The twin vetoes by Russia and China on the UNSC draft resolution on Syria, described as having “no teeth,” have analysts pondering what the next stage of the conflict might be. As Russia weighs in on the Assad government’s crackdown on the opposition, hopes for a swift resolution of the stalemate seem to fade. The Assad regime’s most recent attack on Homs resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties suggests that we might be headed for a civil war scenario. Though the US and Turkey have taken clear positions on the Assad regime, it remains uncertain what kind of tools they may be able to employ to help the Syrian opposition succeed. Syria is quickly turning into a sectarian battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. As so many outside powers have clashing geopolitical, security, and economic interests, what does the road ahead look like for Syria?
Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser for Middle East Initiatives at USIP
Randa Slim, Adjunct Research Fellow, New America Foundation
Aram Nerguizian, Visiting Fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS
Erol Cebeci, Executive Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kadir Ustun, Research Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
by Colleen Henry
Mr. Kadir Ustun introduced the topic by framing the question of the future of Syria within the recent veto of the UN resolution. Specifically, Mr. Ustun asked the panel what we might expect from the “Friends of Syria” meeting scheduled to take place in Tunisia on February 24, 2012.
Dr. Steven Heydemann spoke about US foreign policy toward Syria. He elaborated on three main difficulties for the current administration in determining the next course of action—the limits of using diplomatic and economic pressure, the lack of any tangible or viable alternatives to the current policy, and the growing militarization of Syrian opposition groups. Though the US insists that direct intervention is a dangerous and unlikely option, Dr. Heydemann explained that the American aim should not just be regime transition, but also the emergence of a stable (and hopefully democratic) Syria. In this light, Dr. Heydemann highlighted the need to help the Syrian resistance build up its operational capacity and the need to manage the flow of weapons into the country. Without a strategy for “managing the already occurring militarization,” the US risks facing uncoordinated and uncontrolled armed opposition groups in Syria.
Dr. Randa Slim elaborated on the composition of and separations within the Syrian opposition. She explained that Assad still enjoys a certain degree of support in the country because there is no credible alternative. Dr. Slim also described the Syrian National Council’s (SNC) inability to unify other opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Christian business community, and other minority sects. In addition, she noted the largely sectarian character of the Free Syrian Army and its own internal divisions. Fundamentally, Dr. Slim stated, there is a critical need to unite the Syrian opposition under one umbrella in light of the increasing militarization of the conflict. She suggested that the “Friends of Syria” conference could provide such a platform for initiating a “network of networks” aimed at creating a civilian-controlled network of armed opposition factions.
Mr. Aram Nerguizian gave an account of the costs associated with military intervention in Syria. He stated that Syria’s defense capabilities will give the Assad government a bigger edge in the conflict than those of Gaddafi in Libya. Mr. Nerguizian spoke of Syria’s sophisticated air defense networks and its biological and chemical warfare capabilities, as well as Syria’s anti-ship defenses. He also spoke of the difficulties in actually encouraging meaningful and high-level defections within Syria’s military ranks. Should Syria develop into a proxy competition scenario, this would amount to “another Iraq,” causing larger-scale instability in Lebanon, and further exacerbate sectarian divisions. He concluded that a military action in Syria would require a serious military commitment and taking out Syria’s military capabilities would be a complicated task. Moreover, it would most likely result in heavy civilian casualties.
Mr. Erol Cebeci gave insight into the role of Turkey in the Syria conflict. At the beginning of the conflict, Turkey advised Assad to initiate reforms that would lead to a democratic transition. But after August of 2011, when the Assad regime began to use force against its opposition, Turkey announced that it would take the side of the Syrian people over the government. Mr. Cebeci explained how after Turkey’s engagement strategy failed; it applied its own set of sanctions on Syria alongside the Arab League sanctions. Turkey also supported the Arab League and UN proposals. Now, with the failure of these proposals, Mr. Cebeci stated that Turkey is ready to support a purely humanitarian mission to Syria that subsequently has a lesser chance of being blocked by Russia and China. In addition, Mr. Cebeci emphasized the importance of maintaining pressure on the Assad regime. Turkey will not take unilateral military action unless its security is directly threatened by the situation in Syria. Mr. Cebeci underlined the damaging effects that a Syrian civil war could have on Turkey and the broader region. He emphasized that Turkey has taken the strongest stance toward Syria throughout the uprising.