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What’s Next for Syria as Global Leaders Isolate Assad?

August 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Syrian government rejected President Obama's call for Assad to step down on Thursday, accusing the United States and the West of "seeking to stoke more violence." Jeffrey Brown discusses the growing tension with Theodore Kattouf of AMIDEAST and Murhaf Jouejati of the National Defense University.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we assess today’s developments with Theodore Kattouf, a career diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He’s now president of an international education organization. And Murhaf Jouejati, he’s a Syrian-born scholar and professor at the National Defense University.

Professor Jouejati, I will start with you.

How important are these developments?

MURHAF JOUEJATI, National Defense University: Very important.

This new stance that the United States has taken is a very, very important step. It leads the way for other states also to declare Assad of Syria as no longer the legitimate leader. It puts great pressure on the Assad regime, and it pressures those members of the Security Council that thus far have been reluctant to condemn the Assad regime.

In addition to the diplomatic pressure, there is, of course, a lot of psychological pressure. And this is going to be, I think, a major boost for the protest movement in Syria. Already, they dubbed tomorrow, Friday, as the — the promise of victory. And so this is, again, a major boost for the protest movement, major pressure on the Assad regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: A — when you say psychological, you mean within the country?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Within the country, certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ambassador Kattouf, what is your assessment and what kind of response do you expect from the government?

THEODORE KATTOUF, former U.S. ambassador to Syria: Well, I agree with what Professor Jouejati said.

The administration has been criticized a lot for not being more clear sooner about wanting Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But the fact of the matter is, is that timing is everything. And it would have been a rather hollow gesture if the president and secretary of state had made this call a couple months ago, and nobody else went along.

Now I think the whole international community is coming to recognize the criminal actions of the Assad regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why did that happen? What — what happened to trigger everybody finally getting on board?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, Bashar al-Assad did it to himself. He did — he did, for those who wanted him out, what they could not do themselves, by acting so brutally and making virtual war on his own people. It was incredibly heavy-handed.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the key players here, Turkey, reportedly had been counseling some patience in the last few days. Do you know — have any insight on that, what — they wanted to deal with Assad themselves and try to get him to come up with some reforms before all this happened?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Right.

Well, Turkey had a — has a policy of zero problems with the neighbors. And Syria was one of the keystones of this policy. And Erdogan, the prime minister, had forged a very close relationship with Bashar al-Assad and tried to give him every chance, tried to throw him a lifeline, and said, please, take it.

But Bashar made promises that he never kept and humiliated and embarrassed the Turkish leadership.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you referred earlier to this, allowing other countries to get involved, you meant Europe, I suppose. Does it also mean countries in the region?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Countries in the region. Already, Saudi Arabia has come forward and has pulled out its ambassador. The case is also true for GCC countries which have condemned this violence.

I understand recently Tunisia has withdrawn its ambassador. Jordan has condemned the violence in Syria. So, it truly is, Bashar al-Assad is galvanizing, galvanizing the international community, including the region, against himself, remarkably.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet the immediate reaction was disdain or just pushing back. We have a — just a wire just — that just ran.

The Syrian U.N. envoy said — accused the U.S. of waging a — quote — “Diplomatic and humanitarian war against Syria.”

THEODORE KATTOUF: It’s the usual regime bravado, but they — I’m sure now Bashar al-Assad is coming to recognize that he is in deep trouble, because essentially, tomorrow, we will probably see the European Union follow suit with the U.S. and ban a lot of economic activity with the Syrian regime, including buying its exported oil.

And Syria’s going to have to find customers elsewhere, sell it at a discount, much more difficult to do. And for a regime like this, you have to pay those security people, those intelligence people, the senior officers, et cetera, if you want to keep them on board, and it’s going to become increasingly difficult to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, we heard Secretary Clinton refer to the energy sanctions. That’s the oil you are talking about that.

How big a deal is that for Syria? The U.S. itself doesn’t take in — does not import much Syrian oil. But it’s a bigger deal for Europe?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It’s a bigger deal for Europe, because they are importers of Syrian oil, specifically Germany, Italy, France and Holland.

But, now, Syria’s oil production, 390,000 barrels per day, which generates a revenue for the government of anywhere between 25 percent and 30 percent, which is a big deal in the Syrian budget, is not so much of a big deal for these countries because, of these 390,000 barrels, only 117,000 are exported.

This is peanuts in terms of the oil market. And so, in the end, Holland and Germany and Italy and France can easily find alternative sources elsewhere, while this would dramatically hurt the Syrian economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you were talking earlier about the calls for the U.S. to act earlier. Is there still a balancing act for the United States, in the sense that not — not looking — to look strong, but not look too heavy-handed, so that it looks like foreign intervention?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How important is that still?

THEODORE KATTOUF: It’s important. I think, in the statement of either the president or the secretary today, it was made clear that we’re not here to impose any kind of solution on the Syrian people.

JEFFREY BROWN: They felt they had to say that.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yes, felt that it’s up to them to choose their leaders and to make this transition.

But I think one of the things that has concerned the U.S. and European governments is that this opposition is rather amorphous and unformed, and they don’t have a clear leadership. And so, even if Bashar al-Assad would fall tomorrow — that’s not going to happen — but if he would, it’s not clear how they would organize themselves to replace governmental authority, such as it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s where I wanted to go next.

What do you — what do we know about what’s going on inside in terms of the opposition and how well-organized it is, or how much — who the leaders are at this point?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Well, thus far, it is a leaderless revolution, and this is intentionally so, so that the regime could not be able to decapitate the leadership of the revolution.

There are protesters on the ground. This is one layer of the protest movement. There are the traditional opposition leaders in Syria. And there is an opposition, an expatriate opposition. And, as we speak, these three are beginning to organize and coordinate and communicate and cooperate, because they know that there is going to be more bloodshed among Syrians as a result of the actions of this murderous regime, and so they need to get their act together.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Assad has clearly tried to play off some of the sectarian divisions in the country. That — you’re suggesting that’s not working?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Assad has every intention to show this as sectarian warfare, in order to scare the minorities into not joining this protest movement, namely, the Alawi minority, the Christian minority.

But this is truly a national uprising against 48 years of authoritarian rule. And within the opposition in the protest movement, there are a large number of Christians and Alawis and Kurds. And so it is, again, cross-national.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do we know yet whether, to what extent all of this outside pressure is having on his support, the army, other powerful groups within the country?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, up to now, you would have to say, if one is being honest, that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping the support of the Alawi-dominated army and security services.

The defections have not been that huge. And various army units have been deployed. They can’t keep sending the same army unit all around the country, obviously. So they have used multiple units. Now, sometimes, I’m told less reliable units cordon off the cities, while the more reliable elements go in and do the heavy lifting, or — let’s be honest — the killing and brutality, if you will.

But this is — you have to worry about sectarian schisms following all of this and revenge-taking. I agree the demonstrators have been largely peaceful, but Assad is laying the — or he’s planting the seeds of possible sectarian warfare.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, does that concern you, that this might spin into more violence?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Certainly. How much longer can the people take being peaceful in the face of tanks and so on?

And when his regime collapses, I fear there is going to be a lot of vendettas, a lot of revenge killings and so on. So, you know, when the regime collapses, it is not going to be a peaceful day the day after, I fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

All right, Murhaf Jouejati, Ted Kattouf, thank you both very much.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Thank you.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you.