JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I’d like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us.
Today’s speaker is David Lesch. David is one of our country’s top Syrian experts who has been traveling to and writing about Syria for more than two decades. We are delighted to have him here this morning.
In his most recent book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, our speaker writes about the disappointment over the failed leadership of Bashar al-Assad, a person with whom he was granted extraordinary and unprecedented access to, meeting with him, his wife and others in his close circle on several occasions from 2004 to 2009.
These interviews were the basis of an earlier book, entitled The New Lion of Damascus, in which David gave Bashar al-Assad the benefit of the doubt, hoping that he would not follow in the bloody footsteps of his father and, instead, would bring the necessary reforms that Syria so desperately needed to integrate into the changing environment of the Middle East. But that was not to be.
Now, seven years later, and with the writing of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, our speaker writes that although he had initially found Assad to be modern and approachable, over time this optimism faded as he saw al-Assad slip into the habits of a dictator—a dictator who has shown no hesitation to use force on his own people as he presides over the most brutal crackdown in the course of the Arab Spring.
As the world watches, the situation in Syria becomes more tense, more complex, with no apparent resolution in sight. Since the protests began in March 2011, thousands upon thousands have been killed, including hundreds of children. Rivers of refugees have fled to neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, posing an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. Even efforts by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this year to end the violence failed, and the UN observers were forced to leave the country.
As the international community seems powerless in its attempts to resolve this conflict, so many questions arise. For starters: Why did Bashar al-Assad fail to live up to the hopes of so many? Why did he turn on his own people? And, as the conflict threatens to spill over into neighboring countries, as it appears to have done in Turkey and Lebanon, what can we expect?
For a closer look behind the headlines, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, who will review the causes of the Syrian uprising and suggest possible scenarios that could unfold in Syria’s uncertain future.
David Lesch, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID LESCH: Thank you, Joanne, for that very nice introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here today, and thank you to the organizers for making this happen and giving me an excuse to come to New York City.
One of the questions I’m often asked these days is: “Can the opposition and the government ever get together on any particular issue right now?” My answer here today is that my wife Judy, in front of me, was raised in northern New Jersey as a New York Yankees fan [laughter]. I, however, was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and am a Baltimore Orioles fan. We are still together and happy [laughter]. I’m glad the Yankees won the series because it’s always best that the wife be happy in these instances. So, there is hope. There’s only slightly less animus there than what’s going on in Syria.
To be much more serious, now, Syria is such a very sad story. I’ve already met several people here who have traveled to Syria.
As Joanne mentioned, I’ve been traveling regularly there since 1989 and have many, many friends there—many, many close friends. I have had friends on both sides who have been killed. I have friends on both sides who have been pitted against each other, who are displaced and their lives disrupted, probably forever.
It’s a beautiful country and a beautiful people who deserve freedom, stability, and prosperity no less than anyone else. Unfortunately, I think it will be quite some time before that will come true.
As Joanne mentioned, I entitled the book Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. I wrote the book in about four months, which was interesting, between December of last year and in March or so the first draft was put out.
I knew when I entitled the book that the regime probably was still going to be around. So, why did I title it that way? Two reasons: one more personal; and one, I think, more systemic.
The personal reason is that, as Joanne mentioned, I got to know President Bashar pretty well. I met with him on numerous, numerous occasions between 2004 and 2009, first to interview him and other Syrian officials and his wife, Asma al-Assad, for the book The New Lion of Damascus, which came out in 2005.
Then, at his request, he wanted to meet with me on a regular basis thereafter. Particularly at the time, as many of you know, Syria was very much isolated in the world and I became something of —particularly by the Bush administration and allies and regional allies—an unofficial liaison between the two countries, communicating back and forth. So, the relationship developed and I saw him develop in the role as president.
As Joanne mentioned, I was hopeful in the beginning, as many people were. In fact, one review of this book by someone who also read the other one stated that my evolution from that earlier hopefulness to this book is similar to what happened to many Syrians themselves with regard to Bashar al-Assad and their views toward him. I think that’s a fair statement, a fair comment.
On a personal level, he has fallen. For me personally, he did not live up to the expectations. Maybe the expectations were too high—something that perhaps we will get into—and I don’t think he will ever recover in that sense.
On a more systemic level, even if the regime stays in power—and it very well could for some time into the future—he will never have the level of control that he once enjoyed. He certainly has lost the legitimacy that he once had and, therefore, will never be seen in the way he once was, which is one of the most disappointing aspects of the story to me, because he did have a level of popularity, or at least most of the population did not revile him. They may have reviled the system, but, as Joanne said earlier, many people did give him the benefit of the doubt. Instead of leveraging that at the beginning of the crisis, he mortgaged it.
I remember writing him a letter at the beginning of the crisis through his spokesperson, Bouthaina Shaaban, someone I’ve known for years. I don’t know if it was even opened. I don’t know if he read it. But I was beseeching him to basically establish a legacy, be the statesman, save your country by giving up that which you have become very comfortable with—that is, power. Again, I have no idea whether it went in there, but obviously he went in another direction.
I’m going to get into a little bit of the uprising itself, what I think are some of the causes, some of the reaction of the regime itself, and then perhaps a little bit of the future, and maybe we’ll explore that more in the Q&A.
