No Easy Answers in Syria

CFR’s Ed Husain discusses the significance of a newly formed coalition of Syrian opposition groups and whether a real political settlement can be achieved anytime soon.

November 14, 2012 10:30 am (EST)

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.

Over the weekend in Doha, Syrian opposition figures reached an agreement to form a group called the National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition, amid calls from the United States and European and Gulf countries for a show of greater unity. Ed Husain, a Middle East expert for CFR, says it "remains to be seen if the new coalition has any influence on what goes on inside Syria," and whether it can rein in al-Qaeda. Overall, he remains pessimistic about Syria’s future and says the conflict could last at least another three or four years. "I can’t see people who’ve been fighting for the last eighteen months amid deep sectarian tensions suddenly overcoming them and looking for a premature political settlement," he says.

Is this "opposition group" meaningful, and will it be recognized by the outside world?

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This is a new body that’s been formed largely in response to U.S. demands that the opposition show greater unity. This is another example of American soft power influence in the region. And the Gulf states that organized the meeting also stressed that if you want greater Western support and weaponry, you have to illustrate unity.

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What’s interesting is that the man at the helm of [of this new group], Moaz al-Khatib, is a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Many of the leaders in the past who were involved with the initiatives were accused of being comfortable in the opposition from their luxury hotel rooms. But this man has been arrested many times inside Syria since the year 2000, when the first Damascus Spring happened after the death of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader Bashar. Khatib brings considerable credibility. And having Suhair Atassi, a prominent female activist, as his vice president, a woman who’s not veiled, helps reassure others inside the country that maybe this new formulation has a vision for Syria that’s different. To Khatib’s credit, he has repeatedly spoken about minorities and been reassuring about minority rights, and despite being a cleric, he has not framed the entire discussion in religious and sectarian terms.

Will this new group be accepted by the people still inside Syria, many of whom are at war with the Assad regime?

The jury is still out as to whether people inside Syria will coordinate and support this new initiative. That remains to be seen, and that is the important part: Will the fighters inside Syria support it? Another aspect that I found problematic was that Moaz al-Khatib went out of his way to thank the Turks, the Gulf countries, and other Arab nations. But for an organization and a man who needs U.S. and European support, he went out of his way to exclude any reference to the United States and any reference to the European Union. If you’re going to ask for U.S. taxpayers’ money and American blood and treasure, you ought to show some public support and not this public distancing.

I noticed that the Arab League met with the new group yesterday in Cairo and gave it provisional recognition, but they don’t have the official Syrian seat.

To be completely frank, Arab League recognition is not at the top of the priority list for this new organization. They’re looking more for recognition from Washington, from Paris, from London. The Arab League has failed to broker a peace in Syria, and it has been repeatedly seen as an organization that’s been divided and could not take a united stance. Remember the Arab League’s meeting in Mecca earlier this year when it failed to expel Syria, despite trying to do so.

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What do you think the United States should do?

What the United States should do is to support this initiative and the new momentum that it has to elicit support from the Free Syrian Army inside the country. That there is a moderate cleric at the helm of this new initiative is good news, but we also have al-Qaeda fighters inside the country. Can they rein in those fighters? Can they create clear blue water between genuine Syrians who are fighting for freedom and democracy and al-Qaeda fighters in their midst?

Unless that distinction is made, it makes it very difficult for the United States and the Europeans to say they are going to give carte blanche support for the opposition and those new fighters. Concern still remains as to who the fighters are, what percentage of the fighters are from al-Qaeda, and how they’re going to put distance between the Free Syrian Army and the jihadist fighters. That still remains a thorny issue and a real concern.

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How significant is it that French President Hollande said that France would recognize the new rebel coalition?

The French president has delivered on his promise and now recognized the new coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people. This is significant because French recognition of the Libyan opposition set a precedent for other European governments and the United States. This is a blow to the Syrian regime, and more importantly, strengthens the hand of Moaz al-Khatib. The opposition now has a new momentum within the international community as other governments are expected to follow the French lead. But the real battle is still within Syria – can the new opposition control the fighters, eject al-Qaeda from its midst, and create unity between the Sunni majority and other minorities inside the country?

Are you surprised that President Bashar al-Assad has been able to stay in power since the uprising began in April 2011? Many people long ago predicted that he would have quit or been ousted by now.

People are increasingly torn between a Syrian government that commits genuine war crimes and human rights violations and an opposition that does the same.

