Interviewed by Natalia Bubnov
The situation in Syria and around is rapidly intensifying. Events there are the topic of conversation with Marwan Muasher, vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in charge of the study of the Middle East at the Washington headquarters of the Foundation and the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He also was the first ambassador of his country to Israel, the head of the Ministry of Information, the spokesperson of the Government of Jordan, the director of Jordan Information Bureau in Washington.
Q- Mr. Muasher, February 17, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a non-binding resolution on Syria …
Yes, of course, and your country (Russia) is in the minority.
Q- The resolution received 137 votes, against - 12, with 17 abstentions. Do you think it will help to advance the settlement in Syria?
I think we will see a series of small steps to resolve the situation in Syria. Unfortunately, a quick result is not possible in the absence of military intervention, which, in my opinion, does not take place, the international community will take small steps at one and then the other. Each of them separately will not resolve the conflict, but together they create a cumulative effect, which will constantly put pressure on the Syrian regime for change.
Q- Secretary of State Clinton said that Syria could start a civil war. Today, the death toll on both sides have already reached five or six thousand. Two weeks ago, the government troops launched an offensive against strongholds of the opposition: they bombed the city of Homs, Hama and Daraa. It was reported that after the bombing, UN resolution only intensified. Meanwhile, the so-called Free Syrian Army attacked the regular army. Maybe a civil war in the country is already in progress?
Unfortunately, the events really have turned into a civil war. I note that the rebellion has lasted 11 months - almost a year. Almost all of the time, the opposition acted mainly by peaceful means, but recently it has armed, because the Syrian regime began to use the big guns. You say that the casualties on both sides, there are six thousand, that is true, but most of the victims are not soldiers of the regular army. Syrian army used aircraft, tanks, heavy artillery, and the opposition is using only light weapons. Unfortunately, the greater the opposition to arms, the harder it will continue to take steps towards national reconciliation
Q- Do you think that regime change in Syria is inevitable, but thus far it lasted longer than other Middle East countries, which in the past year witnessed a wave of revolutions. What are the causes of such resistance? Does it have any special strengths and where it has weaknesses?
There are a lot of reasons. One of them is the fact that the regime is very strong militarily. It has, as I said, there are tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft, and it has adopted all of this against the population, which until recently operated largely by peaceful means. Second, the mode it is a zero-sum game. In other words, any reform process meant ruling class lose power. And it demonstrated a willingness to use weapons without hesitation to stay in power: it lasted so long precisely because it has military superiority. However, in political terms, and in the eyes of the people of the present regime, I think, have completely lost confidence. I'm not talking about trust of the Arab public in general, and in addition, in Syria, of course, there are elements that support the regime. These are people who are concerned about their own future: the commercial class, or at least a part of the Christian community. Although the ranks of Assad is shrinking with every passing day. Recently, for example, in the heart of Damascus held a large demonstration, probably the most populous of all that took place there.
Q- Bashar al-Assad promised to allow protests, release political prisoners and withdraw security forces units from the cities. But in fact, this is clearly not happening. Opposition and human rights groups accuse him of breaking promises, of exaggerating the numbers released in the continuation of mass torture and murder. How would you comment on this?
Over in the past 11 months the Syrian regime and President Assad has distributed a lot of promises; but none of them executed. In addition, the regime agreed to accept an observer mission in the country of the Arab League, but then did not allow them the freedom to visit any of the city, where they consider it necessary to visit. The regime continues to promise political reforms, but to do it in practice, as I said, it has no incentive simply because they will put an end to Assad’s rule. The credibility of the Syrian regime and its promises to do both within the country and at the international level is not there.
Q- And what about the recent promises of Bashar Assad to hold February referendum on a new constitution, which seems to be an end to half a century of monopoly of the ruling party "Baas" and establish a free multi-party elections? The opposition has already said that it is just another trick to the authorities continue to manipulate public opinion. Do you think that the referendum will bring positive results?
I believe that these reforms are not significant and are initiated too late. First, they will only slightly change the current system: it still enforces a very strong presidential power. The head of state is elected for seven years and can be elected again, I have to hold the post for 14 years. He has extensive powers, despite the fact that the "Baath" cease to be a major political party in the country. In any case, as you can at least hold a referendum under the current security situation and also to prepare him for a week or two? In general, in my opinion, this is not enough, and these promises sounded too late - I do not think the Syrian people, the opposition and the international community will accept them seriously.
