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With Assad Regime on the Defensive, Eyes Turn to Political Transition

July 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With violence escalating in Damascus, some analysts consider the Syrian conflict at a tipping point. Judy Woodruff discusses likely political transitions for Syria with the U.S. Institute of Peace's Steven Heydemann and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Frederic Wehrey.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the White House said President Obama called Russian President Putin to discuss the situation in Syria. It said the leaders agreed on the need for a political transition in order to end the violence.

For more on all of this, we get two views.

Steven Heydemann is a senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. He’s worked with the Syrian opposition on the challenges ahead once the Assad regime falls. And Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And we thank you both for being here.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN, U.S. Institute of Peace: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Steven Heydemann, let me start with you.

What do you make of these latest attacks, the death of the defense minister and these other top officials?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: This was not a good day for the Assad regime and it comes on the heels of a week that has not been a good week for the Assad regime.

I think these attacks were important for a number of reasons. I think they underscored the increasing vulnerability of the regime to the armed opposition. I think they sent a signal to many of the regime’s supporters that the momentum on the ground is shifting in favor of the opposition, and that the regime is now on the defensive.

And I think one of the key consequences of this bombing is going to make it much, much harder for the regime to hold its inner circle together and to sustain the loyalty of supporters on whom its survival has depended.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What makes you believe that it has come to such a serious point? What is it about this particular attack?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: The people who were killed and injured today were the core members of a crisis response team that the president of Syria assembled at the beginning of this uprising to develop key strategies, key operational planning to respond to the uprising and, they hope, to defeat it.

And what has happened with this one bombing is the decapitation of the leadership of the security apparatus of the regime. It’s a critical blow to their capacity. And it signals again this extraordinary vulnerability of the inner circle of the regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying there’s no turning back, that this spells the end of the regime?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: I think we have crossed a tipping point today.

I don’t think the attack is the only indicator that tells us we have crossed that point. I think we see it in some other indicators as well. But this was by far the most visible. In addition, we’ve seen escalating violence in Damascus. You have helicopter gunships hovering right over the center of the city. And that tells denizens that the regime is now on the defensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frederic Wehrey, do you agree this is a tipping point?

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: By itself, probably not.

But the sum total of the defections we have seen, the increasing capability of the rebels, along with the tremendous psychological blow of this attack, I think we have definitely crossed a threshold. I think the regime, as was mentioned, has suffered a tremendous loss in terms of its brain trust and the crackdown that it’s waging.

But it still has a number of cards to play. It still has very capable units, the Republican Guard, which controls Damascus, these gangs of paramilitaries. And I think what could result is that this could really entrench the regime even more and its Alawite supporters. They could really dig in and unleash even greater violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that? You mean because they have much more strength than what we have seen, military strength than what we have seen so far?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Its most capable unit, the Republican Guard, is based in Damascus. And this is really the Praetorian Guard. This is the unit that guards the regime.

And the opposition is going to have a very tough time tackling this unit. We don’t anticipate a lot of defections from this unit, as we have seen from other units. So things could get very bloody for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Heydemann, what about that, the units that are immediately around the president and his very top people?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: I think we have to be aware that if the regime feels that it’s been backed into a corner, if some of its supporters who believe that they are in an existential — existential struggle for their survival, look at current trends and feel that they really have no choice but to mount increasingly aggressive, offensive actions against the uprising in an effort either to shift momentum or simply to save themselves, that this could be the start of a wave of aggression, a wave of attacks on the part of the regime, in which it’s seeking to reassert its authority, reassert its ability to counteract this opposition.

And so I tend to agree that we could see some quite extraordinary violence in the days ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re nodding your head.

FREDERIC WEHREY: I would agree with that.

Again, I mean, I think the regime has taken a look around the region, and there’s not going to be a soft landing for the inner circle. And the gloves are going to come off. We’re seeing reports of chemical weapons being moved. So things could get very violent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this report today that President Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that they talked about the need for a peaceful transition, what does that say to you?

FREDERIC WEHREY: It signals, I think, that the Russian and U.S. position is converging and that it’s a question of time before Assad really loses all of his allies internationally and it becomes an isolated regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What sort of signal does that send to President Assad? How much attention would he be paying today to something like that?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: I think there are very few signals he takes more seriously than comments coming out of Moscow.

We have heard mixed signals out of the Russian leadership. On one hand, they have continued to argue against any kind of meaningful sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. But on the other hand, they have been saying some things that signal to Bashar al-Assad himself that their support is not unconditional and not unlimited, and that he needs to be thinking about whether there are alternative strategies, an exit strategy or a strategy of negotiation.

And I agree that we did see a convergence in this statement from the White House today that both the Russians and the U.S. do not want regime collapse. They want a negotiated transition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frederic Wehrey, do you see anything at this point, and from any direction, that would permit the Assad regime to strengthen and to hold on and to gain ground back against the opposition?

FREDERIC WEHREY: I don’t see it.

I mean, I think we have reached such a psychological tipping point here with the loyalists and those that were sitting on the fence, with the fight being taken to Damascus, that it’s really a matter of time. The opposition is certainly divided. It’s weak. It lacks logistics. It lacks a command structure. But it’s going to muddle on.

And I really think it’s a question of these defections taking their impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, is it possible for anyone to say when this regime could go?

FREDERIC WEHREY: It’s difficult to say.

I remember with Tripoli in Libya, there was fighting in the heart of Tripoli, and yet the regime regrouped. So, these regimes have a way of lasting, especially when they’re backed into a corner.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: If I could, it’s also important to recognize though that the collapse of these regimes is not linear.

They can appear to be very solid. And the Syrian regime does have very capabilities at its disposal. But once they begin to unravel, it can happen at a pace that surprises even those who expected it to hang on. And we may have seen that acceleration begin to happen today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Steven Heydemann, just finally here, you have been working on a project for the last six months on what happens in Syria once the regime does go. The transition period. Tell us a little bit about what you have been looking at.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Yes.

One of the key obstacles that the Syrian opposition confronted right from the beginning was its inability to provide a clear vision for what might happen in Syria once the Assad regime collapsed.

And the U.S. Institute of Peace was approached by a number of very credible opposition figures to provide support for a process of transition planning that would lay out a detailed strategy, identify challenges, and try to develop strategies for addressing those challenges, so that any new transitional authority that came into power would have some resources available to work with, because there’s no question that this is going to be a very difficult transition.

And the better the ideas are, the more thought that’s gone into them, the more likely it is that some of the worst possible outcomes could be avoided. And so we have spent six months now meeting almost every month with a group of about 45 opposition figures who themselves have laid the groundwork for this transition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have not spoken publicly about this.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: This is a process we have kept very quiet. We now have a document that we expect to release in about two or three weeks, and so it’s appropriate now to begin making the existence of the project known to the public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I do want to continue this conversation online.

But, in the meantime, I want to thank both of you. To Steve Heydemann and to Frederic Wehrey, we thank you both.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Thank you very much.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thanks.