Anthony Shadid: Time Is Running Out for a Better Future for Syria

“We’re seeing a government that relies almost solely on repression to keep itself in power,” The New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid tells FRONTLINE. “Civil war in Syria would be a potential disaster for a very combustible region,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explains, “and I think everyone is bracing themselves for that.” The business elites of Damascus and Aleppo are hedging their bets, Shadid says, but “once they make that determination that the government’s going to fall, I think it then becomes only a matter of time.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 19, 2011.

Can you talk a little bit about how this uprising started?

… It took a lot of people by surprise when the rebellion did break out in March [2011] … in a poor southern town called Dara’a, in a region of Syria known as the Hauran. It’s drought-stricken; it’s poor; it’s somewhat neglected by the government, as much of the countryside in Syria is.

What happened in that town was [that] about 15 youths had scrawled graffiti on the walls of a school there. They were calling for the downfall of the government. It seemed to me more kind of [a] youthful rebellion than anything concerted, anything organized.

But the government struck back hard. They arrested all 15 of those youths. Not only did they arrest them; once they were in jail, they were tortured. Their mothers were threatened with rape. There were reports that their fingernails were pulled out.

“What Bashar al-Assad’s regime shows us is the calculus of power in Syria for four decades; that as sources of legitimacy evaporate, as bases of support disperse, as rebellion gathers strength and gathers force, this regime has only one thing to rely on, and that’s the coercive nature of the state.”

That very instance of repression, of torture, of mistreatment, seemed to galvanize the town itself. Here were the children of the town being mistreated by a government that was distant, that had neglected Dara’a.

Almost from that moment, the uprising seemed to gain momentum. In Dara’a, it unfolded very quickly. The office of Syriatel [the country's main mobile phone operator], which is owned by President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, was burned. People turned out into the streets.

The government was taken by surprise that unrest unfolded in Dara’a very quickly and then that it spread to the rest of the country as well, mainly this disenfranchised countryside that was stricken by drought and neglected by the government. …

How can you place the Syria uprising in the Arab world?

A lot of people say that the Syrian uprising came too early. What do I mean by that? In Egypt, in Tunisia, you had years of organizing, more so in Egypt than Tunisia. You had a kleptocratic class that was stealing from the people and had very visible symbols of what was going on. But I think more importantly, you had economic distress in Egypt that very quickly galvanized into the protest movement we saw in Tahrir Square [in Cairo].

Some people say that the economic distress in Syria wasn’t at the point where it would have fed a rebellion. I think that’s why until now we’ve seen this uprising focused in the countryside rather than the big cities.

This is a movement of the rural parts of Syria. This is a movement of the Sunni majority that are in those parts of Syria. In the early stages at least, it wasn’t an uprising that was urban-based. …

Now, that has changed as the months have gone on. Obviously we have very resonant symbols of suffering, of torture, of arrests, of martyrdom, and that seems to have galvanized a much broader social base. …

[The protesters] also have been part of the growing wave of cultural conservatism — of let’s say Islamism — that has made the countryside more conservative and also more amenable to the objections often voiced about this government, which is that it is secular, that it is run by a minority, and that it’s been in power for far too long.

Can we talk a little bit about President Assad’s reaction to the uprising, from the events in Dara’a to the rest of the country, how he reacted to these protests against him? …

There’s no question that in those first moments in Dara’a, when the uprising began, the government was taken by surprise. Just weeks before, President Bashar al-Assad had predicted that Syria was somehow immune to what’s been called the Arab Spring, from these revolts that we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

He thought that his foreign policy, given that it was anti-Israeli — what they call pro-resistance — would somehow shield it from the dissent and the anger that was going on elsewhere in the region.

Obviously that was not the case, and when the uprising did erupt in March, the government staggered. It looked to formulate a response and had a lot of difficulty. In the beginning, there were some gestures toward reform. There was also a wave of repression, a wave of crackdown, something far more familiar to a government that’s been in power for four decades. …

By Ramadan, by August, you saw the government dedicate itself almost solely to violence. It was going to crush this uprising, and it was going to do it by what it calls the “security solution,” [which] basically means giving a very large [mandate] to the security forces to act as they please.

