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As Arab Pressure Intensifies on Syria, What’s Next for Assad?

November 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Arab League voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to suspend Syria's membership in an effort to further pressure President Bashar al Assad to stop the crackdown on dissidents. Margaret Warner discusses the growing frustration with Syria with The Atlantic Council's Michele Dunne and University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on why Arab leaders are stepping up the pressure on Syria, we’re joined by Michele Dunne, formerly at the State Department and National Security Council, now director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Center, and Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. He conducts public opinion surveys in the Middle East and has just returned from a polling trip there.

Welcome, both of you, back to the program.

First, let’s start with today’s news, Michele Dunne, King Abdullah saying if he were Assad, he would be stepping aside right now. Why would he speak up now?

MICHELE DUNNE, The Atlantic Council: Well, I think for King Abdullah, first of all, Syria — has always viewed Syria as more of a threat than a friend to Jordan.

And he’s responding to public opinion within his own country that is against the Syrian regime and also to Saudi Arabia. Jordan is extremely close to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have now taken a pretty hard stance against Bashar al-Assad. So King Abdullah is placing himself in alignment there.

MARGARET WARNER: Which takes us then to the Arab League vote, Shibley Telhami, on Saturday. Most accounts called it unexpected. What explains the Arab League taking on essentially one of its core members?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University Of Maryland: Well, it’s interesting because it was unexpected.

I mean, the Arab League is usually very conservative on those issues. When it took a position on Libya, it was seen to be an exception to the rule. So this was very unusual. But there are two things going on here. One is a little bit of score-settling, particularly among the powerful members of the Arab League at the moment, including the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia.

MARGARET WARNER: The Gulf Cooperation Council.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The Gulf Cooperation Council.

But there is public opinion. Everybody is terrified by public opinion. And if you look at the way the sentiment has changed over the past year, there’s no question that it has soured on the Syrian government. And in the case of Jordan in particular, I just received the public opinion poll from Jordan that I’m releasing next Monday, in the context, a big public Arab opinion poll.

Overwhelmingly, the Jordanians are opposed to — taking the side of demonstrators against the government in — in Syria. Everybody is nervous about that. And I think they’re responding just like everybody else — every government is trying to respond. The Arab League is trying to respond, even though it is a league of Arab states.

MARGARET WARNER: Michele Dunne, this is a group of nations that has never been hugely responsive to public opinion in the past, and they often have not spoken out against atrocities by fellow members. Is this all a result of the Arab uprising, because they’re all nervous now about their own position?

MICHELE DUNNE: Oh, very much so.

I think that they are concerned about public sentiment in the region and not showing themselves to be too much out of step. I think the Arab states, a lot of them are also concerned about a changing strategic regional picture. And, you know, the interesting thing here is that the Arab leaders are — they’re placing their bets against Bashar al-Assad.

They seem to think that he’s going to go. And they want to be on the right side of that and have Syria aligned with them, no longer with Iran and not with Turkey, for example. They want to have Syria with the Arab states if there’s going to be a new Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the Iranian-Syrian competition for influence in the region, Shibley Telhami, part of the underlying — some strategic calculations for some of these countries?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Oh, there’s no question.

I mean, when I say score-settling, it’s part of the strategic score-settling. I mean, you have to take Syria into an historic perspective. Dating back to the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran, where the — most of the Arab states supported Iraq in that war. Syria was the only one who took Iran’s side, and obviously more of late, there’s been a strategic relationship between Iran and Syria.

The Hezbollah factor in Lebanon is a huge factor for some of them. including Jordan…

MARGARET WARNER: Supported by the Syrians.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: … but especially the Saudis, where there’s a lot of competition.

It’s interesting because, in Lebanon itself, you know, the public is very divided on Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just go on to now the effect this is likely to have. Now, a lot of the Arab League officials said we’re not trying to do what we were trying to do with Libya, and we’re not trying to set the stage for international intervention, but could it lead to that?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, I think there are several things that this Arab League move will lead to.

First of all, they are trying to get the Syrian opposition a little bit more unified. They have invited the Syrian opposition leaders to come to Cairo and have some conversations with the Arab League, because there’s still a significant rift between the opposition inside and outside of Syria and between civilians and those who left the Syrian military.

So that’s an issue. But I think the Arab League decision will maybe have more effect outside of Syria. For example, there’s the question of whether Turkey will place economic sanctions on Syria, whether the Arab League states will, and whether Russia and China will now come under more pressure to go along with other members of the international community, for example, in a U.N. Security Council resolution against Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: But if Assad defies this latest pressure move, then what does the Arab League do next? In other words, are they taking a bit of a gamble here that they are calling Assad’s bluff, but he could turn around and call their bluff?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It’s a slippery slope.

And the problem for them too is that while Arab public opinion is decidedly against Assad, they don’t want to see international intervention in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Because?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: And even on Libya…

MARGARET WARNER: And why?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Because of the — there is still very deep suspicion of the intention of international intervention.

And even in, you know — in my polling, I ask a question of whether they think the intervention in Libya in retrospect has been a good one or not. In Jordan and Lebanon, they’re still divided on this one. They’re still suspicious of the international intervention.

And so there is a problem. However, if you take aside the Libyan intervention, you can imagine, for example, a safe haven-type intervention. And that’s the kind of incrementalism that could be — don’t think Libya model. Think a different model. And I think, eventually, if this — if the killing continues, I see an escalation that will lead to some kind of international step in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: So, very briefly — we only have about 30 seconds — what impact is this going to have on Assad?

MICHELE DUNNE: I don’t think he will respond to this. He hasn’t responded to a lot of other initiatives, so it makes him more isolated, but I don’t expect to see him changing his tactics toward the uprising because of this.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The real interesting question is what his elders will do, the people who are around him. Are they going to throw him under the bus at some point, like the Egyptian military threw Mubarak under the bus? That’s really the interesting question. For now, they have decided not to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: Shibley Telhami and Michele Dunne, thank you both.

MICHELE DUNNE: You’re welcome.