I can almost guarantee you that Assad was absolutely shocked when the uprising in the Arab world began to seep into his own country in March 2011. I believe he thought he was truly safe and secure and popular in the country, beyond condemnation, which may have contributed to his belief that it could only happen via conspiracy orchestrated by Syria’s external enemies.
In fact, I know from some very good sources that he had commissioned from his national security apparatus three separate studies to assess whether or not the Arab Spring that was going on in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain and elsewhere was going to be transferred into Syria itself, and all three said no, that it wasn’t. So, I think he felt very, very secure.
But not in the Middle East of 2011: the “perfect storm” in the Arab world of higher commodity prices that made basic items more expensive; a youth bulge that created what I call a gap—actually, what one of my mentors, Philip Khoury at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called a gap—between mobilization (that is, the expectations of a youth that get free education through university) and assimilation (that is, actually getting jobs and making a living); the widespread socioeconomic problems; corruption; restricted political space. These were all revealed by the new circumstances created by the Arab Spring.
In this, Syria was no different. The number of people in Syria—a population of 22 million—below the age of 25 is about 60 percent, which is consistent with most Arab countries in the region. Therefore, the unemployment rate is usually very high because the economic systems that do not perform very efficiently, to say the least, cannot provide the jobs necessary to keep employment at a relatively low level. It’s 20–25 percent unemployment countrywide, but among those Syrians age 25 and less it’s about 67 percent of males and 53 percent of females.
The Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010, which measures transparency and ease of doing business and stuff like that, has Syria at 127 out of 178 countries that were measured. That’s probably a pretty high rating for them; I’d probably put it even lower.
After the popular uprises in Tunisia and Egypt led to the removal of the authoritarian regimes in these countries, the barrier of fear of repression of the state apparatus had been broken across the Arab world and in Syria itself.
Assad, though, in my opinion, thought Syria was different. In fact, calls for similar protests, some of you may remember, in Syria by social media networks outside of Syria in particular to be held in January and February in some Syrian cities failed to really produce much of a response, as only dozens, rather than thousands showed up, usually fizzling out shortly or being dispersed by security. There just didn’t seem to be the same energy for opposition in Syria as in other countries, which only made the regime feel that much securer.
In January and February, amid the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, Assad portrayed his country as almost immune from the domestic unrest, in the now infamous interview he gave to Jay Solomon at The Wall Street Journal in late January.
The mouthpieces of the Syrian regime—the aforementioned Bouthaina Shaaban, as well as a few others—consistently echoed this view, even to the point in their various essays in some Syrian newspapers and magazines expressing support for the protestors in other Arab countries.
It was pointed out that the septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders of these other countries were out of touch with their populations; they were also corrupt lackeys of the United States and Israel. The implication, of course, was that Assad, a relatively young 45 at the time, was in touch with the Arab youth.
He had also consistently confronted the United States and Israel in the region, supported the resistance forces of Hamas and Hezbollah, thus brandishing credentials that played very well on the Arab street. But it was a misreading of the situation, obviously, or a denial of it.
Syria was suffering from the very similar socioeconomic underlying factors that existed in other Arab countries that created the well of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, especially among an energized and increasingly frustrated youth.
But there were some differences between Syria and some other Arab countries, which made many people think that Syria could weather the Arab Spring, or at least it would be one of the last that would be subjected to it.
Of course, many in Syria among the population—this still is in effect today—have a disdain for engaging in any sort of activity that may cause instability and chaos, given their own history of instability and chaos, particularly before Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970. Of course, this trepidation was constantly stoked by the regime to reinforce the necessity of the security state in maintaining stability at all costs.
The regime frequently portrayed itself, as it still does, as the only thing standing between stability and chaos, and as long as Assad remained the only viable alternative in the minds of Syrians—still today, in the minds of a number of Syrians—they weren’t going to participate in an opposition movement that could destabilize the country.
In addition, the fates of the Syrian military and security services have been, and still are, closely tied with the regime. So, unlike in Egypt, these institutions have not been prone to separation from the political apparatus. On the contrary, they are very much tied to the regime and they all have this view that they will sink or swim together.
The minority elements of the regime and the population as a whole, particularly the Alawites and Christian communities, believed their fate rested with that of the regime; therefore, they would support the status quo.
The Assads have skillfully played the minority card over the years, practically guaranteeing for themselves at least 20-30 percent support in the country if you add the Alawites, the Christians, and a few other minority groups together, while playing on minority fears of the potential of a repressive Sunni Muslim rule and/or instability, in which minorities typically pay a high price, which many of us have seen in the past, unfortunately, in the Middle East.
There are also loyal Sunnis from the business class, and of course Sunnis make up about 75 percent of the country—Sunni Arabs 65 percent; the rest are Sunni Kurdish. There are many loyal Sunnis from the business class, part of what many have called the military-mercantile complex; as well as Sufi Muslims, most of them Sunni, in Syria, who have been actively cultivated and supported by the Syrian government under the Assads, especially Bashar.
When you add all of these elements together, it probably is getting pretty close to about half the Syrian population, and through coercion, pervasive spying apparatus, carefully constructed tribal and family alliances, bribery, under divide-and-rule tactics, the Assads have been able to maintain control.