[Assad] gave three speeches since the uprising started, one early on, another one in the summer, and then another one a few months ago. How did these speeches progress? …

… When the uprising did erupt, President Assad went before the country. He gave a speech, and I think it shocked a lot of people, because what they saw in President Assad was a sense of arrogance, that he was even flip in addressing what had happened in Dara’a. People had died there. People had been tortured there, and President Assad didn’t seem to understand the significance of what had unfolded.

… In the months that have ensued during this rebellion in Syria, there’s a sense out there that Assad doesn’t understand what’s actually happening in his country.

This is something that was told to me by Turkish officials, in fact, in their talks with him [and] other Arab leaders when they’ve talked to him. He seems to think this is in fact a very limited rebellion, an armed uprising. There’s an idea out there that he doesn’t appreciate the depth, the breadth of the dissent. …

As it went on, I think the government realized that it had it misplayed its hand, that President Assad should have … offered something more than just a dismissal of what Dara’a represented.

You did see that in the ensuing speeches: the idea of reform, or at least the promise of reform, coupled with a determination to crush the uprising, that he wasn’t going to tolerate dissent.

Those reforms, though, always seemed to disappoint people. Each time President Assad gave a speech, expectations were much higher than what he ended up delivering.

The reforms were often down the road. It was about forming committees or forming more dialogue or holding talks with recognized opposition that the government’s long dealt with. It wasn’t the sweeping type of reforms that people might have expected.

What kind of reforms did people expect? … Can we have a few examples of the reforms that were implemented or were promised in the past six months?

… Before the uprising erupted, Turkey was seen as one of Syria’s closest allies. … [The Turks] went to President Bashar al-Assad, and they outlined a very specific plan. He was going to form a national unity government; he was going to hold elections before the end of the year; he was going to end the crackdown.

I think this is what a lot of people were hoping for, this sense of very dramatic change, of fundamental change, that we would see a different cast to this very stern face of the Syrian regime.

None of that happened in the end. President Assad, according to Turkish officials, actually lied to their face. He said he was going to do something, and then he didn’t do it. …

Turkish officials felt betrayed. What we ended up with [from President Assad] was a promise of a committee that would convene to draft a new constitution of elections that might happen next spring.

Everything [was] so far down the road that [it] didn’t seem to have a real effect on the street, or even a real effect on people’s impressions about what was afoot in Syria, whether change was actually going to happen.

What does that tell us about Assad? What do we learn from his speeches, his reaction to the uprising, and his … disconnect from what’s really happening in his country? …

It’s hard to escape the idea that President Assad was a reluctant president. He was never the first choice of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ran the country for 30 years. That first choice was his older brother, Basil, who died in a car wreck in the 1990s.

After the death of his brother, Bashar was drafted into service in some ways. He came back from England, where he’d been studying ophthalmology. He entered the Republican Guard. …

There’s [a] story I heard where … soldiers from the Republican Guard were gathered to hear speeches that Bashar would deliver. In other words, he was being trained to be able to speak to a crowd. He was being trained to be a president.

And as the story goes, there was an idea that he got used to so many soldiers around him, cheering at his every word, that it almost fortified that idea that he was popular, that he was beloved, that his role was, in fact, something sanctioned by the people.

It’s something I think that is very much enforced today in Bashar al-Assad’s psyche. There’s a sense out there that Bashar al-Assad wants to be loved. …

Hafez al-Assad understood the symbolism of power being remote. It was an imperial sense of power, that he was removed from the people; that power was something elevated; and that it was untouchable. …

Bashar al-Assad, at least stylistically, was very different than that. People were struck by his tendency to go to cafes, to restaurants, that he drove his own car. There was a sense of making power less remote and making power more tangible, of interacting the people and the power. This was one of Bashar al-Assad’s sources of legitimacy in the early days.

