The following is an edited transcript of an Uncommon Ground episode. Uncommon Ground is an interactive online show hosted by Amar C. Bakshi that connects people from around the world who are otherwise unlikely to talk in conversation about the main issues of the day. Using Cisco Technology, Uncommon Ground also enables the live audience to ask questions directly of the guests.
On February 15th, the following guests came online from around the world to discuss the unfolding situation in Syria:
Amr Al Azm was the Director of Scientific and Conservation Laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums (1999-2004) and taught at the University of Damascus (1999-2006). Currently he is an Assistant Professor of Middle East History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and an active member of the Syrian opposition.
Emile Hokayem is the Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based out of the Middle East office in Manama, Bahrain. Prior to joining the Institute, he was the Political Editor and international affairs columnist of the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National.
Michael Young is the opinion page editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon, where he writes a weekly column. Michael is also the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster), which the Wall Street Journal named one of its 10 notable books for 2010.
Alexander Sotnichenko is a Senior Analyst for the St. Petersburg Modern Middle East Research Center and Associate Professor of International Relations. He is based in St. Petersburg.
Will Syria follow Lebanon?
Amar C. Bakshi: Michael, how would you describe what’s happening in Syria right now? Looking at this from Lebanon, a country that has long been wracked by internal sectarian strife, do you worry Syria’s conflict could take on a sectarian character?
Michael Young: Well, certainly I worry and I think it has, to a certain extent, taken on a sectarian character. At the same time, I don’t think we should immediately fall back into the Lebanon paradigm. Syria is not a country that has the same contradictions as Lebanon does.
What we have today is a regime that is essentially a minority regime that is repressing a substantial part of the population. This is very different than what we had in Lebanon in 1975 when the war started. That doesn’t mean that it will not take on more of a sectarian coloring than it already has. But I don’t think is quite the same thing that we had in Lebanon in 1975. If today the regime were to fall, it’s not necessarily the case that Syria would go into a prolonged a sectarian civil conflict. There are Alawites, there are Druze, there are even Christians who oppose the regime.
Why isn’t the military defecting?
Amar C. Bakshi: Emile, we haven’t seen a lot of defections in the army, especially not at the higher levels dominated by Alawites and some of these minorities. Why isn’t this happening? It seems like that would be a critical precursor to ultimate regime weakness.
Emile Hokayem: This regime has had 42 years to develop very sophisticated coping strategies – things like requiring military officers to house their families on military compounds before they’re sent to fight. The military will only react if they feel that there is a credible, external threat or a credible possibility of intervention. Then it will defect. Alternatively, it could split because of popular pressure – all this naming and shaming that we see by opposition activists and demonstrators. At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the role of defections in the overall unraveling of this regime.
The military has around 200,000 soldiers and 100,000 to 150,000 more paramilitary units. The country’s much bigger than this. I think what will be key is the defection of other constituencies – minorities, businessmen and so on. The military is not immune to what happens on this front.
What should the world do?
Amar C. Bakshi: And, Amr, when you confront the double veto from Russia and China, which effectively means the Security Council isn’t going to be able to authorize intervention, which would provide legitimacy and cover, what do you do at this stage?
Amr Al Azm: I think what the opposition can do right now is continue doing what it’s already doing – that is to maintain pressure on the regime and try to ameliorate the sectarian element that is rapidly developing, and that has been pushed by the regime in order to retain the allies that it has at the moment. We have to try and ameliorate or try and reduce the sectarian elements, and at the same time, find strategies that sustain the action on the ground.
One also has to bear in mind that the regime has a relatively low number of actual reliable units in the military that they can use. This is a serious problem for the regime. The regime has a lot of military hardware to apply, but not necessarily enough manpower to actually take ground and hold it for any length of time.
The minute they end an operation, or soon after they have to withdraw and the street rises up again, the area or the towns fall out of control, and the Free Syrian Army or local militias move back in and take over.
It is those sorts of strategies that I think are going to gradually drain the regime out, in addition to the other very important factor in what we call the merchant military complex here. Shattering the relationship between the merchant middle classes and the regime is key. Encroaching on those fracture lines will gradually unravel the regime.
Can Russia be brought around?
Amar C. Bakshi: Alexander, let’s follow up on this. What does Russia want to see happen in Syria? Can they be brought around to support some kind of international intervention?