I never predicted his downfall within a time framework. I’ve always said that he has staying power inside the country because, contrary to our expectations and our perceptions, there are large numbers of people inside Syria who much prefer having Bashar al-Assad, the dictator and the tyrannical regime that he represents, than the opposition that has thus far been fighting amongst itself.

With the Muslim Brotherhood in the ascendancy and al-Qaeda in their midst along with rhetoric against Shiites and other minorities, the ugly reality on the ground inside Syria is that we have yet to see large street protests of the kind we saw in Egypt or in Yemen in either Aleppo or in Damascus. People are increasingly torn between a Syrian government that commits genuine war crimes and human rights violations and an opposition that does the same. When Syrians see people in the opposition, the so-called freedom fighters, killing government supporters with the level of brutality and barbarity that’s not expected of human rights advocates, they ask, "Are we getting rid of one bunch of murderers to be replacing them with another group of murderers?" And that’s a genuine question.

I’ve noticed the so-called Syrian National Coalition, which has been long criticized for being ineffectual, is still the dominant force within this new group.

It is one of the more prominent organizations within it. But to be fair to the Syrian National Council, they just elected George Sabra, who happens to be a Christian, as their leader. That is again reassuring to minorities inside Syria. The difficulty with the Syrian National Council is that there’s been a battle waging between the Muslim Brotherhood and more liberal Syrians that does not bode well for the kind of Syria we want to see.

I suppose the new group needs to form some kind of provisional government.

Its only day three. It’s still honeymoon time. We’ve been here before, when the Syrian National Council was formed and created much enthusiasm. It remains to be seen if the new coalition has any influence on what goes on inside Syria. At the beginning of last week, U.S. diplomats urged greater unity among the Syrians. Everyone said, "The Americans and their demands, it won’t happen." Well guess what, it did happen. As long as there is U.S. pressure for greater unity amongst Syrians, and if it can translate to unity among Syrians on the ground, then it’s a good development. But I remain pessimistic. I can’t see people who’ve been fighting for the last eighteen months amid deep sectarian tensions suddenly overcoming them and looking for a premature political settlement. Too much blood has been spilt; too many wounds are raw for people just to forget. It’s just not going to happen soon sadly.

If you had to look ahead six months, do you think we’ll still have this civil war going on?

I’m not a betting man, but if I had to bet, I would say that not just for the next six months, but for at least the next three to four years, we will continue to see tensions, conflict, and blood being spilled among different denominations and sects within Syria. Last night I was with a group of Syrian opposition activists and I kept probing them as to what would happen once Assad falls. I said, "Give me a vision; give me an idea as to the kind of Syria you want to create." They kept using this word "coexistence." They said, "We’ve coexisted for a thousand years."

But what they overlook is there was coexistence between the different denominations inside Syria because there was an external power, the Ottoman Turks in place brokering that coexistence. Then, the French brokered that coexistence. Then, the minority Alawites [led by Hafez al-Assad] took power by force.

The Sunni majority has not been able to guarantee coexistence inside Syria, and to think that somehow now after so much blood, 42,000 lives lost at last count, that all of that is just going to be forgotten and forgiven and that people are going to be not turning on Christians and other minorities. I ask: If in Egypt, which is much more of a homogenous population, the Christians there talk of an exodus, why do we think in Syria, minorities and others will not feel unwelcome, to put it mildly, in a Syria that is dominated by Sunni Islamist organizations?

Syria is headed toward a continued proxy war for other powers in the region.

What happened in Lebanon serves as an instructive reminder to us. These very same denominations, Maronite Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis, are represented in greater numbers inside Syria with the same geopolitical tensions and difficulties and regional power brokers and backers. Syria is headed toward a continued proxy war for other powers in the region.

And you say that Lebanon is an example of how difficult it is to get them united.

It continues to be the case. The Lebanese cannot create a functional army or a functional government because they cannot come to an agreement. Their entire country is divided along sectarian lines. The political settlement is a sectarian settlement. The president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the parliament must come from different religious denominations. And still they cannot function as both government and army and maintain the sovereignty of the state.

Hezbollah, the pro-Iran Shiite proxy, is much more effective than the country’s military and its government. The situation in Syria is increasingly looking toward one in which Iran’s supporters, i.e., the Alawite government, will be removed at some stage, and we will have people who are pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Gulf. I’m not comfortable with that future, to put it mildly.


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