Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and a National Intelligence Council associate. Since retiring from the United States Government in 2006, he has been consulting with different US government entities and departments on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. At the CIA, Nakhleh was a senior analyst and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and of regional analysis in the Middle East. During that time he and his analysts briefed policymakers on how Bashar al-Assad used repression to maintain stability.
In February, Nakhleh wrote in the Financial Times that intervention in Syria was “only a matter of time” and that Realpolitik should not guide the West’s approach to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding. Seven months later, the fighting and divisions within Syria continue to worsen. An estimated 8,000 to 20,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands of Syrians have fled their homes into neighboring countries. The Obama administration has been reluctant to become directly involved in the conflict, but according to Nakhleh, a diplomatic solution is no longer possible and the longer the West waits to assist the rebels with NATO and Turkey’s lead, the bloodier the conflict will become. This following interview was conducted in Washington, DC and a shortened version was published in IPS News.
Q: What is your current assessment of the situation in Syria?
A: I wrote an article about Syria in the Financial Times in February and some of the things I wrote about then are happening now. Namely, there’s more talk about a security zone. The regime is basically fraying and is going to fall and the question is how it’s going to fall and what kind of chaos and instability will follow. I’m not that concerned about these fears of instability and Islamic extremist groups. These fears are being pushed by the regime to scare people. The regime is saying: we are providing security and stability and the alternative is insecurity and instability. There are some Jihadist and Al Qaeda elements, but the fact is that those were also in Libya and some of them were in Tunisia.
Q: Why then is the United States saying that one of the reasons it’s not directly supporting the rebels is because it’s unsure who they are?
A: That is a legitimate excuse. In fact, that argument was one of the reasons that delayed our recognition of even the Libyan rebels in Ben Ghazi and our action there. It was the same argument in Egypt, though not in Tunisia so much because we weren’t actually involved at all in Tunisia. But we used the same argument in Egypt and we kept hearing the word “leaderless”. Well, they are leaderless, we don’t know what leaders to deal with, and therefore we delay action. But I suggest that assistance now from the US and its NATO allies, especially Turkey, are very crucial and I’m not saying necessarily direct military participation but I consider the Syrian regime, as one Syrian expert recently said, as a Mafia. There’s no negotiating with them. They’re going to go down fighting and in the process destroy Syria and kill so many more.
Q: So what should support to the rebels look like?
A: My suggestion now, the regime is strong in air and tanks so the rebels, through Turkey perhaps, need to have RPGs against tanks and stringer missiles against planes. They need to even the playing field in those two areas. That is where now the opposition is frustrated. And they need ammunition.
We could recognize a geographic area, something like a safe haven contiguous to Turkey, and then we can deal with this unclear leadership a bit later. We can deal with something now; we can deal with the military, the Free Syrian Army, the political opposition in Turkey. But my point is once we recognize that, then through Turkey we can send humanitarian assistance, medical aid, and other logistical assistance. I say Turkey because then we can go around the Security Council by saying that this is a NATO thing. We are members of NATO and so is Turkey, which could argue it feels threatened by the growing insecurity on its border.
Turkey can act, but we should be wary a bit of Saudi and Qatari support.
A: Because there is already suppression of the Saudi opposition in that country. They don’t have a clean record and we should not be aligned openly and strongly with a country that is already suppressing its own people and indirectly contributing to the spread of radical Salafism.
Q: But we already are, aren’t we?
A: We are, but to say that Saudi Arabia is supporting the march of democracy and freedom is a bit disingenuous.
Q: But aren’t Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar already assisting the rebels with Turkish logistical assistance and Gulf funds? Does Turkey have the capacity to take over that role or are the Gulf countries necessary financially?
A: No, Turkey can do it. Turkey can accept money from Saudi Arabia but the assistance for and management of the safety security zone should be by Turkey as a NATO member.
Q: What is everyone waiting for then?
A: They are waiting because the West is not pushing and the Russian and Chinese are strenuously objecting to any perceived military action against the Assad regime.
Q: So Turkey is waiting for an okay from the US?
A: Yes, but I’m not going to speak for anyone. But that’s why Turkey initially went to NATO as well and I think NATO’s role can be increased. I don’t mean flying there or doing a no-fly zone and protecting the people through NATO planes as they did in Libya. They’re not going to do that but what they can do is arm the opposition with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and the opposition can do the job. That’s an important distinction – it also will keep the Western and NATO powers more free to act.
Q: What about those who argue that best time to do what you suggest has already passed and arming the opposition now will only result in the government cracking down even harder?
A: That argument too is passé. That argument would have been acceptable before the regime began to employ heavy weapons. But the regime now is bombing cities and civilian neighborhoods haphazardly using heavy weapons, tanks, and airplanes.
Q: So a diplomatic resolution is no longer possible?
A: That too has passed because the regime is not interested in negotiating with the opposition. If you listen to their propaganda, the opposition is labeled as foreign terrorists, and yet, what about these thousands of people that have been killed? Most of them are Syrians, they’re not foreigners. Those who are still talking about diplomacy are using it as a delay tactic while providing their own form of assistance. But now it’s time to fully assist the rebels without necessarily putting boots on the ground.
