Syria: Nation and Region in Crisis

Rita’s most recent humanitarian mission brought her to this girl who lost her leg in fighting

Tonight, Rita Zawaideh and I spoke to about 60 people tonight about the Syria crisis.  Rita returned yesterday from one of her many trips to Jordan helping Syrian refugees.  She reported on her humanitarian efforts and the extent of the suffering experienced by the 1.5-million Syrians who’ve fled the country.

This is the talk I gave:

Right from the beginning, let’s acknowledge the impossible moral dilemma that the current Syrian conflict presents.

Two years ago, in the spirit of the Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East, the Syrian people rose up against the brutal, corrupt, nepotistic Assad dynasty.  They used classic forms of non-violent resistance.  They streamed from Friday prayer in the mosques into the public square, using religion as an expression of their moral opposition.  They rallied, shouted slogans, published broadsides.  It was almost a classic lesson in civic participation.  This was the same force that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships.  Syrians had every hope and reason to believe it might do the same there.

Instead of engaging in serious dialogue with the opposition; instead of proposing and implementing reforms, Bashar al-Assad summoned his brother’s commandos, who brutalized the civilian protesters.  They turned guns, helicopters, jet fighters, artillery and missiles on unarmed civilians, mowing them down in their thousands and tens of thousands.

At that point, the opposition had a fateful choice.  It could continue on the path of non-violence and suffer an ongoing slaughter or it could arm itself and fight the regime’s fire with its own.  It chose fire.  At first, the armed resistance was domestic and relied solely upon what it could muster inside the country in the way of recruitment and weapons.

But as the brutality of the government increased, the resistance responded in kind.  Soon it was turning to outside forces for support.  As the majority of Syrians are Sunni, while the Assadists are Shiite or Alawite (a Shia offshoot), the opposition turned to other Sunni countries to meet their military needs.  That meant Qatar and Turkey, which have provided the lion’s share of the armaments for the Free Syrian Army.

To be clear, foreign intervention isn’t a one-sided deal.  Assad has received major support from Russia and Iran for decades.  That includes advanced weaponry like anti-aircraft and ground to ground missiles.  Syria’s other major ally, Hezbollah, has also served as a useful proxy both in Lebanon and Syria.  So each side in this conflict is guilty of turning to outsiders for lethal support.

Unfortunately, a conflict that began as an act of civic protest, turned into an increasingly ethnic conflict between Shia and Sunni.  Assad’s Shia allies are Iran and Hezbollah; while the opposition’s Sunni allies are Qatar and Turkey.

So far, the United Nations estimates that 93,000 have died.  There are 1.5-million refugees in three neighboring countries.  Rita spoke so eloquently of her work bringing some of them humanitarian relief.  The funds we raise tonight will be used to support her work.

To return to the conflict: each side is playing a game of chicken.  They realize that if they violate the rules of the game and cross red lines, the other side will do the same.  That’s why Russia hasn’t yet supplied the SA-300 anti-aircraft missiles it had contracted to Syria.  Because Israel has made clear that such “game-changing” weapons would likely be used by Hezbollah against it.  Israel would likely attack any weapons convoy in order to take out such armaments, as it has done twice in the past months.

Hezbollah recently made a critical choice to escalate the conflict by sending 4,000 of its own fighters to retake the Syrian town of Qusayr.  This is an act of outside intervention that exacerbated hostile feelings both inside Syria and Lebanon itself, since many Lebanese do not approve of the Shia militia taking its battles outside Lebanon.

Some, like Israel’s intelligence correspondent Ronen Bergman, have forecast the demise of Nasrallah because of this detour away from the movement’s core mission to resist Israel.  But the rumors of Nasrallah’s fall are premature.

Though the U.S. did not phrase its decision this way, Pres. Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. would begin arming the rebels came as an indirect response to the victory in Qusayr.  Of course, we publicly stated that our decision came as a result of Assad’s forces use of chemical weapons in the fighting.  This was a justification after-the-fact.  In this conflict, as in Iraq, WMD seems as much a political, as a military issue.  It is used by outside forces to justify whatever course of action they’d already decided upon.  Bush did it.  Now Obama is doing it.

Our CIA is already training Syrian rebels in Jordan.  Now we will be overtly arming them as well.

