NPR Story
1:30 pm
Tue July 31, 2012

What Happens If And When Assad Falls In Syria

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 1:02 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city, continues into a second week. Rebels control more and more smaller towns, the defection of senior military officers and diplomats continues, all signs that the government's grip on power is slipping, and many analysts suspect that President Bashar al-Assad's fall is inevitable.

But if and when that does happen, many believe the fighting could get worse, not better. We also need to consider stockpiles of chemical weapons, medium-range missiles, the presence of al-Qaida, a Russian naval base and Syria's nervous neighbors. In a moment, we'll talk with NPR commentator Ted Koppel. We'll also read from a number of op-eds, which consider the endgame in Syria and plans for the day after.

What should be our role in Syria now? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Richard Florida on why some kinds of urban density are better than others. But first, NPR commentator Ted Koppel, also a special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams," he joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always good to have you on the program.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal, it's good to be with you again.

CONAN: And is a matter of weeks or months? Do you think the end is near in Syria for Assad?

KOPPEL: You know, that's - it's very tempting to make a prediction about something like that, but the honest answer, Neal, is I haven't got a clue. I don't know how long he can hold out. I wouldn't be surprised if Assad was still in power six months from now. I wouldn't be surprised if he was overthrown next week.

I think the great danger, though, is that we keep focusing on Assad and acting as though his overthrow would sort of be - and you were very cautious in your introduction, when I say we, I mean we in general. The United States is acting as though the overthrow of Assad would be such good news that everything would be if not back to normal then at least approaching the road to normal. I think things are going to get even worse after Assad is gone.

CONAN: Why?

KOPPEL: Because there is no central power. There is no coalition. There is no - at the moment there is no guidance, and I must say the United States is missing in action. It's hard to point to anything that the United States is doing that will actually contribute to a stable Syria, even if Assad is overthrown.

CONAN: What could the United States do usefully in this situation?

KOPPEL: Well, I suppose it could - and again, you're asking the right question. To suggest that we arm the rebels I think would be disastrous. One thinks back to our arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and how those people with those arms supplied to them by the Americans ended up becoming our enemies and remain our enemies to this day.

I think the United States has to be prepared, however, to back those who are willing to step in. Some of the Sunni Arab states who oppose Iran, which is a major supplier of the Syrians, which oppose Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is a major supplier of the Syrians, it may just require our cracking down more on those who are supplying the arms.

CONAN: We said we're going to read from some op-eds. This is from a column called "The Day After In Syria" by David Ignatius, their foreign affairs columnist, this just part of what he has to say: For starters, the United States can assist Turkey and Jordan with food and relief supplies for the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria.

It can bolster the neighbors, especially Lebanon and Iraq, to contain the sectarian fighting. It can help the Syrian opposition frame realistic plans for political transition that reassure the country's minorities they won't be slaughtered.

I'd even like to see a joint Russian-American humanitarian effort in central Syria, using the Russian naval vessels docked in the port of Tartus as the hub. The Russians keep saying their real goal is to prevent chaos in Syria, like what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and in Libya after the toppling of Moammar Gaddafi. OK, if Moscow feels so strongly about protecting the Syrian people, here's a way to do something about it.

KOPPEL: I don't think that the United States and the Russians are going to be able to collaborate on this. I think the Russians have got everything at stake in seeing to it that a new government does not take over in Syria. I think to talk about the Iraqis as being helpful is a little bit of wishful thinking in this case.

The Iraqis, in this particular instance, alone with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranians, are the ones who are supporting the - what they perceive to be their Shiite allies. I can't see where the Iraqis are going to be of any help whatsoever.

CONAN: One of the editorials that's sparked - one of the op-eds that sparked a lot of comment is a column called "Syria is Iraq" by Tom Friedman in the New York Times. His last two paragraphs: Unless there is a surprise, he says, it's going to turn out badly.

A surprise would be the disparate Syrian opposition groups congealing into a united political front - maybe with the help of U.S., Turkish and Saudi intelligence officers on the ground - and this new front reaching out to moderate Alawites and Christians who supported the Assads out of fear and agreeing to build a new order together that protects majority and minority rights.

It would be wonderful to see the tyrannical Assad-Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis replaced by a democratizing Syria, not a chaotic Syria. But color me dubious, he continues. The 20 percent of Syrians who are pro-Assad Alawites or Christians will be terrified of the new Sunni Muslim majority, with its Muslim Brotherhood component, and this Sunni Muslim majority has suffered such brutality from this regime that reconciliation will be difficult, especially with each passing day of bloodshed.