Q: Would you agree that one of the reasons why the Libyan model is not being applied to Syria is because in Libya the assessment was that the intervention would be clean and that the government had close to no support, whereas the situation differs in Syria?
A: No, the Libyan model is not working because of Russian and Chinese opposition in the Security Council. Western powers, including Turkey, can’t get the Security Council to act in Syria. That’s the only reason. The Russians and the Chinese believe they were duped by the Security Council about Libya. They supported the UNSC resolution on Libya because in their view it was meant to protect civilians and then they found out that no, it was about regime change.
Another factor driving Russia’s objection to any action against the Assad regime is that Syria is the only foothold that Russia has in the Eastern Mediterranean. They have a naval base in Tartus. But the time will come when the Russians will decide to flush Assad down the drain. They will eventually realize that the regime has lost credibility among its people. They have lost legitimacy amongst most Arab countries.
What to do? First recognize a safe zone or security zone. Then, two, provide specific military gear, equipment, and appropriate weapons through Turkey, which could include anti-aircraft and tank weaponry.
Q: But just to be clear, what should the US’s role be in all this?
A: Encouragement and logistical and communications support. According to media reports, the US already has contacts with the opposition and is perhaps already providing covert support in the areas of control, command, intelligence, and communications. But basically I don’t expect the US, as we are heading toward the presidential election, to play a major open military role in Syria. Necessary weapons could be provided by Turkey, with NATO’s approval, to help the opposition save their own towns and save lives.
I was never really in favor of direct and massive military action in Syria. I have argued elsewhere that military action should develop gradually. The opposition already controls a safe zone and other geographic areas in rural and urban Syria. When I wrote the FT column, there were no geographic areas that were under the control of the opposition. Now there are areas that the regime does not control. The fact is, well, I don’t know if it’s exaggerated, but take the statement made by the Prime Minister who recently defected, speaking in Jordan, who said the regime now controls 30%. That’s difficult to verify, but most observers agree that there are areas that the regime doesn’t control, next to Turkey, and elsewhere. If that’s true, the opposition obviously controls these areas. So then we can recognize that territory, deal with the opposition that’s there on the ground—civilians and military leadership. We can engage Syrian politicians in Turkey or somewhere else and the Syrian National Council, and then start providing needed support—humanitarian, medical, food, fuel, munitions, etc. in order for the Syrian opposition to be able to defend their own people.
Q: But what about the fact that Syrians themselves are arguing that the politicians who are based in other countries are too disconnected from the uprising on the ground? If this is the case, whom should we deal with?
A: We can speak with opposition elements on the ground, including the Free Syrian Army, army officers who have defected and who are fighting, civilian fighters, including Islamist groups. We shouldn’t hesitate to engage different groups in the opposition because they all share the same goal namely to get rid of the regime. We should be able to have access to opposition groups through the territory they control.
Q: And a goal is to keep the military in tact?
A: Well, keeping the Syrian military in tact after the collapse of the regime is critical. We don’t want a repeat of what happened in Iraq. Two other goals include keeping national civil society institutions functioning and avoid draconian de-Ba’thification measures. In addition, the US can openly work with current and potential high-level defectors through Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Q: If the regime does fall, what will happen to groups that were aligned with the Alawite leadership?
A: The Christians have already moved away. It’s like what the Palestinians did with the Arab Spring. The Palestinians would not want to repeat what Arafat did in 1990 with supporting Saddam, which resulted in Kuwait kicking out almost half a million Palestinians. But the Christians have been very quiet and to me the change occurred when Aleppo exploded. In Aleppo, many of the business class tend to be Christians, Armenians, and Sunnis. Aleppo was safe for quite a while as far as the regime was concerned. After Assad’s fall, the new government, which presumably will be dominated by Sunni Muslims, should reach out and include representatives of the religious and ethnic minorities in governance. Inclusion in decision-making at the highest level will guarantee success in Syria, a country known for its cultural, ethnic, and religious mosaic.
Q: What about the Shia?
A: The Shia is a very small minority; I am afraid the major backlash will be against the Alawites. Not necessarily the poor Alawites, but the wealthy ones who have been the security and financial backbone of the regime. The backlash will also be directed against the ruling family. If the regime persists in its bloody crackdown, its fate will be similar to what happened to the Hashemites in Iraq in 1958. Leaders of the Hashemite monarchy were killed and dragged down the streets because of their perceived suppression of their people. The Assad family runs the country like a Mafia organization through repression, fear, corruption, patronage, and the security apparatus, much like what Saleh did in Yemen. So there will be violence after the regime collapses, including forced population flight and even ethnic cleansing, especially in rural areas.
Q: Will the push come after the US presidential election?