He [wasn't] a man of the people necessarily, but he was someone they could understand, they could relate to. And it’s something he fostered in those early years of his rule. …

That’s what’s so jarring for so many people right now as this revolt unfolds. What we’re seeing again is the face of Hafez al-Assad’s regime. We’re seeing a government that relies on the Mukhabarat, on the security forces. It relies almost solely on repression to keep itself in power. …

What do you think went wrong? … Why didn’t he implement all of the reforms that he promised?

I think this is one of the great ironies of the Syrian state. For years, Syria was seen as one of the most repressive, most autocratic regimes in the Arab world. … What we saw with the uprising in Dara’a was the weakness of that state, a state that was seen as so powerful, so omnipotent in some ways, [was] revealed to be very weak, to have very few bases of support. …

It thought it could modernize economically. It was going to rely on Damascus and Aleppo. It was going to try to become a commercial hub in the region. None of those things worked out. The government was left with little to rely on. In the end, as the uprising gathered force, what the government had to rely on was violence, was the force of the state, the strength of the security services in repressing dissent. …

… How is his relationship with the Mukhabarat now? … Is it still as powerful as it was before? …

When Hafez al-Assad died, he did not finish the transition of power to his son Bashar. … Because the transition was undone, in the years that ensued, Bashar had to shake up the security services. He had to remove some of the people that were loyal to his father and try to create his own people in power, try to put his own people in the security services that, whether the government would admit it or not, was still a key pillar to the government’s endurance.

What I think you saw with the people he put in power in the security services was that they were a different generation. Hafez al-Assad rose to power from the bottom up. He had to fight the battles that came with the coup d’etats, that came with trying to corral the different forces of the country into his camp. It was a tough battle, but he understood the country. He understood the countryside; he understood the poor regions; he understood the cities.

[The] generation that Bashar al-Assad brought into power [and] into the security services was a much different generation. It’s one that grew up with the elite in Damascus and Aleppo. It’s one that shared the same sense of socioeconomic status as the traditional elite did. It didn’t fight those tough battles. …

So the whole mind-set of the security services was different. It didn’t have that experience that an older regime might have had. It didn’t have that insight into what this rebellion really meant and where it was leading. …

What we saw, because of the weakness of the state, was that the security services in the countryside, in the rest of the country, were largely unaccountable. They operated on their own. There was no oversight. There was no accountability, and they pretty much did what they want.

I think Dara’a was a great example of this. They did what they wanted in Dara’a. They pulled out the fingernails of these young protesters. They cracked down as hard as they could when the protests began. What that of course led to was a wider rebellion, a wider rebellion that no one in the government seemed to anticipate. …

What is [Assad's] legacy in 11 years of rule? …

… Bashar came to power promising economic modernization. He promised to make a more prosperous Syria. He promised to pull back the security forces from the face of the government.

As soon as dissent erupted in a forceful manner — from Dara’a to Homs to Hama to Deir al-Zour — they relied on the instrument that has assured their continuity in power for four decades, and that’s violence. …

What Bashar al-Assad’s regime shows us is the calculus of power in Syria for four decades; that as sources of legitimacy evaporate, as bases of support disperse, as rebellion gathers strength and gathers force, this regime has only one thing to rely on, and that’s the coercive nature of the state.

Can we talk about the early days when he came to power? How was the mood in the country?

We can’t dismiss what Hafez al-Assad represented to Syria. He extended infrastructure to much of the country. He brought a long tenure of stability that hadn’t existed in Syria before. He paid attention to the countryside, to the disenfranchised elements of that society. …

But first and foremost, he represented a state that spoke to the coercive nature of power. It was a state that relied on violence, and I think it was most dramatically shown during the uprising in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

As Bashar is [now] facing, he faced a rebellion [in Hama in 1982], and he dealt with that rebellion in perhaps one of the most forceful ways ever witnessed in the Arab world. He killed tens of thousands of people to put it down. There was no question of compromise. There was no question of tolerating an opposition. It was going to be crushed, and crushed by force.

When Bashar came to power, I think there was a hope that he would reform, that people saw this as an alternative to his father’s stern, violent, austere years that characterized Syria over his long reign. …

What did we see after the economic reform? How did Syria change?