Without an external midwife or a Syrian Mandela, the fires of conflict could burn for a long time. I hope, he concludes, I am surprised.

KOPPEL: Color me dubious, too. There's one aspect of this that you and were talking earlier today, Neal, and I mentioned to you that I was tapping into the resources of a former intelligence analyst who was talking to friends of his at the CIA. They now believe that al-Qaida, which, until a few months if not weeks ago, was perceived to have only 100 men, 100 fighters, in Syria.

The thought now is that that number may be tenfold, that there may be as many as 1,000 al-Qaida fighters. And if that is so, I think you can count on, you know, any hope of a coalition going down the drain.

CONAN: Here's a piece, an excerpt from a piece by Lionel Beehner in the Huffington Post, published last week. In part, he responds to your concern about al-Qaida and radical elements within the opposition in Syria.

Another myth is that we cannot intervene because we do not know who the opposition are. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger's line about Cold War-era Europe: Who do I call if I want to call the Syrian rebels? But opposition movements are almost never united. If a totally united opposition was the litmus test for outside intervention, France would never have intervened on our side in the Revolutionary War, Gadhafi would still be surrounded by buxom bodyguards, and Kosovo would still be smothered in Cyrillic.

Also within opposition movements there are always extremist elements we may not like. In early 1998, the U.S. envoy to the Balkans called the Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA, a terrorist group. Fifteen months later we were bombing Belgrade. Or take Libya, whose opposition was anything but unified. There was widespread speculation that the Islamist extremists, both foreign and domestic, were threatening to unravel the opposition.

So he says don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good there.

KOPPEL: Well, again, I only wish I shared his optimism. I think the presence of as many as 1,000 al-Qaida fighters in Syria today is about the worst news we could possibly have. And apparently they are moving back and forth quite freely across the border. They are becoming more active again in Iraq. They are bringing weapons from Iraq into Syria. And I think the level of organization that al-Qaida has developed over the years and their ability to get weaponry and bring weaponry into Syria is not something that can be easily dismissed.

The fact of the matter is yes, we may a year from now be looking back and say why, why so gloomy, why did we think it was going to be so tough. At the moment, I see very few bright lights on the horizon.

CONAN: There is also the question of the bomb that killed high-ranking officers and officials in Damascus a couple of weeks ago, said to have been a suicide bomb carried by a bodyguard, one of the bodyguards that the minister of defense, essentially bombing the joint chiefs of staff meeting, it's about the equivalent in Syria. Yet others look at that and say these are not so easy as you might think. This requires a great deal of professionalism.

KOPPEL: And it has a little bit of the hallmarks of al-Qaida about it. Again, you and I were discussing that. I wouldn't be one bit surprised to find out that al-Qaida had sent the suicide bomber, if indeed it was a suicide bomber of theirs who did it.

You know, the other thing, Neal, that we haven't begun to talk about yet, the Kurds. Ten percent of the population in Syria is Kurdish. What is happening with the Kurds throughout the region now is going to have an enormous impact on the entire region.

The Kurds in Iraq have, to all intents and purposes, all but declared their independence. It appears as though they may very well, in short order, declare their independence. Up until now, the Turks have been adamantly - the Turkish government - has been adamantly opposed to seeing an independent Kurdistan in Iraq.

Over the course of the last few weeks, they have modified that view, and while they're not saying it in public, privately Kurdish leaders are saying that they would not step in the way of the creation of a Kurdistan in Iraq. If it happens in Iraq, it's almost inevitable that something like that will happen in Syria also.

The ebb and flow of events in that region of the world right now is so unpredictable, Neal, that I think for us to be sitting here at this point and trying to find some logic in what's going on, we have to be honest enough to step back and say the United States is not doing anything. They may be doing little because there is little they can do, but because the United States is one of the few powers in the world that might be able to exercise influence there, the fact that we're not doing anything is causing others in the neighborhood to say in that case we're going to have to step in.

CONAN: Kurds, of course, very numerous, as you mentioned in Iraq; in Syria as well; some in Iran; of course the largest number in Turkey, which is Turkey's concern. Stay with us. Ted Koppel and more of your calls when we get back. What should be our policy now regarding Syria? 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're continuing our focus today on Syria and talking about what happens if and when the government of Bashar al-Assad falls. At this point, the fighting continues. Activists in the city of Aleppo today describe dire conditions with dwindling stocks of food, only occasional electricity.