Q- The U.S. claims Damascus provokes violence to justify further repression against its opponents. Syrian authorities, in turn, claim that the struggle is against the Islamists from abroad. Moreover, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking to Congress on February 16, also said: apparently, the ranks of the Syrian opposition is infiltrated by people from the Iraqi branch of the "al-Qaeda" and most likely they are responsible for the recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo ...
It would be naïve to blame the 'al-Qaeda' in all that has happened in Syria. But I can not rule out that some members of the "al-Qaeda" could infiltrate the ranks of the opposition. But if it happened, they are extremely small minority. These statements about the "Al Qaeda" have appeared recently, and excitement that lasts, as I just said, for 11 months and covers many cities of Syria, are undoubtedly the most popular and until recently, were peaceful.
Q- You've already mentioned the observer mission of the Arab League. Why all the Arab League is opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, why it had approved sanctions against Syria? And could you share the latest information on the activities of the mission? Had they already left Syria?
Yes, they had left Syria. You know, the Arab League had not been effective in solving regional problems of the Arab world. Its history and its position occasionally helped to solve problems in the region, and therefore in the case of Syria, as in the case of Libya, the actions of the league were in one way or another exception. But in my opinion, the fact that even such a weak organization like the Arab League, could not ignore the atrocities committed against civilians in Libya and Syria, shows above all, the scale of these atrocities. I believe that the observer mission from the start was doomed to failure: it has too few participants, it was headed by a man whose reputation is in many doubts. League had no chance to visit places that they wanted, and therefore could not succeed. Today, the activities of the mission suspended, and I would say, not even suspended, but terminated its head - Sudanese General Muhammad al-Dhabi, resigned and any new mission will have to start all over again.
Q- Read with great interest your article "League of Their Own", published in mid-January in the journal Foreign Policy. Although I am not an expert on the Middle East, I seem paradoxical that the more democratic Arab countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, were quite tolerable towards the Assad regime, at least initially, and the authoritarian Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all condemned him sharply. Can you explain this situation? In addition, it is a separate issue, but it also relates to one of the neighbouring countries, why Damascus has lost the support of Turkey?
I do not think that the reaction to the events in Syria can be associated with the level of democracy or authoritarianism in a country. It is determined by other factors. Position of Lebanon and Iraq, apparently due to the reasons of the confessional-order in both countries today is dominated by Shiites and they come from religious considerations. The current government of Lebanon, as is known, is pro-Syrian, and I think its reaction to what is happening in Syria is more related to these factors. Also, as I mentioned, the Arab countries - authoritarian or not - can not ignore the atrocities of this magnitude against the civilian population. We also see that a democratic country - Turkey, which had very good relations with the Syrian regime, also can not ignore these atrocities. In Turkey, the majority of the population is Sunni, and brutal repression of Damascus is largely directed against the Syrian Sunnis, well, not only against them, of course, but also against the general population. Therefore, to explain the actions of Turkey and the Arab world, these factors should be taken into account to a greater extent than the democratic or authoritarian nature of the political system.
Q- Claim that the Gulf countries increasingly fear Iranian influence. Do not you think it's one of the reasons why they were against the Syrian regime, which is considered the only ally of Iran in the region?
I would not say that it is connected only with Iran. For example, Saudi Arabia and Syria maintained longest good relations, even at a time when Damascus openly supported Iran which warred against Iraq. So I'm not sure whether the reaction of the Gulf can be linked to the Syrian-Iranian relations, which, as I said, has been friendly for many years. I think, however, that should not be underestimated - especially in the context of the uprisings in the Arab world - an Arab indignation that the Syrian regime turned against the insurgents is brutal repression. If you look at the results of opinion polls in the Arab world, we can see that Bashar Assad, three years ago, was considered one of the most popular leaders in the Arab world; today lost its support.
Q- Could you assess the position of the U.S. towards Syria? Is there any Iranian factor?
I think the U.S. position is affected by a number of factors, not just Iran. That is, the United States and Syria before the current events there were differences on many issues, the fight against terrorism and the Middle East peace process, for example. But it is interesting to note that until recently, the United States took no action against Bashar al-Assad. During the first months of the uprising, Washington did not write off the Syrian regime, long time together with Turkey it attempted to find the method of regulating crisis and only recently, when it became clear that Syria will not compromise, and the death toll is in thousands, eventually decided that Assad regime is all but hopeless.
Q- You said that you think the fall of the current Syrian regime is inevitable. The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad will be reflected in the activities of "Hezbollah" and how it will affect the Arab-Israeli peace process?
