Interview with the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Marwan Muasher, conducted by Natalia Bubnova, deputy director for communications at the Carnegie Moscow Center

On February 17, there was a vote in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on Syria and a non-binding resolution was adopted on the Syrian government.

Marwan Muasher
Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.
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Yes of course, of course, you guys are big in the minority now.

137 votes for and 12 against, 17 abstentions. So, do you think this resolution will help move toward a solution in Syria?

I think what we will see is a series of small steps being taken to resolve the Syrian situation. Unfortunately, there is not going to be a quick answer. And in the absence of a military intervention, which I do not see happening, the international community is going to take small steps here and there. Each one of those steps will not of itself lead to a resolution of the conflict, but the accumulation is going to keep adding pressure on the Syrian regime to effect change.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that a civil war might start in Syria. And meanwhile the dead already number 5,000 or 6,000 in total, from both sides. Government forces in Syria started a crackdown on opposition strongholds two weeks ago and are bombing the Syrian cities of Homs, Hama, and Deraa. After the UN resolution was adopted it was said that these bombardments have even intensified. The so-called Free Syrian Army is attacking regular military forces in Syria. Is there not a civil war already under way?

Natalia Bubnova
Natalia Bubnova was head of content production at the Carnegie Moscow Center. She previously served as deputy director for communications at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Unfortunately things are deteriorating into a civil war. It’s been almost a year since the uprisings began, eleven months now. The opposition has been rather peaceful for most of the last month. It is only recently that the opposition has acquired more arms, because the Syrian regime has been using heavy artillery in its fight.

You say that from both sides 6,000 people are dead, which is true, but we need to realize that most of the casualties have come from the people, not from the Syrian regular army. The Syrian army has used planes, has used tanks, has used heavy artillery, while the opposition has only used individual (light) weapons.

Unfortunately, the more armed the opposition is, the more difficult it is going to be for reconciliatory steps to be taken later on, after, I think, the regime changes. And in my opinion, the regime will change; it will be a matter of when, rather than if it will change.

You said eleven months. Though you believe the regime will change, it has already endured longer than those of the other Middle Eastern countries that were swamped by revolutions last year. What are the reasons for the endurance of the regime? Does it have any special strengths? And what are its weaknesses?

Well, there are many reasons. The regime is very strong militarily. It is using all of its might against a population that until recently had been largely peaceful. And this is a zero-sum game for the regime. In other words, any reform process will mean that it will be ousted from power because it is a minority ruling over the majority. The regime has proven that it has no problem using arms to ensure its survival. It has endured for so long because it has the upper hand militarily.

Politically and on a popular level, though, the regime has lost, in my view, all credibility. I am talking about credibility among the Arab public at large, not just inside Syria. There is no question that there are elements inside Syria who are supporting the regime, minorities who are worried about their future, the merchant class or at least some of it in Syria, and the Christian community; although I think that even those elements are witnessing defections by the day. We have even seen recently a large demonstration in the heart of Damascus.

Bashar al-Assad promised to allow protests, to release political prisoners, and to remove security forces from cities. Apparently, this has not been happening. He is accused by the opposition and human rights organizations such as Abbi (international activists connected through social networks) of violating his promises, while exaggerating the numbers of released prisoners and continuing mass tortures and killings. Would you please comment on this?

There have been many promises by the Syrian regime and by the president in the last eleven months. I would say none of them have been implemented. The regime also accepted the mission of the Arab League to observe what is going on, but then it did not allow them a free hand in visiting some cities that they wanted to see. The regime has kept promising political reform that it has no incentive to implement simply because, as I said, reform will mean the end of this regime. The promises that it has made both domestically and internationally are simply not going to be realized.

And how about Bashar al-Assad’s promise that a referendum on a new constitution would be held at the end of February? This constitution is supposed to end the almost half-century-long rule of the Baath Party and make way for supposedly free elections on a multiparty basis. The opposition has already stated that this is a declaration that is intended only as another instrument for the authorities to use to continue the manipulation of public opinion. Do you think that a referendum could bring any positive results?

Well, I think that the reforms are too little and too late. They introduce very limited changes in the system. They still imply a very strong presidential system, with the president basically having the opportunity to serve fourteen years—an initial seven years that can go for another seven. And the president holds a lot of power even though the Baath Party will cease to be the principle party in the country.

And how can you even conduct a referendum when the security situation is what it is, and in a week’s time, nonetheless? I don’t think the Syrian people or the opposition, or for that matter the international community, will take these measures seriously.

The United States claims that Damascus provokes violence to justify further crackdowns on its opponents. Damascus alleges that it is fighting with Islamists sent from abroad. Meanwhile, on February 16, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said when speaking to Congress that al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate appears to have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups and is likely responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Damascus and Aleppo. So, with all these allegations, who do you believe is right and who is wrong?

