might come after and convince them that the day after is something that is better, not something to be feared.

So perhaps with that, we can open it up to Bob.

MCMAHON: OK. I was going to follow with one question for each of you.

Elliott, I wanted to follow up what you just said and also add to that some questions you posed in a sort of a hypothetical grilling for the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. And among the questions were, I think, a stress on some demonstration effect of U.S. and Western concern about what's going on there, and including the issue of why is he staying in Syria at all.

So I guess I wanted you to sort of elaborate on why you think it's important for the U.S. at this point to -- that that kind of a gesture is -- would be meaningful.

ABRAMS: For a long time people were in doubt in the Middle East whether the United States wanted Assad to leave or just wanted him to play nicer. I made trips to the region in the spring and late June, and I was still hearing that question: What do you Americans want? Well, we need to answer that question once and for all.

The administration has tiptoed up to the line of saying Assad has to go, getting closer and closer. They haven't quite said it. They ought to say it because it's meaningful, first of all, for the morale of the opposition. It's meaningful for people who may be wondering how this is going to come out, whether they're generals or they're Sunni businessmen in Aleppo. The more we can persuade them the only way this comes out is Assad leaves, the more likelihood there is that they will change sides. So I think it's important symbolically.

The question then is, if it's symbolically useful to pull out the U.S. ambassador, what's the argument against it? The argument that the State Department makes is, well, he's very useful there.

So the questions that I wanted the Senate to pose to him -- and now that the hearing's over, they'll have to pose them in writing -- you can get around Syria anymore? He can't bear witness if he can't go back to Hama. If he is now left only in Damascus, not because of us, of course, but because of the Assad government -- if he's limited to Damascus, his utility diminishes.

The administration also says that he talks to people in the opposition. I, frankly, hope that's true. I find it hard to believe, because he would be covered like a blanket by the Syrian secret police.

So if it turns out that he can't see anybody and that he can't go anywhere, then I would say the symbolic importance of removing him, the final break with the regime, is smart. And I haven't really been persuaded yet that he's doing all the things they claim he's doing. I'd like to see the evidence. If it's classified, fine; don't show it to me, show it to the senators.

MCMAHON: Robert Danin, you mentioned the declining credibility of the Assad regime, the -- but the concern about a post-Assad regime or a post-Assad situation ther. Is that what is continuing to drive, say, regional sentiment? Or how do you view the regional response so far to Syria? Do you think that's liable to change in any -- in the near term?

DANIN: Well, I think what we've seen up until recently is a great deal of concern about instability in Syria and a fear about what could follow. Syria is not a homogenous country. It's highly diverse. It is ruled by a minority regime, the Alawites, who are comprised of somewhere between 12 and 16 percent of the population. But there are other minorities in Syria who also have a vested interest in this regime, primarily the Christians, who constitute some 10 percent.

With a population of some 75-percent Sunnis, the fear is that the Sunnis and in particular Islamists could come to power who could wreak retribution against some of these minority groups. But overall, the fear in the region has been one of instability in Syria. But increasingly, that fear and concern has diminished as we see instability in Syria. And so now it's a -- it's a false choice. We now have instability in Syria, and so the question is how do we best ameliorate it and end it expeditiously.

And what you're seeing are countries that had been reluctant to break with the Assad regime breaking with the Assad regime. I mean, Elliott is right in that it was -- the Security Council statement is insufficient, but in context it's important to note we were unable to get the Security Council up until now to even issue a statement. But it took the brutality of the Assad regime to force the Russians, the Chinese and other countries that had been resisting any Security Council action to even agree to a statement.

So we're seeing the -- I mean, the trend is moving away from the Syrian regime internationally. Regionally, we've seen the Turks move from being an ally of this regime to becoming a critic. It is now forced to deal with the overflow of refugees into Syria (sic).

