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Oklahoma Voices: The State of Syria and the Role of U.S. Leadership (Nov 05, 2012)
Editor's Note: The first audio file contains the full prepared remarks of the three speakers.  The second audio file is the audience question-and-answer session with the panel.

On October 19th, two of the community’s leading experts on the Middle East met with a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO to discuss the state of Syria and the role of American leadership. Joshua Landis is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"U.S. intervention in Syria will likely lead to something similar - civil war and radicalization," Landis said. "Syrians have never agreed on basic questions of identity and policy, and it is unlikely that they will decide these issues peacefully today."

Afshin Marashi is the Farzaneh Family Chair in Iranian Studies at OU.  He says what is happening in Syria today is part of a larger scale political shift that has resulted from the Arab Spring, which is historically similar to the political realignments of 1979 and 1947.

"What we’re really talking about is a specific crisis that is revealing the deeper regional struggle for power," Marashi said. "To use another historic analogy, we’re really talking about something akin to Sarajevo in 1914."

Amb. Kurt Volker served as the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2008 to 2009 - spanning the transition from the Bush to the Obama administrations.  He's now the Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

"I would argue that the United States needs to show more leadership," Volker said. "I think given what we’ve heard from Russia and China that’s not going to happen through the United Nations, and we shouldn’t be limited by that."


Joshua Landis

Let's be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria. The United States, Europe, and the Gulf states want regime change, so they are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and helping arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. It is also the most the United States can and should do.

President Barack Obama does not want to intervene directly in Syria for obvious reasons, and he is right to be cautious. The United States has failed at nation-building twice before in the Middle East. The Libyan example of limited intervention by using air power alone could suck the United States into a protracted and open-ended engagement. One cannot compare Libya to Syria. The former is a relatively small, homogeneous, and wealthy society. Syria has a population four times larger, which is poor and wracked by an increasingly violent civil war across religious lines. Moreover, the chance that the United States can end the killing in Syria by airpower alone is small.

The argument that the United States could have avoided radicalization and civil war in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991 is unconvincing. Similar arguments are now being offered to talk Americans into jumping into Syria. Iraq was not a mature nation-state and was likely to fall apart. The fact that it imploded into civil war when the United States roto-rootered Saddam's regime should have been expected.

U.S. intervention in Syria will likely lead to something similar: civil war and radicalization. Syrians have never agreed on basic questions of identity and policy, and it is unlikely that they will decide these issues peacefully today.

With America's economy in the dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters, and its people fatigued by foreign wars, this is no time to intervene in Syria. Washington has no staying power if things go wrong. It wants regime-change on the cheap -- to bomb and withdraw. And if things go wrong, will we leave the Syrians in the lurch or get sucked into another complicated quagmire. The administration can ill afford to leave a failed state behind in Syria or to have it unfurl into civil war.

Even more pressing will be the need for post-conflict reconstruction. Syria is a nation the size of Iraq whose population has outstripped its water and economic resources. Unlike Iraq, it has insufficient sources of revenue to quickly rebuild its infrastructure. What if there is massive looting and chaos? Syria produces little the world wants to buy. It hardly produces enough electricity for three hours of power a day. The school system is in a shambles. Do Americans want to pay for putting Syria back together? More to the point, should they let Washington start what it would not finish?

If anyone tells you they are going to build democracy in Syria, don't buy it. Democracy is unlikely to succeed there anytime soon. The two social indicators that predict the success of democratization with any accuracy are median population age and per capita gross domestic product. According to a recent study, autocracies with a median population age of over 30 years old are most likely to transition to liberal democracies -- Syria has a median age of 21. This is the same as Iraq's and just slightly older than Gaza's and Yemen's. The per capita GDP was around $3,000, but has fallen by half due to U.S. led sanctions, currency collapse, and the ravages of war. Because of its poverty and youth, political scientists give it small chances of becoming democratic and stable any time soon. Beware of drinking the democratization Kool-Aid.

Anyone who believes that Syria will avoid the excesses of Iraq -- where the military, government ministries, and Baath Party were dissolved and criminalized -- is dreaming. Syrian government institutions and the security forces will fall apart once the revolution prevails. They are overwhelmingly staffed by Baathists, Alawites, and other minorities, recruited for loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad. Once he goes, they will go. No revolutionary government will keep them on. Their dismissal may well provide fodder for a counterinsurgency, promoting greater chaos across the country.