I think it is very naive to blame al-Qaeda for everything that has happened in Syria in the last eleven months. While I will not rule out that elements of al-Qaeda might have very well infiltrated Syrian society, if they did, they would be a very, very tiny minority.

The demonstrations we have seen for eleven straight months have had tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands in many cases—going out on the streets. But these allegations about al-Qaeda only have come out very recently, and I think that is just one tenuous explanation to give to an uprising that has clearly been popular throughout many Syrian cities and that has clearly been peaceful until very recently.

You have mentioned already the mission of the Arab League. Why is the entire Arab League against Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Why has it approved sanctions on Syria? Would you please provide an update on the mission of the Arab League now? It is no longer in Syria, right?

Yes, it is no longer in Syria. The Arab League, you know, has always been a somewhat ineffective organization in regional Arab affairs. Historically, it has not taken many positions or offered many resolutions that have helped address problems of the region. Therefore, in the Syrian case, as in the Libyan case, the actions of the Arab League were an exception in one way or another. But that, I think, speaks in part to the atrocities that were committed against civilians both in Libya and in Syria. Even a weak organization like the Arab League could not ignore them.

The observer mission, I think, had all the elements of failure right from the beginning: it had too few participants and it was chaired by someone whose credentials were questioned by many. It was not allowed a free hand in visiting places it wanted to visit and, therefore, could only fail. And in fact the mission now has been ended, not just suspended. For all practical purposes it has ended. The chair of the mission, Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, has resigned, and any new mission, I think, would have to start from scratch.

I read your very good article “A League of Their Own” in Foreign Policy magazine, published in mid-January. Though not a Middle East expert, I see a paradox in the fact that the more democratic Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq, at least initially, seem to have been more tolerant of the Assad regime. And the more authoritarian Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most vehement towards the regime. Would you please explain why this happened? And also—unrelated question, but also with regard to countries that are in the neighborhood—why did Damascus lose the support of Turkey?

I don’t think we can view the situation as a reaction by democratic or authoritarian states against Syria. That is not what is driving the reactions to Syria. The positions of Lebanon and Iraq look to be sectarian—both countries are dominated now by Shi’i groups that seem to have taken a sectarian position. Lebanon in any case now has a government which is very pro-Syrian to start with. Therefore I think the reaction to Syria has more to do with these factors, and with the fact that, as I said, there are atrocities against civilians that other Arab countries, authoritarian or otherwise, simply cannot ignore.

We have seen a democratic country like Turkey, which also has had very good relations with the Syrian regime—in fact, I would argue, some of the best relations the Syrian regime has had with any country in the world—unable to ignore what is happening there. Even just being a country with a majority of Sunnis, Turkey would be unable to ignore the atrocities that were going on, many of course against Sunni Syrians, but also against the population in general.

So, we need to look at these factors to explain the actions of countries like Turkey and those of the Arab world more than whether they are reactions of democratic or authoritarian regimes.

It has been said that the Gulf countries are increasingly weary of the influence of Iran. Do you see this as one of the reasons they are going after the Syrian regime, which is considered to be Iran’s only remaining ally in the region?

I would not say that this has happened because of Iran alone. Syria and Saudi Arabia, for instance, enjoyed very good relations for the longest time, even when Syria openly sided with Iran against Iraq in the Gulf War and when it still continues to have very friendly relations with Iran. So, I am not sure we can attribute the reaction by Gulf states to Syria’s relationship with Iran, which, as I said, has existed for many, many years. 

But I think that one cannot underestimate, particularly in the context of the Arab uprisings, the popular anger that the Syrian regime has brought by treating these uprisings in an extremely brutal fashion. If you look at polls in the Arab world, where Bashar al-Assad had been one of the most popular leaders three years ago, he has lost almost all of his popularity because of the brutal way in which the process has been handled. I think one should not underestimate that.

Would you please comment on the U.S. position toward Syria? Is the U.S. position affected by the Iran factor?

I think the U.S. position is influenced by a number of factors. I wouldn’t say just Iran. I mean, the United States and Syria did not see eye to eye on many issues: on terrorism or on the peace process. But it is also interesting to note that the United States, except until rather recently, had not decided against Bashar al-Assad.

For the first few months of the uprisings, the United States refused to write off the Syrian regime and worked with the Turks for many months in order to try to come up with a solution. Only recently, when it became clear that the regime was not interested in a compromise and when the number of people killed rose into the thousands, did the United States finally in a sense decide to write off the regime.

You said that the regime, in your opinion, would inevitably fall. How would the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime affect Hezbollah? And what would it mean, in general, for the Arab-Israeli peace process?

