A Washington, D.C.-based scholar who has been observing the Middle East says, “We have entered a form of endgame,” regarding Syria, and “We are talking about weeks or months as we ponder when the Assad regime will fall.”
Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation, has said for Monday Talk that it is hard to tell when the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will be gone.
“It's not as near as many analysts would like to think; it's not as long as many regime supporters try to spin; it's somewhere in between,” she said, adding, “The economic sanctions are biting, Assad is running out of cash, the elite troops he can rely on are becoming demoralized, exhausted.”
Meanwhile, Syrian forces have continued their assault on the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, as Assad is seeking to crush a 16-month-old revolt against his rule in which at least 17,000 people have been killed.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that there were columns of tanks outside Aleppo which seemed to be massing for an attack. She said the Obama administration has "grave concerns" about the use of tanks and fighter jets in the city.
According to media reports on Friday, a Syrian lawmaker, Ikhlas Badawi, from Aleppo, has fled to Turkey, becoming the first member of Syria's parliament to defect. Reportedly, she told Sky News Arabia that she defected because of the Assad government's repression and torture of the Syrian people.
The news comes just days after the defections of Syria's ambassadors to Greek Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates.
In Ankara on Thursday, Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, one of the most senior defectors from the Syrian regime, had talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to discuss Syria's future.
Answering our questions in Washington, D.C., Slim elaborated on the situation in Syria and the stance of the international community.
Americans have been preoccupied by the upcoming elections in the United States and the recent Colorado theater shooting, but news related to Syria seems to be on the front pages of newspapers as the crisis in Syria intensifies and Bashar al-Assad's hold on power starts to weaken.
It is on the front pages as far as chemical weapons are concerned because it's an issue that will affect America's decision to intervene or not. President Obama in a speech last Monday [July 23] on foreign policy articulated that if it [the Syrian regime] chooses to use chemical weapons against its people or its neighbors, it might precipitate US intervention -- in one form or another, maybe through allies in the region, like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. In the US, there is now more sympathy for the Syrian opposition because there are scenes of brutal murders of children on American television. However, this does not make a significant dent in the average American's antipathy to engagement in another war in the Middle East as we are out of Iraq and on the way out of Afghanistan. There is now more emphasis on the economy and how to get our act together in the United States as the polls show that the economy is a primary concern for the American voters. The debate about Syria is still an inside-the-Beltway debate; it's a debate in D.C. among policy experts and human rights NGOs.
Assad said he is not going to use the chemical weapons he has. Can we believe him?
He knows that the use of chemical weapons will bring outside intervention. And he knows that once outside military intervention happens, it's over for him; the military will not stick by him anymore. That's a red line he can't cross. He can threaten to use them, but this threat is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.
Have we entered the endgame in Syria?
Yes, we have entered a form of endgame. We're talking about weeks or months as we ponder when the Assad regime will fall. When? It's hard to tell. It's not as near as many analysts would like to think; it's not as long as many regime supporters try to spin; it's somewhere in between. The economic sanctions are biting, Assad is running out of cash; the elite troops he can rely on are becoming demoralized, exhausted. The killings of the Syrian officials on Wednesday [July 18] were a major blow to the Assad regime [Assad's brother-in-law and senior military officials were killed in a bomb attack in Damascus at the National Security building]. There might be even more deaths than announced, we don't know. Even supporters of the regime are wondering when and how the regime will fall. How the regime falls will determine what future Syria will have. The longer the fight continues, the lower the prospects will be for keeping Syria united. However, I don't see yet any indications that the hardcore inner clique of the Assad regime understands that; there is still no will to negotiate their way out. In addition, Russia talks the talk for a peaceful transition in Syria, but it has not stopped shipment of weapons to the Assad regime. This indicates that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has not abandoned Assad yet. So as long as Assad has the support of the Syrian military elites and the Russian support, I don't see the Syrian leadership realizing soon that their days are numbered.
The bomb attack at the National Security building in Damascus happened when the president's defense minister, brother-in-law and head of his crisis team were at a meeting. Was it an inside job?
It had to be an inside job. It is not clear yet how the attack happened, whether it was a suicide bomb or explosives were carried into the room over time and then ignited by remote control; we don't know. There is opacity about how this happened. Whatever happened indicates that the entity behind this attack had access to key areas, to the inner sanctum of the regime. This might be somebody at the mid-level who has the necessary security clearance.
There are also major defections from the Syrian regime even though this may not be enough to bring the regime down.
There is a senior defection almost every day. So far three Syrian ambassadors have defected; a large group of senior military officers, including a brigadier general, have defected from the Assad forces to Turkey. This is likely to continue. The question is how regime change will happen. Will it happen through a sudden collapse of the regime precipitated by the Assad regime realizing they need to exit? Or will it happen through a prolonged struggle whereby the Assad family will retreat to the Alawite heartland so the regime forces will become a hyper-militia fighting against the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. Additionally, there is still the slim possibility of an internal coup -- a group of Alawite generals might decide to get rid of the Assad family.
Some observers point to the recent massacres by the Syrian regime in Tremseh and Houla and say that there are signs of ethnic cleansing in the northwest of the country to carve out an Alawite population.
Exactly, there seems to be a geographical strategy to the killings. All of those villages that have been targeted by the regime's forces are all small Sunni enclaves in Alawite majority areas. This may be an attempt by the regime to start carving out territory of purely Alawites -- an area to which they fall back and wage a war hoping to survive the uprisings. But the chance for being able to form an Alawite statelet there is very remote; there is no appetite in the international community for territorial changes in Syria or elsewhere.