I think what’s so compelling about this is we did see economic changes. We did see economic reforms in Bashar’s early years. … The impact of those reforms was felt primarily in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities.

That economic reform wasn’t really felt in the countryside, in the poorer towns. … There was a drought that was devastating through parts of the country. There was the utter unaccountability of security services in the countryside.

So even that promise of economic reform, of economic modernization was very limited geographically. …

Can you say that the economic reforms created, both in Damascus and Aleppo, … a class of nouveau riche, and this is where he draws his support from? ….

… There’s no question the business elite has yet to turn against him, in Damascus definitely and in Aleppo as well. But that business elite itself has become more complicated. It’s not only the traditional Sunni elite that his father relied on. It’s also a new economic class that was integrated into the regime, both Sunni and Alawite, that relies on the regime for its money, for its influence, for its power. And that has been tied up through vast holding companies that bring it together.

Not only is the elite making a choice of whether it wants to move against the regime or not, it’s also making a choice of whether it can survive without government largesse. In other words, can it go on without the relationship that has been established with the government? …

… We’ve heard a lot of reports — or they could be rumors — about a lot of businessmen and a lot of money being taken out of Syria, businesses moving from Syria. Do you know anything about that?

… We’re seeing already the elite in Damascus, particularly that traditional Sunni Muslim business elite, hedging their bets. There are still relationships with the government, but at the same time, I think there’s an idea of reaching out to the opposition, specifically abroad.

It’s really hard to reach out to the opposition inside Syria, but you might have one cousin who will keep his relationship with the government. You might have another cousin who’s starting to make contacts with the opposition abroad.

That hedging of bets is probably going to go on until they have a sense which way it’s going to go, and it’s pretty early for that. I think the elite becomes a very important barometer of where this uprising is headed. Once the elite makes that call, once they make that determination that the government’s going to fall, I think it then becomes only a matter of time.

… What are the lessons that the Syrian regime learned from [the uprising in] Hama, or the lessons that Bashar himself learned? Do you think that he compares what’s happening now to what happened in Hama, keeping in mind that he was only 10 when the events in Hama happened?

I think there’s a sense out there within the government, within the leadership, that what they’re facing right now is redolent of what they faced in the late ’70s and early ’80s: that this is an armed uprising; that it’s driven by militantly religious forces; and that there’s a foreign component to it as well.

From the government’s mind-set, this is the same thing, and it helps feed that notion that we can deal with this by security … and violence alone.

In fact, one very high-ranking Turkish official told me that what’s going on inside the leadership is that Bashar’s mother herself is telling him that these are the same events, that they remind her of what happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Her advice to him — at least as told to me by this official — is that he has to act like his father: He has to be strong; he has to be decisive; and he has to crush this element of rebellion against him.

And this is what he’s doing?

I think at this point the government has fully dedicated itself to violence. There is no reform on the table. There’s still some promises out there of a constitution being drafted in six months, of elections in the spring, but in terms of tangible change, tangible reform, that’s not on the table right now. This is a government that is going to deal with the rebellion with violence, and it’s going to crush it.

… What do you know about [the Assad] family and how close the family members are to each other? …

… Rumors are rampant about what’s going on in the family. [There are] reports of one member shooting another. … I think those rumors are so crazy and so rampant in some ways because people know so little about what’s going on inside the family itself. …

This is a family that acts as a corporate body, and while there’s no question that there are rivalries there — there are matters of dispute; there are policies that are disagreed on — I think the family understands first and foremost that it will fall if it doesn’t stand together. …

We hear a lot of talk about him relying on his brother Maher, who heads the Fourth Division of the Syrian army; that he relies a lot on him to do the dirty work, to lead this military crackdown on protesters. What do you know about that?

Officials of a neighboring country were very blunt to me early on in the uprising, telling me that they were encouraging Bashar to turn against two people: Maher al-Assad, his brother, who runs the Republican Guard, and Rami Makhlouf, who is considered probably the richest businessman in Syria at this point, Makhlouf being his first cousin. They had encouraged him to turn against these two people, and if he did turn against these two people, they were convinced that Bashar would win an election. …

Of course it’s a much different landscape today than it was six months ago. But that idea of Bashar taking action against other members of the family to fortify his own position is something that’s long been out there. I think it’s a misreading of the situation.

