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As Syrian Rebels Receive Endorsement, Will They Also Get Military Assistance?

December 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
While the endorsement of the Syrian National Council could pave the way for more international aid, questions remain over whether countries such as the U.S. will provide military assistance to rebels. Gwen Ifill talks to Atlantic Council's Fred Hof and National Defense University's Murhaf Jouejati about what's next for Syria.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the Syrian political opposition, I’m joined now by Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East studies at the NationalDefenseUniversity and a former member of the Syrian National Council, the last major Syrian political opposition group.

And Fred Hof, who served as Secretary of State Clinton’s special adviser for the Syrian transition until last September. He is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Ambassador Hof, I want to start with you. How significant is what the president said yesterday about this recognition?

FRED HOF, Atlantic Council: Gwen, first of all, I’m delighted to be here.

I think what the president had to say was extraordinarily significant. We’re coming to the point now where we may be at or very close to a tipping point in Syria, where the Assad regime may be in serious jeopardy of going down.

Nevertheless, there are still millions, literally millions, of Syrians on the fence. They have no illusions about the corruption, the incompetence, the brutality of this regime.

But they do wonder what’s next. Recognizing this organization, making it clear that there is international support for it gives these Syrians an opportunity to see what’s next.

GWEN IFILL: Murhaf Jouejati, do you think it’s significant?

MURHAF JOUEJATI, NationalDefenseUniversity: It is significant. It’s very important.

This is a superpower that recognizes the Syrian National Coalition. This is a permanent member of the Security Council. Now there are three that recognize the Syrian National Coalition. We heard in the introductory segment there are over 100 countries now that recognize it.

This truly delegitimizes the Assad regime. It makes Assad no longer a chief of state, but rather the chief of a sectarian militia. And so this is an important, if not historic event, yes.

GWEN IFILL: It’s one thing to delegitimize Assad, but how do you know that you’re backing the right horse? How do you know that this opposition group is not entangled in worse?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: You listen to the streets and you listen to the protests and you listen to the different political parties and the political factions that are in Syria. And they have chosen the Syrian National Coalition as their representative.

The legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition doesn’t derive purely from a U.S. recognition or a French recognition, but the recognition of the Syrian street. And Syria has spoken. And they want the Syrian National Council to be their leader. So it’s only natural for states to recognize them as such.

GWEN IFILL: Is Sergei Lavrov right that this leads inevitably to armed support?

FRED HOF: I think he’s right that the most likely way will this end is through armed struggle on the ground.

But this decision doesn’t in and of itself represent an American blessing of that kind of outcome.

GWEN IFILL: There is armed struggle now. I guess the question only is whether we then provide those arms.

FRED HOF: My own view, Gwen, is that it is inevitable that the United States is going to get into this business.

If you accept the proposition intellectually that this is most likely going to be settled by force of arms on the ground, then it’s probably going to be essential. If the Assad regime holds on, I would predict the United States will eventually be in this business.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jouejati, do you also agree that humanitarian non-lethal aid is not enough?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Look, the Syrian people are facing a regime that, as shown by the evidence, will go to any length to keep its power, including shooting at bread lines from air force jets, including shelling towns, civilian neighborhoods with tank fire.

And so there is no other way for the Assad regime to go, except through force. Now, for the past 20 months, the Syrians have had to endure the military might of this vicious regime alone.

And so there must be — in the end, there must be assistance. There must be support of the Syrian revolution against such a militaristic regime.

GWEN IFILL: How concerned should the U.S. and these other groups be, countries be that they are supporting opposition groups who have — are a little too — tied too closely to terrorists and terrorism?

FRED HOF: I think, you know, the United States yesterday designated the one group that is very explicitly tied to terrorism by designating the Nusra Front as a terrorist group. The United States basically unmasked this organization for what it is. It’s al-Qaida in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t that front, the Nusra Front, an essential of this coalition that we’re now supporting?

FRED HOF: It is not a part of this coalition at all. As a matter of fact, when the mainstream Syrian armed opposition met last week in Turkey to form a supreme military council, they very pointedly excluded the Nusra Front from that organization.

GWEN IFILL: Is that a concern?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: From an American angle, I totally understand the sensitivity in dealing with a front, with an organized group that is affiliated to al-Qaida. This is very natural, again, with regard to American sensitivities.

But Syrians don’t see it this way. Syrian civilians are under fire for the past 21 months by a regime. And they will accept the assistance from anyone in order to save their lives, the lives of their wives and children and their towns.

And so to tell the Syrian people under fire now that Jabhat al-Nusra or anybody else is a terrorist organization, though they are helping you and though they are the ones who have made a serious dent into the Assad regime, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it worth it for the U.S. to simply look the other way in that case?

FRED HOF: No, I don’t think so.

I think, Gwen, the designation itself is intellectually defensible, OK? And it also does in a way constitute a message from the United States to minorities in Syria, to Alawis and Christians in particular, who could be the targets of choice for this particular group, that we will not countenance the participation of this group in the future governance of Syria.

But there is a question here of timing. And I think Dr. Jouejati alludes to this. This announcement would have been better after the recognition of the new national coalition. It would have been better after a change of policy where the United States actually gets involved in arming elements of the opposition.

GWEN IFILL: Final question for you both. Whenever the U.S. or other Western nations have intervened in these kinds of conflicts and opposition, overthrowing the government, there’s always been a question about who’s in place to actually form a government afterward.

Is this opposition council, is this group the one that’s going to take over, can they — are they ready?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: This group is, as we are speaking, establishing a government, a transitional government that will, as of now, as of the very near future, build committees for various statecraft things that will become the future institutions of Syria.

So, yes, the Syrian National Coalition is going to produce a transitional government.

GWEN IFILL: And you believe that that’s a reliable transitional government?

FRED HOF: Yes, I believe there’s a lot of skill inside of this — inside of this coalition.

But the other aspect that’s important here is that — is the continuity of government in Syria is going to be important. No doubt the regime needs to go. But there are ministries, agencies of government that do provide vital services that will be important when the regime goes down and humanitarian assistance has to flood into the country.

GWEN IFILL: Fred Hof and Murhaf Jouejati, thank you both very much.

FRED HOF: Great pleasure. Thank you.