June 4th, 2012
09:04 AM ET

Syria: Nightmare scenario on horizon?

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

It has been more than a year since Syria's uprising began, but unlike with Egypt, Tunisia or even Libya, there is no clear endgame.

What does the recent massacre there signal, how long can the regime of President Bashar al-Assad hang on and what should the U.S. do? Fawaz Gerges has been in and out of Syria three times in the last year, and he says it looks and feels like a civil war. Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of "Obama and the Middle East, the End of America's Moment," weighs in on the issue, in this edited interview with Fareed Zakaria from "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

ZAKARIA: What do you make of the recent brutal massacre? Does it tell us something about the regime? It feels like this is an attempt to really rule by a kind of terrible brutal example. What they are sending a signal throughout Syria is if any place tries something like this, you will be mowed down.

GERGES: The Houla massacre will not be the first and the last massacre. As you said, this is using fear as a tactic to terrorize the opposition and the population. My fear is that, in fact, the rock has set in. The significance of the slaughter in Houla is that it increases sector intentions between the minority-led government, the Alawite minority, President al-Assad, and the Sunni-dominated majority. What we are witnessing now, Fareed, is that the Syrian crisis, which was essentially a political crisis basically has turned into a protracted conflict.

Chaos has spread all over Syria. The Syrian government no longer has a monopoly on the use of force. It no longer controls many areas of Syria. And I believe that the writing is on the wall. We're going to see more and more violence in the next few weeks and next few months. My fear is that the protracted armed conflict could easily plunge Syria into all-out sectarian strife. This is the nightmare scenario in Syria.

Related: Fareed's Take: The case against intervention

ZAKARIA: For a year, while many people believed and predicted that the al-Assad regime would fall quickly, you argued the opposite: you said that the regime did not seem likely to fall for a variety of reasons. You said that there were no defections among the military apparatus. Do you think that with this new situation, the regime can hold on?

GERGES: There are so many unknown variables. The first unknown variable is basically costs of the sanctions that have been imposed on Syria in the last year or so. As you know, America is waging a war by other means, an economic war. A psychological war. Can Syria survive another harsh winter in terms of Syria needs gas, cooking oil, food.

Secondly, we don't know what's happening within the security apparatus - the extent of tensions between the military and the security apparatus. But the reality is the security forces in Syria have proved to be much more resilient than many observers and many Western governments have believed. That the Syrian government, the al-Assad regime, despite everything that you have heard, retains a critical base of support. You have many Syrians, millions of Syrians, still supporting this particular regime.

And more importantly, the Syrian crisis has been caught in a fierce regional struggle between the Iranian camp on the one hand and the Saudi camp on the other hand. Syria is receiving tremendous support from both Iraq, America's ally, and Iran as well. Not to mention that the U.N. Security Council has been neutralized by a double Russian and Chinese veto.

So internally, regionally and internationally, it seems to me that this is a highly complex and protracted conflict, and no, far from being his days numbered, I think al-Assad will be with us for a while, unfortunately for the Syrian people.

ZAKARIA: Can I get you to expand on one thing you said there? You mentioned that this has turned into a sectarian, regional struggle, with the Saudi Arabia funding what is becoming essentially a Sunni insurgency against the al-Assad regime - al-Assad being an Alawite, which is essentially a Shiite regime, supported by Iran but also by Iraq. So our ally, the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is supporting the Syrian regime. Is that correct?

GERGES: It's absolutely correct. In fact, I would argue that the Tehran-Baghdad road has become the lifeline of the al-Assad regime. Syria is receiving tremendous support, material support, political support, and even military support, and Iraq sees itself as basically part of the alliance against the so-called the Turkish, Saudi, Sunni-dominated alliance, but my fear is that what the Houla massacre has done, it has poured gasoline on a raging fire, and my fear is that the essentially political conflict in Syria could easily expand into a sectarian strife, destroying not only Syria, but also neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan and spilling over into Iraq as well.

ZAKARIA: What do you think the United States should do? There are people advocating military intervention. Mitt Romney is now saying the president should take a firmer stand, whatever that means. What do you think we should do?