Syrian government aircraft continue to pound neighborhoods under rebel control. The United Nations says some 200,000 people have fled Syria's largest city. While Assad clings to power, many analysts say it's only a matter of time before his government collapses. After that, it's anybody's guess.

We're talking today about the endgame in Syria. Our guest is Ted Koppel, NPR commentator and special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams." What should be our role in Syria now? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We've posted links there to many of the op-eds we're reading from today, and again, you can find those at npr.org. And one of those is a piece - this is from a British newspaper, The Guardian, by Ranj Alaadin. And he writes about the Turkish situation we were discussing before.

Politically, if and when Assad falls, Turkey may continue to encourage the Arab-led opposition to resist Kurdish political and territorial demands, but that hinges on the leverage that those forces will have in Kurdish-held areas. So far, Kurdish opposition fighters have prevented the Free Syrian Army from entering Syrian Kurdish territory. It will also depend on the extent to which Arabs can be unified and whether a smooth transitional process follows Assad's downfall. Both are unlikely.

While the rest of Syria will probably be embroiled in post-conflict infighting and instability, the Syrian Kurds - like the Iraqi Kurds after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein - are more likely to be remedying internal divisions, organizing themselves and stabilizing their region.

And again, that's going to be a major concern for Turkey. Let's get a caller in on the conversation, and this is Patrick(ph), Patrick is on the line with us from Boulder.

PATRICK: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

PATRICK: I just wanted to say that I feel like a lot of times the dialogue that goes on between the United States and countries that we have, you know, some issue with goes to the highest levels, and then it's just ignored by the opposition or the group that we're trying to work with. And I really feel like the best thing they can do is bring humanitarian aid, like medicine, food, water, and make it obvious that it's coming from the United States.

That way when whatever happens happens, at least these people will know the United States was there to support them on some level, and we didn't just abandon them like their worst fear and, you know, like their YouTube videos are kind of pointing out. We should, you know, promote ourselves some way as a benefit rather than as someone who's just kind of ignoring the reality.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, to address the humanitarian disaster.

KOPPEL: I think that's not a bad idea at all. I mean, it certainly beats doing nothing, and quite frankly, doing nothing is what we seem to be engaged in for the most part right now. There was an article in the Times, I think the other day, making the point that we, unlike Libya, we do not have CIA agents on the ground inside Syria right now. It may well be that we do, and we're just not talking about it, but we have very little understanding of precisely what is happening and who these different groups are that are...

PATRICK: Can we ignore them? Can we ignore them?

KOPPEL: No, no, I'm actually saying to you that I think your idea has a lot of common sense to it, and that is do the one - you know, it's almost like the - it's almost like the mantra first do no harm. And I think by making food and medicine available and showing that the United States is at least prepared to play a role in helping those who are now homeless and who need assistance, I think that may be the smartest and the best thing we can do.

PATRICK: Well, I think it would do a lot better than them seeing drones. If they saw packages on the ground with, you know, American flags on and needs that they might have being satisfied, they might start trusting us rather than fearing us, and that is the key to the whole - winning this whole thing. And I...

KOPPEL: I wouldn't go too far there, but at least it will be perceived as doing something and something useful.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the call.

PATRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: This on the subject of doing nothing from the Daily Telegraph, it's a conservative British paper. Tim Stanley, a columnist there, writes about President Obama hitting his Jimmy Carter moment with the hostage crisis.

Syria is also shaping up to be the ultimate test of Obama's leadership. So far, his foreign policy has balanced liberal idealism with realism. The result has been a confusing mix of hopeful rhetoric, cruel use of drone strikes and confusion among both allies and enemies. He let Mubarak fall from power and bombed Gadhafi out of office, but he's held off attacking Iran and allowed Syria to reach its parlous state.

Skipping down a little bit here: The Obama/Clinton approach towards Syria has been to decry both the humanitarian crisis and Russian/Chinese involvement. Hillary Clinton went so far as to call Putin's meddling no longer tolerable.

If that's the case, what has America done about it? It has allowed global opposition to the Assad regime to die the death of a thousand committee votes in the United Nations, while the president has actually ruled out unilateral military action.

