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No End in Sight in Syrian Conflict

Interviewee: David W. Lesch, Professor of Middle East History, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 6, 2012

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As the uprising in Syria continues into its eighteenth month, there is no resolution in sight for what historian and Syria expert, David W. Lesch, calls "a protracted civil war." He says "neither side is going to give in" or has "the wherewithal to deliver a knock-out punch." Lesch, who has interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad many times between 2004 and 2009, initially found the leader modern and approachable, but over time, witnessed his gradual descent into tyranny, much like his late father Hafez. For Lesch, there is little likelihood of an American intervention because "the opposition is quite fragmented and is made up of a variety of groups, many of whom are just as anti-American as the regime itself."

In your new book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, you say there are three possible ways the current conflict in Syria can progress: President Bashar al-Assad could fall from power; he could stay in power; or the crisis could descend into a protracted stalemate. Which of these scenarios seems most likely?

I see it developing into a protracted civil war. In fact, it already is in one because neither side is going to give in--[both sides] are in this for the long haul. Additionally, neither side has the wherewithal to deliver a knock-out punch to the other side. Therefore the conflict will continue to devolve into this sort of haphazard war without defined fronts--being fought from city to city, with parts of cities being controlled by the opposition during the evening and then retaken during the day by the regime. Syria could really turn into a situation where the regime holds parts of the country and the opposition [takes] other parts of the country. And because of the opposition's lack of unity, warlordism and little fiefdoms could develop in areas that the government does not control. I don't see this ending any time soon, unless there is a difference maker that is thrown into the equation, such as outside intervention, which I don't see happening.

Iran reportedly is stepping up its aid to the Syrians, and the Western powers have so far stayed out of Syria (except rhetorically). Is the Iranian help enough to allow the Syrian Armed Forces to take control?

I don't think so, not quite yet. Iran has their own problems with economic sanctions and threats from the West regarding their nuclear capability. Iran hedged its bets early on in the uprising and tried to make contacts with various elements of the opposition, but now they have thrown their weight behind the Assad regime. Most importantly, they are giving financial support to the Assad regime because Syria's reserves have dwindled to almost nothing. The Iranians have given some military support in terms of training and technology. However I don't see this support as being decisive or at the level that would compel the West to intervene.

Should the West intervene?

I believe that military intervention by the West, in anything close to the scale of that which occurred in Libya, would possibly cause more damage, chaos, and instability than not. Everyone is trying to insulate this so it doesn't spill over across into Lebanon or Iraq or elsewhere, or draw in the Israelis or the Turks, which may be impossible in the end, but I think everyone wants to prevent this from turning into a regional, or even an international, conflict.

Last year, there seemed to be a unanimous assumption that like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Assad would be out soon. Dennis Ross, former Middle East adviser to President Obama, said last December that it was "almost inevitable" that Assad would be ousted. How is it that he has been able to stay in power?

[Last year,] many of these very same experts--and I include myself in that group--were saying that Syria would be one of the last hit by an uprising or that it wouldn't be hit at all, because of factors that differentiated Syria from Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. Those factors included the tighter relationship between the military-security apparatus and the leadership in Syria than that which existed elsewhere. Also, Assad had a level of popularity at a grassroots level that Mubarak, Gaddafi, and others did not have. In addition, the Syrian people have been very hesitant traditionally to rise up against the regime in a way that may generate chaos and instability, because all they have to do is look over to the west, toward Lebanon, or to the east, toward Iraq, to see how the fall of regimes and the loss of central power can lead to sectarian warfare and chaos and instability for decades. That is why a good percentage Syrians are still sitting on sidelines, not necessarily in support of the Assad regime, but because they don't see any other viable alternative. All of those factors are, in fact, contributing to the longevity of the Assad regime and the ability of the Assad regime to stay in power.

"I believe that military intervention by the West, in anything close to the scale of that which occurred in Libya, would possibly cause more damage and chaos and instability than not."