Then you have, of course, the repressive apparatus of the state—military mukhabarat [intelligence], paramilitary groups. This is all very daunting to anyone contemplating taking it on and has kept a number of Syrians on the sidelines.
Bashar al-Assad himself, as I said earlier, was generally well liked in the country, or at least not generally reviled. There were stories of President Bashar and his wife, Asma al-Assad, going out for dinner or shopping in Damascus and in other cities without bodyguards and the president driving his own car—and he did do this on occasion, particularly early on in his regime. But it became urban legend, to the point that if you travelled around Syria, everyone had seen President Bashar al-Assad and Asma in a local café without bodyguards and he drove his own car. The image, of course, was that he and his family were “normal people,” not distanced from the masses, but rather knowledgeable of and concerned about their problems, because they engaged the public.
His supporters would talk about him in reverential terms—and I’ve heard this time and again—almost as if he was a prophet delivered to Syria to bring the country forward and claim its rightful place of importance in the region.
Next, the Syrian opposition in and outside of the country: uncoordinated, and it has been uncoordinated and it still is uncoordinated, divided, without any generally recognized leadership. The Syrian regime has done a good a job over the years of making sure this has been the case.
There are many fault lines within the opposition. There is a major fault line between the exiled Syrian opposition expats outside of the country and the Syrian opposition inside the country who are doing the fighting and the dying. That’s where the real power is, and they can force the SNC [Syrian National Council] and other groups to, I think, adopt their positions, if they ever get a coordinated one.
There are divisions, of course, between a so-called Islamist solution to the Syrian problem and a more secular solution. Even within the Islamists, that’s very foggy and unclear at the current time, as I think a New York Times story this morning pointed out.
Then there are divisions as well amongst the opposition, between those who are more militant, who will not accept anything less than the fall of the Assad regime and anyone connected with them, and those who still think that there is a possible way to negotiate a solution to this. That latter group is getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.
It was easy for the regime to paint the opposition, particularly outside of the country, as tools of the imperialists, because this sort of thing has been commonplace in Syria in the first couple of decades after independence. So it’s not hard to convince many Syrians, in a country that’s very, very paranoid and conspiracy-prone, regarding these types of things that are orchestrated from the outside, because these things have happened to a certain degree to lend credence to such notions in the past.
Despite all this, however, there are many underlying socioeconomic and political factors that lie at the root of the Arab uprisings that were also present in Syria, some of which I mentioned already: unemployment, underemployment, poverty, massive corruption, and a distinct unequal distribution of wealth that got worse over the time Bashar al-Assad was in power.
In addition, there is very little political space. Syria has been a politically repressive state. Not only is this system oppressive, the repressive activities of the mukhabarat, the intelligence apparatus, are oftentimes quite arbitrary.
The mukhabarat’s accumulation of empowerment over the years, overseen, if not sanctioned, by the government, led to systemic recklessness that obviously backfired against the regime. After all, it was the hubris of the intelligence apparatus in Dehra, in southern Syria, who arrested and roughly handled schoolchildren who had written anti-regime graffiti that really launched the uprising. That was the “Bouazizi moment” from Tunisia that lit the fire in Syria itself.
I have seen this phenomenon up close and personal on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, mukhabarat has come after me on a few occasions.
One, in particular, I think which will display kind of the disconnect that often exists between the political apparatus as well as the mukhabarat, is one time I was traveling to Syria and visiting with President Assad in a scheduled meeting. It was November 2007.
Usually when I went to visit him, I’d get picked up at the airport, usually on the tarmac, with some cars from the office of the president, the protocol office. On occasion, every now and then, I wasn’t picked up and I’d have to go through customs, which was fine, usually no big deal. Especially if there were some other dignitaries in Damascus, I was on the low end of the totem pole, so I would get the Volkswagen that came out.
On this one occasion, there wasn’t anybody waiting for me. I said, “Fine.” So I went through customs. They confiscated my passport and said I was on the blacklist. There are probably people here that have been on the blacklist in Syria. It’s not a list you want to be on.
So I was brought to a small room and interrogated by a branch of the mukhabarat at the airport. Some military guys surrounded me. I was sat down in a very low chair, and they were in a higher chair of course. One colonel in front of me was twirling his gun in front of me. I hoped it wasn’t loaded, or I hoped the safety was on, or something. It was all intimidation.
Those of you that have been to the Middle East quite a bit—it really wasn’t that bad a thing as it sounds because you get used to guns being pointed in your face, you really do [laughter], usually fleecing you at the airport, or somewhere along the line, or checkpoints. At least I try to convince myself of that. It’s not a big deal.
They interrogated me for about three hours and so forth. Finally, I convinced him to call the office of the president, please. They didn’t believe me that I was meeting with the president—I mean this is the disconnect—that I’d been meeting with him regularly. They didn’t believe I had a meeting with him. I finally convinced him that you would get in more trouble if you didn’t call than if you continue to do what you were doing and kicked me out of the country, or whatever you were going to do.
So he called. It was a wonderful moment for me when he got the office of the president, and all of a sudden he went, “Aah,” and his face went pale. Then he became my best friend [laughter] and he was apologizing.