What's striking is still the absence of a regional response from the other Arab states. And here I think what is really needed is some regional diplomacy, and here's where I think we could play a galvanizing role. I'd like to see us engage more actively with the Saudis, in particular, who have traditionally played a key role in Syria, with the Arab League, who played such an important role in the intervention in Libya. They've been conspicuously silent on Syria. So I think we need to see more of a regional voice emerge that condemns what is happening and also sends a signal to the people of Syria that this regime is losing legitimacy among the Arab people in the region.

MCMAHON: OK. So Elliott Abrams and Robert Danin, thank you for framing the issues in that way.

Operator, we're ready to open it up for questions now. Are there any questions?

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this. My question is, the Europeans today -- the EU met and said they would consider adding more names to the list of people in Syria that they're sanctioning, but they put off any decision on oil and gas sanctions. Why do you think this is so difficult of a step for the Europeans? Thank you.

MCMAHON: Elliott, do you want to take that?

ABRAMS: Yeah. These targeted sanctions, targeted at top people in the regime, are certainly worth doing to help make them pariahs. But it isn't going to bring the regime down, because it doesn't affect people outside the regime who may be on the fence, who may be trying to -- be wondering how this is going to go.

I don't understand why it is so hard in the case of Syria. I would venture to guess that maybe part of it that they don't like the precedent of fooling around with oil supplies, because if you do, you know, there's a possibility that supply contracts, prices rise. They have enough economic troubles now without a rise in the price of oil.

But in the case of Syria, this is not Iran. The amounts we're talking about here are trivial -- 150,000 barrels a day, more or less -- could easily be absorbed in the world oil market without the price being affected at all. So I think it's a lack of leadership on the part of the Europeans.

They may also be afraid, of course, of, you know, going off a cliff here, and next it'll be Libya, and we'll be asked to send troops. So you know, I think they're nervous about this, but I think this was a lost opportunity.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

ABRAMS: Robert.

DANIN: I'd just think to add, actually, a point to that, because I actually happen to think that the Europeans may be on the right policy but for the wrong reasons. That is to say, I agree with Elliott's analysis that the reason they've come to this is probably for all the reasons he's cited. But I think the idea of targeted sanctions at the top leadership is a good idea, because what it does is, this moves towards trying to drive the wedge between the top leadership and the other people, but it has to be coupled with an explanation, which is, we are targeting the top leadership for the crimes they are committing against their own people, the brutality they're exercising. They will be taken to the ICC as well.

I think the kinds of sanctions that have been launched so far have been too weak -- travel and financial. It has to be much more punitive.

But what you need to do is start scaring other elements within the regime that if they continue down this path, they too are going to be targeted. So I'd like to see us target individual with very, very tough sanctions and say that more will be to come if this continues, and try to create an incentive structure to people to start breaking with the regime.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Yeah, thanks for doing this. I had a couple of questions, the first one for Elliott, please, on the -- on this question of the oil exports. Do you know, what countries do -- who are the major importers of Syrian oil? I know you said it's not a lot, but I was just wondering who those are.

And then, secondly, maybe to Robert, I know the French foreign minister, Juppe, made a point of saying that the Security Council would take up the question of Syria in a week's time, I guess next week. Do you have any sense of, you know, of anything more -- more biting, more important happening at that time? What do you see might be on the horizon in terms of the Security Council? Thank you.

ABRAMS: This is Elliott. The answer is France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, those are the -- almost all Syrian oil exports go to those four countries.

QUESTIONER: OK. Thank you. Hm.

DANIN: And just to follow up on your question, if -- actually the Security Council statement itself calls on the secretary-general to update the Security Council on the situation in Syria within seven days. And I think that if we see a continuation of the status quo, then the expectation on the -- you know, for the secretary-general is to recommend stronger and more punitive actions. And hopefully a Security Council resolution, I think, is the next step. As I said earlier, I'd also like to see a recommendation that this be referred to the ICC.

QUESTIONER: I mean, do you see this as important in that it's -- there's so -- it's so difficult to get information out of Syria right now that the fact that the U.N. is now going to be reporting, in effect, in a week's time on what they're getting from the ground -- could that add another -- it's some more leverage as well to the international pressure?

DANIN: Well, I think the importance is political, not so much informational. I mean, what's so phenomenal about what's happening in Hama today, when you contrast it with the massacre in Hama 30 years ago, is that we're seeing it in real time. So we see what's happening, but it's for the Security Council, who -- which is inherently cautious and judicious in its reporting, to have to answer what the whole world is seeing and make a judgment about that. And that will have grave political consequences because it adds to the continued isolation of this regime.

MCMAHON: Howard, thank you for that question.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jenna Ekstrak (sp), Turkish Journal.

QUESTIONER: Yes, hi. I wanted to ask both of you, Elliott and Robert, about Turkey's role in this. William Hague -- it was stated that William Hague and Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, have gotten together to put more pressure on Assad. But it seems to me that Turkey has made a lot of condemnations, but what are they really doing? What's your view on that? And do you see them as having a greater role? And what can they do?

ABRAMS: Well, they've done one thing that is quite significant, I think, which is, they have opened Turkey as a playing field and safe house for the Syrian opposition. It's only a few weeks ago or maybe a month ago now that there was a big opposition meeting in Turkey. That's amazing, if you think about it. I mean, there's a neighboring country, Syria, and there's a kind of revolution going on, and you're allowing the people trying to overthrow the government of Syria to work in Turkey, to come to Turkey, to use Turkey for their conferences. So that's, you know -- (chuckles) -- that is no vote of confidence in Assad.

I think fundamentally the Turks are worried -- well, I think the Turks wish to replace Iran as the dominant foreign power in Syria. Iran has been that for years now under Assad and -- Bashar al-Assad, and has been the closest ally of Bashar's Syria. And I think Turkey wants a post-Assad Syria to be a country in which they are the dominant outside power.

I think they also want the violence to end. If this violence were to continue week after week after week, they wouldn't have 10,000 refugees. You could see them having 100,000 refugees or more, and then what do the Turks do? It's an enormous burden on them.

So I think, more than any other country except Lebanon, they're deeply involved in this. What we don't know -- or at least what I don't know -- is whether they are having conversations with the generals or with the top businessmen in Syria, urging them to switch sides. Are they really yet at the point of trying to get rid of Assad directly?

DANIN: Well, I agree with everything that Elliott said. I mean, just to add, I think, though, that I wouldn't underplay the importance of the switch in posture that the Turks have adopted even rhetorically in this crisis. I mean, this is -- this is quite significant. It started, you know, being a strong backer of President Assad and has now become a staunch critic. This is huge.

The fact that it is not only giving refuge to the opposition, but also to refugees who are looking for a way out and to save their lives, not requiring them to have visas in order to enter Turkey, giving a sanctuary to them is also rather big.

And we're seeing a secondary effect, too, in Turkey's overall foreign policy that is slightly derivative. I mean, we're seeing a slight softening in their, you know, staunch criticism of Israel, a bit of exploration for -- of a way out perhaps to the conflict that has existed now for over a year with Israel. So I think the Turks are clearly realigning their overall regional posture, factoring in what's happening in Syria, and I think this is huge given Syria's regional isolation already. It has poor relations with neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, we know, Israel to the south, Jordan. So you know, Turkey has provided a certain legitimacy to Syria in the region that is now lost.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question. Operator, do we have another question for him?

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Warren Doral (sp), USA Today.

QUESTIONER: Hi, thanks for having this conference call. Elliott, you were saying -- you've said in your article that -- you know, that the U.S. administration should be focusing on peeling away the generals from the Assads. And I kind of wanted to hear more about, you know, more details, more specifics about how that can happen.

ABRAMS: Thanks. The idea is that the Alawite community is -- we'll say -- let's say up to 15 percent of Syria. So we're talking about a couple -- maybe 3 million people. It's a large community in that sense. Not every Alawite is a buddy of Bashar al-Assad. Not every Alawite has become a billionaire under Assad. There's a clique, a mafia that is associated with him and his family, siblings and cousins. It radiates out from there.

