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With Government Defections on the Rise, Is Conflict in Syria at a Tipping Point?

As more Syrian officials remove themselves from the regime government, it would seem that President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over Syria is weakening. Margaret Warner talks to George Mason University’s Bassam Haddad and Trinity University’s David Lesch about whether recent defections signal a tipping point or are merely symbolic.

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    And for more on all of this, I'm joined by two scholars with new books on Syria.

    Bassam Haddad directs the Middle East Studies Department at George Mason University. His new book is "Business Networks in Syria."

    And David Lesch is a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex. He interviewed Bashar al-Assad several times between 2004 and 2009. His new book is "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad."

    Welcome to you both.

    David Lesch, beginning with you, what significance do you see in these latest defections, coming on top of earlier ones?

  • DAVID LESCH, Trinity University:

    Well, they are serious blows to the regime, as you said, coming on top of earlier defections, as well as the impression that the rebels on the ground are making military inroads against the regime.

    However, you know, the office of the prime minister is not a very powerful position in Syria under Bashar al-Assad. It is mostly an administrative post. It's been a disposable one since the beginning of the uprising. But perception is most important here. And, as we all know, perception is oftentimes more important than reality.

    And the perception is that the regime is on the defensive, that it could be crumbling with these increasing defections. And if many of the Syrians who are viewing this also see it as crumbling, especially those sitting on the fence, then you could have a cascade of defections, which will undermine the foundation of the regime.


    Bassam Haddad, what would you add to that, the significance, for instance, that he was Sunni?

  • BASSAM HADDAD, George Mason University:

    Well, that is, at this point, not as significant.

    The main point about the defection of the prime minister is that the office of the prime minister, as my colleague said, has for decades been an administrative office. And it wasn't connected and is not connected to any serious threads of power.

    So that, in and of itself, makes it less relevant than many people might assume. The second point is that the conflict itself right now has descended into a purely military conflict, which means that such defections will in actuality have very little effect on the manner in which the conflict proceeds.

    But it will actually open the door for more defections that many people actually have contemplated for some time but now will probably actually carry out.


    David Lesch, you have been close to this circle, or you had some entree because of your interviews with the president. Who is in this inner circle, the one with — the one — the circle that really has power? And is it mostly Alawite, the sect that — the Shiite sort of splinter sect that Assad is from?


    It is. It is mostly Alawite. There are still some Sunnis who are supporting the regime, particularly in the business community.

    But in the inner circle — I mean, ever since the regime chose a security solution to this from — from the beginning of the uprising, the military security apparatus ascended in power even more so than it already had been, including Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad and many of the other particularly Alawite generals in the military security apparatus.

    So, it is a very opaque ruling structure that has been difficult to penetrate even by people on the scene for many, many years. But I think since the crisis began, it's getting tighter and tighter and tighter, smaller and much more Alawite, with these Sunni defections.


    And, so, Mr. Haddad, do you think that the president can control the country with a ruling circle that is becoming primary, almost dominantly Alawite, which is — they are only 10 percent of the population.


    The picture is not that stark.

    It's also important to recognize that still at the top levels in the military and security apparatus, there are still some Sunnis. And in society, there are still large pockets, if not very large pockets, of support, not necessarily for the Assad regime, but for a prevention of a fall into the abyss.

    What a lot of the reporting I think has been ignoring, especially from the West, is that Syria is falling apart not just as a regime, but as a country. And that is actually the biggest tragedy that I think is being shoved aside, in favor of focusing on cliche-ish things such as dictatorship and democracy in a situation where even if the Assad regime falls we are looking at a very, very tough process of reconstructing the country.

    And certain parties benefit, and these are the parties we should actually look at, including conservative Arab states, some European states, and, of course, the United States.


    Let me go back to David Lesch.

    Based on your time with Assad, he — explain to us as best you can his psychology at this point. Are you surprised that he is — seems clearly not interested in any kind of deal, any kind of compromise, any kind of power-sharing?


    No, because, over the years, I think he bought into the authoritarian structure of power in Syria, as happens frequently in authoritarian regimes across the world, not just in Syria.

    And they have a bit of a different alternative reality that has been constructed around them. And thus they really do believe that they are protecting the country. That is the mandate for the Assads, both father and son, for ruling Syria, is to provide security and stability.

    And I think they really believe they are still trying to do that, perhaps without realizing totally that their security solution is actually causing more instability in the long-term.

    But Syria has been under threat from the outside over the decades. So it doesn't take much to convince many Syrians that there are pernicious forces from the outside working with unwitting forces on the inside against the regime.


    Do you agree with — there have been quite a few analysts in the U.S. government who just study Assad that he seems, at least in his pronouncements, increasingly disconnected from reality.

    Would you go that far?


    No, because he has a very different reality.

    You know, the Syrians have a totally different conceptual paradigm of the major threat based on their own historical experience, which is different from ours. So, to them, it's very real. To them, it's very true.

    And as Bassam Haddad said, there is a very different picture being painted by the Western press that is totally divorced from how they see reality. And which is the truth is very hard to discern, but it's probably somewhere in the middle.


    Bassam Haddad, briefly, before we go, the U.S. government continues to call on other members of the regime to defect. Those who are closest to him, do they have much incentive to defect, especially members of his Alawite sect?


    There's little incentive for people close to the regime right now to defect, especially members of Alawite sects.

    The United States, in my view…




    Because it's — the ship will either sink or swim all together, and the Alawite community is within that ship, even if they resent the manner in which the regime dealt with the uprising.


    Is that because they feel that essentially if this regime goes down, they are going down at this point, as Alawites?


    It's not — that is a good question. It's not just their feeling.

    There is a real fear right now, an objective fear that the Alawite community and other minority groups will actually have to — will actually pay the price for just being such on — on their I.D., in terms of how they are identified.

    And, unfortunately, the United States has done a lot more to provoke, rather than actually push the opposition to do things such as engage in dialogue in order to prevent a calamity. And that is actually where the story should go, because this is bound to happen unless there is this kind of interference that actually calls for dialogue, which Turkey, the Arab states and the United States have prevented the opposition from doing.


    All right.

    Bassam Haddad, thank you so much.

    And David Lesch at Trinity, thanks so much.

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