I oppose U.S. military intervention.  Not because I’m a pacifist or believe the U.S. should never intervene in such situations.  There are times when military engagement is morally justified.

I believe the Assad regime is evil and should be overthrown.  But I’m not prepared to do this for the Syrians.  The reasons are obvious.  Look at what happened in Iraq.  We were going to overthrow Saddam and hand Iraqis democracy on a silver platter.  It didn’t’ work out that way.

I would not be opposed to some form of U.S. intervention, if the Syrian opposition had a unified political agenda and military command.  If it could demonstrate that it had surmounted the ethnic rivalries and religious hostilities, I would support a greater level of involvement.  Unfortunately, the leaders haven’t shown that level of maturity and stability.

Instead, some of the strongest fighters on their side have been the Al-Nusra Front, an extremist Sunni faction allied with Al Qaeda.  Those fighting units which are more secular or religiously moderate have not shown the cohesion or toughness of the extremists.

As a result, if we now play a definitive role in determining outcome, we risk bringing to power the forces that will be most hostile to democratic values and religious tolerance, ideas that will be necessary to rebuild society after the civil war ends.

Syrians have to take control of their destiny.  They have to determine who will govern them and what form that government will take.  I don’t have a problem with other regional forces taking a role in this.  Turkey, as a neighbor, is intimately connected to Syria, and stability there is critical for Turkey’s interests.  But the Turkish government so far has taken a measured approach that hasn’t enabled the rebels to decisively defeat Assad.  In addition, Turkey faces massive civil disruption of its own in the Taksim Square protests, that will likely occupy it for some time to come.

So if Syria’s Arab-Muslim neighbors can’t produce a coherent response to Assad who are we to do so?

The 800-Pound Gorillas

There are two other 800-pound gorillas in this conflict.  One is on stage and the other hovering just off stage.  Iran is Assad’s key ally.  It provides him with both the financing and weaponry to pursue the butchery until the end.  Without Assad, Iran’s support for Hezbollah would also be in jeopardy since weapons are transferred to Lebanon via Syrian territory.  Without a compliant Syria, Hezbollah could not aggressively confront Israel.  In this sense, the Lebanese militia serves Iran’s interests should Israel attack Iran, as Bibi Netanyahu has threatened to do multiple times.

Not to mention the Shia religious axis of Iran-Syria (Assad’s Alawites)-Hezbollah.  Religious solidarity plays a strong role in this conflict.  The longer the blood flows, the more divisive will this element become.  As we all know, benign conflicts can flare into raging conflagrations when religious hatreds are introduced.

Let’s not forget an important recent development in Iran: that a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, came from virtually nowhere to defeat seven candidates each more dour and conservative than the next and pledging fealty to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  Rouhani is what in an American context might be called a hard-headed realist.  He puts Iran’s interests above all else, but realizes when is the proper moment to compromise.

Expecting Rouhani will be the Middle East’s Martin Luther King who will bring freedom to Iran and rid it of the clerical regime is foolish.  He is a product of this regime, albeit a pragmatic one.

That off-stage gorilla I just mentioned is Israel.  It has a deep and vested interest in Syria, which has been a frontline state going back to the 1948 War.

Israel conquered the Golan from Syria in 1967.  There are scores of Druze villages under Israeli control.  On the other side of the armistice line are Syrian Druze villages where Israel has sought to exercise influence.

Just last month, a FoxNews TV crew filmed an Israeli special forces unit returning from a foray inside Syria.  A confidential Israeli source with military background told me they had been engaged in liaising with those Syrian Druze villages.  There has been increasing hostility on the Syrian Golan border with Syrian army forces battling insurgents.

Israel wants to be sure that its Syrian Druze allies, many of whom oppose Assad, are protected.  Israel, as I said earlier, has already intervened militarily.  In January, an airstrike knocked out a weapons convoy headed to Lebanon, that was led by the leading Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in Syria.  He was killed.

But these interventions have been targeted until now and somewhat proportional.  Should matters deteriorate and chaos ensue in the Golan, Israel could intervene much more forcefully, perhaps even invade the country and occupy parts of it with Druze proxies.

