POMED Notes: “Next Steps in Syria”
On Wednesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the conflict in Syria and how the U.S. should or should not respond. Witnesses included the Honorable Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy for the Brookings Institution; the Honorable James Dobbins, Director of International Security and Defense Policy Center for the Rand Corporation; and Andrew Tabler, Senior Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Senator John Kerry chaired the hearing, and Senator and Ranking Member Richard Lugar and Senators Jim Webb, Jeanne Shaheen, Christopher Coons, and Bob Corker were also present.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Martin Indyk opened his testimony with an opening statement highlighting the threat of sectarian conflict after the Assad government falls. He testified that the U.S. should be encouraging different opposition to cooperate and send a clear message to Syrian minorities that they will not be threatened in the event of the regime’s collapse. He also suggested that the U.S. ought to work with the “insiders” in the Syrian opposition and convince them to unify under a common, coherent political platform.
James Dobbins began by posing a series of questions that he believed must be answered positively before intervening in Syria: should we participate in an intervention? Is there a justification for intervention? And is there a reasonable chance of success? The rebels, Dobbins said, are popular and draw support from the majority of Syrians and enjoy support from several neighboring countries and the U.S. He also argued that postwar Syria will probably look different than Iraq has over the last few years; conflicts that end definitively and militarily are less likely to drag on later, and this is probably what will happen in Syria, as opposed to a negotiated solution between the regime and the rebels. For now, and until the rebels explicitly ask for intervention, the U.S. should continue quietly aiding the rebels.
Andrew Tabler warned that if the isolation of the rebels continues, the future government they form will not look favorably on the U.S, but it is not too late to step in to help. The death toll now stands at over 20,000, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The problem, Tabler said, is that we know very little about the ideological background of the rebels, and it is not clear whether they want to establish a secular, democratic state. Because today’s rebels will be tomorrow’s government of Syria, the U.S. should figure out which factions to support and not simply drop weapons in Syria indiscriminately.
Various Senators then proceeded to ask questions of the witnesses, portions of which are paraphrased below.
Kerry: Why should we intervene?
Tabler: If we do not step in at this point, there could be a large sectarian war that spreads across the region from Syria.
Kerry: What is the danger of Sunni countries in the region supporting the largely Sunni rebels? Is there a chance that the rebels will pursue an Islamist path?
Indyk: We should avoid the Islamist “bogeyman.” Syria is already a largely secular state. It is the ongoing conflict which drives extremism more than anything else. We should, however, require that the rebels declare their ideological affiliations.
Dobbins: If we are really worried about Al-Qaeda, we can marginalize them by supporting those insurgents who share our interests.
Coons: How can we reach out and bridge the divides within the Syrian opposition?
Indyk: To do this we both international support and a vision for the future.
Dobbins: We need to have something to offer the rebels; those whom we engage with will be empowered.
Tabler: The rebels were waiting for a long time to meet with us until U.S. officials finally got permission to do so. We must now engage with the rebels and the Levant as a whole, or other actors will. The Russians will bend to our interests once they see Assad continuing to be weakened.
Kerry: What are out interests in this conflict?
Tabler: We could deal a decisive blow to Iran by helping to take out Assad, which of course will be of benefit to Israel, too. A larger war in the future will also be prevented.
Indyk: It is in our interests to prevent the destabilization of the entire area. A Sunni/Shia conflict could end up radiating across the region, even potentially as far away as Bahrain.