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Arab League Peace Plan: ‘Sounds Very Nice, But It’s Not Going to Happen’

November 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Eight months into Syria's Arab spring, members of the Arab League reported a possible peace agreement with President Bashar al-Assad. Jeffrey Brown discusses the proposal and whether it could halt violence there with Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and National Defense University's Murhaf Jouejati.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we assess the latest developments now with Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University, who was recently appointed — been appointed to the Syrian National Council, an opposition group created to help overthrow the Assad regime, and Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute, who spent more than five years as a journalist in Syria.

Welcome to both of you.

MURHAF JOUEJATI, National Defense University: Thank you.

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Murhaf Jouejati, start with the approach from the Arab League today. Is this a potentially important development?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It sounds very nice, but it’s not going to happen.

The Assad regime has made many promises to many interlocutors before, including the U.N. secretary-general, including the prime minister of Turkey, including the king of Jordan, and these promises have never materialized into anything. So, I believe this is simply a measure to buy time on behalf of the Assad regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t see any impact on the ground?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Look, two hours ago, there have been the first violations of this commitment, in that the Bab al-Amr neighborhood in Homs and the city of Latakia have been shelled. So, we simply don’t believe it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Tabler, what is the calculation by the Arab League? What are — who’s behind this and what are they thinking? What are they thinking they can get from Assad?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, the Arab League is trying to put Assad into dilemmas, in which his choices in response to this initiative are going to define which way he wants to lead his way out of this crisis.

And until now, Assad has just tried to shoot his way out of the crisis. Now this seems to be throwing a life preserver to Assad, but at the same time it puts him into these key decisions in which his choices — is he going to pull back the security forces from the streets? Is he going to stop the militias? Is he going to let people out of jail? Is he going to allow journalists into the country? Is he going to allow the protesters to freely assemble?

We seriously doubt this, and I don’t see how he possibly could do these things and still hold on to power.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as we said, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of bite here. There’s no consequences if he fails to act.

ANDREW TABLER: I guess the idea is — that’s totally true. But at the same time, if he fails to do all those things and his hand is completely exposed, that is going to be a serious political loss for Bashar al-Assad.

And we expect that if he does try and conform to this, that it would lead to the sort of controlled demolition of his own regime. And nobody thinks he’s going to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if Assad were to agree to talk, who would he be talking to? This could be — a question that we have looked at for months now is the state of the opposition, how well unified it is.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The opposition is unified under an umbrella organization, the Syrian National Council. It is representative of different segments of the Syrian population. It came together recently.

It’s in direct contact with the street in Syria and receives its legitimacy and its mandate from the street. The Syrian National Council, in the eyes of Syrians, is the sole representative of the Syrian people. We do not believe that Assad is going to abide by these commitments.

I think the days ahead are going to confirm this to us. He will not be allowed to allow any foreign press in. He will not be — he will not allow any Arab monitors to go in. So there is really nothing to talk about. And if there is, it is only the terms of his departure.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your sense of the unified voice of the opposition, especially between street and political opposition?

ANDREW TABLER: The SNC has brought the Syrian opposition together.

There are still some divisions, and they’re trying to get their act in order at the moment. Sort of in a historical sense, what the opposition has been able to do is enormous over the last few months. Now, the real problem here is that — is trying to come up with some sort of criteria based on which to judge Assad’s behavior and his choices going forward.

So, the opposition now, I think, should be spending a lot of time on trying to judge Bashar al-Assad’s moves and what their moves are going to be in order to take this in a direction in which Bashar al-Assad leaves the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the calls that we saw in that report from some quarters from inside Syria for intervention from the West, a NATO-type intervention? What do you make of that? How strong is it?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, I think that — well, I think that there are people who are looking at this. This has been going on for eight months. They’re worn out. And they would like some sort of Western military intervention or some kind of intervention of some type.

But I think those people are by and large in the minority. Most of the protesters would like to continue on with civil resistance and to go down this route. But they’re tired and they’re looking for a way out.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your sense of that?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep this resolution peaceful, as much as the Syrian opposition wants it to, and it’s the misdeeds and the misbehavior and the bestiality and brutality of the regime that are forcing talk about an international military intervention that nobody wants really.

So the position of the opposition is to at least allow for civilian protection by introducing monitors, human rights monitors and so on, to control the situation on the ground. But it is the Assad regime that is pushing it further, which may lead in the end to some violent confrontation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Arab League — or reportedly is seeking to avoid foreign intervention in their act today. Explain that. What’s the difference? Because they had a strong role when it came to Libya and gave sort of a sanction to the U.S. and NATO to come in.

ANDREW TABLER: Right.

Well, I think that there’s some sort of understanding in the Arab League that the intervention in Libya brought about the very quick demise of the regime — well, not a quick demise, but a demise of the regime there. And that I think scares a lot of rulers in the Arab world who are having to deal with what they consider to be a contagion.

But at the same time, they have to deal with the fact that the Assad regime is carrying out horrendous human rights violations and that they have to be seen to be doing something. So if this initiative fails and the Arab League throws up its hands, the question is, well, then what? Are we going to go to the U.N., where the Russians and the Chinese have blocked U.N. Security Council action?

Are we going to look for a coalition of the willing or a friends-of-Syria group that would intervene? And it is going to open up a whole other can of worms.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the debate in the U.S.? What are you hearing in terms of — and other Western nations — in terms of when and how to help or intervene?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, the thing is that the military option has thus far been something that is considered off the table.

But the question is, how soon does it move on to the table? If this goes down the road towards more shooting, sort of a civil war, a sectarian war, would that mean the Obama administration would stay out of it no matter what, even if the Iranians intervened on behalf of the regime? Those things — there are a lot of question marks surrounding that issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the council asking of the U.S. and other Western countries at this point?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: To recognize the Syrian National Council as the representative of the Syrian people, for the United States to make its weight more felt in the Security Council.

It is outrageous that 3,000 unarmed civilians would be killed while the Security Council from time to time debates this and comes up with nothing. The United States can do more with its allies in terms of imposing further sanctions on Syria. And, certainly, talk to the Russians into regaining some sense, because this situation of an armed force shooting at unarmed civilians is absolutely outrageous.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you briefly, do you see signs of weakening in the Assad government? One sign that we hear a lot about is military defections. How many are there? How much can you tell us about what you’re seeing?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Military defections are important. I have heard the number of 10,000 that have defected thus far from the armed forces.

But what is significant is that two days ago, Bashar al-Assad didn’t even recognize an opposition and said that he’s too busy to think of an opposition. And, today, seemingly, he agrees to an approach in which he is to talk to the opposition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so, you see, there is a potentially important development today. That is what I asked you at the beginning. You don’t think anything is going to happen, but this does signify…

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It’s not going to happen. What it signifies is that not only is he totally inconsistent, but that I think he and his regime are in a panic.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. OK.

Murhaf Jouejati, Andrew Tabler, thank you both very much.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Thank you.