Syria's new rulers will also face a daunting set of challenges upon taking power. They will be obliged to employ the hundreds of thousands of jobless Syrians who have sacrificed for the revolution, lost family, and struggled in the face of tyranny.

If the United States becomes militarily involved -- destroying the presidential palace in Damascus and military installations by airpower, or by promoting one militia over another, it will own Syria. How will it discipline the 2,000 militias that have sprung up to represent the revolutionary forces? If the death toll rises after the Assad regime is taken out – if for example, the Alawites or Christians are killed in large numbers or ethnically cleansed, will the United States put the boots on the ground to stop such killing?

Syrian opposition figures have estimated that running the government for the first six months after the fall of Assad will cost $12 billion, and have made it clear that they will ask international donors for financial support. This is chicken feed. Anyone who knows anything about Syria knows that it will take a lot more than $12 billion to stabilize and rebuild the country. The United States currently spends $12 billion every three months in Afghanistan. In 2010, the United States was spending $6.7 billion in Afghanistan every month, as well as $5.5 billion in Iraq. Few Americans believe this money was well spent. It is rash to expect Syria to cost less. If anyone tells you that the US can unite the Syrian opposition and turn a secular pro-American militia into a winner, think twice. You have been told this before. Ask what the price-tag is. Iraq was supposed to pay for itself after the first six months.

If the United States has learned anything, it is that it cannot sort out issues of power-sharing and national identity for Middle Eastern countries. The road to national unity does not go through Washington. In the end, Syrians must find their own way and choose their own national leaders. Ahmad Chalabi and Hamid Karzai turned out to be bad choices for Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

There is no indication that the United States could do a better job of picking winners in Syria. It should not try. The State Department threw its support behind the Syrian National Council, led initially by Burhan Ghalioun, who seemed to have all the qualities of a future Syrian president that the US wanted, but his own party members attacked him for treason. Within months he was forced to resign, setting the stage for a showdown between the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its many political rivals. Today the SNC has been almost completely discredited. Washington was forced to pursue a plan B. This was to set up an office in Istanbul and to deal directly with militia leaders and civilian committees in Syria. This strategy has also led to failure. This Monday, the New York Times revealed that many of the weapons sent to arm Syrian rebels are ending up in the hands of hardline Islamic Jihadists. Enemies of Assad in Syria fit a mold: Poor, pious, rural - They bring to the battle their fury over years of economic marginalization, fired by a pious fervor, and they say their fight in the civil war is not only against President Bashar Assad but also the elite merchants and industrialists who dominate the city and have stuck by the regime.

New militias are being formed in Syria every day. They are competing on the ground for cash and Kalashnikovs. As ABC reported this week, the majority of Syrians are divided because they have no tradition of unity and the Baathists have destroyed politics for a half-century. Nothing the United States can do will erase that legacy of political underdevelopment.

It seems heartless to stand by and do so little as massacres, such as the atrocity carried out at Houla, continue. More than 30,000 Syrians have been killed in the last 19 months of revolution. But there is no reason to believe U.S. intervention can staunch the flow of blood. American troops killed over 10,000 Iraqis in the first month of invasion in 2003. A further 100,000 Iraqis were killed in anger by the time they left – this number does not include the total number of Iraqis killed by sectarian, ethnic and criminal violence. Iraq today remains in turmoil. By all accounts, a new dictatorship is emerging. Car bombs are a regular occurrence in Baghdad. The New York Times reported this week that al-Qaida is reemerging as a force in Iraq, in large part because the rise of Sunni militias in Syria have given them new hope. What is more, the Iraqi government cleaves to Iran rather than the United States.

The cost in Iraq was high. The chances that the United States would end the killing by destroying Syria's Baathist regime is not good.

In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria on a silver platter. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom, and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them.

The United States can play a role with aid, arms, and intelligence -- but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria's future. It cannot determine the victors of this conflict. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must take charge of their revolution and figure out how to win it. It is better for Syria, and it is better for America.

Afshin Marashi

My view of the conflict in Syria is primarily that of a historian, and I don’t follow the day-to-day events in great detail, but let me make a few general comments and try to make some specific observations as well….to look at the trees but also keep in mind the forest.

First and most broadly, the current crisis in Syria has to be seen in the context of what the region as a whole is going through in the last two years, which is a major political transformation, of seismic proportions with very few historic precedents. We’ve been witnessing this for the past two years, and new alignments of power are still taking shape.

