Sharp differences on Syria

Al-Monitor and Johns Hopkins SAIS teamed up last week for a full-day conference on “The United States, Russia and the Middle East”. The afternoon session had a panel on the Syrian regional crisis, which moderator David Sanger of The New York Times described as not the typical panel in Washington, with everyone getting along.

Josh Landis, Director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said the US is now mostly concerned with the al-Qaeda presence in Syria and the refugee problem affecting Syria’s neighboring countries. Inside Syria there are no good guys. The military cannot be a substitute for Assad. The idea that the military and Ba’th Party can stay in power if Assad is removed is fictional.  These institutions are expressions of Assad. If there is no plan to remove Assad then the civil war inside Syria is going to continue. The only two alternatives for Syria would be either to partition the country or to allow Russia to support Assad with arms in order to regain control of the country. Neither option is good for the rebels.

Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations Rania Abouzeid has spent much time reporting from Syria on the rebels. She is unable to return to Syria because of intense intra-rebel fighting. The situation inside Syria is ever changing and fluid, and it is never clear who controls which territories. With the constant fighting and change of regime-and rebel-controlled areas, there is a sense of lawlessness that many are taking advantage of through looting and kidnappings. The opposition views the chemical weapons deal as helping Assad, who is cooperating with the international community and being brought into negotiations with it.

Hossein Mousavian, Research Scholar at Princeton University, spoke to the big role of Iran in Syria. If the nuclear deal works and there is a decrease in tensions with the US, there will be opportunities for cooperation, beyond the current indirect cooperation on humanitarian support. Regional cooperation is vital.  Mousavian sees Iran as a potentially constructive partner in resolving the Syria.

Landis added that Iran and Assad both see al-Qaeda as the biggest problem in Syria, with Assad as the solution.  Americans are beginning to see this perspective, because of the Sunni Islamist threat. Sanger questioned this assertion, which Landis defended by pointing to the fact that the US did not get militarily involved after the chemical attack in August.  Abouzeid noted that the rebels will continue to be funded by many of the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE. There is no way to put pressure from the outside in order to stop the rebels from fighting because they will continue to do so as long as they are funded. Landis attributed the lack of outside pressure to the US not criminalizing its allies in the region for funding al-Qaeda groups inside Syria. The US is hoping Geneva II will work, but if it doesn’t, he sees a real need for this added pressure.

Landis sees the rebel groups as only flying the flag of jihad, to the detriment of Syrian identity. There is no longer a common identity that exists within Syria. Abouzeid responded that all the rebels want to maintain a Syria; no one is calling for new borders.

Sanger concluded with a final question regarding the future of multi-sectarian democracy in Syria. Abouzeid responded that she is unsure but hopes for it. Landis anticipates difficulty, as Sunni Islamists view Alawites as as non-Muslims.  There will be no secular state if the rebels implement Islamic shari’a. Only People of the Book would be recognized, thus excluding the Alawites. Mousavian does not see a way for the Alawites to continue to rule in a majority Sunni state, but if the Iranians had to pick they would choose Assad over the Islamists in Syria.

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