POMED Notes – “Syria: A Way Forward”
On Wednesday, the American Syrian Coalition – the Syrian American Council, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, Syrian Expatriates, and United for a Free Syria – held an event entitled “Syria: A Way Forward.” The panel featured James Hooper, managing director of the Public International Law & Policy Group, Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, moderated the discussion.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
James Hooper opened the panel, coming out in strong support of U.S. military intervention in Syria’s ongoing civil war. When Syria’s 4th armored division moved from Damascus to Aleppo, stretching out along the highway, tanks and armored personnel carriers would have been easy targets for U.S. bombers, Hooper said. It was an opportunity lost. Hooper warned that the United States “lacks an intuitive understanding of the Middle East” but what, he asked, could happen if the administration fully committed to supporting the Syrian opposition? Hooper seemed to suggest that U.S. military intervention could induce a political military alliance between the Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Free Syrian Army. And from an international law standpoint, an intervention would be entirely legal, Hooper claimed. Hooper based this assertion on the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, an emerging norm in the international community that allows for an intervention to protect civilians from mass atrocities when peaceful measures have failed. Through the R2P doctrine, Hooper said, a coalition led by the U.S. could use the threat of airstrikes to negotiate the dismantling of the Assad regime. Washington cannot bluff, however, and Assad will undoubtedly test U.S. resolve, Hooper warned.
Joseph Holliday outlined a recent military history of the conflict. Essentially, the Syrian army began an offensive in January to end the uprising “once and for all.” Starting in Damascus, Syrian forces traveled from city to city clearing areas of rebels. The offensive was, on the whole, successful until May, during which “something changed.” That change, according to Holliday, was likely Saudi Arabia and Qatar beginning to provide weapons for the rebel fighters. By June, the Free Syrian Army was armed and organized enough to go on the offensive. The stretching out of Assad’s forces during their five month sweep north enabled the rebels to strike Damascus. This forced Assad to bring troops back to the capital and showed the regime that it could not afford to use brigades defending Damascus to hunt down rebels in other areas. Now the Syrian army is confined to outposts, unable to venture out for fear of being ambushed. And as Assad loses control of larger areas of the country and “begins to contract,” Holliday said, opposition forces will begin to occupy the security/political vacuum left behind. Local coordinating committees have become “revolutionary councils” and, in fact, have successfully run areas abandoned by the regime. Holliday concluded saying “we need to figure out who is actually going to end up controlling Syria because it’s not going to be the Syrian National Council.”
Andrew Tabler stressed the importance of building relationships with the individuals running the revolution on the ground. “How this regime goes down is going to determine what’s going to happen next,” Tabler said. The United States has a choice: it can continue to focus on international diplomacy at the expense of the faith of the actors that will inherit ownership of the government, or it can decide to whom it will provide “lethal assistance.” Continued diplomacy is a waste of time according to Tabler because the Assad regime has a “0% chance of changing.” And, if we had prioritized “the ground” last winter, we would have a much better handle on things today. Currently, the administration has little understanding of the political aspirations of those who may be gaining control soon. There are certainly foreign actors in Syria, said Tabler, but even with regard to full-blooded Syrians, the situation is the opposite of nearly homogenous Egypt. Syria’s Sunni community is extremely diverse, and that’s saying nothing of the Alawites, Christians, and other sects. Tabler concluded saying, “Those who are taking shots now [Ed. Note: literally, with guns] will be calling the shots later.” It’s the United States’ responsibility to build relationships with those entities now.
In the question and answer session, moderator Cole Bockenfeld asked the panel for its opinion on the possibility of recent high-level defectors from the Assad regime participating in a transitional government. Andrew Tabler was skeptical. “I don’t see any long-term transition process incorporating regime figures as being currently viable.” Individuals like Manaf Tlass are part of the Sunni veneer established by the Assads to shield the regime’s alawi core. They probably won’t be accepted as transitional figures by the Syrian people, Tabler concluded.