Let's look at the geopolitical scene and the stance of the countries at the moment in regards to their Syria policies and also the state of the Annan initiative.
The Annan plan is over; the possibility for a diplomatic solution, soft landing or a peaceful transition is over.
And the Assad regime rejected the offer of the Arab League for his exit.
Yes, the Arab League said that the only solution that they accept is for Assad to transfer power to someone else and exit. On the other hand, the Syrian opposition, in all its different components, believes that there is no way to have a transition led by an Assad regime figure. The Syrian opposition wants a plan similar to what happened in Libya, but not necessarily with outside military intervention. They are saying: Give us weapons, and we will get the job done. The United States still opposes arming the opposition but does not stand in the way of the Saudis and Qataris arming the opposition.
The United States might be providing intelligence support to the opposition?
The US is in the process of gathering intelligence about the different military groupings operating inside, trying to know who these actors are. As the US gathers more intelligence about these actors, then it might be in a position to give some support. Though it will be late; arms are already coming into Syria. While different groups go by the moniker of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they remain more or less independent actors often working alone and sometimes in conjunction with other groups, with some having their own financial backers.
Back to the Russian stance, is there anything else to be added?
Putin still seems to be on Assad's side and continues to issue warnings against outside intervention. However, the killing of the senior Syrian officials is a game changer not only for the dynamics of the conflict inside Syria but also as to how international actors look at the conflict. So, Russia, in my opinion, is in the process of figuring a post-Assad plan B. What Russia wants is to have a say in the drawing up of a plan B for Syria; whether they will be allowed to do so is still an open question. If this conflict eventually ends with the opposition defeating the regime forces militarily, Russia will not have much leverage on the opposition; it will not have much access to the Syrian opposition. There is still a small window of opportunity for Russia to play a role to find a political solution to the situation, but this window is rapidly closing and it is actually about to be totally shut off.
In that regard, another country in the picture is Iran. Are the Iranian leaders engaged in some hard thinking to consider the Iranian support for the Assad regime?
There is a debate going on about this in Iran -- and recently this debate has become more public. There are articles appearing in the Iranian press questioning the wisdom of sticking by Assad. The debate is about the lack of a nuanced policy on Syria and how it is going to hurt Iran in the long term, especially Iran's standing in the Middle East. Iran has been reaching out to the opposition, especially the Islamist elements of the opposition. So far, these outreach efforts by Iran have been rejected by the majority of the opposition groups. Iran, like Russia, is interested in delaying a final outcome in Syria in order to force everybody -- including the opposition, Assad and the FSA -- to sit at the table and negotiate a settlement. Absent that, if the conflict is going to be settled militarily, Russia and Iran will not have a place at the table in carving a post-Assad order.
‘Turkey reaches out to all different groups inside Syrian opposition'
What are your comments regarding how Turkey is handling the situation regarding Syria?
Turkey has been playing the most intelligent long game by reaching out to all different groups inside the Syrian opposition, all of them, even the Syrian Kurds. Turkey has strategically played it right and understood from the beginning that the tide is against the Assad regime. Of all the countries in the region, Turkey is the only one having a relationship with every opposition group -- from secular to military, internal or external. However, at the same time, Turkey's actions have not matched its rhetoric. When I speak even with Syrian Islamist groups, they are disappointed with the fact that [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan's statements do not translate into action.
By action, do they mean a buffer zone along the Syrian border?
Yes, these are the demands of the opposition. But in the long term, once Assad is removed from power, Turkey is positioned to be an important player in Syrian domestic politics.
As a positive force? You said in İstanbul at a conference held recently by the Washington-based Hollings Center that in the region only Turkey advocates an inclusive and cooperative regional order.
Of all the major regional powers, Turkey is the only one that advocates an inclusive regional security order involving Iran, Israel and Arab countries. All other regional powers are opposed to this type of regional security regime. Turkey is the only one that could make the case for it and could, thanks to its relations with all other players including Iran and Israel, start laying the foundation for such a regime. This depends on which regional role Turkey wants to play going forward.
‘Egypt's leadership too focused on domestic priorities'
Some observers have been pointing out the traditional leadership role of Egypt even though the country has been going through tough times now.
Egypt may eventually come to reclaim its traditional role of the regional heavyweight, but for the time being Egypt's leadership is too focused on their domestic priorities. Because of these domestic and, especially, economic problems, the political situation in Egypt is likely to be in disarray for some time to come before the Egyptian leadership starts focusing on regional issues. In the interim, the vacuum that is left by a country like Egypt in regional politics, is occupied by an upstart, like Qatar, even though I think this recently minted Qatari regional role is unsustainable in the long term partly because it does not have the history or the makings of a regional power despite all the money it can put on the table in order to leverage such a role. In addition, there are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Turkey still has a way to go. It is not yet seen by the governments or the people of the region as a player in the Arab region, partly because the Turkish government, until lately, has not invested in building relationships with the region's political elites and civil societies. Turkey still looks at the Arab region more as a market and less as countries and people with whom it needs to build new relations. Only recently Turkey started looking East. That's why we are more likely to see in the short-to-medium term regional politics marked more by competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia and less by the moderating influence of countries like Turkey.
Randa Slim is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation, and she is a former vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue. She has also been a senior program advisor at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a guest scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. She is a long-term practitioner of Track II dialogue and peace-building processes in the Middle East and Central Asia. The author of several studies, book chapters and articles on conflict management, post-conflict peace-building and Middle East politics, she is currently writing a book manuscript about Hezbollah. Slim earned her B.S. and M.A. degrees at the American University of Beirut and completed her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina.