POMED Notes: “The Battle for Syria”
On Friday, February 8, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted an event titled “The Battle for Syria.” The event was moderated by Karim Sadjapour, Senior Associate at Carnegie’s Middle East Program, and featured a panel discussion including Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; Dr. Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University; Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
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Ambassador Hof began the discussion by offering his take on the extent to which the Assad regime in Syria is reliant on external support for its survival. He emphasized that Iranian and Russian support have both been critical in propping up the regime. Iran, he explained, has provided not only material support, but also, by many accounts, advisors operating on the ground alongside regime forces. Russia, meanwhile, continues to honor previous arms agreements while also backing the regime diplomatically.
Professor Barkey proceeded to discuss the Turkish perspective on the conflict. He proposed that Turkey is not, as is commonly asserted, chiefly concerned with the way that the Syrian conflict has emboldened Syria’s Kurds. Rather, Turkey—like the United States—is preoccupied with the conflict’s increasingly sectarian tenor, and the implications this bears for the region. He suggested that Turkey has sought to secure its influence in a post-Assad Syria by essentially supporting all elements of the opposition—including jihadists—in hopes of cultivating relationships that will prove useful in the future.
Mr. Hokayem offered his analysis of the role Gulf countries are currently playing in the unfolding conflict. While some have seen a general trend toward the Sunni Gulf states supporting the uprising as an opportunity to push back against Iranian influence, Mr. Hokayem emphasized these states’ divergent aims and lack of coordination. Qatar, for instance, is highly supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia is wary of the group and the United Arab Emirates fundamentally hostile towards it. This picture is further complicated by the fact that support comes not only from the Gulf states’ governments, but also from private donors, many of them from the considerable Syrian diaspora in the Gulf.
Dr. Salem went on to deliver a his prognosis regarding the Syrian conflict and its potential impact on neighboring Lebanon. He proposed that “Syria isn’t transitioning, it’s disintegrating,” essentially following the same course as Lebanon and Iraq, the two other Middle Eastern states in which colonial borders left volatile ethno-religious compositions to simmer over the course of the last century. The result, he warned, is that “Syria, sadly, is destined for years of fighting.” He explained that Lebanon has thus far survived the conflict—rather surprisingly, given that Lebanese politics are split based on pro- and anti-Assad affiliations—for several reasons: Lebanon already has a political balance of power in which all groups have a stake; Hezbollah is sufficiently dominant militarily that none have dared to challenge it; and people are unwilling to risk another civil war, after Lebanon’s devastating own devastating fifteen year conflict; and Lebanon’s Sunni population is largely separated from Hezbollah and its followers by Lebanon’s Christians, who serve as a “buffer zone.”
Mr. Sadjapour then asked the panelists for their view on how the United States government should approach the conflict from a policy standpoint. Amb. Hof argued that the Obama administration has reached the conclusion that the future of Syria will be determined, by and large, by armed groups fighting on the ground, but it remains to be seen whether the administration is willing to engage on this level. He proposed that the best course of action is for Washington to attempt to “dominate the logistical systems” by which weapons are entering Syria, thereby assisting moderate groups while limiting weapon flows to extremists.
Mr. Hokayem echoed the sentiment that the U.S. should attempt to influence the way that arms are flowing into Syria. He further warned that, as the conflict progresses, the US may see itself obliged to take actions against extremist groups on the ground. When this happens, the US will suffer from the likely narrative that American support was absent when Syria’s revolutionaries needed it most, and only chose to step in when American security was clearly at stake. It is thus critical that the US make some effort to create “positive dependencies” with some rebel groups, cultivating relationships and leverage.
Professor Barkey, however, took the position that there is no effective way to isolate moderate from extremist groups, and further warned that, even if we do provide arms, “we are not going to make friends,” but rather “we will certainly mess it up.” Moreover, there is no guarantee that our regional allies will heed our requests that they refrain from aiding jihadists, even if we begin providing weapons ourselves. Dr. Salem proposed that, if there is to be any solution to the conflict, it must come from the international community—specifically, the US and Russia must recognize their common interests in securing stability and reining in jihadis, and push for serious diplomacy.
In response to a question about the best and worst case scenarios for 2013, the panelists offered little in the way of optimism. Dr. Barkey suggested that the worst case scenario was that the Syrian conflict reignited sectarian tensions in Iraq, a development that would likely set the whole region aflame. Ambassador Hof proposed that the worst case was simply that Syria continue along its current trajectory, moving towards state failure and sectarian warfare. Dr. Salem said that the long-term best case scenario is that, in ten or so years, we would see a weak, fractured Syria, lacking effective central governance but without active conflict. The worst case, meanwhile, is that same weak, fractured Syria, lacking effective central governance and continuing indefinitely to be devastated by sectarian violence.