The idea that I have is that we should be trying to appeal to the Alawite community to say, look, you know, you're 15 percent of the population, max. You're always going to be max 15 percent. You've got to live in Syria. You have to live in a post-Assad Syria. So you should be trying to figure out, what can we do now to make that possible.

Obviously, they're nervous. They have every right to be nervous about what a Sunni-led government would be like. They have every right to fear recriminations and vengeance. So what we should be saying to them now is, but now is the time to act to prevent that, not the day Assad leaves, let's say six months down the road, with so much blood spilled. Now is the time to separate the Alawite community from the regime.

The Sunni opposition should be doing that by saying, we're not -- this is not Sunnis and Alawites. That's a trick that Assad is playing. That's not what we're about. We're about freedom. The other Alawites should be separating themselves and saying, this is not an Alawite regime. This is a regime led by a mafia crew who happen to be Alawite. But many people in the community have never loved the Assads and never benefited from the Assads.

We should be appealing, I said in the article, particularly -- and this would be done mostly, I guess, through intelligence and military channels -- to the Alawite generals. And we should be saying to them, in the end, he's going to go. Your choice is whether to be a survivor or a war criminal. And you need to make that choice pretty soon.

I think if we do all of that, we have a greater chance of separating the Assad clique from not only Syria in general, but from the bulk of the Alawite population.

DANIN: This is Robert. I just want to add Elliott's absolutely right, and there's a flip side to this, which is the regime is clearly trying to exploit the sectarian differences in Syria, and we are starting to see manifestations of that on the ground.

And what I fear is that the longer this goes on, the more successful the regime will be at that. And if they can turn this into a sectarian conflict, then we risk civil war in Syria and a strengthening of the regime and a strengthening of -- you know, a support for those who want an end to chaos in Syria, even if that means the Assads stay. And that's why I started off by saying I don't think time is necessarily on the side of those who believe that this is just going to lead to the inevitable departure of the Assad regime.

QUESTIONER: I wanted to follow up on this as to why aren't we seeing more -- you know, more elements of the Sunni society in Syria getting involved in this? It seems like the -- you know, the upper -- the upper class, the wealthier Sunnis, have been kind of on the sidelines of this, and some people say it's because they're afraid of what would happen, of the -- you know, they're not -- you know, they've got connections to this regime and -- you know, the question is whether this is really a popular revolt.

DANIN: I would just say one thing. You know, we all use the shorthand to say this is an Alawite regime; but in reality it's an Alawite-dominated regime, but there are now Sunnis who are part of the regime. This is now a system. You have Sunni merchants in Aleppo and Damascus who are also part of the system who benefit from the status quo. These people do not want to see a change take place.

You do have Sunnis who want a change to take place, for sure, and it's the fear of those Sunnis that the regime plays upon to say, well, it's either us or it's going to be Sunni Islamists, who do exist within Syria. So there is a fear that they can play upon.

So I don't think that you can talk about the Sunnis as a monolithic group. They're 75 percent of the -- of the population. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of people on the streets and a great deal of them are Sunnis. So there are a lot of Sunnis on the street, but there are also Sunnis who are benefiting from the status quo and don't want to see the regime leave.

ABRAMS: I would just add to that, that, you know, those people you see in the streets are Sunnis, I think. They are not Christian, very few, or Druze or Alawite.

Why aren't the top businessmen turning against the regime? You know, they're not persuaded yet that their interests lie in that direction. But you know, rich people generally don't make revolutions.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question.

Operator, if we have another questions, please?

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Stewart Ain, New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Gentlemen, a few weeks ago, during the Nakba the Syrians drove in buses some of the Palestinians to the border with Israel and told them to march across and they were trying to divert attention. Do you now, with -- if this lasts into the end of September, when the U.N. vote takes place on the Palestinian request for statehood, do you see something similar happening by Syria again to try -- you know, because they're talking about a march through the West Bank, et cetera. Do you see something like this happening again on the Syrian side?