A: Possibly; I don’t think much will be done before the Presidential election until the administration receives information about movement or the use of chemical and biological weapons by the regime or agents of the regime. As the President indicated recently, he would use the military option against the regime should Assad become desperate and use chemical and biological weapons against his people. I don’t know how long the regime will last. I have always thought it won’t survive beyond the end of 2012.
Q: Where could they go though? Won’t Assad fight to the death?
A: There are very few places available to them unless it’s part of a deal. It’s not just one person. It’s a whole family. His brother – is the butcher of Damascus – cousins, in-laws, etc. the more besieged they feel, the more violently they act. But I don’t think Assad is going anywhere. His wife can go to the UK because she’s a UK citizen, but I don’t think he will go anywhere.
Q: So the rebels don’t have a chance unless they get a no-fly zone and more arms?
A: Well, the no-fly zone could have been a step in arming the rebels with weapons. So once the opposition is able to neutralize the regime’s massive force machine, they would be able to fight without overt outside help. This way you would be able to avoid the legal issues involved in officially declaring a no-fly zone. The assistance would then come from NATO, not the UN Security Council, which would sideline through Russian and Chinese objections.
Q: You say the regime won’t last beyond 2012, do you consider the high-level defections a main indicator of that?
A: I do. The regime is losing territory, legitimacy and even security. To see bombs explode in the heart of the security structure in Damascus is a clear sign the regime is losing control. It is being attacked and penetrated. Not even Syrians buy the regime argument that this is a foreign, terrorist-backed struggle. There may be foreign terrorists, but they didn’t start the struggle and they are not the ones who are keeping it going.
Q: If more is not done to assist the rebels do you think they will turn to those forces?
A: As a matter of fact, some rebels are already making this argument, namely that if they don’t get weapons from the West, they would accept them from any source, including terrorist groups. The point is that this regime is creating an environment that is conducive to terrorists and bringing in the Jihadists. And the Saudis are doing the same thing they did in Afghanistan in the 80s and in Iraq and Bahrain more recently. The Saudi and Bahraini governments are looking the other way when some of their own Salafis go to Syria. The head of a Bahraini Salafi group recently met with Syrian opposition in Syria. It’s a dangerous game that the Saudis are playing.
But the fact is, as Rami Khouri argued in a column last week in the Daily Star, Syrians have a civil society, they are educated, sophisticated people who have state structures, civil society structures. It’s not tribal like Libya, so they will be able to restructure after the fall.
The issue is really with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. However, to run a government, they would have to play a role like the Egyptian or Tunisian Muslim Brotherhoods. Other centers of power in Syrian society, and the Syrian MB will have to compete. I’m not really worried about this. Raising fears of Islamists and similar issues is more of an excuse not to act. That doesn’t mean there are no Salafis or Al Qaeda types in Syria. Unfortunately, the Saudis and other Gulfies have encouraged radical Sunni groups to enter Syria in the name of fighting Shia, Alawites, Iran, and Hezbollah.
A: But I’m still unclear as to why the US is even staying away from giving a go-ahead to Turkey.
Q: The US wants to have international legal legitimacy and that comes through the UN Security Council; they’ve tried time and again only to have resolutions vetoed by the Russians and Chinese. That’s why Ambassador Susan Rice gets so irritated in her comments against the Russians.
A: What can the US do to convince Russia to stop striking down those resolutions?
Q: Until Russia reaches a point where it’s convinced that Assad is finished, it’s not going to abandon him. It’s like when we were convinced that Mubarak was finished, we abandoned him. Russia hasn’t reached that point yet. And that’s a misreading of the situation because I am convinced that the regime is finished.
Q: Should Iran be involved with a solution for Syria?
A: I think the fall of Assad will produce the consequence of the breakdown of what I call the trilateral axis of resistance – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Iran shouldn’t necessarily be involved because it’s already not a neutral partner – it’s a major ally of the Syrian regime. And, it’s no longer about politics and negotiations; it’s about the precipitous fall of the regime. So what role could Iran play? They are propping up the regime, they’re not going to assist its fall.
Q: There was an article in the Washington Post last week arguing that sanctions against Syria were “hindering the opposition”. What’s your take on that?
A: Sanctions are only effective against individuals and it’s interesting how quickly the Syrian Prime Minister’s name was taken off the sanctions list after he defected. So that’s a weapon to encourage some of the top people to defect. But sanctions are not hindering the opposition. They are not getting financing through banking and so on. But if the regime is intent on continuing its current method of survival, sanctions aren’t going to affect the regime either way.
The basic flaw of this article is that it assumes that continued erosion of the power of Assad’s regime implies strengthening of the free Syrian army. It discounts the possibility that the opposition (FSA) is also capable of mistakes. Look at what happened in Iraq when Sunnis turned against extremists and indirectly supported the government – albeit through US. It overstates the influence of foreign powers on the opposition: as if arms shipments will prevent them from succumbing to extremism and losing popular support. This is not an inconceivable scenariosince Saudis really want to muddy the water and drag out the conflict to provide distraction for their own restless population. The dragging out of the quagmire is to their interest: they want to show their populace that Arab Spring = mayhem.
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