The old balance of power that had been in place in the Arab world since the early 1970s is finally disappearing. The proverbial “durability of Arab authoritarian regimes” is now over. It lasted a generation, but that generation is now clearly passing and the question is what new configuration of power will replace it.

So this is a historical question. We are witnessing a historical transformation – the issues are historical, as well as political-diplomatic or foreign policy issues.

I don’t think we should look too narrowly at the Crisis in Syria as an ethno-religious conflict or a border skirmish. My fear is that political re-alignment could lead to a regional war. If history is a guide, this conclusion is very real. None of the earlier seismic shifts in Middle Eastern politics have passed uncontested. There’s no reason to believe that this one will either.

Take, for example, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which I would argue was the last major seismic political shift in the region, and it led to the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (which was not just about the Shat al-Arab, it was about the regional balance of power after 1979). The establishment of Israel in 1947 was also a political event of comparable scale and implication, and it led to series of wars that are still unresolved.

So, what is happening in Syria today is part of a larger scale political shift that has resulted from the Arab Spring, which is historically similar to the political realignments of 1979 and 1947. Like these earlier historical moments, the prospect of a regional war is very real.

So we might be here today talking about the current crisis in Syria, but what we’re really talking about is a specific crisis that is revealing the deeper regional struggle for power. To use another historic analogy, we’re really talking about something akin to Sarajevo in 1914.

But let me say something briefly about the Islamic Republic’s position in this equations. My second point, the importance of Syria to Iran – militarily and politically speaking, Iran is the regional “great power” that is supporting the Assad government of Syria.

Syria is also crucial to Iran’s Lebanon policy of supporting Hezbollah, which is in turn central to Iran’s confrontation with Israel. If Iran “loses” Syria, then it will make material support to Hezbollah more difficult, but not impossible.

So Iran’s relationship to Syria is crucial to Iran’s larger goals in the region. In fact, if we put aside Iran’s internal politics (which is the Islamic Republic’s greatest challenge – Iran’s economic crisis and its discontented population), then Iran’s geopolitical position within the region has in fact greatly strengthened in the last decade, in comparison to 80’s and 90’s.

Most dramatically, with the government in post-Saddam Iraq, which is much more closely aligned with Iran, the new government in Egypt is also more friendly to Iran than the Mubarak government. So Iran has made some diplomatic gains in Egypt as well, although Egyptian politics are still very fluid and it remains to be seen.

So what happens in Syria is therefore crucial in determining Iran’s place in the regional balance of power – in particular the new Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah regional cooperation.

This is why Iran has been so public about its support for Assad: to protect a key link within its network of regional alliances. Materially speaking, Iran has helped the Syrian regime to suppress the anti-Assad rebels. Republican Guard personnel have been on the ground inside Syria, at the very least they have provided tactical skills in monitoring communication among rebels, using the experience of cracking down on the Green Movement to work in Syria, and provided the Syrians technology and military equipment.

This has been done very publically. There were public statements by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders this summer, publically stating their cooperation to suppress the Syrian rebels.

The two Revolutionary Guard commanders who made these comments were Muhammad Jafari and Hussein Hamadani. These are the Revolutionary Guard commanders whose previous. experience has been in suppressing the Kurdish insurgency in the 80’s, and in organizing a “domestic intelligence” program within Iran to suppress Iranian democracy activists since 2009.

The third and final point – there is a debate inside Iran over Syria. There are different points of view within Iran on what their position should be vis-à-vis Syria.

The rebels are “Western mercenaries” who are trying to hand Syria over to pro-American and pro-Israeli groups. The hardline position is to support Assad and maintain Syria as an ally in the broader regional balance of power at all costs. This has been the position of the Supreme Leader, senior figures in the Revolutionary Guard, and many conservatives in the Iranian parliament.

Support elections inside Syria to determine future leadership. Until quire recently this has been the minority view. But more recently this view is being publically expressed more frequently, largely as a result of diplomatic pressure from Turkey and Egypt. There has also been increasing pressure within Iran to support this position. Iranians have been witnessing the violence in Syria as well, and it’s becoming increasingly intolerable for Iranians to be seen as supporting the violence against Syrian civilians. Public opinion still does count for something in Iran. There were in fact street demonstrations in Iran jU.S.t a couple of weeks ago decrying the governments role in the devaluation of the Iranian currency. Among the slogans of the protestors were to the effect of “why is our government supporting Syria when we are the ones that are suffering?” The leadership of the Islamic Republic is aware of its public and to a large extent is weary of giving Iran’s internal opposition more reason to challenge the ruling elite.

