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Syria Analyst: ‘We’re in for a Long, Protracted Struggle’

April 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Met with heavy skepticism by U.S. officials, Syria's government signaled Monday plans to stop fighting by next week, according to Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Judy Woodruff, the University of Oklahoma's Joshua Landis and Al Arabiya News Network's Hisham Melhem discuss the possibility of peace in Syria.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this, I’m joined by Joshua Landis. He’s director of the center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. He was a senior Fulbright Scholar in Syria in 2005 and he runs a website called SyriaComment.com. And Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Al-Arabiya News Network.

And we thank you for both for being with us.

Joshua Landis, to you first. Between the Annan, Kofi Annan efforts and the meeting and efforts of the Friends of Syria group, do you see promise in all of this for an end to the violence?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Not an end to the violence.

In some ways, the international community is working at cross-purposes, because Annan is working on essentially a surrender document for the Syrian opposition, because it leaves Assad in power and it’s a — it calls for dialogue. The opposition has said they don’t want any of it. They want to overturn this regime. They don’t want to talk with it.

And the foreign community, led by the United States, has been promising the opposition that it will beef up its support for it in order to bring down the regime. So there are messages going cross — messages at cross-purposes going on here.

But to a certain extent, this is positive news for the Syrian opposition. The foreign community has put them on training wheels, if you will. The foreign — the opposition has been very factionalized. And the Free Syrian Army just a few weeks ago called the Syrian National Council a bunch of traitors. And there have been defections from the National Council.

So I think Clinton and all are very worried that they’re going to invest a lot of money in people they’re not sure are going to be winners. So they’re giving support, but they aren’t guaranteeing a lot yet. They’re going to — in a sense, they’re saying come back in a few months and show us what you have got, that you have got a real leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hisham Melhem, so are they working at cross-purposes in your view, or do you see some positive movement here?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: Obviously the Syrian opposition is working for regime change.

Some Arab states are working for regime change. The United States essentially is calling on Assad to leave power. And the American position didn’t change. I think those who believe that Assad will accept the Annan plan are few. And the opposition is convinced, according to people I spoke with and according to their public pronouncements, that he’s not going to implement anything.

And, by the way, Judy, you know, last year, he gave the same assurances to the Turks, to the Arab League, to the United Nations. Every time such commitments are made — quote, unquote — we have seen intensification of fighting. I mean, people are focused now on the cease-fire.

But even if you have a cease-fire, the other conditions will be practically impossible for Assad to implement. Is he going to release tens of thousands of political prisoners? Is he going to allow unfettered access to the international media? If that happens, I can assure you what you will see in the streets are the massacres in Aleppo, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands probably of Syrians demonstrating. And he will be forced to shoot them. Otherwise, he will fall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don’t see some progress here?

HISHAM MELHEM: No, I don’t think we see some progress. I don’t expect that. And I think if you read carefully what the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been saying and others, they are going through the process so that they will return to the Security Council once again to tell the Russians, we gave them another chance.

And I hear from American officials that they are sensing a slight — and I underline slight — change in the Russian position. They are talking now more and more about Russian impatience with Bashar al-Assad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that glimmer of hope on the part of the Russians, Joshua Landis, and do you see the difficulties that Hisham Melhem is laying out here?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I certainly understand what Hisham Melhem is saying. And I think he’s absolutely right.

I don’t think the Russians are about to turn on the Syrians, nor the Chinese, nor the Iranians. You know, President Assad has been pounding the Syrian opposition in the last month-and-a-half. He believes — he stated just the other day that the opposition was finished, that he was wrapping up, that he’s mopping up things. That’s what he’s hoping. That’s why he’s given the date of April 9.

He thinks that he can beat this opposition. Now, clearly, the international community believes that devastating sanctions, supporting the opposition, that in the long run, the — you know, the Sunni Muslims are 65 percent of Syria. The Alawites are about 12 percent. That’s the leading group in the military and the president — and that this is going to be decided on the part — that the Sunnis are going to win.

And that’s a win for America. It’s pro-Saudi Arabia. It’s anti-Iran. It’s good for the majority of Syrians. So that’s what they’re counting on. And I think that’s going to be a long, drawn-out struggle of years, because the Syrian military is still very strong. It’s professional. And the people at the top are dedicated to carrying out this — to quelling this insurgency.

So the United States has a big job ahead of it in trying to get this opposition together, so that it can bring down the army.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Hisham Melhem, between what you mentioned may be some softening in the Russian position, this notion that, no, the Friends of Syria, they’re not providing weapons, but there is money, support going to the Friends of Syria, why wouldn’t that begin to make a difference on the ground?

HISHAM MELHEM: Those who are arming or are likely to arm the Syrian opposition are not going to commit themselves publicly.

But I can guarantee you, from what I hear from Arab diplomats, that weapons and money are pouring in — or they will be pouring in on a massive scale in the immediate future. The United States now is going to provide medical aid, communication gear, and the secretary hinted, Secretary Clinton hinted there will be intelligence information.

The United States is watching the situation with their drones and their satellites and whatnot. Intelligence is extremely important. Actionable intelligence helping the opposition will be extremely important for them.

So what you’re going to see is a protracted fight, obviously. But the regime is not as powerful as the regime would like to maintain and to create the fiction that it is — the sanctions are biting. There are more defections. People talk about between 10,000 and 40,000 defectors.

We have seen demonstrations in the heart of Damascus, in the heart of the Syrian capital. Assad cannot preside over a failed state, a North Korea-like state on the Levant. And it’s a question of time. But definitely the Syrian opposition got a boost. They didn’t get what they want, obviously, but we’re getting closer to the day where he will be overthrown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly to Joshua Landis.

Do you see the holes in the armor or chinks in the armor, if you will, of the Assad regime and what about this promise that they will stop the violence a week from tomorrow?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, they’re not going to be able to stop the violence. And the opposition is going to take it to the army.

The Syrians are going to blame this on the opposition. They’re going to say, look, how can we stop? Our duty is to bring security to the nation. We’re not going to let these people shoot at us and pull out of the cities. They’re going to have a ready-made excuse. And this is going to go on because both sides believe that time is on their side, that they can win this fight.

And they both feel confident or at least they’re trying to exude confidence on both sides. We’re in for a long, protracted struggle. It’s going to take time for the Syrian opposition to get a command structure, to get the proper arms. And I believe they will pour in. And slowly the balance of power will be brought on to the side that Saudi Arabia and the Americans are willing to arm, and that they will win this war in time. But it’s not going to happen in a year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joshua Landis, Hisham Melhem, we thank you both.