TOPICS > World

Syria’s Assad: How Powerful, Dangerous Is He Now?

January 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed the Arab League's plans to end his country's 10-month old crisis Monday. Ray Suarez discusses the organization's presence in the embattled country with Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

We’re now joined by two experts with significant experience in the region. Emile Hokayem is a Mideast-based analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where his work focuses on Syria, Iran and the Gulf states, and Andrew Tabler, who lived in Syria for most of the last decade and covered Assad for an English-language magazine he founded there. He’s now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Andrew Tabler, let me start with you.

The observer mission from the Arab League has been in Syria for a month. Have they accomplished anything?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: They’ve observed a lot of atrocities by the regime, a lot of fighting, a lot of unrest throughout the country, but there are only about 160 of them thus far.

And so the mission itself has been very controversial. They have observed the implementation of the Arab League protocol to try and stop the crisis in Syria, but they haven’t been able to stop the killing. And this is where they have come under a lot of criticism by the opposition and the public at large.

RAY SUAREZ: Emile Hokayem, do you think that the Arab League proposal to ease Assad out of power is informed by what those observers have been seeing on the ground in the country?

Assad can't put this genie back in the bottle. He's been trying over and over again for over 10 months . . . He isn't able to reform his way out of it. He's in a real dictator's dilemma. And I don't think he knows how to get out of it.Andrew Tabler, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

EMILE HOKAYEM, International Institute for Strategic Studies: It’s mostly informed by the frustration of the Arab League, because the Syrian government hasn’t been really responsive. The Arab League has lost a lot of its luster in the past few weeks.

It came under criticism from Syrian activists inside the country, from Syrian opposition leaders, from the international community and the media. So the Arab League needs to recover from that blow. And this is why it put forward a much tougher proposal that most people, including ourselves, expected.

This is a pretty comprehensive proposal for a transition of power, something that the Syrian government has already turned down. But I would suspect that most people within the Syrian regime just don’t see that as a viable plan for the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Much tougher than you expected. Has the Arab League in the past been a friend to leaders like Assad?

EMILE HOKAYEM: Well, the Arab League has been mostly silent in the past. And, instead, it’s been a very ineffective and silent organization that hasn’t delivered much in terms of political progress in the region and so on.

But, on Libya and more recently on Syria, it has taken some stance that were unprecedented. It’s endorsed the NATO and — or U.N. sanctions, NATO intervention in Libya, and has been putting some serious pressure on Bashar al-Assad, adopting sanctions, suspending Syria’s membership in the Arab league, and now turning to Security Council to obtain Bashar al-Assad’s departure.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Damascus government, Andrew Tabler, turned them down flat. What’s their next move?

ANDREW TABLER: They’re going to try and implement something — a series of changes that deal with the constitution in Syria, a referendum on the constitution.

For the Assad regime, the problem isn’t the regime itself. It’s an international conspiracy, a scheme. And it’s mostly procedural and that, with these changes, they’ll be able to hold on. Of course, what of course is at the end of the Arab League’s announcement today, the report, is the fact that the Arab League is going to the Security Council with this.

And so all eyes will be on Russia yet again, who until now has vetoed every substantive resolution dealing with Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: Could that implicate the United States as well?

ANDREW TABLER: It complicates American diplomacy and efforts substantially, because the United States, along with the European countries, now along with Turkey and a lot of others, are now pushing the Security Council to do something.

But time and time again, they’ve come up with very, very little or in the end some kind of extremely watered-down resolution that has no teeth and has no bearing on the situation. So, diplomatically, there is going to be a lot going on in the coming days. But in the end there isn’t anything in sight that is going to stop the killing in Syria and the street from erupting. And this is the problem that everyone has in front of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit more about the observer mission. The leader of it says it’s had a good effect, that the killing has gone down, while the Syrian opposition says it’s gone on unabated the whole time they’ve been in the country. Many members have quit and left the country in disgust.

Will the Assad government allow them to stay, and what’s been the effect so far?

EMILE HOKAYEM: Well, this is a very tricky situation for the monitors, because they’re obviously under criticism by Syrian activists and the Syrian people in general.

But, for the regime, they’re a way to buy time, to, you know, placate some of the demands or — and allow some of the members of the Arab League who are not very comfortable with increased pressure to say that something is being done.

In reality, the head of the observer mission himself is a very controversial character. His most recent statements were to the effect that actually he was able to do his job and thinks — he was discussing the differences between armored vehicle and tanks, very technical details, when actually the rate of killing hasn’t changed in Syria significantly since they were deployed.

And so I don’t think that this is a way out. And many members of the Arab League, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been the driving force behind the diplomacy, have come to the conclusion that it’s no longer worth it. And Saudi Arabia has announced yesterday that it would withdraw its monitors from the Arab League, which could encourage, which could very well encourage other Gulf states and other countries to withdraw their own monitors, which would lead to a collapse of the mission from within.

RAY SUAREZ: Significant move for the Saudis, Andrew Tabler, to signal their displeasure and sort of bail out on the Assad regime?

ANDREW TABLER: It is because — and this is really important — the Arab League wanted to add observers into Syria. They had been talking about, raising it to 300.

Most of — a lot of those observers were supposed to come from Saudi Arabia. So with Saudi Arabia pulling their observers, then the question is, well, where are the other observers going to come from? The Arab League is having to scramble. The Saudis are taking a tougher position.

But it really shows that you have a lot of divisions inside of the Arab League on how to deal with this. It will be interesting to see how the Assad regime tries to divide the Arab League here in the coming days and weeks ahead, in the face of a plan from the Arab League that it has no intention of implementing.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the short time we have left, you’ve both signaled that the list of friends of the Assad government is shrinking. Is he still powerful? Is he still dangerous? What’s — in the short term, what’s ahead?

EMILE HOKAYEM: I still think the balance of power inside the country is in his favorite, but it’s quickly eroding.

His credibility, his legitimacy, even his attempts to reach out to, I would say, the mellow opposition, domestic opposition that have — have all failed. And he’s not on strong ground. The economy is suffering majorly because of the isolation. The sanctions that were passed are having an impact. And, at the same time, the disarray or the divisions within the opposition are actually postponing the day of his demise.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew?

ANDREW TABLER: I think that he is in increasingly weakened position.

You can, see as Emile said, his support eroding. For example, in Zabadani, outside of Damascus, and then in the — as you mentioned in your report, the environ of Duma, you have large parts of those areas which are outside of government control.

Government tries to reassert. The problem is, you have hundreds of thousands of people coming back out. Assad can’t put this genie back in the bottle. He’s been trying over and over again for over 10 months. And he simply can’t do it. The security solution isn’t working. He isn’t able to reform his way out of it. He’s in a real dictator’s dilemma. And I don’t think he knows how to get out of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Tabler, Emile Hokayem, thank you both.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.