GERGES: It's extremely difficult to watch the massacres like this Houla massacre and remain neutral. I really feel sometimes being morally complicit in saying that military intervention in Syria will most likely exacerbate an already dangerous situation. In fact, I would argue that military intervention in Syria will likely plunge Syria faster into all-out sectarian strife. Not to mention the fact that regional powers will come in, Hezbollah and Iran. This will turn into a region-wide conflict. And there is no Security Council resolution to intervene in Syria.

I think the Obama administration is doing the right thing. That is, trying to economically strangle the al-Assad regime. The only point here is that we know from the history of sanctions, to what extent have the sanctions exacted a heavy toll on the al-Assad regime? How long can the al-Assad regime basically maintain its posture, given the fact it's receiving support from its regional allies, Iran and Iraq, and also trade with Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey? So, the reality is all options are bad. The menu of choice is very limited. I don't think the Obama administration has the luxury to entertain military intervention in Syria. This is really quite what I call the nuclear option for the United States and Syria and its neighbors as well.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Patrick-2

    The only true nightmare here would be an all out Western invasion of Syria itself! The thought of another NATO invasion anywhere is enough to make a billie goat want to puke! Enough of our poking our noses where they don't belong! Please.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      Why would NATO invade Syria ? There's absolutely no way they would do that.
      Dropping some bombs however, that's a different story. And that would not be a nightmare scenario. This crisis needs to end.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
  2. Bill

    Though mentioned above, Syria is not in a total state of chaos. While the rebellion is able to strike here and there, they have failed to control any major area of the country (I am not sure were Gerges gets his info). I cannot see how Assad would fall quickly, since he maintains loyalty of the Alawite minority have control of most army and security forces. The free Syrians have yet to show any ability to coordinate or communicate with each other, and have appeared very weak. I can see Assad holding on a very long time, and so can China and Russia, which is why they are not acting.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Paul

      I think Russia and China are not acting for another reason: they don't want to establish the precedent of international action when a gov't violently supresses an internal uprising.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
      • Joe

        I refuse to accept there is violent suppression until CNN's Syrian Danny come up with the proof.

        June 4, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Gerges said Assad's regime no longer has the monopoly of power. Yes it's easier for him to defend his position if he could delegate power to his staunch henchmen like the shabiha militia, which has taken on a high-profile repression role in the centre of Damascus, dressed in the uniforms of riot police and alienating the public by brutal and intrusive behaviour. Nevertheless there are signs that Assad is losing ground. Sunni merchants in the souks of Old Damascus – previously a staunch pillar of support for the regime – have for the past several days closed their shops and gone on strike over the Houla massacre, despite attempts by regime loyalists to make them reopen. Also economic collapse is lurking round the corner in the captial. On top of it, reliable sources said Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and a few others – are still seriously ill after being poisoned by an opposition infiltrator at a top-level security meeting last month.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  4. Paul

    The real nightmare scenario would be if Syria's chemical and biological weapons fall into the hands of the "rebels", some of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda and similar organizations.

    June 4, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  5. Tony

    The U.S Against the Syrian people. America doesnt want freedom for the Syrian people .

    June 4, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      The US wants the Syrian oil and the Russian base. But The Russians said: get lost.

      June 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Reply
      • Kerry

        Joe, what oil? There is none to entice the world. The U.S. already has oil sources, in any event. This is not an 'oil' war. It's a civil war between differing religious factions. It's not something America needs to touch.

        June 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Yup

      Go back to bed

      June 6, 2012 at 9:07 am | Reply
  6. BAQI BARZANI

    SYRIAN DICTATORIAL REGIME MUST AND WILL COLLAPSE.
    STOP PROPPING UP DICTATORS!
    SUPPORT THE RIGHTS OF OPPRESSED PEOPLE!

    KURDISTAN INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT
    K.I.M.
    USA

    June 4, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  7. BAQI BARZANI

    BAQI BARZANI
    SYRIAN DICTATORIAL REGIME MUST AND WILL COLLAPSE.
    STOP PROPPING UP DICTATORS!
    SUPPORT THE RIGHTS OF OPPRESSED PEOPLE!

