A panel of scholars from the Saban Center for Near East Policy at the Brookings Institution met March 19 to discuss their recent memo “Saving Syria: Assessing Options for Regime Change” about the conflict in Syria. The participants afterward conducted a Q&A session with attendees in Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar (connected via video feed).
The memo, prepared by Daniel Byman, Michael Doran, Kenneth Pollack, and Salman Shaikh, and the discussion sought to explain their opinions on the policy options facing the Obama administration with regards to the current conflict in Syria. There were a number of interesting points brought up in the resulting discussion that have so far flown under the radar of the U.S. media
1. The possibility of war by proxy. With the NATO intervention in Libya there was a clear goal; it was “the world vs. Gaddafi.” NATO had a cut-and-dried mission with the support of the international community. Syria, however, is not so simple. Syria’s strategic importance gives rise to consideration of a proxy war between Iran and the U.S., between the U.S. and Russia, or between the Gulf States and Iran. Consider that Russia supplied 78 percent of Syria’s arms imports from 2007-2011 (source: SIPRI), the presence of a Russian Naval Base at Tartus, and Iran’s close ties with Syria. If the U.S. or others supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army, it is increasingly likely that the civil war in Syria could become a drawn out proxy war. On March 19, the Twitter space was alight with reports of a Russian “counter-terror” team deploying to Tartus. Russia has since denied the reports, claiming that a Russian oil tanker simply had a security team on board. Regardless of the veracity of the reports, it is telling that for some Syrians the first assumption was that Russia’s military was directly supporting Assad’s regime.
2. Israel’s role in the conflict. A question came from the audience in Doha regarding Israel’s involvement in a possible intervention. Somewhat surprisingly, the questioner was looking for insight on Israel’s desire to maintain a weak and conflicted Syria to its north, perhaps indefinitely. There has been very little talk in the U.S. media space regarding Israel’s involvement in Syria, however it is a fairly hot topic in the Israeli media. This past weekend opposition leader Tzipi Livni said “the crimes committed by Assad give Israel a diplomatic opportunity…with the Arab League and the more moderate Arab countries against Syria- a partnership that can also help in the struggle against Iran in the future.” This may not be reassuring to Syrians, however, as some of them likely supported Assad’s strong anti-Israel stance.
3. What the Syrian opposition wants/needs. Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institute in Doha, spoke extensively on what the Syrian opposition believes it needs and why. He said the opposition do not want “sympathy and tears” from the West. Instead, the opposition is in dire need of weapons. The will to fight is there but the ability is not. Shaikh discussed a recent interview with an opposition tribal leader in Syria who said, “[Ambassador] Ford’s visit was welcome, but conditional.” He went on to say the U.S. has the opportunity to open a new chapter in relations with the Arab world and “expunge recent memories.” A recent article published by the LA Times discussed the shortage of black market arms for the Free Syrian Army. In this article a Lebanese arms dealer said weapons’ prices have increased drastically as supply dwindled. Most weapons now costs Syrian opposition fighters more than double what they paid at the start of the conflict, if the weapons can even be found. According to this article a militia leader claimed, “We don’t want intervention or safe corridors… All we ask for are weapons to be able to protect the people.”
While the international community’s reactions to Assad may vary from its unanimous posturing against Gadaffi, the issue of arming revolutionary fighters is strikingly similar and concerns about the issue have not gone unfounded as the Libyan transitional government is still unable to rein in and demilitarize local tribes. The Libya example also demonstrates that despite the opposition’s support for varying levels of international assistance, it may be nearly impossible to intervene without resulting negative public opinion. In focus groups performed by Strategic Social in Libya during May and June of 2011, Libyans in Benghazi valued NATO assistance, but were quick to point out the possible self-serving aspects of the intervention. Alternatively, the respondents believed Arab countries’ assistance was purely humanitarian and came without the “strings” often attached by the West.