I think as much as Bashar wants to act on his own, he simply can’t. I think the very structure of the leadership in Syria means that decisions are going to be taken as a corporate body, that the leadership itself has to stand together. …

… How was [your] interview with Rami Makhlouf? What did you learn from that interview about the regime?

… There were two things that struck me. One was that this was a rare moment to actually hear the leadership’s narrative from someone in the leadership.

The other thing that struck me was how forthright he was about that narrative. Almost within minutes of beginning the interview, he underlined what has long been Syria’s strategy for survival: that it has so many connections throughout the region that it can pull strings and make events work in its favor. …

What Rami Makhlouf told me in this interview [was]: “If we go down, everyone else will go down in the region. If we’re going to suffer, Israel’s going to suffer; that we are the last bastion of stability, and we can make problems for the region.” …

I think the undercurrent of that interview was that Syria had in its hands the cards to play to bring to a reality that idea of regional instability, of chaos, of strife. He made the point very clear to me. …

What [he] told you during that interview, … that it’s Syria or chaos in the whole region, this is what the whole Syrian regime believes?

For years under Hafez al-Assad, the government had what might be called sources of legitimacy. … That was a sense of Arab nationalism, a sense of bringing infrastructure to the rest of the country, a sense of fighting Israel, of supporting Palestinian rights.

I think what was so dramatic about Bashar’s years in power is that the sources of legitimacy have evaporated. They don’t really exist anymore.

What does this government rely on? Economic modernization has collapsed in the face of the uprising. The government itself has had to turn to violence solely to try to put down the dissent or put down the rebellion.

At this point, the government relies on little else than negative legitimacy. There’s nothing that it can say it supports or that it’s trying to achieve or that it’s trying to accomplish.

What it says is: “It’s either us or chaos. If we fall, there will be war. If we fall, there will be civil strife. If we fall, there were will be massacres of minorities in the country.” It’s a negative legitimacy.

That’s what Rami Makhlouf said so powerfully to me. His argument for the survival of Syria’s regime was not that it was doing something good for the country. It was that if it wasn’t there, the country would fall apart.

Do you think he was only talking about the country — if it falls, then there will be chaos — or also the region, given that Syria has a very important regional role?

This has been one of the most powerful assets that the Syrian government has played on for four decades now. It is embedded in the region. It has a very longstanding alliance with Iran. It has allies in Lebanon, first and foremost Hezbollah. It has a front line in some ways with Israel. It has a border with Turkey and Iraq. It is embedded very viscerally in the constellation of the region. …

Syria’s uprising I think is so striking because it’s so much in the middle of all the events that happen in the Arab world. In other words, what happens in Syria is going to have reverberations immediately in the rest of the region. We’ve already felt that — Turkey, Lebanon, even Iraq, to a certain extent.

How?

… Not only could [Syria] do something in Lebanon against, say, U.N. troops, it could also do something with the border with Israel and the Golan Heights. It had a card to play in Turkey with the Kurds and the Kurdish rebellion that’s going on in Turkey. It had contacts with Iran, and Iran of course has its own set of contacts and set of influences throughout the region. …

It has a long border with Iraq, and American officials long accused Syria of sending fighters to fight the American occupation in Iraq.

… I think we saw in those following months perhaps the manifestation of those cards being played. We saw violence on the border with Israel. We’ve seen attacks against U.N. troops in Lebanon.

This is a government that is willing to pull strings to one, make itself more a threat, but two, also make itself more an answer. In other words, we can create crises, and at the same time we can solve those crises. …

You talked about Bashar al-Assad’s allies in the region. We know that the Syrian regime is a secular regime, and yet he is allied with one of the most religious countries in the world, Iran. What is the relationship of this alliance, and why do we see such a strong alliance between a secular regime and a religious country? I guess the same applies with Hezbollah, a very religious party allied with a very secular regime.