So, as with everything else with Iranian politics, there is an internal debate.  But if there is a pragmatic position between these two positions, it is that the Islamic Republic is increasingly realizing that the Assad government cannot last, and that Iran has its own long-term interests in Syria – not connected to Assad – and the more important interest is for Iran to be at the table to help determine a post-Assad government. That’s similar to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there is a precedent for Iran being at the table along with the U.S. to determine the political future of a failed state in the region. Whether the U.S. and Iran will agree to sit at the same table in this case remains to be seen.

Ambassador Kurt Volker

As I counted up, I think I have three tasks now. I started with one, but I now count three, which is to provide something of a rebuttal to Joshua’s argument; to say something about the U.S. role in the world; and then also to maybe connect that a little bit to the presidential debate that we’ll be having on Monday, and what will face the next President, whoever that may be. I’ll try to weave these together, and be succinct. I’m reminded, in trying to take all these things at once, and trying to do it in short term, of a time when Boris Yeltsen was president of Russia. He was asked in an interview, “Well, we don’t have a lot of time Mr. President, but could you just give us one word. How is the Russian economy?” He said, “Good.” And they said, “Well, could you give us a little more?” He said, “Not good.” I think that is maybe a good way to think about where we stand in the world. Things are going pretty well, but things are also not always going so well.

Now, to take on Joshua’s argument, I have four observations, and then I’ll come back to some broader themes, and then back to Syria again. The four observations that I would make: One, I was surprised at how pessimistic he is about the Syrian people. I’m quite optimistic about the Syrian people. They are standing up to a difficult regime. They are taking revolution into their own hands, as you said, they need to do. They are doing it under the greatest of duress, and they’re an educated people. There’s a mixed group of people. Obviously different ethnic groups, different religions, and I’m quite optimistic. Whenever I hear someone suggest that those people aren’t ready for democracy – we, of course, are very proud of own, but those people aren’t ready – I’m always very suspicious about looking at other people that way.

The second thing I was surprised at is how willing he is to consign them to death and destruction, because that’s happening. Josh’s point was that a U.S. intervention would lead to civil war and radicalization. Well, we have civil war and radicalization. So the question is really not so much is that going to happen? It’s already happening. The question is, is there something that we can do about it? This gets to my third observation, which is the assumption that the United States can do no good.

I don’t believe that either. I think that the United States can, and has done good, and can and will do good in the future. That doesn’t mean that we get everything right all the time. Often we don’t, and it doesn’t mean we should take ownership of everything and become the world’s cop and policeman in everything that we do. No, we shouldn’t do that either. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. His characterization of current policy is that the U.S. has a policy or a strategy of regime change in Syria. I don’t believe that’s true. We have a rhetorical statement that we favor regime change in Syria, but we don’t have a strategy to bring that about.

In fact, that gets to another point, fourth observation I make. When the U.S. acts or doesn’t act, is kind of a binary choice, but it’s not as if the world stays still. So the U.S. can act to advance its interests, or not, but that doesn’t mean that the world stays the way it is. Others act, and U.S. interests are still affected. So the question is not whether the U.S. can just stay out and things are neutral for us, it’s how do we have to act as a nation to protect our interests and advance them?

So that is my reaction to listening to Joshua’s argument. I’ll come back to more prescriptive things after, but let me turn that to a more broad set of points then about the role of the United States in the world. The first point I would make is, and this is building on what I just said, what happens in the world matters to the United States. We can’t escape it. There is no island continent anymore. Maybe there never was, but certainly not today. Whether it is the rise of violent Islamist extremism, whether it is authoritarian capitalism in China, the effect of that has on global international economic order, whether it is the health of the economy in Europe, whether it is the progress of democratization in Latin America, or the reversals there, all of this matters. All of this affects the United States in every way you can imagine. From the moment you get up in the morning, and have your first cup of coffee, between the coffee, and the cup, and the robe you put on, you’ve already visited 25 countries. That is how affected we are. So, this stuff does matter. I know it is difficult, and I know there are budgetary costs to being engaged in the world. Often there are military costs as well, and it’s frustrating. We wish we didn’t have to deal with it. But, it’s just the world we live in.

The second thing I would say about the role of the United States in the world is that we are a country founded principally on core values and beliefs about the relationship of people to their government, and their responsibilities, and the rights of people in a society. So, we’re a country founded on values: freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, market economy, and respect for human dignity. That’s who we are as a country. To the extent that those values are realized in the world, it’s better for the United States. To the extent they’re not, it’s worse for the United States.