The opposition seems fragmented. The Syrian National Congress seems divided, and the Free Syrian Army seems disorganized. Is there any reason for the United States to support any of these opposition groups?

I agree. The opposition is quite fragmented and is made up of a variety of groups, many of whom are just as anti-American as the regime itself has been over the years. All you have to do is look at Egypt. Just because there are secular democracy activists there doesn't mean they are automatically pro-American. The Syrian exiles who have been living outside of Syria for many years, sometimes decades, and have often been supported by the West financially are seen as tools of the Western powers wanting to come in and gain control on the back of American tanks. They have very little legitimacy with the Syrians that are actually fighting and dying in the country, and that is a major fault line.

The regime has done a Machiavellian job over the decades of divide-and-rule, and so it would be very hard, even in a vacuum, for the opposition to coalesce into a unified coordinated front, much less against the withering assaults of the regime. So it's very complex, and that is why the West, and the United States in particular, is holding back in terms of more assertive support for the opposition.

As one official said, they don't really have an address for the opposition like they did for the National Transitional Council in Libya that opposed Gaddafi. And even then, there were divisions in Libya and serious problems in post-Gaddafi Libya as it tries to rebuild. There are so many problems in Libya and that's made the West even more hesitant to get involved in Syria, which is much harder nut to crack.

You are one of the few Americans to have spent much time with Bashar al-Assad.

I interviewed him many, many times between 2004 and 2009 and on a regular basis.

Can you describe your reaction to him?

When I first started interviewing him in 2004, he was still somewhat inexperienced. There was still a learning curve on the job and he didn't really have total control of the regime apparatus, in my view. He was always very unpretentious, very self-deprecating, and he did not fit the typical caricature of a Middle East dictator. He had a fairly normal upbringing, which is why I think a number of people, myself included, had some high hopes that he would be different than his taciturn father.

But as often happens--and, as we have seen, in authoritarian systems--even the most well-intentioned individuals who may want to change the system find the system changes them. As I kept meeting with him through 2009, I could see him grow much more comfortable with power. He certainly enhanced his control of the ruling apparatus. I got a real sense of triumph on his part because he had survived the pressure of the West following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and particularly following the U.S.-led isolation of Syria after the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese president Rafic Hariri --something that the West held Syria at least indirectly, if not directly, responsible for. I remember in late 2005, people were counting the days for the Assad regime to fall. But everyone has underestimated the resiliency of the regime.

"No matter how well intentioned you are in beginning, power is an aphrodisiac. And I think when you are surrounded by sycophants, as typically happens in authoritarian regimes, and you are told on a daily basis how wonderful you are, it's human nature to start to believe that sort of thing."

I think that sense of triumphalism as well as suspiciousness transformed his response and his regime's response to the uprising. They actually do believe the often heard mantra from the regime and from al-Assad himself that the uprising is due to pernicious external forces working with unwitting co-conspirators inside Syria. And of course, that narrative has become a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent because of their crackdown, which has opened the doors for outside support for the Syrian opposition.

No matter how well-intentioned you are in the beginning, power is an aphrodisiac. And I think when you are surrounded by sycophants, as typically happens in authoritarian regimes, and you are told on a daily basis how wonderful you are, it's human nature to start to believe that sort of thing. So he started to believe the sycophants that the well-being of the country was synonymous with his well-being. He was shocked when the Syrian uprising hit his country because he thought he was so popular.

Did you have chance to interview his wife, Asma al-Assad?

Yes, I did on a couple occasions; she was always very impressive. She is ten years younger than Bashar. She is very cosmopolitan, very bright, and, again, someone in whom many people had high hopes. She began to set out a different sort of image for the first lady of Syria, and she was very active in terms of promoting women's rights and trying to develop some civil society organizations that would particularly help rural towns and villages. It's sad that everyone thought this couple could take Syria in a different direction. But when push came to shove, being Hafez al-Assad's son and a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the superpower Cold War, and Lebanon's tumultuous history all had a more long-term impact on Bashar's thinking than some of the modernizing characteristics that people [in the West] saw in him.

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