… In a lot of respects, what’s going on in the Arab world is a search for new notions of identity. In other words, can we create a notion of citizenship that transcends these smaller identities, these smaller senses of self as Christians, as Muslims, as Sunnis and Shi’ites, as Alawites and Druze? …

What Syria is demonstrating is that we can have one or the other. There is a sense out there right now in Syria that new solidarities have emerged that have been historic rivalries, say between Homs and Hama, between Damascus and Aleppo. You’re starting to see these urban centers that don’t really like each other actually coming together in support of the rebellion, in support of the uprising. That in itself is a remarkable development. …

I think the challenge before Syria is: “Are we going to look for these broader solidarities, solidarities that didn’t exist in the past that could go to help building a more stable state? Or are we going to fall back on these smaller identities, these smaller notions of self as Christians, as Alawites, as Druze, as Sunnis?” That’s the question ahead. …

How corrupt do you think the Syrian regime is? … How much does corruption play a role in this uprising?

… It’s the corruption of power, the corruption of having stayed there for four decades and left Syria in the state it is today, which is … a weak state, a state that doesn’t have control over its own destiny.

There’s that sense of corruption in the society itself, that the society itself is falling apart, being pulled apart; that the countryside is miserable; that there’s nothing being done to make lives better there.

I think corruption is best understood as broadly as possible, and I think the government very much fits into that narrative. What struck me in talking to activists when I was at Homs over the summer was that it wasn’t just an idea of them being victims to oppression. It wasn’t just that the government was arresting them and torturing them and stopping them from talking. It was the idea that they were being suffocated, that they couldn’t breathe.

I think in that idea of being suffocated is a sense of wanting to have more dignity; of wanting to have more control of your lives; of wanting to be a citizen in some respects and have the rights that are derived from citizenship.

It struck me how broad that notion of rebellion was. It wasn’t just fighting an autocratic regime. It was about creating a new life that would adhere to different standards. …

… What’s the involvement of the military in putting down this uprising, and how brutal is the military, the Syrian army itself? How much is their reliance on other armed forces, the … security forces, police, and what Syrian activists call the shabiha?

… You have the military, of course, the kind of traditional military that’s never been all that trusted by the government.

You have the Mukhabarat, the security service, divided into so many different sections, the most sinister of them probably being the Air Force Intelligence [Directorate], the air force, of course, being the division of the military that Hafez al-Assad rose from.

You also have the shabiha. These are kind of volunteers, vigilantes in a way, that are taken mostly from the Alawite clan, the same clan of Bashar al-Assad, but also from other groups in the society.

The military is probably the least dependable of all of these. … We have to remember the military is drawn from the very same constituency that the rebellion is feeding off of.

In other words, it’s a disenfranchised Sunni Muslim countryside. And I think the longer the military is forced to effectively occupy these cities, cities like Homs, Rastan, Dara’a, … the more you’re going to see sympathy between soldiers who come from these areas and the protesters themselves.

I don’t think the military itself is actually the most sinister instrument in all this. I think what we’re really seeing is the military opening the way for the security services to do the dirty work, and the shabiha obviously, these vigilantes that the government has relied on.

I think the presence of the military is more a show of strength, where when we see the repression actually carried out, it comes from the forces that are much more loyal to the regime, and that would be first and foremost the security services, the Mukhabarat.

… Why do you think the military is still supporting the president? Is it because the officers, the leadership of the military is Alawite?

I think everyone at this point — when I say everyone, I mean some of Syria’s neighbors and perhaps even the United States — is searching for an alternative out there. Yet there’s some senior officer, preferably Alawite, that could emerge from within the military, overthrow Assad’s leadership, and oversee some kind of transition to democratic rule.

We’ve heard candidates out there. One candidate was dismissed, perhaps killed. Another one perhaps had a heart attack. Rumors are rife on what happened to these people. …

The military so far has stayed behind the government. The rumors you hear is that they’re mistreated, underfed, that they’re limited to watching Syrian TV and the propaganda that it broadcasts. I don’t think the military in general has a sense of what’s going on, but that becomes the danger.

