Zakaria: Al-Assad overthrow would likely mean bloodbath
September 22nd, 2013
12:07 AM ET

Zakaria: Al-Assad overthrow would likely mean bloodbath

CNN speaks with Fareed and Sebastian Junger, journalist and author of ‘War,’ about Syria’s civil war and whether U.S. military intervention is the best response to its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Sebastian, you wrote a very provocative, important article in the Washington Post. Referring to Syria you wrote "At some point pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It's not a matter of how we're going to explain this to the Syrians. It's a matter of how we're going to explain this to our kids." 

You're saying that war actually may be the answer to what's going on in Syria right now. Explain.

My first war was in Bosnia and every war that I've covered since then has been ended or drastically reduced by U.S. military action, by NATO military action. I think a true anti-war position doesn't just mean ignoring a civil war like we did in Rwanda. It means eventually after all diplomatic efforts have failed to use military threat and eventually military action. In Bosnia, a two-week NATO campaign ended a genocide. Amazingly, in the United States, the only people I knew who are against that were my fellow liberals and pacifists who thought that there was never a reason to use violence. And I think that's wrong. Certainly looking back on World War II, imagine had we not entered that war what the results would have been for the world.

And you speak as a war correspondent. Fareed, what do you think about that?

Zakaria: I think the question really is it's not enough to be outraged by what's happening in Syria, because there's all the reason in the world to be outraged, but how would an American military intervention stop the suffering?

As I can see it, American military intervention, even if it is successful, would depose Assad. We know what would happen. Assad and the Alawites and supporters of that regime would fight back as insurgents, as guerillas. That would be phase two of the civil war in which the Sunni militias that are currently opposed to Assad would go on a rampage and slaughter the Alawites and their supporters. And then there would be infighting among them.

We've seen this movie before. This is exactly what happened in Iraq. So I'm perplexed by Sebastian's point that American military intervention has always stopped and solved wars. I'm thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm even thinking of Vietnam – you can think of lots of cases. We can always pick one's history to prove one's point, but let's stick with this particular case.

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If the United States deposes Assad, if anyone could explain to me how the civil war in Syria, which is really a deep sectarian struggle, would end, I'd be much more comfortable with it. I think what is more likely to happen is, frankly, it would escalate and you would then have a bloodbath between the two sides with the Assad regime fighting back as guerillas and insurgents, the Sunni militias each trying to take power and simultaneously rid the country of the Alawites. It strikes me as a fairly messy situation.

Junger: Well, I was speaking very specifically about civil wars that we intervened in. I was completely against invading Iraq. These humanitarian crises started in the '90s after the fall of the Berlin wall. And we did end war after war – Sierra Leone, Liberia. It was pretty amazing how effective NATO was.

In terms of Syria, our president is not saying that we're going to intervene to end the war and depose Assad. In fact, he's specifically saying that he's not trying to do that. His point, as I understand it, is that when weapons of mass destruction are used against citizens, against civilians, it's contrary to humanitarian law, it's a crime against humanity. And if we let this pass, in some sense it's not even about the Syrians, it's about the future of the world. If this passes, the next time someone does this it might be even worse. Then we have to draw a line that there are certain crimes against humanity that cannot occur without some kind of consequence for the government that perpetrates them.

Zakaria: Sebastian, I agree with you. I agree with what the presidents doing.

Go ahead.

I agree with what the president is doing and I very much support the idea of taking the chemical weapons out. All I'm pointing out is it won't end the civil war.

Junger: I don't think anyone is suggesting it will.

I'm sure they are hiding some of these. But I still hold out hope for the deal.

Here's why. If you are concerned about these chemical weapons and the precedent it sets and the dangers, and I think Sebastian and I both agree that this is a real problem, then anything we can do to secure some large part of this arsenal and potentially destroy it is a good thing. Remember, the military strikes don't do that. The military strikes are purely punishment. You don't ever attack a chemical weapons depot because that would actually release the toxins into the atmosphere.