DANIN: I would say -- look, on the one hand, what distinguishes this regime -- and especially Bashar al-Assad from his father -- is his lack of predictability and his recklessness and his poor choices. That said, it seems that the choice to deploy Palestinians, refugees to the border actually proved counterproductive and backfired for the regime. They did it twice, both on the the Nakba day and on the Nakza (ph) day, and there was a backlash within Syria. People were angry. Why did you send us to our death, unarmed and without protection? And so we've seen the Syrian regime back off of that tactic.

But that's why I also started off by saying, with this regime, you cannot count on it to act in either its own best interest or in the -- you know, or tact wisely. So in summary, I'd say I don't expect it to take place in September, but this regime could miscalculate and do something really stupid.

MCMAHON: Elliott, do you want to add anything?

ABRAMS: No.

MCMAHON: OK. Thank you.

Operator, can I have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Evelyn Leopold, freelance.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I am based at the U.N., and I've followed the negotiations of the resolution, all the back stories. And I'm wondering, for influencing Arab nations or getting more support for other measures, how much the United States really has. I watch Brazil, you know, take the most peculiar stand on these things and, you know, agree with Assad's analysis of who was attacking the security forces and so forth.

So I'm just curious of how much influence you think we have, because we seem to have very little in the council on this issue, among alleged friends. The Europeans did a bit better, yeah?

ABRAMS: Well, we have not provided leadership on the question of Syria from the very beginning. I mean, go back several months, when the administration was still saying, you know, if he keeps this up, he may -- he may lose some legitimacy. And I think people in the council and elsewhere are just used to looking at this picture and saying: There is no particular country, no one country that is providing leadership. The U.S. stepped back. So it may well be that the Europeans are in a better position to try to broker the next step, too, which would, hopefully, be a resolution rather than just a --

QUESTIONER: It's going to be hard. He's going to have to slaughter some more people.

ABRAMS: Well, he is slaughtering hundreds -- a hundred people a day

QUESTIONER: Yes.

ABRAMS: It's today that President Medvedev of Russia issued his toughest statement.

QUESTIONER: Yeah.

ABRAMS: So I don't think a resolution -- sadly, because the killing is not stopping -- a resolution is out of the question.

You're right to mention Brazil. And the failure of new democracies like Brazil to step up on a question like this is really disappointing.

QUESTIONER: Exactly. But if you had Brazil, South Africa, and India going along with the West on this, you -- Russia would feel some pressure. But this way, if you don't start with them, we're going to have a very hard time getting a resolution. That's my --

ABRAMS: I agree. And I think that we may be better off -- it may be that the British and the French, for example, together will have -- will have a better ability to turn around the position of Brazil, India, South Africa, than we will.

MCMAHON: Evelyn (sp), thanks for that question.

We're going to have another question, please, operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for doing this. Part of my question was answered in the last -- the last question. But I would still like to know a little bit more about how India, South Africa and Brazil will be turned around. And can they take a position independent of Russia and China who -- which are the countries -- permanent members opposing stronger Security Council action on Syria? Thank you.

DANIN: Look, I don't want to try to get too much into the inside baseball here. I think there's a basic reality. The situation in Syria is getting increasingly brutal. The world is seeing it. And it's getting harder and harder for those countries that were resistant to condemning it to do so. And that's why we were able to issue a Security Council statement that had been unattainable a few weeks ago.

If, as appears to be the case, that the Syrians continue to act in a brutal way, sending tanks into the middle of Hama, one of Syria's largest cities, then I think the Syrians are going to make it easier for countries to join, and make it harder for countries to stand back and watch this happen and not comment on it.

