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Would U.S. or Other Nation Lead Effort to Topple Syrian Regime?

February 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The United Nations issued a non-binding resolution Thursday calling for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to step down after Russia and China vetoed an earlier Security Council measure. Ray Suarez discusses diplomatic options over Syria with The Wall Street Journal's Joe Lauria and Hisham Melhem of the Al Arabiya News Network.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the diplomatic maneuvering at the U.N. and elsewhere, we turn to Joe Lauria, The Wall Street Journal’s U.N. correspondent, and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Al Arabiya news network.

Joe Lauria, let me start with you.

It was a lopsided, if nonbinding vote. What does the results from the General Assembly today tell you about who’s lining up for and against the Damascus government?

JOE LAURIA, The Wall Street Journal: Well, there are very few that are supporting Damascus anymore.

This is rebuked Assad. And it puts political pressure on him, although he seems to be impervious to it. And it diplomatically isolates Russia, which tried to introduce some amendments that were immediately rejected by the Arabs. So there were a few countries that voted.

Iran, of course — because Iran is really at the center in many ways of this conflict in Syria. The Russians wanted to put an amendment to have foreign fighters no longer be supported or to have the opposition declare that they would dissociate themselves from the foreign — from foreign influence, and they have blamed other countries for backing extremist groups.

Now, the Syrians have gone as far as to name Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular for backing extremist groups, not necessarily al-Qaida. As we have heard now, they have, interestingly, entered this conflict. And the U.S. and the West and the secretary-general are not condemning al-Qaida, which is a curious situation, where you have, both of them, the U.S. and the West and al-Qaida practically on the same side against Assad.

And the Gulf countries’ interest is really to weaken Iran, because if Assad can be brought down, the conduit between Iran and Hezbollah, across Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and to Hamas, would be broken. It’s more difficult to confront Iran directly, but to weaken their influence in the region — the Gulf countries appear, according to the Syrians and analysts I have spoken to, are backing some kind of extremist groups in Syria, which muddies the waters and sort of hurts the hard — the line of the West, which wants to make it black and white.

It’s a frighteningly complex situation, and not in any way to defend what Assad is doing. No one can do that. But the Iranians are at the crux of this issue. And the Gulf countries also don’t want to see democracy in an Arab country under these revolutions. And they have backed Islamic groups all across North Africa, as we have seen.

RAY SUAREZ: Joe, let me jump in and turn to Hisham Melhem.

Away from New York and away from the General Assembly, what’s the other diplomatic maneuvering that’s going on?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: Well, the French and the Turks and the Arab League, major Arab powers like Saudi Arabia are all trying to accelerate the process of bringing Assad down.

But the problems is that you don’t major leadership here. This is a situation that cries out for a leading country, whether in the region or Europe and the United States. And my feeling is that if the United States doesn’t step up to the plate and lead, you are not going to see any meaningful international effort to accelerate the fall of this regime.

What you have in Syria today is a low-intensity civil strife that’s likely to lead soon into full-fledged civil war. That civil war is not going to be contained in Syria. What happens in Syria doesn’t remain in Syria. This is not Libya. This is like the imperative — most civil wars, they do drag neighboring countries into them.

We have seen the spillover in Lebanon last week, fighting in the northern Lebanon. We have seen the Iraqi tribes on the western side of Iraq trying to help their brethren across the borders in Syria. The Turks have a vested interest there.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me jump in there, because you say the situation is crying out for a leading country.

Why isn’t that Turkey? A long border with Syria, an economic power, a regional power, it would seem to be a place where they could really step up, no?

HISHAM MELHEM: There’s a Turkish predicament here.

Turkey is a rising power, but at the same time when it comes to Syria and Iran, it’s a reluctant power. The Turks sent their foreign minister to Washington a few days ago to ask the United States how long can the United States — how far the United States is willing to go with them to support them if they’re asked to take some stronger measures against — against the government in Damascus.

And the United States is still wedded to the view that it’s still possible to have a political solution. In my opinion, the political solution and the issue of reform in Syria, the time for them has come and gone. And today what is required, I think, is to level the battlefield, if you will, and to help the opposition.

I’m not calling for and I don’t believe that it’s practical to have a military intervention a la Libya. The geography is different. The regional environment is different. The social, ethnic, religious mosaic of Syria is different.

But that does not mean that the United States and the Turks and the Arabs cannot provide material help to the opposition to accelerate the fall of the regime in Damascus.

RAY SUAREZ: So, turning back to the U.N., Joe Lauria, with the first vote vetoed by Russia and China, the second vote overwhelming, but non-binding, is the U.N. sidelined, or are there other possibilities, now that these votes are out of the way, of circulating plausible future scenarios for Syria?

JOE LAURIA: There are other possibilities.

The one under discussion right now is a French idea that they announced yesterday to create a humanitarian corridor into Syria. And the Russians have agreed to talk to the French about this. The big question is, how do you protect this corridor? Do you put armed U.N. peacekeepers there or some force there or do you have it unarmed?

If it’s unarmed, of course, the aid will be subject to being stolen and attacked by government forces and perhaps even by the rebel side. So this would — may be the sticking point, whether you have to put some kind of armed force in there. It’s unlikely that Russia would agree to that.

But that’s the current diplomatic maneuver there. I wanted to also add that I agree that it’s too late for Assad, because he — five years ago, he could have dealt with the civil society movement inside Syria, which put forward very bold initiatives to create a pluralistic society. And he rejected that. And now he’s trying — at this late date with this referendum, it’s way too late for that.

He thought he could hold on and crush this insurgency, which clearly he cannot. But as far as the U.N. goes, it’s limited what they can do, and the next issue here is that humanitarian corridor idea.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Hisham, it’s not like Assad is just biding his time and not doing anything right now. Isn’t he taking advantage of this diplomatic lull to crush his opponents?

HISHAM MELHEM: He took advantage of the Chinese-Russian veto, and that’s why he accelerated the bombing of Homs.

Homs is a city of a quarter of a million people, the third largest city in Syria. What the world is witnessing today is the slow grinding, killing of a major Syrian city. Homs is going to become the Sarajevo of Syria. And when you have a larger massacre, which is very likely to happen soon, not only people are — today, 70 people were killed. I’m talking about in a day or two or three, you have hundreds of people dying.

It’s going to bee extremely difficult for the neighboring country, from Turkey, to the Arabs, to the E.U., Europeans, to the United States, to just sit there silently and watch this ugly grinding taking place on a daily basis.

And I think those who are saying if the West and the Arabs intervene, they will push the country towards civil war, we are going into an inevitable civil war. And the United States — unlike Libya here, all the five countries around Syria, the United States has serious economic, strategic, political interests in all of them, particularly in Turkey, Israel and Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Jordan.

So the United States cannot sit idly by and watch the Turks and the Lebanese and Iraqis being sucked into this problem, to this civil war in Syria. If Syria melts down and the situation is allowed to fester, the whole region will suffer. And that’s why the international community should and can do a lot to help the opposition, again to accelerate the fall of this regime.

This is a very hated regime. It is waging a war against its own people. And bringing it down is morally right, but also in terms of geopolitics, it is very beneficial, because it is — as was mentioned earlier, this is the regime that allowed Iran to become a Mediterranean power.

Iran today is a Mediterranean power for the first time since the epic battles between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-state at Thermopylae, if you remember your history. So, bringing down this regime is — can be justified easily on moral grounds and on geostrategic grounds.

RAY SUAREZ: Hisham Melhem and Joe Lauria, gentlemen, thank you both.

JOE LAURIA: Thank you, Ray.