"Hezbollah" also enjoyed considerable support in the Arab world because of its position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Remember, when the Israelis in 2006, carried out an operation against "Hezbollah" in Lebanon, the organization has increased dramatically in popularity because it was thought that it opposed Tel Aviv? This support is almost completely lost, "Hezbollah" today is perceived as a group, standing on the side of the oppressor, not the oppressed. It publicly supported the Syrian regime that any new government in Syria will not have any friendships with "Hezbollah", or with Iran.
Since the fall of the current regime, in my opinion, will lead to very negative consequences for "Hezbollah", and the lines of Iran for its support. Will the new Syrian regime strive for an agreement with Israel, is unclear. I think any new government in Syria will concentrate major efforts on domestic issues, not on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore the agreement with Israel is unlikely to fall in the number of its priorities. However I think the new regime, whatever it may be, will provide a "Hezbollah" that the logistics support provided by her Assad.
Q- You mentioned that Russia was in the minority in a vote of the General Assembly resolution on Syria, but the same can be said of China. We know that the Russian Federation had proposed at the United Nations resolutions on Syria, but none of them were accepted. Along with China, Russia vetoed a draft by Security Council resolution. What do you think Moscow's position on the Syrian issue?
You know, many argue that it is related to the economic interests of Russia or a military base, which it has in Tartous. But in my opinion, the economic interests are not in the big picture of what is happening-so-much. I believe that Moscow has a kind of traditional position, that is, with Damascus its an old friend, and it stands for the status quo. It is time. Secondly, the discussion deals with the reaction of Russia to the fact that happened in Libya: in the opinion of Moscow, then the international community, so to speak, exceeded the authorities, given by the appropriate resolution of the United Nations. It accomplished a change of regime in Libya, but Russia did not support change of regime.
But for all the aforesaid Russia, in my opinion, lost much support in the Arab world, Arab society. Most Arabs viewed Russia, and before that the Soviet Union as a supporter of the oppressed against the oppressors, especially with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This image was badly damaged due to the current position of Moscow on Syria. In the Middle East, Russia is now seen as a state that takes more towards the oppressor, not the oppressed.
Q- Do not you think that the root cause of rejection of Russia is possible foreign intervention in Syria, is the fear that such an intervention would lead to chaos, disintegration of the country, have catastrophic consequences for the region, and perhaps even to a war that would spread beyond the Syrian border? Do you think that such Russia’s fears have grounds?
In my opinion, they could be based on a foundation in the early months of the conflict, especially in the event that if the Syrian regime has not shown such cruelty to his own people. I think they were entirely justified, but the course of events changed the situation. Today, military intervention disturbs peoples – indeed the international community clearly stated that it will not effect any military intervention in the Syrian events.
The people are anxious about foreign intervention, because it will kill thousands of people - that is what defines the position and attitudes of the public. Today, Russia is perceived as a country that is trying to prevent foreign intervention, and as a country that allows the Syrian regime continues to kill its own citizens.
Q- French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris and Moscow will work together and will discuss the compromise resolution on Syria, which provides an end to violence and the organization of control over the supply of humanitarian aid into the country by both the government and the opposition. Is this all relevant after voting in the General Assembly?
I think, attempts to develop the UN resolutions by consensus will continue, but it seems to me, can not succeed in the absence of one element: the resolutions should clearly provide for the transition of Syria to a new political system, instead of saving or prolonging Assad’s regime. This stage is over and not just in this country but throughout the region.
Q- Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun conducted February 17-18 visit to Syria for talks. Do you think that in the positions of Beijing and Moscow have differences?
China's position is different in the sense that the PRC does not have such a long history of relations with the Middle East and to participate in its affairs, as is Russia. Chinese people do not know this region as well as Russians, and their interest in it is mainly due to oil, and not with anything else. In addition, China has traditionally opposed to any foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, which is also a factor in determining its position. So the position of China and Russia differ.
However, although China in the region does not have this historical “luggage”, I think, if events in Syria will continue in the same direction, then Beijing may reconsider its current position.
Q- Is there any hope to prevent new victims in Syria? What is the way out of this situation? Is there any reason for optimism in terms of conflict resolution?
I would like to be optimistic, but, alas, I do not see a chance to end the killings in the near future. As I said, the Assad regime believes that if it stops killing, people will turn against him. He sees the situation as a zero-sum game, and therefore, unfortunately, quick end to the violence and the situation in Syria, in my opinion, is not expected.