The Arab Spring has now turned into summer and the avalanche of images and analysis out of Egypt has turned into a slow trickle out of Syria. That's because Syria, vitally important, is all but closed off to outsiders.
My guest this past Sunday was Fawaz Gerges. He managed to get deep inside that nation in revolt. Fawaz Gerges is the Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. He joined me from Beirut to offer a sobering analysis of why Bashar al-Assad is likely to hold on to power in Syria.
Here's a transcript of our conversation:
ZAKARIA: Fawaz, what is the – what was your first reaction being in Syria, what is your sense of the mood?
GERGES: Well, Fareed, the situation is very fluid. It's a very, very confusing situation.
I have spoken to schools of Syrians in Syria and in Lebanon over the last one week or so, and the country seems to be deeply divided. It's divided along class line. There is decadent wealth and abject poverty. It's divided along sectarian lines.
But the big point here to highlight, Fareed, is that the protests in Syria are not as thick and large as some of the protests that we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The reality is, is that the Assad regime retains a solid social base of support. If you ask me to put a number on this social base of support, I would say the regime has about 40 percent of supporters. And in the last two weeks or so, the regime has mobilized its followers and basically it's flagging national sentiments about the flag and the army as the guardian of the nation.
ZAKARIA: Fawaz, it sounds like what you're describing is a regime that will be able to crush these protests, if it has a base of support that is not insignificant, whether it's 40 percent or even if 30 percent, it has the army. It has the will to use very lethal force. Do you see it being able to ride out this protest movement?
GERGES: I would say the odds are against the protesters. The regime not only has a solid social base of support, but also has the support of the security forces and the army. Despite some reports of minor mutinies, individual officers, there are no credible reports about larger scale mutiny in the army and the security forces.
And also, as you said, the regime itself has the will and in order to really survive and basically fight it out. The fear is that given the polarization in Syria, given the socioeconomic and the sectarian and ideological divide, I would argue that Syria faces very difficult days ahead. We're talking about low-intensity conflict as opposed to regime change along the lines of Tunisia and Egypt. The regime will be able to weather this powerful storm.
My take on it is that it will emerge weaker. And it also will be much more dependent on Iran. One of the major I think results of what has happened in the last few weeks in Syria is that Syria has lost Turkey. The relationship between Turkey and Syria has been and was strategic. President Assad nourish a very close relationship with the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Erdogan, as you all know, has been very critical of Syria. He in fact reprimanded the Syrian regime for the divide, the gap between its rhetoric (ph) and actions publicly.
And this particular loss of Turkey, which has really been the foundation of Assad's geo strategic relationship will make Syria much more dependent on Iran in the next few months and next few years ahead.
ZAKARIA: And what does this – this mean for the United States? The United States government has been careful on Syria while it clearly doesn't like the Assad regime and clearly seems to sympathize with the protest movements, it has not publicly called for the resignation of Assad for a transition to democracy, partly I gather because it feels as though it might not succeed and it will be inciting people to – to revolt and then be crushed.
Is the American strategy in your opinion the right one?
GERGES: I think so. I think the United States, the Obama administration finds itself between a rock and a harder place. I think the administration would like the Syrian regime to open up the closed, authoritarian political space and basically put an end to the one-party rule in Syria.
But the reality is the United States knows very well that Syria is a very complex society, that Syria is a very divided society, that the Assad regime is deeply entrenched and the security forces support the Assad regime. And I think the United States, as I understand, is also very concerned about the sectarian divide in Syria and the potential repercussions into Lebanon in particular.
I can tell you, I live – my family lives, Fareed, about 15 minutes from the Syrian borders. And Lebanon now, if you really want to understand what's happening in Syria, Lebanon is as deeply divided about the Syrian situation. Many Lebanese are deeply concerned that basically Syria plunging into conflict will likely plunge Lebanon into all-out sectarian conflict as well.
ZAKARIA: Fawaz, did you ever feel in danger when you were there?
GERGES: I did not really. I traveled as a local as you know, you know, by the crossing in Northern Lebanon as a local, and, no, I did not because I – I did not travel as a journalist. I have crossed into Syria many times. I don't need a visa.
And what's really amazing, Fareed, if you drive and you don't see any military presence even though I understand you have tens of thousands of security personnel, civilians basically all over the place. The reality is, Fareed, there is trouble in Syria. Syria is divided.
There are protests in Syria, but the protests are not as thick and large as the protests that we have seen in many parts of the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt. They're isolated. You're talking about thousands of protesters as opposed to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. And we can explain why. You have multiple factors, many factors that explain the lack of the huge crowds that we have not seen in Syria today.
ZAKARIA: A fascinating account, Fawaz, of a Syria that perhaps will endure, the regime will endure, but weaken with lower-intensity conflict and, of course, the loss of a very crucial ally in Turkey. Thank you for all of that.