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

Source: Getty
TV/Radio Broadcast PBS' NewsHour
Summary
Recent defections could lead the Syrian regime and its Alawite supporters to entrench even further and potentially unleash even greater violence.
Related Media and Tools
 

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: 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: 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.

This broadcast was originally aired on PBS' NewsHour.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.

 
Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/07/18/with-assad-regime-on-defensive-eyes-turn-to-political-transition/d58t

More from The Global Think Tank

In Fact

 

45%

of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.

30%

of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.

140

charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.

2.5–5

thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.

92%

of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.

$2.34

trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.

37%

of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.

72%

of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.

90%

of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.

13%

of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.

17

U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.

40%

of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.

120

million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.

60–70%

of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.

58%

of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.

67%

of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.

50%

of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.

18%

of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.

81%

of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.

32

million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3

Syrians

now needs urgent assistance.

370

political parties

contested India’s last national elections.

70%

of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.

70%

of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.

20%

of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.

58%

of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.

$536

billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.

$100

billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.

4700%

increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.

$11

billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.

2%

of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.

78

journalists

were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address in the field below to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
 
 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
 
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.

请注意...

你将离开清华—卡内基中心网站,进入卡内基其他全球中心的网站。