Alexander Sotnichenko: Well, first they can see that Russia supports Syrian regime because of several reasons – trade and a Russian navy base in Tartus. The political elite of Russia is also very upset about the revolutions in the Middle East. They are very afraid of a similar situation occurring in Russia with the upcoming elections.
Russia doesn’t want to see the revolution in Syria because of the results of the revolutions in Libya, for example, and the destiny of Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali. We are trying to support the reformation movement in Syria, and we are trying to support a peaceful way of reforms – “evolutional”, not “revolutional.”
I believe in this way because I think that the Syrian people see the situations in Libya and Iraq, which are in a disorganized state with civil war.
And we cannot see one united Syrian opposition. There are very many movements in the opposition.
Look at Turkey. The situation was very similar in 2002. The new leader of an Islamic elite changed the secular old elite with a democratic movement – and we see now that Turkey has a very dynamic state. I think that this way is a much better way that revolution in Libya, Egypt or Syria.
Michael Young: Russian policy, as I see it, is virtually guaranteeing that civil war is going to happen. The Russians have essentially created a situation where they want to impose a transition with Bashar al-Assad in power. They have not asked Bashar to step down. They basically want to protect, as Alexander was saying, their interests.
I think that they see that the only real transition that can take place is one in which Bashar would direct that transition. They have not called for him to step down. This is not a Yemen model.
As a consequence of their veto and the Chinese veto, where are we today? We’re in a situation where the Arab countries, amongst others, are beginning to contemplate an idea of arming the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army, because essentially the diplomatic ground is that the Russians are saying it’s either our route or no route, at least until now. So many of the Arab states are seriously contemplating helping the Syrian opposition. And I believe part of this help will be financing, probably arming or at least giving them the means to arm themselves. And this is virtually ensuring, I think, that we’re heading in the direction of a much more serious civil conflict.
I think the real key here is to see if the Russians would be willing to accept an alternative model where basically you have to get rid of the Assads.
It’s inconceivable to me today that the Assads and Bashar can continue – especially after Homs – to be in charge of the transition and be at the head of a transitional system with Bashar at the top. Basically the core of the system would be unchanged. That seems to be, at least to my mind, the Russian scheme. It’s not going to work, and it’s really key at this stage to see if the Russians can change their mind – if the international community can persuade the Russians to change their mind, where a minimal condition is that Assad has to do. And then you begin negotiation.
Amar C. Bakshi: A viewer asks what the international community should be doing in Syria now and moving forward. Emile, what should the international community be doing in Syria right now if not arming the opposition, for example?
Emile Hokayem: Well, as far as the U.S. is concerned, I think that there’s not much leverage at this point. I think they misplayed their hand at the Security Council. I think a number of mistakes on the U.S. policy side were made early on, and I think the U.S. has done almost everything it can.
I think the biggest mistake was to completely exclude the possibility of intervention. I don’t support intervention, but you need a best threat on the table. You need to keep all options open. Another mistake I think was what we could call the “Chalabi Syndrome”.
U.S. policy was at first driven by this notion that the opposition at home was more legitimate than the opposition abroad. And this is because Washington is so scarred by Ahmed Chalabi and the machinations ahead of the Iraq war.
And this is maybe not the case. You may have had very legitimate opposition figures abroad who were not campaigning for an intervention before – never lobbied U.S. interests and The Hill and others before that escalation.
The U.S. has, for four or five months, been on a very elusive quest for serious interlocutors within Syria. And there are many. But they’re organized at the local level and it took too long for the U.S. to really, really engage the Syrian opposition and actually force them to get their act together and present a unified front.
Amar C. Bakshi: Iran is really the main sponsor of the Syrian regime. And it doesn’t look good for them as Syria gets squeezed. This is sort of a loss geopolitically in the region for Iran. How is what’s happening in Syria seen in the region vis-à-vis Iran, and how long can Iran continue to prop up Bashar al-Assad to the extent that they are?
Emile Hokayem: Well, I mean, certainly Iran’s credibility in the region has suffered immensely. There is no doubt that Iran is paying a big price for its political, moral support for the regime. But I’m also sure that Iran is paying a big price in terms of the resources it has to devote to the survival of such an ally.
But let’s be honest here: Iran does very well in situations of civil war. And if the situation in Syria were to worsen significantly, this wouldn’t necessarily be a loss for Iranian regime.
They come off very well in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon, over the years, cultivating some very unlikely allies just to keep enough cards in their hands. And I think the same thing may happen in Syria. Civil war would be awful for the Syrian people. But Iran would still manage to make the most out of it.