- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
With an agreement in place to halt the fighting in Syria by April 10, there is now great pressure on the rebels to abide by the deadline, says Ed Husain, a Middle East expert for CFR, but adds that he doubts a cease-fire can be maintained for long. He says, "The onus now is on the rebels not to provoke the butcherous Assad regime," and to "regroup, reunite, re-plan, and launch a civil disobedience program which doesn’t include violence." There is also great confusion in Syria about leadership transition, Husain says, because "if and when [President Bashar al-] Assad falls, we still have no idea as to who takes over and whether the [Syrian National Council] can provide credible and secure governance of the country." He says it is wise for the United States, already extended in the Middle East, not to become directly involved in Syria.
The Friends of Syria, a group of more than seventy nations including the United States, met Sunday in Istanbul to discuss ways to end the fighting and get President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Then at the Security Council Monday, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, said Assad is willing to start pulling tanks and other forces out of cities starting April 10. What’s your sense of the situation--is it now less chaotic?
The chaos, oddly, occurred during the Friends of Syria meeting. They failed to unite and either call for Assad to step down or agree to arm the rebels. Those were the minimal demands from the Syrian National Council, [the country’s leading opposition group]. Rightly, at the Friends of Syria meeting, the SNC was repeatedly asked about the lack of unity in its ranks, and the response came, "We’re not as disunited as the international community is." That might be a sharp response from Burhan Ghalyun, the SNC leader, but it doesn’t necessarily address the fact that if and when Assad falls, we still have no idea as to who takes over and whether the SNC can provide credible and secure governance of the country. In contrast, there seems to be more coherence from the Annan mission.
The reports I’ve read suggest that both the SNC rebel commanders in Homs and the regime in Damascus have not just agreed, but have a clear deadline of the tenth of April, by which time the regime promises to withdraw all of its armored vehicles and the Syrian National Council promises not to open any more attacks. Now if that’s true, and in fact holds up, then we have a small lull before inevitably more fighting commences, during which Assad should either institute reforms--which seems unlikely--or step down and go into exile--which again seems unlikely--which leaves us in the difficult position of going back to square one, at some stage, where fighting will resume.
Annan seemed to be hopeful at the Security Council meeting. Do you think the chances are good this latest effort could work?
The main fighting force allied to the Syrian National Council is the Free Syrian Army. Today’s report suggests that they too have said that they will not shoot a single bullet if the regime’s tanks withdraw. Now the difficulty here is this: It’s a difficult moral argument to accept, but the onus now is on the rebels not to provoke the butcherous Assad regime, because this is not an Egyptian or a Tunisia-style uprising where at least in the early stages, the regime isn’t opening fire. The Assad regime is prepared to kill its people. Given this high level of risk, it’s up to the opposition now to not become increasingly more violent, and realize that the stakes are so high that essentially what they’re looking at is their own forces being eliminated and the plan to bring about regime change compromised. Therefore the real onus is on the opposition to withhold, regroup, reunite, re-plan, and launch a civil disobedience program which doesn’t include violence.
Do any of these outside countries, like Saudi Arabia, have much influence with the Free Syrian Army?
[T]he real onus is essentially on the opposition to withhold, regroup, reunite, re-plan, and launch a civil disobedience program which doesn’t include violence.
The Saudis have both tribal connections as well as ideological connections with some of the more Salafi [fundamentalist Sunni] fighters. Also, a large number of Saudi mosques and clerics have openly supported the rebels against the Assad regime. But that element of the rebellion is not the one that should come to the fore, because it has extremist tendencies.
The real problem is that the more secular, liberal, progressive elements of the opposition have not really demarcated the differences between them and the more extreme elements. The real problem in Saudi Arabia’s involvement and proximity to the opposition is not that it can provide money to the opposition; the real problem is that it further discredits the opposition in the eyes of ordinary Syrians who see this as further Saudi/Wahhabi meddling in their domestic affairs. This allows Assad and the regime to discredit the opposition further. The opposition should be far removed from many of these regimes and fight its own native, homegrown campaign against the [Assad] regime that would be peaceful and nonviolent. But the more support it gets from the outside, the more discredited it becomes among the very people it needs on its side in Damascus and Aleppo.