Then he said, “The person at the president’s office said you wrote a biography on him,” and then he asked me for my autograph [laughter]. He didn’t have a piece of paper, so he gave me the paper that had me on the blacklist, and so I autographed that [laughter]. I thought that was very circularly appropriate.
Anyway, the next morning I went to see President Assad and, as he usually does, he asked me how the trip was. I said, “Other than the three hour interrogation it was fine.” He was shocked by this and he was appalled and he said it would never happen again.
Of course, it happened again in February when I went in, but it was the same guy and we had a nice cup of tea and went through the process and he sent me on. But, I was still on the blacklist. Again, the blacklist in Syria is a black hole. I’m sure I’m still on it if I go back there.
I’ve talked to the president about the mukhabarat and the empowerment of the security services and he admits they exceed their mandate. What are the limits of their mandate? There may not be any point that you can exceed, perhaps. He realizes, though, the excesses, but he sees them as a necessary evil in a dangerous neighborhood. There is some legitimacy to that—it is a dangerous neighborhood. But they have a free hand, and he has given them much more autonomy that’s both, in my view an abdication of authority and very dangerous, and it came back to bite them.
In fact, at the end of the meeting, I said, “Mr. President, respectfully, you need to get control of these guys, because if you don’t they will come back and haunt you.” That’s exactly what happened with the children of Dura and the mukhabarat acting—at all times, in the midst of the Arab Spring, all that was going on—and they do that sort of thing that really lights the fire in Damascus.
Syrians have faced this sort of arbitrary repression on a daily basis. Most Syrians know someone who has been arrested, tortured, interrogated by the mukhabarat. Most Syrians know where the red lines are, but the mukhabarat seems to have no red lines. This is a very, very difficult problem.
I think many people, when the uprising arose and the barrier of fear was broken in other Arab countries—many Syrians said, “Why not?” Unfortunately, I think they all thought that Bashar al-Assad—and many people outside thought that Bashar al-Assad—was going to fall as quickly as Mubarak and then Ali and others, and Gaddafi, and of course that hasn’t happened.
To all too many, Bashar al-Assad has become the prototypical Middle East tyrant. He unleashed the dogs on his own population. At the end of day, he reminded people more of his father than the reformer many of us hoped he would be when he assumed the presidency in 2000.
Much of the disappointment in Bashar, particularly in the West, is based on what I call the conceptual gap between the Syrian leadership and much of the rest of the world.
I remember the first time I met with President Bashar, in May 2004. After the pleasantries, where we went over why I was doing what I was doing and the interest in writing this book on him and so forth, I remember telling him that, “You know, Mr. President, the worst thing that ever happened to you was that you let it be known that you like Phil Collins’s music.” Phil Collins is the British rock star.
Of course the president spent 18 months studying for an advanced degree of ophthalmology in the 1990s, before his brother, who was the putative heir to the throne, was killed in a car accident in 1994 and Bashar was called back.
The reason I said that is that it created these expectations in the West and fed into this emerging profile that he was this pro-Western, modernizing reformer.
I think what happens when these expectations are that great or that high, the disappointment is that much more. What I said and wrote about at the time is that: “Make sure these expectations aren’t too high regarding him,” because he’s a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict; he’s a child of the Cold War; he’s a child of the tumult in Lebanon in the 1980s, when he really began to form his political opinions on things. He lived through that. Of course, most importantly, he’s a child of Hafez al-Assad. These are the things that shaped his weltanschauung, his world view, more than 18 months in London or listening to Phil Collins’s music or Electric Light Orchestra, which he also likes, or the technological toys of the West that he likes—the computers and Sony camcorders and those types of things.
So, when Assad spoke in his first speech to the nation on March 30, 2011, in response to the uprising, he branded terrorists, conspirators, armed gangs as the primary reasons for unrest. He still does. Most of those outside of Syria scoffed at such blatant misdirection from the real socioeconomic and political problems that brought the Arab Spring to Syria. But many Syrians—even Assad himself, I believe—believe this type of view.
Their perception of the nature of threat is vastly different from what we see outside of Syria. Blame it on Syrian paranoia bred by imperialist conspiracies of the past, Arab-Israeli conflict, and/or regime brainwashing to consecrate the necessity for the security state. But it is in large measure a function of what I said earlier—living in a dangerous neighborhood where real threats are indeed often seen as just being around the corner.
It is a conceptual and perceptual gap that in my view is at the root of the impasse between much of what the international community demands of the Syrian regime and what Assad is actually doing, or feels he should do, to end the violence against the protestors and enact far-reaching reform, particularly in the beginning.
I am also sure that if I had met Assad at any time during the uprising, he would point out to me that he has made extensive concessions and enacted dramatic reforms. He would complain that he is not receiving any recognition or credit for this, and as such he would conclude, as he has done in the past with me on a number of occasions, that the United States and the West have it out for him, that no matter what he does it will not be enough—and I think he would sincerely believe this, which is why he doesn’t trust the UN; he doesn’t trust the Arab League; he certainly he does not trust the United States.
Assad is the product of an authoritarian system, one that is a paradigm of stagnation and control. The Syrian system is not geared to respond to peoples’ demands; it controls people’s demands. It is not geared to implement dramatic reform; it is constructed to maintain the status quo and survive.
