The violence in Syria escalated this week. Hundreds and hundreds of civilians have been killed. The question is, in light of Russia and China's veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn and try to stem the violence, what options are left for the international community to act on?
To talk about this I had three great guests on GPS. Fawaz Gerges joined me from London. He is the director of the Middle East Study Center of the London School of Economics. Elliott Abrams was the Deputy National Security Advisor for President George W. Bush. He lives in D.C. And in Beirut, Rami Khouri runs the International Affairs Program at the American University. Here's a transcript of our discussion:
Fareed Zakaria: Fawaz, let me begin with you. How would you describe what is going on in Syria? Because it appears to be more than just a few protests. There seems to be a kind of incipient civil war.
Fawaz Gerges: Well, I think Syria has already descended into a prolonged conflict. Political violence has spread to many parts of Syria. I have just returned from the area - many Syrians are arming themselves. The Syrian government appears to be losing control of some neighborhoods and some streets and even towns.
You have now a potent armed insurgency. The Assad regime in the last one week or so has launched an all-out offensive to crush the insurgency. The Security Council has been neutralized as a result of the double veto. The Syrian crisis has been caught in the unfolding cold war between the Saudi-led alliance and the Iranian coalition.
This is a very, very prolonged conflict. Even though I don't see how Assad can survive on the long-term - it will take a miracle to rescue his sinking ship - in the short-term and the medium term, Assad is not as desperate as some of us or most of us would portray him to be.
Fareed Zakaria: Rami, Fawaz talked about a Saudi-Iranian a cold war where Syria is, in a sense, the battleground. In the region, does it appear to you that way - that you have on the one hand the Syrian regime backed by Iran, really its sole major ally, but then is there a lot of money and arms flowing in from Saudi Arabia?
Rami Khouri: Well, there are three things happening simultaneously. You do have the Saudi and Iranian-led cold war in the region that's been going on for some years and has played itself out in Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq, sometimes in Somalia and Yemen and now in Syria.
And you have the second thing, which is this of uprisings all across the region where citizens are trying to reclaim their dignity, their sovereignty, and their citizenship, and their rights.
And the third thing now, which is the most recent, with the veto at the United Nations you have the Russians, the Chinese as two world powers that are reclaiming a role in the region as the Americans and the Europeans slowly lower their footprint in the region. And, simultaneously, the rise of regional powers like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League now is the latest player, Qatar to a certain extent, and the Egyptians are on their way.
So you have three things happening simultaneously, and all of them are converging on Syria.
Fareed Zakaria: Elliott, if you were in the National Security Council right now, trying to figure out whether this regime could survive, wouldn't one of the key metrics be whether there are defections in the army, whether the regime itself is cracking? And what I'm struck by is for all this – all the turmoil, you don't see much in the way of defections of the army or the intelligence.
Elliott Abrams: Well, I think that's right. I would say that that's because people have not yet become convinced, people in the army, that Assad is definitely going to lose and going to lose reasonably soon.
So I think the message there is that we, on our side of the axis, we with the Turks, we with the Saudis, need to be doing more to help the side that is being killed by the Assad regime and its supporters – Iran, China, Russia.
Fareed Zakaria: Fawaz, would you agree with that, that the – that the intelligence and army are not convinced that Assad is going down, that's why they're clinging to him? That it would be possible to pry them away?
Fawaz Gerges: Fareed, you and I, we talked six months ago when I was in Syria. I don't know if you remember. And I made the point that it's not just about the security apparatus. The reason why I think this particular regime has a lot of staying power for several reasons.
First, it has a critical base of support, social support, Fareed. Millions of Syrians, sadly to say, not just Alawites. The Christians I talked to Fareed, they're more fanatical, pro-Assad than the Alawites. You have the bourgeoisie class, the merchant class that has benefited from the neo-liberal policies of the Assad regime. So a critical base of support.
You have the security apparatus that has remained solidly behind him. And when I say a solid security base, Fareed, I'm talking about 300,000 troops and soldiers. Assad can mobilize up to 500,000 special forces and has – he has been doing so.
And, not only that, of course, he has the support of Iran. Iran – I mean, what we need to understand, Fareed, is that the Iraq – the Tehran-Baghdad road now has become the lifeline of the Assad regime in terms of money, in terms of arms, so he has the veto – two double vetoes in the last 10 months. And that's why I think we need to have some humility, and we have to be blunt with the position.
