Despite an April 10 deadline set by the UN for a cease-fire in Syria, violence in the country seems to be continuing between the government and opposition forces. The ongoing impasse in Syria is unlikely to end unless there is more "concerted pressure" from the international community and in particular Russia, which is one of Syria’s main supporters, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, who previously served as a senior Middle East official in the State Department. She says that a major reason for Russia’s refusal to join in concerted action against Syria is that this "is a principled issue, and an issue that they think relates to their own domestic politics in terms of sovereignty and anti-interventionism, and they’re willing to stand that ground pretty firmly." She says she does not believe the Syrian leaders are truly interested in dialogue. "They’re engaging in it because they feel they have to, to create some political cover for what they’re really interested in doing, which is crushing this opposition movement on the ground," Wittes says.
From all reports, the Syrian cease-fire that was to have taken effect under Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan has not happened, and there is still fighting, with the Syrian government and the rebels blaming each other. What do you see happening in Syria over the next several weeks and months?
The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is still in power and seems fairly well entrenched in the sense that the military is willing to support it. As long as that’s the case, it’s hard to see things changing. The one thing that could make a real difference is if there were a more unified and concerted pressure from the international community, which would mean that Russia and China would have to stop protecting Assad.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has just been in Moscow, and the Russians seem to be trying to walk a fine line between urging the Syrians to abide by a cease-fire but not willing to put any outright pressure on them. Do you think the Russians may change their approach?
I think there are a couple of things going on here. One is a longstanding historical relationship between these two countries, and for Russia, in some ways, Syria is their last Cold War partner in the Middle East, so they’d be loath to lose that entrée. But fundamentally, for Russia, this is not just about Syria--this is about the way the international community engages in the domestic affairs of other countries. So for Russia, there is a principled issue, and an issue that they think relates to their own domestic politics in terms of sovereignty and anti-interventionism, and they’re willing to stand that ground pretty firmly.
Do the Russians think it was a mistake not vetoing Security Council Resolution 1973 last March on Libya, which allowed NATO forces to get involved militarily?
Every move that the Syrians have made in the last week seems designed simply to buy themselves time to conduct more military operations on the ground, to kill more civilians, and to cow their population into submission.
They certainly seem to be haunted by that. But I would ask the Russians whether the outcome in Libya was really so terrible from the perspective of their concerns about international law and national sovereignty. If the Libyan situation had been allowed to degrade, if Muammar [al-]Qaddafi had been allowed to massacre his own citizens, that civil war would have not have stopped either, and Libya would have devolved into a situation of sustained conflict. Syria is heading down that road today. It is a very bad road; it has a potential to be destabilizing, not just for Syria, but for the wider region, and quite dangerous for the stability of the Middle East. So my question to the Russians is, "Are these qualms about international intervention worth risking the kind of instability that’s likely to come about if the Syrian situation is left to fester?"
The United States has taken a position on Syria that it wants President Assad to step down, and it supports the various UN and Arab League resolutions calling for this to happen. Should the United States be more involved diplomatically with the Syrians? The United States doesn’t seem to have any direct contact with the Syrians now.
There is no direct contact on the ground for security reasons. The United States was compelled to close its embassy in Damascus in February, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no contact with the Syrians. And certainly, there is a lot of diplomatic engagement with the Syrians through other parties. So, I don’t think there is any lack of communication. But I also don’t think that the Syrians are particularly interested in diplomatic dialogue. They’re engaging in it because they feel they have to, to create some political cover for what they’re really interested in doing, which is crushing this opposition movement on the ground. Every move that the Syrians have made in the last week seems designed simply to buy themselves time to conduct more military operations on the ground, to kill more civilians, and to cow their population into submission.
The Syrians’ main foreign supporter right now is Iran, and this is an interesting alliance because if Assad is forced to leave, then the Iranians will have lost their major partner in the Arab world.
It’s also important to note that most of the opposition in Syria, even today, in the face of this incredible brutality, is still peaceful.
That’s true, but to be perfectly honest, the Iranians were already somewhat back on their heels in the region because of the events of the Arab awakening. They found themselves unable to claim credit, or even to find a role for themselves in these events, even though they tried to position themselves in the Arab world over many years as the supporters of the people. The peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt occurred without any Iranian involvement, and in Libya, the Iranians opposed NATO action and went against the clear preferences of the Libyan people. So the Iranians were already finding themselves in a weaker position regionally, and this is just their latest problem. There’s no question that they see this as quite troubling. It is troubling not only in the broader balance of power in the region, but also because Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon were their primary link to the Arab-Israeli arena. If that link is broken, it makes it much, much harder for the Iranians to play on some of the big regional issues that they believe give them political legitimacy.
Do you think the time has come now to do what some of the Arab states have suggested, which is to arm the opposition?
I’m not at all convinced that that would move things along to the policy goal that has been enunciated by, for example, the United States, which is that Assad should step down. Arming the rebels at this point could prolong and exacerbate the crisis and cause greater spillover from Syria’s borders into Iraq or Lebanon. That’s a very troubling prospect. It’s also important to note that most of the opposition in Syria, even today, in the face of this incredible brutality, is still peaceful. It’s still nonviolent, it’s still people going out into the streets, holding banners, and chanting and protesting. And as long as that’s the case, as long as Syria has not devolved entirely into civil war, that’s something to be nurtured.
At the same time, I think it’s important for the United States and for other members of the UN Security Council to recognize that as long as the Assad regime is engaged in the mass killing of its own citizens, there are going to be those outside, including those in the region, who are going to find ways to provide arms and other support to Syrians who are trying to fight back. The militarization of the conflict is happening now. It’s not something that can be prevented, but it is something that can be managed. That only points to the need for the UN Security Council members to take a realistic look at what’s going on, and for Russia in particular to end its posturing and to talk about a peace process, and to recognize the reality on the ground, which is a government with overwhelming power subjecting its own population to tremendous brutality, and to take concerted action to halt that.
Talking about Russia, Vladimir Putin will be sworn in as president again on May 7. Soon after that, he’ll be meeting at Camp David with President Obama and other members of the G8. And clearly, Syria, if it’s not resolved by then, will be the number one international political issue at that meeting. Do you think the Russians might join with the United States and others in a stronger Security Council resolution?
I think the G8 is an important forum not only because it’s another opportunity for direct engagement at the head of state level, but also because the G8, when it met last spring in Deauville, France, was one of the first multilateral groups of major countries to enunciate a clear response to what was taking place in the Arab awakening. The G8 clearly put itself on the side of the democratic aspiration of the Arab world and issued a very strong declaration which the Russians signed on to. They talked about basic rights and freedom; they talked about the responsibility of leaders to respond their people’s aspirations; they talked about the need to support and nurture civil society. So the Russians have already signed on to all of this. The G8 summit coming around again this year is an opportunity to remind the Russians of what they’ve already committed to, with regard to these developments in the region. And even though things don’t always go as smoothly and as peacefully as they did in Tunisia, for example, that doesn’t mean that the citizens in these other countries aren’t as deserving of equal respect and support.