Now, however, reforms are seen as after-the-fact and self-serving and insufficient, because to reform more deeply and rapidly is contrary to the Syrian system, simply because it would spell the end of the regime itself.
Now again, I got to know Bashar pretty well. I never saw him while I was meeting with him as like a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. I know people who have met all three. Bashar was just different. He was normal, a relatively normal type of guy. Therefore, it led many people—again including myself—to hope that he would incrementally change the system.
Somewhere along the road he lost his way. The arrogance of authoritarianism will do that. Power is an aphrodisiac. Either he convinced himself, or was convinced by sycophants, that the wellbeing of the country was synonymous with his wellbeing, and that what he was doing in terms of violently putting down the protests and not meeting the demands for change were both necessary and correct. This is very typical with authoritarian leaders and authoritarian systems. An alternate reality is orchestrated around them and they just don’t see the real world the way that many others see the real world.
If you hear this stuff on a daily basis, that you’re a savior and a prophet—you’re only human—you begin to believe it. I believe he developed a strong feeling of triumphalism midway through his time in power, particularly after he survived what he felt was the worst the Bush administration had to offer. He survived the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which they opposed. He survived the post-Hariri assassination atmosphere, and actually emerged in a fairly good position and on the verge of reintegrating into the regional international diplomatic scene.
I think what he believes he is doing, and the others around him, is not only surviving, but they’re saving the country. Again, it’s a totally different mindset and a different view of the nature of threat.
In another sense, however, the government’s crackdown is a push-button, convulsive response to domestic threat. It’s “business as usual.” It’s not as though Assad does not control the security forces; it is that this is the way Syria works under the Assads. They reach into their historical pocket and pull out what worked for them in the past and what they found is much closer to Hama in 1982 than anything else.
To date, as I said earlier, Bashar has not been willing to reduce the tremendous amount of leeway he has given the security forces. Bashar simply went along with “business as usual.” Again, this is just how the Assads work. They don’t offer reform without cracking down on the other side. They are two sides of the same coin from their particular position.
I had a quote in the end of The New Lion of Damascus in 2005 that said the following: “Bashar cannot become a modern reincarnation of his father. If he does, he would indeed become the new Lion of Damascus. But this is exactly what Syria does not need.”
Then I posed the following question at the end of that book: “Will the shell of the dictatorship molded by his father, repressive and controlling institutions of the state, transform Bashar into a reluctant dictator, or will Bashar, the president of Syria, eliminate the institutional basis of Syrian dictatorship?” I think we now have that answer to that question, and that is part of the formation of the basis of that book.
Unfortunately, this is not a very pretty picture at all. It has become an existential conflict that becomes so militarized on each side of the conflict.
Speaking with some UN officials in recent weeks, essentially putting forth any sort of diplomatic initiative right now is a waste of time. No one is really going to listen to these on each side of the conflict.
Interesting that Iran has put forth—I haven’t seen the details of it—some sort of potential negotiated solution. It would be interesting to see what that exactly is.
But right now, of the many different scenarios—in fact, I just wrote something about this in Al-Monitor—what I call the “Lebanonization of Syria,” in the sense that you have a weakened government that may control parts of the country and then you have different opposition groups that will control parts of the country, unless the equation is changed on either side that will allow other side to impose its view and to emerge victorious—but I don’t see that happening in the near future.
I hate to end on that distressing note, but thank you very much for your time.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.
David, when you were talking about Bashar’s success in elevating expectations, I want to ask you about one aspect of that. I remember six or seven years ago talking with people close to the Middle East peace process—and I’m talking about former U.S. ambassadors to both Israel and Syria, Palestinian negotiators, Israeli diplomats. To a person, they all felt that the pathway to peace one day would be found through Syria, through a deal for the Golan Heights. I wondered if that’s something you heard when you were in Damascus, and if that’s something you gave credibility to. Or was that just another case of Bashar fooling us?
DAID LESCH: No, that was very real. Of course that goes back to what we all know Kissinger said about war in the Middle East going through Egypt and peace in the Arab-Israeli arena going through Syria. I think many people held that view, and to some extent still hold that view.
I think one of the great missed opportunities—I just viscerally feel this—was the failure to consummate a Syrian-Israeli deal in 1999–2000. All sides of the equation say that they were this close, some 10 meters close. Put in percentages, they were 80–90 percent of the way there. There was a lot of progress.
Unfortunately, the political situation in Israel changed and Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. It was weakening well before that. So it didn’t happen. I think we’d be in a much, much different Middle East if that had happened, in so many different ways, and in positive ways, than what we see today.
Bashar was very serious about this stuff, and I know from being on the sidelines of these processes. In fact, many in the Syrian regime, supporters of Bashar al-Assad today, they don’t understand the American opposition to them, because they’re saying, “We pursued peace seriously”—and they did—“with Israel.”
Turkey in 2008 mediated between the Israelis and the Syrians and came, from what I know, fairly close to something. And then you had the Israeli invasion of Gaza that turned that back.