Should the United States try to get more involved, or is it already involved enough?
America’s hands are full with Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, with the Arab-Israeli conflict, with Bahrain, with Saudi Arabia. The last thing the United States needs is to have a full-blown conflict on the borders of Israel, Iraq, Jordan, [and] Lebanon, flaring up to an extent that it demands either airpower or troops on the ground or other forms of logistical support, which further strains U.S. capacity in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged money for humanitarian aid and some technical equipment for satellite communications, but no direct military involvement. Do you think that’s about the maximum that United States should be doing?
At this juncture in the conflict, yes. After the military involvement in Libya, the United States is only now beginning to see who the opposition figures are. In the Syrian opposition, it’s no exaggeration to say that there are Saudi Salafis, as well as al-Qaeda elements, and others who are included toward more extreme versions of religiosity present in that conflict. Given that we don’t really know who the Syrian opposition is composed of in detail, how wise is it to then bring down another regime and put in its place yet another Muslim Brotherhood-led government? Islamist governments are emerging in Yemen, in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia, and these problems can only be managed and contained and responded to without a full-blown civil war erupting within the borders of one of the world’s hotspots. So whatever can be done to maintain and contain the situation should be done, rather than arming rebels that we don’t know much about.
What’s your sense of the Syrian National Congress? Are they united?
They seem to have more of a presence outside of Syria than inside the country. They have a presence in Western countries and in the media, but there are other Syrian opposition activists and leaders inside Syria about whom we just don’t know enough, and my hunch is that they’ve distanced themselves from the SNC and they are the unknown heroes in all of this. I think we will start seeing opposition elements that are more moderate, sensible, pragmatic, and based inside Aleppo and inside Damascus, and they may well be the ones who benefit from the demands of the SNC outside of the country. Right now, the SNC doesn’t have the mass appeal that it requires in Aleppo and Damascus, the two major business and religious hubs in Syria.
You taught at a Syrian university for a couple of years. Were the students in your university hopeful that Assad would transform Syria?
I was there until 2005 and have been back almost every year since. My last visit was in 2010, and there’s no questioning the fact that up until the recent uprising, Assad and his family were very popular among young people in Damascus and elsewhere. They saw in him someone who was educated in the West [Britain], was a professional, understood technology, had an eye for business, and said all the right things.
[W]hatever can be done to maintain and contain the situation, should be done, rather than arming rebels that we don’t know much about.
I don’t think today he’s as popular as he was a year ago. However much he may want to blame the army, the bottom line is the buck stops with him opening fire on the population and killing innocent people and trying to clamp down on protestors. It’s fair to say that he’s not as popular as he was, say, seven years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago, because of the massacres and atrocities. But then, the opposition isn’t exactly an appealing option for ordinary Syrians either. So they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and they’ve been forced to choose the Assad regime by virtue of not going out against the regime in large numbers in Syria’s capital and Aleppo.
Why did Assad not implement the reforms he talked about when he first came into power?
When I was at the University of Damascus, I used to teach people who were working in his office, in the executive office, in his wife’s office, people at the Ministry of Finance, as well as the Ministry of Religious Affairs--a whole range of people inside government. And what they repeatedly said, both in public and private, is the president is not to blame; the old guard around him that he inherited from his father’s days believed that introducing reforms leads to a stronger middle class [and] greater political freedom, thereby demolishing the regime from within. So they were inherently resistant to change. And apparently Assad’s view was, "No, greater political participation means that people are happier and more content, and therefore the regime’s life is extended." So there was always tension between Assad and his old guard advisors from the previous regime. Assad didn’t have enough support around him to follow through on reforms. Now, looking at some of the emails that have been released, I’m not sure that argument is convincing because he himself doesn’t seem convinced of the need to produce reforms.
Make a prediction now: Do you think we’ll have a real cease-fire in ten days?
I think we’ll have a real cease-fire in ten days, mostly for about ten days.