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Syria's Regime Change Challenge

Interviewee: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 5, 2013

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Although CFR's Ed Husain believes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will inevitably fall, he believes that the Syrian opposition realizes that Assad "cannot be defeated on the battlefield at this juncture, as many originally thought possible." This realization, he says, was the impetus behind Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib's offer to negotiate a settlement via Russian and Iranian allies of Assad's over the weekend in Munich. Husain believes there will be negotiations through either the Iranians or the Russians or both, but "whether they will be successful is another question." As for Israel's attack on Syrian trucks transporting advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon this past weekend, Husain says Israel was justified. "If arms are being shipped, as it's being claimed, to Hezbollah, which will then be used against civilians or Israeli security interests, Israel is fully in its rights to strike," he says.

The Syrian Civil War is more than twenty-one months old and there is still no resolution in sight. Most experts believe it's a military stalemate right now. What do you see happening in the future?

In the long term, it's inevitable that President Bashar al-Assad will fall in one way or another. He can't hold onto power while most governments and people in the region and most actors in the international community are piled against him. The power balance inside Syria, due to the the sectarianism, the presence of al-Qaeda fighters, the support Syria gets from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and, to some extent, even Iraq, will probably allow Assad to hold on to power in the short term. But in the long term, he cannot remain in power with an ongoing domestic military resistance, sectarian distrust, a hostile region, and global isolation pitted against him. The shocking development this past weekend of Moaz Al-Khatib, the new head of the opposition Syrian National Council, reaching out to talk to the Assad regime via the Russians and Iranians, Assad's closest allies, is an indication that the opposition leader now realizes that Assad cannot be defeated on the battlefield at this juncture, as many originally thought possible.

Khatib's offer was first made public on his Facebook page, of all places. He was criticized by other members of his coalition who don't want to talk to Assad. Do you think a negotiation is actually possible?

A negotiated settlement at this stage would be a victory for Assad. But a negotiated settlement gives the opposition time to regroup, to identify extremist al-Qaeda elements within their networks and root them out. A negotiation, at least for the immediate future, is in the best interest of both sides, but it plays to Assad's advantage more because it ultimately guarantees his staying in power. And it shows that the axis against Assad has failed to either remove him or support the opposition enough.

But that being said, I think that Khatib's main concern and his reason for offering to negotiate was not the opposition factions, but the mass of innocent people caught up inside Syria. I think he's sincere in his feelings for the millions of people who live in fear of being killed by al-Qaeda fighters or by the Assad forces. That constituency will support him. Ordinary citizens inside the country will see him and the Syrian opposition as being open to constructive dialogue, and not the terrorists that Assad has tried to portray them as. This also grants Khatib the moral high ground.

The United Nations has had a special envoy to Syria for months, with Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat, currently serving in that role. Is it possible that the United Nations could become the mediator here?

"Put simply, all things being equal, UN mediation goes through Moscow."

I don't think Brahimi or his office have much credibility in the eyes of the Syrian government, especially when compared to their favorite allies, the Russians and the Iranians. If the Russians and the Iranians can help broker some kind of arrangement, it's good news for ordinary Syrians in the short term. But my hunch is that they won't be able to deliver anything that's remotely credible, simply because there are too many dedicated fighters inside Syria now, with too many external forces (i.e., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar), who are fueling the opposition with cash and arms. So if Brahimi or the Russians or the Iranians, or for this matter, the opposition, come to some kind of agreement, it would divide the opposition and armed groups would continue to fight--but at a reduced level. Put simply, all things being equal, UN mediation goes through Moscow.

Could this lead to Assad voluntarily stepping down?

I can't see Assad voluntarily leaving power; it's not going to happen. But my recent discussion with the Iranians indicates that somehow there could be "free and fair elections" in which Assad would run but there would be other contenders. But Assad does not have a democratic bone in his body; he's not going to run against Moaz Al-Khatib.

Talk briefly about the incident that was in the headlines most of last week, which was the Israeli attack on a truck convoy bringing anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and collateral damage done to a scientific research facility in Damascus. Do you think Israel is now going to become more involved in Syria?