    KURDISTAN INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT
    K.I.M.
    USA

    June 4, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

      Baqi Barzani is right, the Syrian regime must and will collapse. The question is: how do you get from here to there with least danger of further escalation and bloodshed? The UN is clearly not helpful. It is in their power to scare the hell out of Russia and China, by invoking the UN Chapter VII, Art. 41! Why do they fear to exercise their right and mandate? There must be some powerful Russian stooge in the midst of the UN Security Council! The Article 41 is not a threat of military intervention; that comes with Article 42. What the former does, is to put China and Russia on notice, by saying: do more and fast, or you will be blocked from entering the Syrian port and from doing commerce with Syria! The UN can and should say, that this is essential to stop all flow of arms from all sides. If Russia and China fail to agree, then they will only have themselves to blame for the imposition of Article 42, which means "partial" military measures, like "safety corridors", no-fly zone, etc.! The Kurdistan Independence Movement ought to contact the UN and the world powers on this!

      June 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  8. Araldike

    Only way Syria can achieve peace and destroy the terrorists is with Russia's help. Otherwise it will end up like Libya and Iraq.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:48 am | Reply
  9. dl

    Yes, obviously bad luck was gone, things can only get better in Syria. God bless u.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:21 am | Reply
  10. Dr A Kruger

    Nightmare "On the horizon"? What do you think is going on there right now?? Fairy tales?

    June 5, 2012 at 1:50 am | Reply
  11. jdoe

    "sector intentions" should be "sectarian tensions". Not that it matters much, but bad spelling is becoming commonplace in the U.S., even in books, magazines, or news articles that should be proofread. Where are the copy editors?

    June 5, 2012 at 2:02 am | Reply
  12. Jack

    NATO should stay out of this in terms of sending boots on the ground. NATO can support those who are pushing for Assad's ouster by various means. It is clear NATO is/will support Saudi, Dubia, UAE, Qatar, Jordan. The Arab League needs to take the lead here. NATO will need to counter that strategies that Russia and China retain. If the Syrains are freed from under the Assad government then the Syrian people should recognize who their real partners are and they are NOT Russia or China.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:09 am | Reply
  13. Lisa

    NATO should not get involved. Let the Arab League get involved if it wants...it has the money. This is not a NATO issue.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
  14. Quigley

    The Russians did the right thing about Syria. Let's just hope that they don't cave in to the West. NATO has no legitamate business in Syria at all!

    June 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

      Your statement is nonsense. 9,000 dead and more coming is "good thing"? China and Russia sacrificed thousands of innocent Syrians to their own national Realpolitic and self-interest!

      June 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  15. Bible Prophecy

    Isaiah 17:1

    The burden against Damascus.

    “Behold, Damascus will cease from being a city, and it will be a ruinous heap.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  16. Tafnir

    Did the Syrian poke the fire for more than 15 years, during the Civil War in Lebanon ?

    Now let them kill each others for 15 years ! No outside intervention ! I want Isaiah 17:1 realized !

    June 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  17. Syrian**1

    One thing all forgot to mention is the fact that Mr Gerges himself is part of this conflict. As an Eastern Orthodox christian, his church leaders have stood whole heartedly by the regime of the baby killer-in-chief in Syria. So I don't think that CNN played it well by asking him to be the "man" to go to in this GPS episode. He is part of it. And deep down in his heart I am sure that he has a lot of good wishes for the murderer-in-office in Syria.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  18. Elma

    Syrian regime is following an Iranian prescription for the national wide unrest. Iranian regime is playing a big to win time and they are getting what they want. All American souls got lost in Afghanistan and Iraq by the hands of this regime. They wanted us to be kicked from Iraq and they got what they want. They are trying hard in Afghanistan too. They are making the world busy in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon to achieve time. They are getting it. They think that they will take what they want if they make their nuclear bombs.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  19. herblaub

    The U>S> should get the saudi's to play an active role along with other Arab sources to help the anti Assad faction now because Assad defeat is also a defeat for the Iranians who supply Syria-Hisballlah and other anti-Western interests in the region.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  20. herblaub

    A Assad defeat is a victory for the West and other moderate forces in the world

    June 5, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  21. Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

    This may be so and probably is. The problem is that Russia and its newly found mignon, China, do not want Assad"s defeat. These two countries must somehow be persuaded to back of and seek compromise.

    June 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply

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