So the negotiated strategy with the threat of force of actually securing them is a more effective way of actually dealing with the problem of chemical weapons. We won't get 100 percent of that. I'm absolutely sure the Syrians will cheat. But if you look at the Iraq example, the inspectors actually got most of the chemical weapons out of Iraq, which is why when we invaded, we found nothing in there.

I believe that the threat of military force does act to coerce people into good behavior. It's why police carry guns. But I think if you're going to do that, by the same token, you also have to reward good behavior. And if the Iranians are asking for a negotiation, as long as this country and the world community is very, very strict about what they deem acceptable behavior, I think you have to sort of take it on good faith that at least it's the start of a dialogue.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Allan Kinsman

    I agree with using diplomacy to rid the Syrians of their weapons of mass destruction. After all the United States armed Iraq with gas and they used it on the Kurds. Now the Russians gave the Syrians nerve gas they used it on their peoples with a similar result. A cohesive foreign policy would reduce proliferation of any kind of weapon of mass destruction. Any selling of weapons of mass destruction should be on the table in all of our foreign negotiations with any government from this point forward.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:57 am | Reply
    • vonrock

      And the Germans came out a said the Gas they sold them wasn't 'Sarin' oh good what a relief.

      September 22, 2013 at 3:03 am | Reply
  2. ✠RZ✠

    Bloodbath, after bloodbath, after bloodbath. And still no end in sight. So why topple another regime ? Would it be best perhaps to get out entirely, and risk what might result? Get US officials out of the embassies and consulates (19 since August?). And get your troops out of hot zones (still working on it, but almost there). Then pull out direct military and financial support to allies (Israel is just itching to use big military power, and the Saudis are now stockpiling) because we can't afford it anymore and we don't want it. Bloodbath or what?

    September 22, 2013 at 1:11 am | Reply
  3. Firas Khoury

    Dear Mr Zakaria,

    I really appreciate your thoughts and takes about Syria. However, what really strikes me in this article, like any other's article, is how much the "civil war" term is being used when it comes to describing what's happening in Syria.

    I'm a Syrian citizen living in Damascus, and have been, not only watching or following, but also witnessing and living this three-year long conflict day by day and hour by hour.

    It's absolutely not appropriate to describe the situation in Syria as a civil war. Of course there are many armed groups coming from different ideologies have been fighting the regime for almost two years (some of those have recently ended up fighting each other). But we can not call the act of these groups a civil war.

    It's an armed conflict started almost like 3 years ago between two major parties (the regime and people being defected from the army) and has gradually but partially taken many forms, including the so called "Nusra Front", among others. But this can all be defined under military or armed conflict between certain groups and the government. Not a civil war between the people themselves. We have yet to witness a conflict between one neighborhood and another, not only in Damascus but even in the hotspot areas in the other cities of Syria like Homs and Aleppo.

    I really hope that people's perspectives abroad about the notion of civil war in Syria are to be well addressed and carefully discussed and assessed towards well understanding the nature of conflict in Syria for further better reaction by both public opinion of all nations and their governments.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
  4. George patton

    That creep Sebastian Junger is enough to even make a billy goat want to puke, Fareed!!! I saw him interviewed and I was thoroughly disgusted at his love for war. He said that we have a "moral obligation" to jump in and murder at least 15 to 20,000 or more people. At least you have it right. Bashar al-Assad needs to stay in power if Syria has any hope of ever returning to normalcy.

    September 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Sebastian Junger said "that the threat of military force does act to coerce people into good behavior......., by the same token, you also have to reward good behaviour".
    True, Assad is going to co-operate and stick to the US-Russian disarmament agreement. But is the world going to reward him for this "good behaviour"? No, he belongs in the dock!
    Fareed, why can't you opt for a breakup of Syria? If the Sunnis and Alawites have their independence, this might prevent massacres.

    September 23, 2013 at 8:32 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Even more than Syria, j.von hettlingen, Iraq sorely needs to be divided into three different states. First, by giving the north to thr Kurds, the south to the Shiites and the west to the Sunnis. Secondly, we need to stop creating pseudo-democracies like the ones in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan as we're currently endeavoring to do in Syria!

      September 23, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  6. Wacked or fact

    George patton, I believe it is Shias, not Shiites.

    September 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply

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