That would be a disaster for everyone.  For the Syrians, because it would ensure Israel carved out a slice of Syrian territory as it did in South Lebanon with the connivance of its South Lebanese Army proxy.  Such a fragmenting of Syria would continue the process of disintegration inside the country.  It would add years to the healing process and rebuilding of the nation, just as the Lebanese civil war has taken decades to recover from.

It would be disastrous for Israel because it would cement its reputation as a meddlesome, aggressive and untrustworthy regional force.  Iran could use the excuse of Israeli intervention to ratchet up pressure and its own military posture inside Syria.  It could even escalate its nuclear program as a response.

The reason Israeli intervention in Syria is bad is the same reason the first Pres. Bush demanded that Israel not reply to Iraqi Scuds that hit Tel Aviv.  The fight against Saddam’s forces was hard enough without adding an Israeli wild card into the mix.

What does that leave us with?  I’m afraid there are no easy answers.  The conflict is fraught morally and politically.  Assad must go, but how to do it?  The process must be done carefully and judiciously.  But this need for caution means Syrians will continue to die.

The onus is on the Syrian opposition.  They must step up to the plate.  They must organize.  They must coalesce.  They must be worthy of assuming the mantle of leadership.  The last thing Syria needs is a repeat of the Saddam disaster in which a tyrant is violently overthrown and a vacuum allows the most intolerant, violent forces to come to power.

Though 100,000 Syrians have died thus far, millions have died in Iraq in the decade of fighting there.  Let that not be Syria’s fate.

I Have a Dream: Does Obama?

I don’t want to end my talk on such a down note.  So indulge me when I spin a dream of my own, to echo Martin Luther King’s famous words.  Let’s posit two leaders, Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani who rise to the better angels of their natures.  Leaders who realize that the interests of each of their countries may be realized by a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues between them.  I’m not just talking about Iran’s nuclear program.  I’m talking about Iran’s intractable relationship with Israel and its support for Assad and Hezbollah.

My dream may be unlikely but humor me as I consider the following: Iran agrees to stop uranium enrichment beyond 20%.  It agrees to ship enriched material above that level to a neutral third country like Brazil or Turkey.  The U.S. and allies agree to end sanctions and offer full recognition and trade relations with Iran.

Let’s not stop there: Iran persuades Assad to step down and he is replaced by a caretaker government appointed with the agreement of Turkey and Iran.  Elections will be held within a specified time frame for a democratically elected government.  Power will be shared among the various ethnic groups.

Iran also agrees to stop arming Hezbollah in return for U.S. pressure on Israel to settle all outstanding issues between both Lebanon and Syria.  The Golan is returned to Syria.  Lebanese territory is returned and prisoners are freed.  Israel and Syria recognize each other for the first time.

Now, let’s turn to the Palestinians: that’s the thorny part.  The U.S. would have to force Israel to agree to a settlement that would involve withdrawal to 1967 borders, recognition of a Palestinian state sharing Jerusalem as its capital, and return of refugees.

What would Israel get?  It would get the U.S. and United Nations acting as guarantors of the peace.  The Saudi peace initiative would be sealed and Arab states would end their hostilities with Israel.

I know it sounds crazy.  But remember that day in Reykjavik when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan came within a whisker of nuclear disarmament?  Yes, it didn’t work.  But within a few years the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing an end of the Cold War and decades of Mutually Assured Destruction.  It fundamentally realigned the world.  While it didn’t end conflicts, it did substantially reduce the chance of nuclear war.

What my dream requires is two key leaders (and perhaps others as well) who rise to the occasion.  Leaders who foresee a Grand Plan to resolve some of the worst, most intractable conflicts in the region for the sake of all the peoples of the region.

Think Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War contemplating the reintegration of the Confederate states into the Union.  Think Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946 in San Francisco.  Think Nelson Mandela as he left decades of imprisonment on Robben Island and prepared to dismantle apartheid with the help of his former mortal enemy, F.W. deKlerk.

Do Obama and Rouhani have it in them?  Probably not.  I’m not foolish enough to believe that they really do.  They may be such creatures of their respective systems that they can’t break out of them to seize such an opportunity.  But wouldn’t it be grand to think what they could do if they appealed to the better angels of their nature; instead of the nattering our respective countries have been engaged in since 1979?  I have such a dream.  I hope they do too.