ABRAMS: All of these countries -- that is to say, Brazil, India, South Africa -- these are countries where there is such a thing as public opinion and a free press. And I think if this goes on, you'll begin to hear some questioning at home in parliaments, for example: Why can there not be a Security Council resolution? And I think that will have an impact.

MCMAHON: Just to follow up on that, I'd like to ask real -- about how much you think the whole process of the Libya resolution has, at least temporarily, poisoned the well and damaged a proper discussion of Syria in the Security Council? Or whether that's faded at this point?

ABRAMS: I think it has made governments leery of a slippery slope which leads to military intervention. I think that is true.

DANIN: I'd go a little further. I think it -- I think there is a sense for some that there was a bit of bait-and-switch here, that Resolution 1973 was meant as a humanitarian intervention and has been used as a vehicle towards regime change, and will make some countries reticent to sign on to a(n) "all means necessary" resolution in the future.

I think Libya also has diverted some of the international attention away from Syria. You have a Libya Contact Group that is actually doing a lot of good work, but I think it has drawn attention away -- and I'd like to see a similar Syria contact group put forward. And I do believe it's the challenge of the United States to be able to walk and chew gum, and we need to be able to deal with the Syria crisis as if there was no Libya crisis and the Libya crisis as if there was no Syria crisis.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.

Operator, is there another question?

OPERATOR: Yes. (Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Oren Kessler, Jerusalem Post newspaper.

QUESTIONER: Hi, this is for both or either of you. We heard on Tuesday U.S. ambassador Robert Ford using some very sort of strong language, much stronger than we've heard before. He talked about brutality and so forth. Is this sort of -- is this ratcheting up of rhetoric, is this because the Obama administration has come under such criticism for its -- for its response to the Syria situation? Or is it just Ford trying to ensure that he's actually confirmed as ambassador? Or is this -- does this really represent a change in the administration's policy?

ABRAMS: I think the administration's policy or at least the administration's rhetoric has been getting tougher. If you compare, you know, April then May then June then July, and then the last few days, it continues to get tougher. The White House issued a statement a couple of days ago, this week, that was the toughest yet, and they are tiptoeing up to the line of saying he must go. They used to be talking about -- you know, you remember the president saying he had a choice to make, whether he would preside over a transition or not. They're not saying that anymore.

So I think Ford was, in fact, very much in line with administration policy. And I think administration -- well, he was in line with administration rhetoric. And I think the rhetoric has changed because the situation on the ground keeps getting worse, and the administration keeps getting hit in the major newspapers -- for example, Washington Post, New York Times -- in editorials -- the Times was yesterday -- for not saying enough or doing enough.

The question, I think, is whether, in addition to rhetoric changing, the policy changes.

DANIN: Yeah, I would only add -- I think, you know, a more -- potentially slightly more charitable interpretation is the administration wanted to give the Syrians an out, and so it kept positing a choice that it wanted it to make, but the Syrians didn't comply.

And so I think the position has changed and the administration has now walked to the place where it says, essentially, this regime has no future and there's nothing that can be done with it. But I think it tried to experiment to try to give the Syrian regime an out, largely because our own tools are very limited. And so Syria is a very big challenge for us and for the international community, but the Syrians didn't play ball.

But I think what we're seeing does reflect the policy. The only thing the administration has not done is called on Assad to go, but I actually think that that's not all that important at this point, because what's important now is what we do more than what we -- which word formulation we use at this point.

ABRAMS: Right. And I would argue that the question now is whether we're willing to do more; for example, on the question of sanctions, along with the Europeans, and are we willing to take up the question of oil sanctions. What is the administration's view going to be on the legislation proposed by several members of Congress, Joe Lieberman and others, that calls for more sanctions, that imposes more sanctions?

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Sir, at this time, we have no further questions in the queue.

MCMAHON: Well, I'd like to thank everyone for joining us for this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call, and a very strong thanks to Elliott Abrams and Robert Danin, senior fellows specializing in the Middle East for the Council on Foreign Relations.

This concludes this conference call on violence in Syria. Thanks very much.

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