If the civil war continues, he concludes, voters will not only feel wretched but maybe even unsafe. And he does point out though - well, obviously criticizing the failure to anything, one of the problems has been the United Nations Security Council and support of not only Russia but China for Syria and refusal to consider anything that would involve invoking Chapter 7, the part of the U.N. charter that would eventually authorize military force.

KOPPEL: I think there are two things that may happen, Neal, that would force the United States' hand - I say force it in a military fashion. The one, and I'm kind of surprised that we're this far along, and neither one of us has raised Israel, but...

CONAN: It's coming up next. Go ahead.

KOPPEL: OK, very good. And of course the other thing that I know you're just about to raise is going to be the fact that Assad has chemical and gas, in other words weapons of mass destruction. The use of either one of those, the chemical or the poisonous gas, I think would, A, prompt Israeli intervention and, B, might very well prompt U.S. military intervention. That cannot be permitted.

CONAN: There are other factors. Syria has a substantial air force, it has missiles with a range of 500 kilometers. Draw a circle around Syrian air bases, and you'll see that reaches quite deep into Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, as well. These are all grave concerns. There is the question: If desperate, what would Bashar al-Assad do? Might he say let's change the game, let's make this an Arab-Israeli conflict, not a Syrian civil war?

KOPPEL: Ironically, one of the reasons that the Israelis have been so silent and have done little or nothing is because Assad was perceived as a really nasty guy in Jerusalem, but a really nasty guy who has maintained the Golan Heights Agreement that was negotiated way back in the late 1960s between Israel and Syria.

For all that Assad is a brutal, ruthless, dangerous man, he maintained a level of non-violence between Israel and Syria. And if Assad is overthrown - and this is one of the intangibles that we just can't know unless and until it happens - but if Assad is overthrown, whether that level of understanding between Israel and Syria can be maintained is highly questionable.

CONAN: Here's an excerpt from a piece by Marc Lynch, special to CNN, who essentially argues it was a good thing we did not intervene. The Obama administration was prudent and wise to avoid a direct military intervention in Syria, he writes. A legion of pundits deemed an American military role necessary for any progress against al-Assad. Clearly, it was not.

Indeed, a limited intervention would likely have strengthened al-Assad's hand at home and abroad. Had the U.S. chosen to carry out airstrikes to enforce a no-fly zone or safe havens, Syria's crisis would likely be no closer to resolution but America would be deeply embroiled.

Some have suggested the U.S. should provide weapons to favored factions among the opposition groups. This, too, is a dangerous idea. There is no reason to believe these factions would reward the U.S. with loyalty.

Let's go next to Craig(ph), and Craig's on the line with us from Denver.

CRAIG: Hi, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

CRAIG: Two quick comments. One, I think Ted's comments before the break is very appropriate, is that, you know, a lot of the discussion is long on analysis and criticism but, you know, as he said, you know, you're asking the right question: What can you do? There's been no real solid proposal.

There may - we might just have to live with the fact that there's nothing that we can do. And therefore, other countries in the neighborhood will need to step up. And I actually think that a lot of times, people will say that this administration lacks a clear-formed policy agenda. I see one. I see one of less reliance on America and more reliance on yourselves.

We can't be the world's cops all the time. You know, a lot of times we, as a country, wring our hands over the - the humanitarian help is perfect. We wring our hands over the crimes and the evils that are being committed, yet we are reluctant to commit troops, forces, things like that. There's always that balance that we're striking. And again, in this particular situation, like Ted said, you know, it's hard to see what America is doing. Well, it's hard to see from our discussion anything that can be done, other than humanitarian help.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the call, Craig. This is from a piece in Geopolitics at Stratfor by Robert D. Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari, and they suggest, indeed, that the solution, if there is to be one, might come from the region. The real horse-trading, if and when it comes, may involve Turkey and Iran. Turkey wants to replace the entire regime structure; Iran wants the opposite. That's why both Ankara and Tehran will need to compromise, identifying high-ranking Syrians, probably military, who will protect each country's interests and on whom a new regime can be based.

If Turkey and Iran can reach some sort of agreement, it can then be blessed by both the United States and Russia. The Obama administration can play a role in this process, but to do so effectively will require more diplomatic realpolitik than it has demonstrated thus far in any crisis. This is all a long shot, but there may be no other way out that averts a worsening civil war. There's a stark realization in all of this: If the United States reduces its strategy toward Iran to only stopping its nuclear enrichment program, it increases the probability of ascending bloodshed in Syria. Easing al-Assad out becomes easier when some deference is paid to Russia and Iran's strategic interests. That's taking states as the actors, Ted, and leaving out all the different groups in Syria.