The longer the military stays in the cities that it is repressing, the more contact you’re going to see between soldiers and protesters. I think there is an affinity between these soldiers and protesters, because they are drawn from that same socioeconomic base, the disenfranchised countryside. …

… How strong is the opposition? Could it fill a vacuum should the regime fall? What is the state of the opposition right now?

I think one thing we have to remember about Syria is that this is a country where organized opposition has been relentlessly repressed. … This is a very narrow constituency that rules the country.

So in a country like that, where there is basically no organized opposition, … the idea of an opposition forcefully emerging in just the few months of an uprising I think is unlikely. …

What we’ve seen in different cities is an atomized opposition, an opposition that doesn’t know much about each other from one city to the next, Homs, say, and Deir ez Zor and Hama.

There has been some interaction, most of [which] happens over the Internet, over Skype. It’s very little done in person. So the idea of trying to coalesce that, to bring an opposition together inside Syria in the face of just withering violence, is difficult at the very best and perhaps even impossible in the short term. …

As we see the government fully dedicate itself to violence to repress the uprising, we see a remarkable resilience of the protesters themselves, but [they're] unable to gather the momentum to overthrow the regime. The attention is going to go elsewhere, and that’s probably to the opposition abroad.

It’s incumbent upon that opposition abroad to create an alternative. What they’ve done so far is announce principles, very general principles, that talk about the democratic future for Syria. They have yet to outline a vision for that country. They have yet to articulate a constitution, a new order that would emerge in the aftermath of Bashar al-Assad.

Until they do that, they’re going to have a very difficult time persuading the minorities in the country, the business elite, that they offer something after Bashar falls. …

And you think they haven’t been able to do so because they were repressed for 40 years, because they have no experience in really organizing themselves? …

This is an opposition that spans Communists to the Muslim Brotherhood, the on-the-ground caliphates, the most puritanical element of political Islam. Trying to bring that together into a cohesive vision is admittedly very difficult, but I also think it illustrates some of the problems you’re going to see as this opposition moves forward.

In other words, how much of a stake or how much of a presence does this opposition have on the ground? The Muslim Brotherhood does not have a presence on the ground, at least an organized presence on the ground today in Syria. …

Caliphates do. They’re a much more militant brand of political Islam. They are on the ground, absolutely, and I think that’s some of those activists in Homs. Do they have a representation in this opposition abroad? It doesn’t look like that’s the case.

So how does this opposition mirror the opposition on the ground? … How does the opposition on the ground convey its demands to the opposition abroad? … And how does the opposition come together to create some kind of cohesive or coherent vision of a future after Bashar falls that will reassure, perhaps, the majority that remains unconvinced?

There’s a lot of people afraid about prospects of Syria falling into civil war. Why do you think there are prospects of civil war in Syria? How dangerous [would] civil war be for Syria itself and for the region?

… Even activists see that you can only protest peacefully for so long. Eventually at least some elements of the opposition are going to turn to guns; they’re going to turn to violence. …

Bashar al-Assad may stay in power, but the country will never look like it did, say, 10 years ago. It’s going to be permanently, irrevocably changed. And the people who are fighting him, and the people who are fighting against [them], are having an incredible say in determining what this country looks like. …

Is this country going to be able to [get] through this moment of strife, … negotiate a future that’s inclusive, negotiate a future that’s somehow stable, negotiate a future that’s representative of a very diverse society? Or is it going to fall back on those divisions that the government has relentlessly exacerbated? Is it going to fall back on divisions that perhaps make it fall apart?

… How long do you give this regime?

… The Americans and the Turks are in some ways the most involved in Syria’s uprising. There was this kind of headiness in the early [days]. The Turks thought that they could persuade Bashar to carry out reforms, that they could make this regime sustainable somehow, that it would become a more democratic, more representative regime.

The Americans thought Bashar was going to fall sooner rather than later. They thought the pressure that he faced was going to gain momentum. I think a lot of people thought that way in the summer, as we saw hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Hama. …

It’s a much different landscape now, and I think even American and Turkish officials acknowledge this may go on. The estimates I hear are six months to 19 months, perhaps two years.