There were reports that in 2010 Israel and Syria were talking—and they’ve been talking. Bashar adopted what his father adopted: the strategic choice for peace with Israel. So, many Syrians who support Bashar, many within the regime, constantly tell me—and many others who are here maybe have talked to Syrian officials as well—that “We could be the United States’ best friend. And we’re secular. Why are you supporting the opposition? They have these Islamists and Jihadists.” Of course, that’s the narrative that they’ve been developing and been creating in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They say, “We should be the ones that you should be supporting. We’re the good guys.”
So that was very serious, and it is one of the things that I lament from Bashar’s time in power. I’ve always thought, as an historian, that you won’t have peace in the Arab-Israeli or Middle East in general, certainly any sort of bilateral situation, unless all the leaders that are involved in those negotiations are on the same page—an Arafat, a Rabin, and a Clinton or a Bush, something like that. They all have to be on the same page. They all have to be willing to make that leap toward peace, whatever that might take. That very rarely happens.
In my view, thinking as an American, and how I thought that a better U.S.-Syrian relation in the early to mid 2000s, after some cooperation right after 9/11—that that could develop into something positive, certainly in terms of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Of course, things went in the opposite direction.
I still thought that there also were some missed opportunities early in Bashar’s reign, when he had people around him who were very much looking to develop a U.S.-Syrian relationship—obviously before the uprising. So, that was very real, at least the way I saw it.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
Syria essentially is really a pawn in the bigger game, with Iran and Saudi Arabia tending to compete for influence in the Middle East, with Iran being supported by China, by Russia, by some of the people in Western Europe, the banks, and the corporations; and the United States being on the side of the Saudis. What do you think the U.S. position should be at this point?
DAVID LESCH: Good question.
I think that the United States — and again, I have written about it recently. I have a piece coming out in Current History, I think, next month where—I think the title of it, unless they’ve changed it, which can be very likely, is called "The Prudence of Non-Intervention in Syria."
It’s a tough subject. As I said, I have lots of friends there. It’s a country that I adore. If I thought some level of military intervention would work, then I would be more for it. But I just don’t see it working right now.
At a more personal level, I was on The Washington Journal on CSPAN a few weeks ago and I was asked a similar question. I said I used to volunteer at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which was the receiving point for soldiers who were burned, mostly from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I saw the end result of military intervention in a very visceral fashion. I said on that show, and I say it right here, that I don’t want to send our American boys or anyone else into a situation where we have very little understanding of what’s going on on the ground, very little understanding of the nature of the opposition. As you said, it’s so complicated regionally and internationally, just when we were trying to draw down from one Middle East conflict, drawing down from another; an economy that is teetering and trying to get back into shape.
When I got back to San Antonio and put on my email, I got a number of emails from a bunch of military officers, colonels and generals and so forth, who were thanking me for saying that, because oftentimes they are the ones that are the most prudent and cautious about military intervention.
QUESTION: The CIA is on the side of the rebels right now.
DAVID LESCH: The CIA is trying to find out who the rebels are. That’s what they’re doing. They are trying to vet as best they can, I guess, who will receive arms. It’s so complex.
The Qataris, from what I understand, and the Saudis are not all on the same page right now. We think they’re on the same page.
The Saudis don’t want to create a situation like Afghanistan, any blowback, by having arms—which the United States obviously doesn’t want for its own very, very important reasons—and the model of Afghanistan is out there and is a cautionary tale.
Again, in some ways they’re apples and oranges, but in other ways they’re similar, in the sense that we went in and were arming mujahidin and we had very little understanding except that we just wanted them to beat up the Soviets and get them in this quagmire and so forth. We didn’t really understand the repercussions of that, as we found out on 9/11 ultimately.
It’s prudent caution, maybe overly cautious in some degree. But we have very little understanding, I think, of the nature of the opposition. There’s no central command-and-control center for the opposition. That’s not to damn the opposition. They are courageous beyond belief, those who are fighting the regime forces.
But insurgencies by their very nature are decentralized. They almost have to be, or else they won’t succeed. If there’s one head you can cut off, the regime would have done it by now.
But that also means that there are many, many different groups supported by many, many different—that’s why part of what I saw as the Lebanonization of Syria, the way Lebanon was in the 1980s and 1990s to a degree.
So my view is that, despite the convulsive feeling of wanting to go in and do something, that it’s prudent perhaps not to and to make sure we know what we’re doing and who we’re supporting, because there are many different groups and no one is really on the same page on this.
QUESTION: Thank you. Arlette Laurent.
Professor Lesch, could you tell us what you think of the present situation between Turkey and Syria?
DAVID LESCH: Very, very interesting. It was somewhat inevitable, once Prime Minister Erdoğan decided that Bashar al-Assad had to go. Someone once wrote—and I think it’s fairly accurate, if not literal, at least figuratively—that Erdoğan, who of course had been a good friend of Assad, apparently they were personal friends—I have said that that was Assad’s biggest foreign policy achievement during his time in power, was developing the relationship with Turkey, not only for economic reasons, but especially during the years of isolation in the mid 2000s, Turkey was a NATO country, nominally aligned with the United States, that was not playing the game against Syria. So they became friendly and visas were dropped. It was just a very positive situation.