Hezbollah was also a group that had a lot of support in the Arab world because of its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Remember when Israel attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006? Hezbollah’s popularity shot up because of the perception that it was standing up to Israel. That support has been almost entirely lost because Hezbollah today is perceived as a group that is standing on the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

And Hezbollah has made its support for the Syrian regime very, very public, in a way that any alternative regime coming to power in Syria after this one will have friendly relations neither with Hezbollah nor with Iran. So in terms of Hezbollah’s and Iran’s support of Hezbollah, in my view, both will suffer dramatically with the fall of this regime.

Whether the new regime will seek an agreement with Israel or not remains to be seen. I think that for the most part, any new regime will focus its energy domestically rather on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and so one of its early priorities will probably not be to seek an agreement with Israel.

But having said that, I think that any new regime is not going to provide the kind of logistical support for Hezbollah that Assad’s did.

Now coming to what you called a minority. You said that we are in the minority. You meant Russia and we can also say China. We know that Russia initiated several resolutions on Syria at the UN that did not go through. Together with China, it vetoed the latest draft resolution in the UN Security Council and then voted again against the General Assembly resolution. What is your perception of Russia’s policy on Syria?

A number of people have said that Russia’s position is determined by its economic interests or the military base that Russians have in Tartus. I tend to think that economic interests, in the greater scheme of things, are not that big of a factor. However, firstly, Russia does have a long history of friendship with Syria, and the Russians are standing by the status quo. Secondly, the Russian position is also a reaction to what took place in Libya. Then, the Russians felt the resolution on Libya allowed the so-to-say international community to go beyond what the resolution called for—that the international community went for regime change, while Russians were not for regime change.

But, having said that, I also believe that Russians have lost a great deal of support in the Arab world, among Arab publics. The Russians, and the Soviets before that, were seen by a majority of Arabs as having sided with the oppressed against the oppressors, particularly on the Arab-Israeli conflict. That image has suffered a great deal as a result of the current Russian position on Syria. Russia is seen as a country in the Middle East that is siding with the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

Don’t you think that the deeper cause for Russia’s apprehension about the prospect of a foreign intervention in Syria might be connected with the fear that such an involvement would wreak havoc, cause a collapse of the country, lead to a disaster in the region, and may be cause a war that could spread beyond the borders of Syria and take the shape of a major regional conflict? Do you believe that such fears, which are prevalent in Russia, could be justified?

I think that they would have been justified in the first few months of the war and particularly if the Syrian regime did not react as brutally against its own population as it did. I think that it would have been very justified. But events have taken us beyond that point.

The issue on people’s minds is not just one of military intervention because the international community has made it clear that it has no intention to involve itself militarily in Syria. The opposition has also made it clear that it does not want military intervention in Syria—or at least the majority of the opposition.

So what’s on people’s minds is not foreign intervention, but to end the killing of thousands and thousands of people. That is what is driving people’s positions and emotions. And Russia today is not seen as a country that is trying to stop foreign intervention as much as a country that is allowing the Syrian regime to continue killing its people.

According to news reports, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, declared that France and Russia would work together on Syria. He said that the two countries were engaging in discussions on a compromise resolution on Syria that would entail no violence and would ensure that humanitarian assistance shipments were made to Syria under control of both the Syrian government and opposition forces. Is this all passé after the vote in the UN General Assembly?

I think we will continue to see attempts to arrive at a consensus on UN resolutions in the future. But these attempts, I think, will not necessarily succeed unless there is an element that clearly provides for a transition to a new system in Syria rather than resolution that would keep the Assad regime in power. I think we are beyond that point—not just domestically in Syria but in the region as well. And I don’t think that there is room for consensus anytime soon. With a continuation of the killings and the violence in Syria, a consensus might emerge in the future. But I don’t think we are at that point yet.

We know that the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Syria on February 17 and 18 for negotiations. Do you think that China’s position is different from Russia’s?

It is different in the sense that China does not have the same history and involvement in the region that the Russians have. China does not really know the region as well as Russia does, and its interest in the region has largely been based on oil. China also has a culture that is against any foreign intervention, which has additionally helped shape its position. So, overall, China’s position is not the same as Russia’s.

I think though that the countries would have to weigh the ramifications of their position if things continue as they are in Syria. Then they might have to weigh whether their present position is going to be helpful for them in the future or not. But, as I said, even though the two countries have a similar pattern of exercising their vetoes, their historical involvement is very different.

Is there any hope of preventing more deaths? What is the way out? Are there any optimistic prospects for resolution of the conflict in Syria?

I would like to be optimistic, but unfortunately I don’t see any potential to stop the killings anytime soon. This is a regime that feels that if it stops the killings it will suffer, so unfortunately I don’t think we are going to see any quick resolution to the violence in Syria.