It’s not going to come through the protests. The protests are not going to be able to gather that momentum to force a break in the regime, to divide the regime somehow. It’s going to come from economic pressure. It’s going to come from within the military, within the security services. I think people are predicting a much longer struggle.

… I think one truth out there that we can say today is that the longer Bashar and his leadership stay in power, the less likely Syria will have a peaceful future. …

Time is running out for Syria, and time is running out when we talk about hope for a better future.

We have actually started hearing about a lot of armed attacks on the military and other branches of Syrian security forces. A lot of people have started to warn that it has actually turned into an armed uprising, so we’re seeing some of the danger of this uprising turning into civil war. What do you think about that?

I think the very use of violence, the very use of arms is going to create a radicalization within the constituencies that are fighting Bashar at this point. …

It’s going to play on sectarian divisions. It’s going to play on fears of minorities. It’s going to play into the government’s hands in some way, because the government has … an overwhelming ability to use violence to put down what remains of scattered elements of armed resistance.

We’ve seen Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and now Syria and also Yemen. How much are these societies … durable and strong enough in the future? Are they sustainable?

When the Arab revolts began at the beginning of the year, there was so much hope. It’s hard to capture how much hope Tunisia, the first of those Arab revolts, represented. …

There was an incredible upsurge of emotion, of optimism … about what the Arab world might look like in the future. I think what we’re seeing with Syria is the danger, is the flip side of those Arab revolutions.

We’ve seen a society that stands between a notion of a broader identity of citizenship, of coming together into a more democratic future, of a stronger country in some respects, and on the flip side, a country that stands on the brink of falling into its smaller identities, its divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, its divisions between Kurds and Arabs.

It’s standing on a precipice in some ways between those two visions, those two futures, and it remains undecided. …

If it turns into a civil war, where do we go from there? How does it end?

… Civil war in Syria would be a potential disaster for a very combustible region, and I think everyone is bracing themselves for that. …

[What] is it like to report in Syria? …

The Syrian government has made a decision that it’s not going to allow journalists [in] in any concerted fashion. … At this point, you have to kind of pick your shots as a reporter. You have to see what you can get, what you can make of it, and what it means.

It’s incomplete reporting, to be completely honest. I don’t think as journalists we’ve understood the full scope of what the Syrian uprising represents, and that’s very frustrating. You really don’t know what’s going on in a country you’re supposed to be covering. …

When you were in Hama, there were protests happening. How big were these protests, and what was the mood like? …

… What was so striking about Hama this summer was that for the first time, you saw hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. For the first time, Hama looked like Cairo; it looked like Tunis.

… This was the first moment in perhaps 40 years where hundreds of thousands of people in opposition of the government gathered in the streets to voice their vision of the future.

Hama was free. It wasn’t free in the sense of no government left, that the security forces didn’t have informers everywhere in the city. But for the first time, people spoke as they wanted to speak.

It didn’t last long. In some ways it was a sobering lesson in the government’s ability to put down dissent, to [stanch] the uprising. But I think that moment is going to be remembered by a lot of people in Syria, and Hama in particular, as a brief glimpse of what a future might look like. …

You mentioned in one of your articles that at least for now, the government has won. Why do you think so? …

There’s no question at this point that the Syrian government thinks it’s won. … It’s the mind-set of a government that believes that it can put this down through violence. In that mind-set, it does believe it’s won. It does believe that the protests are smaller, and they are.

It does believe it’s broken the back of the opposition movement, and perhaps it has at this point. But I think we have to ask ourselves the questions: What happens when the military withdraws? What happens when soldiers leave the streets? What happens when security services leave the streets? …

We have to be careful in saying the uprising can be crushed or the uprising is over. I think the very presence of the security services and the military in those cities has kept down the numbers, but it’s a tactical solution for the government. It’s not a strategic solution.

Nothing has been resolved. Nothing’s been changed. As soon as that balance of power shifts [and as soon] as those forces withdraw from the cities, I think we’re going to see a return of the protests that we saw in the summer.

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