Yes, Assad might not survive, will not survive on the long-term. But this is going to be a very deeply entrenched, very bloody, very costly, very prolonged conflict, indeed.
Fareed Zakaria: Elliott, when you confront a double veto from the Russians and Chinese, which effectively means the U.N. Security Council is not going to be able to authorize these actions, which we – you know, which we all understand provide legitimacy, provide cover, allowed a lot of regional players to get involved. What you do you do at that stage? Would – do you think that the United States should be moving down a unilateral path here?
Elliott Abrams: Well, it wouldn't be unilateral. I think we would be consulting with the Arab League, with the Turks, with the GCC, the Gulf Corporation Council countries, because, in fact, there is a very large amount of support against the Assad regime. It doesn't happen to include Iran, Russia and China.
The question now, really, is who is going to win – the Russian, Chinese, Iranian side backing Hezbollah, backing Assad? Or the other side, which includes the Saudis, the Turks, the Europeans, the Arab League, the GCC, and us?
Now, Assad is willing to kill to prevent himself from being ousted from power, and the question really is are we going to back the other side, along with the Arabs? Are we going to back them with words, or, you know, to back them with something a little bit more tangible?
Fareed Zakaria: What would that more tangible thing be, Elliott?
Elliott Abrams: More tangible thing would be the kind of support that was given initially in Libya. That is, I would give them money, and I would give them arms. That's both of the two things they need right now.
They don't need American airplanes. But they do need what would, from our point of view, be covert support. I would hope that it would come from Arab countries rather than directly from the United States. But they're being slaughtered, and they have rifles, and we should not watch that happen and sit by. We should give them help, concrete help.
Fareed Zakaria: Fawaz, would that expand this incipient civil war?
Fawaz Gerges: That's a terrible advice, Fareed, because the worst thing that can happen to the uprising, the awakening, is the militarization of the Intifada, because that would exactly play into the Assad's basically worldview, and the United States has been correct saying that the most effective means to basically dislodge Assad is to have a tipping point.
What we need to understand, Fareed, in the last 10 months, there has been a war being waged against the Assad regime. You have a financial war, economic war, psychological war. The squeeze is amazing, and I mentioned I just came back. How much – I mean, the Syrian people, and the Syrian economy is being hurt.
Because if we do arm the opposition, if we try to go that particular road, Syria will descend into all-out civil war. Already Syria is on the verge, on the brink. We should struggle very hard to convince the opposition to remain a political – and help the opposition, because the tipping point, Fareed, I believe the social balance of forces inside Syria.
Once the middle class fully joins the uprising, Assad is a goner, I believe.
Elliott Abrams: Here is the problem with that, I think. The longer this fighting goes on - and this is a war of the regime against the people. The longer this regime fights the people, kills the people, kills a Sunni majority population, the harder it's going to be at the end to pull the pieces back together to avoid revenge and to get reconciliation.
If this goes on for another nine or 12 months, there will be too much blood will have been shed. That's why it's important, I think, to bring it to an end sooner.
Fareed Zakaria: Rami, let me ask you a final point, which is about Iran. Iran is really the main sponsor of this regime. This doesn't look very good for them as the regime – as Syria gets squeezed, as this descends into turmoil. How do you think this is being seen in Iran and how is it seen in the region?
Rami Khouri: Iran is emerging as probably one of the great losers from the current Arab uprisings all across the region, and the Iranians probably have to look at home because they're not impervious to these kinds of uprisings themselves, either. There's tensions within Iran.
But this is going to be played out in Syria. This is a battle between the – the rulers of Syria and the – many of the people of Syria.
As Fawaz correctly said, there is strong support for the regime, as there was for Ceauşescu, as there was for other leaders who are overthrown, finally, by their own people. So the Syrian regime's in trouble, the Iranian can help it, but once the erosion starts in the pillars of the regime, the security, the Alawites, some of the minorities and the middle class in Aleppo and Damascus. And all of this is happening to a very slight extent, but it's been increasing over the last eight, 10 months. The trend is very clear, and I think foreign military intervention would probably be catastrophic, and to hear Americans suggest this is to think back what they did in – in Iraq and what an extraordinary catastrophe that has been. That's still plays itself out today.
So I think we need to feel the pain of the Syrian people. It's a terrible thing to watch them as we do here, and we see the refugees coming into Lebanon and the businessmen and the civil activists telling us what's going on. But, in the end, this has to be played out in Syria, and I think it will be.