But many people say that when, again, Erdoğan was looking at the Libyan revolution and when the Libyan rebels started burning Turkish flags, that he changed his mind regarding Assad and he realized he was on the wrong side of history, that seeing what’s happening in Libya and Egypt—conservative Sunni Muslim regimes or groups that are rising into positions of influence in Tunisia—that he had to be on that side.
He quickly learned that his zero problems policy just was inevitably going to fall. They were hoping for a position of influence and power, but if you do that you’re going to upset somebody. You’re going to have to make these important decisions, as the U.S. has done for years—not always the right decisions, but you’re forced to oftentimes make these decisions. So, he decided to abandon Bashar al-Assad —at least that’s the way the Syrians see it. The Syrians are very upset about this. They feel absolutely betrayed. The Turks took a terrible, in my view, approach to this. They took a very paternalistic approach toward the Syrians.
Let me tell you that, even though Turkey is the more powerful partner—they certainly see itself, as all of us see it, as kind of the senior member in that bilateral relationship—you do not go into Syria and start dictating to them. The Syrian leaders will just convulsively just throw you out—“Who are you to come talk to us like that?” Absolutely the wrong approach, in my view, and the relationship just deteriorated after that.
This seems to me the inevitable result of this happening. The Turks are in a bit of a bind right now. Some of their population, according to polls, don’t particularly like their Syrian policy. They have all these refugees. The have the Kurdish situation which has activated up, and Bashar activated it. So, it’s a very difficult position.
And yet, the Turks were hoping that the rest of the international community would get onboard. But they seem to be out there by themselves right now. And they’re not necessarily on the same page with the Saudis and the Qataris, and they are trying to win the hearts of the Sunni-Muslim world as the Turks are.
It’s very, very complicated. But they’re not in a very good position right now, and I think Bashar al-Assad is probably happy about that.
QUESTION: Edward Marschner.
How would you compare the approach the United States is taking to Syria to that taken by some of the other major Western powers, or maybe even Eastern powers, but particularly Russia and France, that have had longstanding relations with Syrian history?
DAVID LESCH: I think, again, this has been, from the U.S. perspective, kind of the Obama Doctrine, in terms of treating each place separately and using any other means other than military force, kind of a reverse of the Bush Doctrine.
I think the Russian situation is particularly interesting. There are the practical reasons. Russia has a port in Tartus and they have a longstanding arms relationship with Syria. And since some of their customers elsewhere in the Arab world, like Gaddafi, have gone under and Iran is under sanctions, they need their customers. There has been an economic relationship.
And also—and I saw this with the United States with the Shah of Iran in the 1970s—it’s just hard to change from pro- to anti-. There’s a bureaucratic and institutional inertia in many different levels, the military and the government, that tend to keep a relationship going forward or maintaining a relationship. You saw a little bit of that when the Russians—there were many elements in Russia that did not very much like hanging Saddam Hussein out to dry in the 1990s. So I think that’s part of it.
Putin is much more hard-line. He was very much against the abstention of the veto regarding Libya back in the summer of 2011. As Putin assumed the presidency once again, his position has won out. He has taken a pretty ultra-nationalist line. Some of my Russian friends who have looked at how Putin has been characterizing some of the protests against him and his people—you know, he has been saying much of what Bashar has been saying, that the United States is behind it ultimately. He sees almost Bashar and himself in the same boat.
There are a host of other reasons. They basically think the United States was wrong in going into Iraq and Afghanistan, that they have failed in both places—and one can’t argue too much with that, frankly —and that changes should not be brought about by outside intervention, particularly when it’s against their own interests.
For Russia, Syria is an area of ingress into the Middle East. It gives them importance and it gives them a central position, diplomatically speaking, because everyone is looking to them to bring Bashar to heel, so to speak. But I’ll tell you what, they can’t do that, in my view. I don’t think the Russians can do that. The only people that can do that, in my view right now, from the outside, possibly are the Iranians. They have much more influence with Bashar and the regime than the Russians do, and I think the Russians know that.
That’s the one thing. If the Russians are brought to a situation where: “Okay, we’re coming down. We’re going to vote for this UN Security Council resolution,” and then Bashar just thumbs his nose at that, the Russian position is all of a sudden, “Oh, well, you guys didn’t have much influence to begin with, did you?” So, it’s a very interesting position the Russians are taking, but diplomatically it’s crucial for Syria.
QUESTION: Thank you. James Starkman.
DAVID LESCH: Actually I didn’t, but go ahead.
QUESTIONER: Well, it would basically refute your position, particularly on what the correct U.S. position should be at this time.
DAVID LESCH: Who was the interview with?
QUESTIONER: The interview was, in my opinion, a Pulitzer Prize-winning interview by a woman journalist [Editors note: Clarissa Ward] who had live footage from Aleppo, a very rare thing, in which planes were bombing women and children in the neighborhoods. Artillery was firing shells 24/7. They showed the dead bodies of bloodied children in the streets, littering the streets.
There is a military stalemate now. In view of that, to stop the killing, at the very least a no-fly zone to eliminate the bombers coming into Aleppo and other cities would seem to be the proper solution for the United States, and even NATO. This is above and beyond a humanitarian thing. It is genocide that is going on right now.
DAVID LESCH: First of all, I sympathize with your position. As I said, I have many friends in there, in Syria, who have died, on both sides. What the regime has been doing has been beyond the pale, and that’s an understatement.