We’re very fortunate. This gets to my good/not good. Since the founding of the United States, and especially since the end of World War II, and the period of decolonization, and then the changes in the world we’ve seen, there has been an increasing number of people around the world, on many continents, who live in free democratic societies, who have market economies, who have lived in greater prosperity, who have enjoyed greater security. As bad as the world looks today, when you look around, there are fewer wars and conflicts going on now that affect people, than was the case in the past. So there has been a lot of progress in this direction, and I believe that progress will continue. It’s a reflection not of the policy of the United States, but of the nature of humanity, that these values that the U.S. was founded on are universal human values. People seek to realize them.

The third thing I would say, the United States can’t do everything. We can do some things, and we should be involved, and we should advance our interests. But we have a limited budget. We have to take care of our own country and our own people. Sometimes doing more ends up producing a worse result than doing somewhat less. So we have to have a strategy and judgment as we act, but that’s very different than saying we shouldn’t be engaged at all.

Fourthly, it’s the point I made earlier about [how] there are plenty of other people in the world who are prepared to act. Not all of them are good. You have, again, violent Islamist extremists of different sects. You have authoritarian capitalists. You have thugs who’ve run the government in Russia, and many others. A technical term might be “bad guys.” They’re out there, and they do advance their interests. So the playing field is not neutral. The question is whether the U.S. can try to tip the scales in the direction of the values and the people who support those values that we believe in, without becoming an imposition, or imposing overstretch beyond our own capabilities. That’s the trick for formulating policy.

Now, to apply that to the situation in Syria specifically, I would say that we are well off of where the United States ought to be. Others are acting in Syria. It’s not, again, a neutral playing field. First off, there already is a civil war and radicalization. 30,000 people have been killed over the past year already. That’s an atrocious number, and that’s going to continue. The regime has nowhere to go but keep killing as long as it takes in order to stay in power. That ought to be a situation we should care about from the perspective of our values. We should care about it from a strict interests perspective about the regionalization of that conflict as it can continue. It should also give us a strategic concern about what is left over in the Middle East after that, including with the role of Iran.

So we have a national interest, and a strategic interest in thinking about how can we affect this situation? I would argue that the United States needs to show more leadership, for one. We shouldn’t act alone, but we should work with others to build more international pressure and a coalition around change in Syria. And that should be proactive efforts, not passive efforts. I think given what we’ve heard from Russia and China that’s not going to happen through the United Nations, and we shouldn’t be limited by that. We should continue to think of what other ways to act. Turkey came to the United States some time ago, after they were experiencing large refugee flows into Turkey, saying, “Can we help create a safe area inside Syria for the Syrian people?” I think it’s a good idea, and I think we should try to do that. To carry that out would require some military intervention to prevent attacks on that safe area. That’s a price worth paying. As Joshua said, and I agree with him on this, Syrians need to be in the lead. They need to decide what happens in their country, and they need to be the ones that ultimately put it back together. To me, that’s desirable, and that’s also a cost-limiting factor for us, because we can’t do it for them. It won’t work. They have to do it, but they do need support. In an environment where you have a regime, where you have Iran, where you have al-Qaeda, where you have Sunni extremists, and even Russia, playing a role in Syria and pushing the events there in a certain direction, I think the people who are more aligned with the type of values that we would like to see realized in Syria and more broadly, in the region, deserve support. So that’s more of where I would like to see the U.S. involved.

A final word, and then I’ll pause there, is what’s happened in the broader Middle East over the last few years – shorthand, the Arab Spring – is, in my view, the most significant development that’s happened in international politics and security since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a region that had been bottled up and stagnated through dictatorial regimes for decades, and that was already producing bad results for the people in the region, for the wider region, for Europe, for the United States, for all of our interests. The people of the broader Middle East region have decided enough is enough, and they want change. They’re pushing for change. There is no straight line from where they started to a perfect democracy, market economy, and security, all of those things we would wish to see. There are plenty of people, all these “bad guys,” who are going to try to hijack those changes in their own interests. I think we have both a values commitment, as well as a national interest in trying to help the people of the region realize their own values, in their own countries, by providing them as much support as we can. I don’t believe that anyone in the West, the United States or Europe, has treated the Arab Spring as the most important development since the fall of the Soviet Union. I think we’ve been very slow and parsimonious in the way we’ve thought about it. But in fact, I think it is the big thing happening, and we need to be much, much more involved. Thank you very much.

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