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Syrian Instability: How Would Rest of World Respond?

February 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Citing security woes amid Syria's escalating crackdown, American and British diplomats have left Damascus. Ray Suarez discusses other countries' diplomatic and military options and the mounting pressure on Assad's regime with the University of Oklahoma's Joshua Landis and Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace.
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RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined now by Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He was a senior Fulbright Scholar in Syria in 2005 and runs a website called SyriaComment.com. And Steven Heydemann, a political scientist and senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace.

Joshua Landis, the White House has all but ruled out military intervention. What does the world community have left after the U.N. vote turning down the resolution?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, it’s clear that nobody — we’re in a you-first situation, where everybody is expecting somebody else to intervene militarily.

The problem is that Syria is a big country, 24 million people. It’s divided by religious community. The government is the Alawite stronghold against an opposition that’s largely Sunni. So we have shades of Iraq and Lebanon here. This is a complicated battle. And nobody wants to get their military involved.

So what’s likely to happen is that, increasingly, they’ll begin to fund and arm the Syrian opposition and that this will be fought out over a long period of time on the streets of Syria and in places like Homs.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann, do you agree with that analysis, that now the attention shifts inside the country to armed groups working there?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN, U.S. Institute of Peace: I think it does.

It’s important to remember that all of the diplomatic and political activity that was happening outside of the U.N. Security Council is going to continue. Sanctions will continue. The Arab League is going to continue its efforts to secure support for its political transition framework.

But the real focus right now is going to be on military options. And, there, the U.S., unfortunately, is at a real disadvantage. We have stressed our preference for a political solution. And what that means is that we have not developed the frameworks that would equip us to manage the militarization of the Syrian uprising, to ensure that support for the Free Syrian Army is coordinated and provided in a way that strengthens civilians.

And if we don’t move in that direction, the potential for support to the armed opposition to produce fragmented militias operating under very limited control is very high. And I think that’s likely to produce a longer, more violent conflict and one in which at the end of the day we could find that it is the fighters and not the diplomats or the politicians who are determining Syria’s future.

So I think the U.S., even though it’s been reluctant to do so, has an opportunity now to figure out how to manage militarization in ways that avoid some of those worst-case outcomes.

RAY SUAREZ: Joshua Landis, with what Steven Heydemann just said, is there any outside force left in the world, now that the U.N. has basically taken itself out of the equation, that can stay Bashar al-Assad’s hand to keep him from smashing the opposition?

JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t believe that there are.

You know, the United States was hoping that either Turkey or the Arab League would step in militarily, and then the U.S. could provide support for that. I was just in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago and talked to a number of princes there. None of them said — they all said that Saudi Arabia is not going to support military intervention in a fellow Arab country, like Syria, which could backfire.

And I think Turkey is very loath to get involved, because this is a — you know, this is a big potential quagmire. The Syrian opposition has not put together a cohesive leadership. And I think that, as Steve has said, the leadership is likely to come out of the military. It’s somebody we haven’t seen yet.

This is going to develop over a period of time. Syria, unfortunately, like Iraq and Lebanon and the Palestinians, is not a cohesive national community. There are a lot of — there are a lot of factions. And if America were to rush in or some other country were to rush in and destroy the government, it’s not — it’s unclear who would take charge and how security would be brought to the Syrian people.

That’s something that’s going to emerge over time. And we’re seeing it emerging already. There are a number of opposition groups that are getting together, that are getting organized. But by and large, what we see are militias on the ground. They’re organized based on town and city.

And they don’t agree always on ideology. And they have to come together. If they’re going to beat this regime, which still has a professional army and real weapons, they’re going to have to begin to get a command-and-control, and they’re going to have to come together and work together.

RAY SUAREZ: So, the rest of the world doesn’t want to get involved. But if you look at a map of Syria, it touches all the hot spots in that part of the world, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel. It borders with Turkey.

If there’s instability in Syria, isn’t it a big problem for a big bunch of countries?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: It’s an enormous problem. Syria sits right at the intersection of virtually every key strategic rivalry in the region. It borders Israel. It borders Turkey. It is part of a group of states through which Iran has projected its influence in the region.

And so instability in Syria holds the potential for spillover in all kinds of directions, into Lebanon and elsewhere, that would really raise the stakes of conflict in Syria.

But where I disagree a bit with Josh is that, even though there is a great deal of reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria, we see already very troubling indicators that, informally, governments in the region are beginning to provide arms and equipment and support to the Free Syrian Army.

We have heard rumors about this happening through the Qataris. We’ve heard rumors about this happening from Lebanon and from Saudi Arabia. And this contributes to the fragmentation of the way in which groups inside Syria acquire military support and equipment. We’d be much better off if we had frameworks for coordinating those efforts, so that fragmentation didn’t occur and so the military remained under civilian authority.

I think we should make an investment to prevent those things from happening.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Steve Heydemann is talking about countries spiriting weapons in. The Russians are supplying the Syrian government, aren’t they, Joshua Landis?

JOSHUA LANDIS: They are indeed. And I’m sure Iran is helping out where they can.

This is — you know, this has an international dimension. And Russia does not want to see Syria collapse. It’s a longtime ally. It’s got an important port there, the only port that the Russia has in the Mediterranean. And they see this as a — you know, the canary in the mine field — in the mine shaft in a part with Iran, because if Syria is taken down, the Syrian government, Iran is going to be next.

And they don’t want to see Iran fall. Neither does China. China gets much of its energy from Iran and has invested a lot in Iran. So change in this, both in Syria and Iran is going to come at a high cost. There’s no doubt about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann, before we close, how important is it for a country to close down its embassy in a nation with which it has diplomatic relations? The United States closed it, evacuated its personnel. The Britons — the United Kingdom recalled its ambassador. A big thing?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: These are very, very important shifts in policy.

The statement from the State Department today included language indicating that we no longer believe that the Syrian government has full authority over its territory. That’s quite something. You don’t often hear that from the U.S. government.

In addition, what it means is that we’ve made the decision that conditions on the ground have now deteriorated to the point where Ambassador Ford can no longer perform effectively on the ground. And that, too, tells us something very important about how we assess the state of the conflict in Syria.

I should say that the embassy wasn’t closed. It was suspended. The State Department mentioned that Ambassador Ford remains the ambassador to the Syrian people. And he will be working from Washington to reach out to the opposition, to continue strengthening and supporting the Syrian opposition.

So, we have made a decision which I think is quite telling about how far things have spiraled out of control in Syria. But it doesn’t mean that the mission will end its work.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann, Joshua Landis, good to talk to you both.

JOSHUA LANDIS: A pleasure.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Thank you.