KOPPEL: Well, look, it makes an interesting point, and that is if, for example - set Iran aside for a moment - if, for example, you want Russia to be a willing and pragmatic partner in bringing some kind of a solution to the Syrian crisis, it doesn't really help a lot for our secretary of state to be denouncing the Russians. We may not like what the Russians are doing or, more to the point, what they are not doing. We may be frustrated by the fact that the Russians and the Chinese are using their veto power at the United Nations to make it impossible for the U.N. to take more active action.

But if in point of fact - and I think the article you just read makes that point very well - if in point of fact, both the Russians and the Iranians can be helpful in avoiding disaster in Syria and maybe we have to swallow a little bit of our pride and maybe we have to acknowledge that in this instance instead of just calling them names, we actually need to reach out and say, is there something here than can serve all of our national interests? And for all I know, this may be happening behind the scenes. I can only hope so.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, NPR commentator. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Amina(ph). Amina on the line with us from Berkeley.

AMINA: Yeah. Hi. I just wanted to say I really think it's the height of hypocrisy to be talking about doing something in Syria after 18 months of doing nothing while the Iranians, Hezbollah and the Russia, who are supposedly our adversaries, have continued to intervene by supplying arms and fighters to Assad's brutal regime while all we do is send in U.N. monitors to sit and watch the slaughter. So the reality is that there is intervention going on. It's all happening on the wrong side.

You know, since when has the U.S. been stymied by any of these groups? This really reminds me of what happened in Bosnia where we watched thousands being slaughtered before the U.S. finally intervened. And if the U.S. doesn't want to intervene, there's other countries that are willing to do that, but if, you know, this vacuum is allowing other people to come in, people that we don't want coming in and the Syrians don't want coming in either, this is their fight. They just are not - it's not a level playing field.

CONAN: So are you calling for the United States to intervene directly or to lean on proxy forces?

AMINA: Well, to allow others if they - it's not comfortable arming them, you know, the Saudis, the Qataris, there's other people that would be, you know, happy to do that.

CONAN: By all accounts, they are doing that.

AMINA: Well, you know, you can't use a bazooka to take out a, you know, a helicopter, an airplane or a tank, so I think it should be at higher levels. And they've also been calling for safe havens where they can regroup and where also humanitarian aid can come in. So the Syrians themselves on the ground have never asked for direct intervention from the American government, but they've asked for these things to allow the playing field to be leveled, as well as more action to prevent the Russians and the Iranians from continuing to supply Assad. Assad would have fallen a long time ago if they had not continued to arm him.

CONAN: Well, I appreciate your argument. It's - safe havens, as was pointed out in one of the editorials, need to be protected from the air. That involves patrols. That involves American aircraft, Turkish aircraft, who?

AMINA: I think there are people that would be willing to step up to the plate, and I think the Turks, again, the Saudis, the Qataris, it's just, you know, getting it going. And I think America can lead that effort.

CONAN: Amina, thanks very much for the call. There's a - the other question, Ted, and that is, of course, we are in a presidential election, and the Republican leadership has been critical of President Obama for failing to do more, as we heard early on from Senators McCain and Graham that the United States should definitely be arming the Syrian opposition and indeed even more active opposition than that.

KOPPEL: Well, I mean, first of all, and you made the point to - was it Amina?

CONAN: Yes.

KOPPEL: You made the point to Amina that the Saudis in particular and the Qataris are in fact supplying weapons. They are in fact helping. Far from there being any U.S. opposition, I think the United States has encouraged just that kind of activity. There has to be - I mean, ultimately, the question has to be asked. The United States cannot and should not intervene everywhere. It becomes a question of U.S. national interest and whether the U.S. national interest would be served by the supply of weapons which may end up in hands that could be turned against us in just a few months. We know so little about the people who make up the opposition, and we know enough about some of those who are assisting them. I refer back now to the possibly as many as 1,000 al-Qaida members in there, that the idea of just sending heavy weapons into Syria without U.S. control over those weapons makes me very nervous indeed.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, as always, thanks very much for your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, NPR commentator, special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams." He joined us from his home in Maryland. Coming up, Richard Florida on building more creative cities. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.