Unfortunately, when things get so militarized as they have in what is right now a civil war—what’s interesting is that when you talk to some in the regime, they actually think they’ve been restrained so far, they think they haven’t taken the gloves off yet, which is scary to think about.
The no-fly zone—and I write about this in the book as well. Of course we established one in Libya. The Libyan situation and Syria are apples and oranges, completely different.
Again, I’m not a military person, but talking to military people who—we all have as much interest in, in terms of morality and in humanitarian terms to somehow end this—to a person that I’ve talked to, they said “It just can’t be done right now without causing more problems”—a no-fly zone, in terms of taking out the Syrian anti-aircraft defense systems, which are much more sophisticated than they were in Libya, that are throughout embedded in many of the cities, and therefore there’d be a lot more collateral damage in these cities than has already happened.
It’s just a much more complicated situation. A no-fly zone requires that you need to take out all of these things. Again, I’m not a military person; I’m just going by what some military people that I’ve talked to are saying regarding this.
And then there is, of course, the diplomatic element to this, that if we start doing that, what will the other side start doing? Then you get an escalation and an escalation.
I’ve spoken with a number of Syrian opposition elements, and this by no means represents all of what they say—there are many that want U.S. boots on the ground, or at least something like this, a no-fly zone. But there are others that do not want this; they just want more help, maybe more arms and financial assistance, but they don’t want to be seen as coming into power on the backs of the U.S.
This is one of the fallacies that I think—and we’ve seen this a little bit in Egypt and elsewhere in the wake of the Arab Spring—is just because Assad falls, it doesn’t guarantee that the regime coming in will be pro-U.S. or pro-West or want peace with Israel. In fact, a number of the opposition groups are more anti-U.S., in my view, than the regime is. That’s a consideration in terms of U.S. interests.
So, it is a tough thing. It’s hard to see this in these videos and what’s going on. I’m just one person up here saying—and I’m not right, I’m not wrong; I don’t know—I’m just one person up here saying it may cause more harm than good right now.
A lot of Syrians will want a Syrian solution to this, and ultimately I think that’s probably the best way to make this happen, hopefully devoid of many of the outside influences and implications. How that will happen I don’t know. Can we find a willingness? Can there be a point?
UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahmini, who I have immense respect for, I think realizes that right now is not the time to put forth any sort of initiative. It’s just not going to work.
Maybe, perhaps at some point soon, something will change. Will it be because the international community increases its support in other ways to the opposition? That could be. But it probably won’t happen until the regime thinks it’s in trouble. They don’t think they’re in trouble yet; they think they’re going to win. Until they start thinking perhaps they can lose—and this is where some are making the argument you’re making—is that they won’t think they can lose until there’s more outside help along these lines.
So, you get a chicken-and-egg type of situation. It’s very, very complicated. But I sympathize with that position in the interview.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Will you expand on the evolving relationship between Syria and Lebanon, including Hezbollah?
DAVID LESCH: Syria and Lebanon have a very complex relationship. There are groups in Lebanon who aren’t particularly pro-Syrian and there are some groups that are, of course Hezbollah first and foremost among them.
Lebanon has always been important to Syria for a variety of reasons—economically, in terms of strategic relationship—and, from the Syrian point of view, hoping that there are friendly regimes in Lebanon—because if there are unfriendly ones, they seem to be outflanked. That was one of the whole issues regarding the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and why the Syrians involved themselves so desperately and intimately in trying to reverse that, and to all intents and purposes successfully did.
I think that’s one of the big fears right now, is any sort of fallout from Syria reaching into Lebanon, reaching into Iraq, that are also sectarian in nature, who also have governments that have struggled and are not particularly strong in that sense in terms of controlling the entire countries, and what will happen in these areas.
There has already been some anti-Assad and pro-Assad disturbances in Lebanon. Iraq seems to be caught in the middle, the anvil between Iran and the United States, on what to do with regard to Syria. This is the nightmare scenario, the doomsday scenario that many people are envisioning, and it maybe is one of the arguments, perhaps, against enlarging this with military intervention, is that it inevitably might spread across the borders, as it seems to be even already to some extent in Turkey.
Can this be contained? Can it be insulated? It’s very difficult to see that happening to any great degree because Syria is so geostrategically important and located. But I think the international community and the United States is trying their best to insulate this and prevent it from spilling across the borders in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s position and Iran’s position in fact are very interesting, in my view. Obviously they have publicly supported the regime in Syria, the Syrian government. But from what I understand, they have also been making contacts with opposition groups, kind of hedging their bets, and in some important occasions not necessarily mentioning Bashar al-Assad in some of their statements. Some people read perhaps too much into this—perhaps not.
But I think that, in terms of a future where there might be a negotiated solution to this, the Iranians have got to be involved. They do. This is a very big obstacle with regard to the U.S. position, or the Saudi position even, on this. There have been attempts. Egypt has tried to host some of these four-power meetings that the Saudis boycotted.
In my view, if the Iranians can be assured that their interests are maintained in Syria, then they might say, “You know, President Bashar, maybe it’s time for you to go.”
JOANNE MYERS: Dave, I want to thank you very much for shedding light on a very dark situation.