"If Syrian territory becomes like Pakistani territory, a home for terrorists, it's fully within Israel's right to strike preemptively."

I don't think many of us are shedding tears for damage to the research lab, I'm sorry to say. But what's important is the question you ask, which is, "Will the Israelis get more involved?" The answer, judging by the indications coming out of Jerusalem, is "yes." The Israelis have talked about setting up a buffer zone and they're monitoring developments in the Golan Heights much more closely than they had two years ago. Any discussions with senior Israeli military generals, or intelligence officials, always provide indications that while they're pleased about the possibility of Assad being removed, they're deeply concerned about who replaces him. People may find this objectionable, but if Syrian territory becomes like Pakistani territory, a home for terrorists, it's fully within Israel's right to strike preemptively. Not to strike would mean to wait for the arms to reach Hezbollah and terror attacks to be launched against Israel. There is a mindset of some in the international community that you cannot violate another country's sovereignty. Well, territorial sovereignty means controlling rogue elements within a country. But it's not a country's sovereignty if it's home to a terrorist base threatening [another] country. Because Pakistan continues to allow al-Qaeda and other extremists [to settle within its borders], it's open to drone attacks, sadly. The same applies to Syria. If arms are being shipped, as it's being claimed, to Hezbollah, which will then be used against civilians or Israeli security interests, Israel is fully in its rights to strike. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounced this decision, calling Israel a terrorist state. But what would Turkey do if there were targetable PKK terror bases inside Syria?

They would do the same thing as the Israelis, obviously.

Exactly.

What we haven't mentioned is the United States. There was a story published over the weekend that said that Hillary Clinton and former CIA director David Petraeus were working on a scheme to secretly supply the rebels with arms but that President Obama killed the project. The United States really doesn't want to get too involved, does it?

"There are strong arguments for the United States not being militarily involved, and it's important to understand that the prospect of being involved could lead to even more people being killed as greater chaos and instability spreads."

One of the reasons that Obama objected to Petraeus and Clinton's plan had to do with the U.S. presidential election. But I think Obama's concern is that the day after Assad is removed, does the Obama administration inherit a second-tier Iraq, with the sectarian conflict and the chances of a greater flare up in the region? On balance, I think the Obama administration has not taken its eye off the ball. Yes it's not been as involved as some would like, but through its allies, whether it's Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Turkey, the United States still remains the single largest contributor, $360 million, to the humanitarian disaster that's unfolding. My understanding is that the U.S. intelligence agencies keep a very close eye on the movement of chemical weapons. There are strong arguments for the United States not being militarily involved, and it's important to understand that the prospect of being involved could lead to even more people being killed as greater chaos and instability spreads.

Are you surprised that Assad has been able to stay in power for nearly two years?

No, not at all. I remember discussions with colleagues at the outset of this conflict, who said that Assad would be gone in six weeks, and then they extended it to two months, and then to six months. At each and every point, my hunch was "no," because I've lived in Syria, I've maintained contact with the people, and I've been visiting the country regularly until as late as 2010. However much we hate Assad in the West, he was, at least until the outbreak of the conflict, a very popular president inside Syria. My hunch is that over the last two years, the rise of al-Qaeda fighters inside the country has made people choose between the continuity they had before the uprising with Assad in power, which guaranteed at least some kind of unity inside Syria, and creating a country that is divided, broken up, with sectarian fighting and minorities killed. And when people in Syria look at Egypt today, a country that's much more homogenous [than Syria], they [are asking themselves if they] want to go down that route with daily protests and violence. If that can happen in homogenous Egypt, without the sectarian tensions, what would happen in Syria? Can Assad survive? In the long term, no, but in the short term, I suspect he will continue to survive because, however unpalatable to us, the masses inside Syria's large cities have not yet turned against him.

Make a prediction: Do you expect there will be some kind of negotiation?

Yes. It's not in the interest of any of these parties not to negotiate. But whether they will be successful is another question.

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