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In Syria, ‘Whac-A-Mole’ Revolution Turns Increasingly Bloody

June 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As dozens more died Monday in Syria amid heavy fighting, U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan said he was "gravely concerned," citing reports of continued shelling in Homs. Gwen Ifill discusses the prospects for civil war with Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the growing prospects for civil war in Syria, we turn to Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He lived in Syria for most of the last decade and he founded an English-language magazine there. And Mona Yacoubian, she lived in Syria as a Fulbright Scholar during the mid-1980s. During the 1990s, she was an analyst at the State Department and is now with the Stimson Center, a Washington research organization.

Andrew Tabler, who are the rebels?

ANDREW TABLER, fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, there’s the civilian opposition, of course. The ones who you’re seeing concerning the attacks, that’s — those are the Free Syrian Army and their affiliates.

And those include defectors from the Syrian army who went to Turkey, defectors from the Syrian army who now operate within the country with the opposition, and then sort of local affiliates FSA affiliates with sort of like the equivalent of sort of Minutemen during the American Revolution who carve out protest space and protect protesters. And they are increasingly carrying out attacks against the Assad regime throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: Mona Yacoubian, whenever we have seen yet another regime fall or at least attempt to be overthrown, we have seen these rebels spring up. But how do we know they’re not fighting each other?

MONA YACOUBIAN, Stimson Center: Well, we haven’t had reports of rebels fighting each other at this point in Syria.

But it’s also clear that there’s no centralized command-and-control and that the situation on the ground frankly appears to be getting increasingly chaotic, as noted by your report.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a sectarian split that is at work here?

MONA YACOUBIAN: Clearly there’s a sectarian issue at play in Syria today.

The regime is an Alawite regime that is a minority regime. The rebels are largely Sunni. And so we’re seeing increasingly that the battles on the ground take on a sectarian character. We have had massacres, for example, in the recent weeks of civilians, largely Sunni. And it is alleged that government paramilitary forces that are Alawite, the same sect as the president, have undertaken those attacks.

So clearly there’s a sectarian dimension to the violence in Syria, and it appears to be growing.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler, there has been much discussion here in Washington about what the U.S. or other countries should do to remove Assad. But where do we think the money is coming from or the aid is coming from to help that happen by supporting these rebel groups?

ANDREW TABLER: The money is coming from the Arab Gulf. Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s names are often put forward, as well as of that of Turkey.

The exact trail is — is unclear. But the kind of weapons that are entering Syria are growing increasingly sophisticated. It seems there’s a lot more light arms. And the kind of opposition that the FSA is putting across to the regime is increasingly effective. It’s this game of what they call Whac-A-Mole, like the carnival game, where elite divisions try to go into areas, reassert their control.

They do so temporarily. Then they have to go somewhere else and chase the mole. And then, of course, the protesters and the armed elements come back up in those areas. And that’s why the regime is resorting to shelling, resorting to helicopter gunships and the situation is worsening and more people are dying.

GWEN IFILL: So, the regime is frustrated in a way, but — with this Whac-A-Mole strategy, but is the kind of support that these rebel groups are having — are getting from outside Syria, is it enough to overthrow the regime?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, it can certainly wear it down.

But the Russians and the Iranians continue to resupply the regime. So, they can — the regime can hold on for some time, but not hold on it did like before, like — sort of like the regime did in Algeria in the ’90s. But, of course, unlike Algeria, it’s not at the center of the Middle East. It doesn’t have all that oil revenue. And, of course, you have a lot of the rebels receiving a lot of support from the outside.

So, we’re in for a very, very long fight in Syria in the coming months and perhaps even years.

GWEN IFILL: Mona Yacoubian, so far, the United States’ role has been limited to non-lethal aid. And there has been no effort to get in the battle directly. But should there be more? Is there more that the U.S. can be doing or that we know that they are doing?

MONA YACOUBIAN: I think, given the chaotic situation on the ground inside Syria, it doesn’t make sense to either arm the rebels or undertake broader military intervention.

I think we’re looking at a situation that is increasingly unpredictable. It would be very difficult, for example, to assert that arms are getting in the right hands. There are increased reports of jihadist elements that have made their way into the Syrian arena. My own sense is I think the U.S. needs to continue on a diplomatic track.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler, on the other side, the flip side of this — you’re shaking your head. You don’t agree that the diplomatic track is a good idea?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, the diplomatic track is not working. It doesn’t mean that we have to abandon it. But it’s just not working. The Annan plan is not working. The Russians are not bending yet.

I agree with Mona that I think we should continue, but plan B, supporting the opposition within Syria, has us getting the hoping of plan A. Otherwise, I don’t really see the Russians bending. Now, regardless of all of this, I think we’re very limited in how we can affect the outcome.

This hurricane is gathering on the Eastern Mediterranean. And I really don’t know what we can do to stop it. We can deal with the effects of it, but the most important thing is that — is for the United States to achieve President Obama’s policy objective of getting President Assad to step aside. If the Russians want to help us with that, that’s great. If not, we have to prepare for that and prepare an alliance that will achieve that objective.

GWEN IFILL: Mona Yacoubian, how does this compare to what we have been through, have seen, have watched in places like Libya, in places like Egypt, in which opposition rose up, removed someone from power, and then it wasn’t really clear what the next step was?

MONA YACOUBIAN: Well, this is so much more of a protracted situation certainly than what we have seen in Egypt and even in Libya.

The opposition is still in a state of disarray. It doesn’t hold any territory firmly. There’s no Syrian Benghazi, for example. And the opposition has remained often at odds within itself. There have been all kinds of rivalries inside the Syrian opposition.

So it’s a been a very — it’s much more difficult situation, I think, for foreign intervention. But the one point I would sort of push back on with Andrew is, in some ways, we may very well be at that tipping point into a long and drawn-out sectarian civil war. And this may be the last, best chance for diplomacy. It may well be that the Russians and the United States come together and work out a plan that, in fact, puts Syria on a track toward a more stable transition.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler, finally, what — do you see that there’s a successor perhaps in line, or is there any clear plan if suddenly this non-lethal aid were to work and the rebels were to triumph?

ANDREW TABLER: I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

I mean, you would have to — if you really want to put a Yemen kind of plan in place, you have to think about who could step into that. I don’t think that we’re close to that situation. The problem is that it seems like this regime is going to go very, very bloodily.

And I hope that there is a negotiated transition in Syria, but the handover of power — because it’s a minority dominated regime, it makes it resilient against those kinds of splits. Trying to convince the military, for example, to oust the Assad family, I think, will be extremely difficult, even if the Russians decide to really throw their weight behind the idea.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center, thank you both very much.

MONA YACOUBIAN: Thank you.