February 10th, 2012
08:46 AM ET

Zakaria: Arming the Syrian opposition is risky

The following is a transcript of my discussion with Don Lemon about Syria. Does the Free Syrian Army have a chance? Should the U.S. arm the Syrian opposition? What does instability in Syria mean for Iran? Let me know what you think.

Don Lemon: Straight off the top here, does this small rebel force in Syria stand any chance against the powerful Syrian armed forces?

Fareed Zakaria: It doesn't seem that they have much of a chance because the regime has decided to be utterly brutal.

This is a regime that looked at Gadhafi and that looked at Mubarak and said the lesson is don't waver, don't show any weakness and just grind them down. The one problem they face is the regime is not an oil-rich regime - it's not like Saudi Arabia. It can't bribe its people. It doesn't have that kind of ability even to bribe the army.

Eventually, they're going to face real cash shortfalls. And what that means going forward is a really interesting question. This is not a regime that can outlive the sanctions and all this pressure unendingly. They have got one source of cash right now, Iran. And that too is drying up.

Don Lemon: We are hearing, Fareed, calls here and there to arm the Syrian rebels. I want you to put yourself, if you will, in the shoes of the president of the United States. What would you do?

Fareed Zakaria: I think it would be a very risky move and I wouldn't do it. I will tell you why.

Firstly, this is geographically a difficult place. It's landlocked. You don't have the kind of access you had in Libya. In Libya, you had the country divided into two parts. There was an eastern part with Benghazi that could be easily supplied from the sea. You had rebels who set up a capital there. They created a transitional government. And you could funnel arms and money to them through Egypt and through the Mediterranean. None of that is available in Syria.

In addition, the Chinese and Russians are dead set against this. So it couldn't happen through the United Nations. There would be effectively a kind of unilateral or NATO operation with no international legitimacy. And finally, the odds of success are frankly not that high. This is a still a regime very much in control with no real defections from the army, no defections from the intelligence service. There's no point in doing something noble and failing. I would be very, very reluctant to advocate an American intervention.

Don Lemon: You mentioned the surrounding areas, the neighbors there. How will the outcome in Syria affect its neighbors, Iraq and what about Syria's ally Iran?

Fareed Zakaria: If you assume what's going to happen is a slow-motion either civil war or collapse of the regime over the next year or two, the biggest loser here is Iran.

Iran is all-in in Syria. It has made a huge number of bets on the regime. It is supporting the regime. And as it unravels, it faces the prospect of the loss of an ally, the loss of a buffer. The Russians don't look too good. But frankly, nobody looks very good because you're going to having low-grade chaos and instability in the region. Everyone's going to get worried.

The great danger is that Syria becomes a proxy battleground for the forces of Iran and the forces of Saudi Arabia, which will tend to be Sunni, somewhat religiously motivated militias that will go in - in the name of God and in the name of jihad - to overturn the Assad regime.

A sort of replay of what happened in Iraq might take place in Syria. Remember, in Iraq it took a decade before it stabilized. And there were 140,000 American troops helping stabilize it. This could get very messy for very long.

Don Lemon: And, Fareed, as you know, the Russians are being accused of giving aid and comfort to President Bashar al-Assad and to giving a green light for this slaughter that is occurring in Homs. What's the Russians' motivation here?

Fareed Zakaria: The Russians have always been very, very reluctant to have the U.N. be used as an instrument to get rid of the regimes. They have an alliance with the Syrians. It's really their last Cold War alliance.

If you think about it, the Soviet Union used to support half these Middle Eastern countries. We used to support the other half. The Soviet Union collapsed. They're left with Syria. Syria is the one Russian ally. I think some of it is that.

But finally, remember, if the U.N. is allowed to intervene every time you see mass protests on the street, claiming that a regime is undemocratic - they have got protests taking place all over Russia, and the last thing the Russians want to do is establish some kind of international principle that when you have protests against an undemocratic regime, the U.N. Security Council can vote to intervene in some way or the other.

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Topics: Iran • Russia • Syria

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soundoff (541 Responses)
  1. Alex R

    And hey, people was protested in Oakland – why don't UN intervene and send troops to California?

    The whole idea of support all such protests is dumb. Countries should solve their local issues themselves. It includes both, USA with 'occupy Wall street' movement, and Syria with their rebels. Else we will end up in a total mess.

    Syrian-s events are really, really, something much more complicated then' bad guys vs good guys'. And 'bad guys' for someone are 'good guys' for someone else. We in America must understand it and stop pretending to be 'world police'. As world is much more complicated then American's impression.

    February 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply
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