Egypt to end Camp David?/ Syria Again
Mar 16, 2012
Update from AIJAC
March 16, 2012
Number 03/12 #05
This Update deals with recent developments in Egypt, and especially the passage of a unanimous resolution by Egypt’s Islamist-dominated parliament demanding a severing of all ties with Israel on Monday.
Israeli strategic analyst Jonathan D. Halevi looks at the implications of the resolution in more depth, including all of its provisions – its statement that Israel will “never” be anything but an enemy, full support for Palestinian “armed resistance” against Israel, demands for a total boycott of Israel and a severing of all ties, an implied demand for an Egyptian nuclear capability and its rejection of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While Halevi notes that the parliament cannot implement the resolution with the military government still in power, this is likely to change by June, a mere three months from now. He notes that resolution not only portends all-out Egyptian support – financial, military and diplomatic – for Palestinian terrorism, but, by backing Hamas’ rejectionism, effectively forecloses any ability the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah has to make peace with Israel. For this sober but frightening assessment of what may be to come between Israel and Egypt, CLICK HERE. Barry Rubin is also warning strongly about the significance of the Egyptian parliamentary motion, arguing that it means Egypt will shortly be at war with Israel in all but name, and recent developments in Egypt are the biggest disaster of the Arab spring.
Next up is Israel’s former Ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, who looks at the role of the ruling SCAF military council in dealings with Israel. He notes that SCAF has tried largely to be pragmatic, and played a positive role in negotiating the ceasefire that ended the recent violence, but risks a collision with the Muslim Brotherhood, and has itself seemed to behave irrationally at times when it comes to Israel. He concludes that there are many uncertainties about the transition to civilian rule, and questions about what will happen after that which lead to great uneasiness. For his analysis in full, CLICK HERE. Mazel mentions in passing the ongoing saga of the American NGO employees arrested and charged in Egypt and then eventually allowed to leave – Washington Institute scholar Eric Trager had more good analysis of the politics of that issue here.
Finally, we offer you a wide-ranging discussion of the realities behind Syria’s uprising, with some special insights into the Assads and how they see the world from someone who personally worked with Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator. It comes in the form of an interview conducted by prolific Middle East reporter Michael Totten with Andrew Tabler, a journalist who worked inside Syria with the Assads for five years, before being expelled by the security services over something critical he wrote in an overseas publication. He has some important insights into the Assads, the ethnic patchwork of Syria, the security forces, the control over information in Syria, and other crucial issues for understanding the prospects and possible aftermath of the current uprising and violent government crackdown. For this long but important interview, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Calls for intervention in Syria mount – for example, see here, here and here. Even Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman has entered the debate.
- The Gaza ceasefire continues to be violated by rocket fire into Israel.
Veteran Israel commentator Evelyn Gordon notes something surprising and telling about the recent Gaza fighting – while Israeli children near Gaza were forced to stay home, Palestinian children in Gaza attended school as usual.
- Israeli strategists Efraim Inbar and Max Singer argue Israel missed an opportunity to do more to stem the Gaza threat over the weekend.
- Some additional pieces on Iran’s role in the recent Gaza fighting – here, here and here.
- Fatah creates yet another pre-condition for renewed peace talks with Israel.
- Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority demands that all churches in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain be destroyed (Saudi Arabia already forbids them).
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A post on why threatening to attack Iran may prevent the need to attack Iran.
- A post on some interesting and unreported revelations from those newly leaked emails from Syrian President Assad.
- Two posts on UN shenanigans – one involving UNESCO and Syria and another involving the UN Commission on the Status of Women and Israel.
- Yet another false attempt to blame a child’s death on Israel in last weekend’s Gaza flare-up, following the case last Monday.
- A Palestinian academic explains that Israel’s policy of “targeted killing” of the leaders of terror groups planning attacks is very effective.
- New sources on Israel-China relations.
The New Egyptian Parliament Takes Aim at the Camp David Accords
Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, March 15, 2012
The new Egyptian Parliament recently issued a statement undermining the 1979 peace agreement by proclaiming it was Israel’s bitter enemy. On March 12, 2012, Dr. Mohamed Al-Saed Idris, Chairman of the Arab Affairs Committee in the Parliament, presented the committee’s official outline of Egypt’s regional policy, as approved by a parliamentary majority that included the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi party, and the Egyptian Left parties. Idris is one of the founders of the Kefaya protest movement and a member of the leftist al-Karama party, which has formed an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
The statement of the Arab Affairs Committee is important in its wording and content. The term “the State of Israel” is not mentioned and is replaced throughout by the terms “Zionist entity” and “the enemy.” The statement focused on recent tensions between Israel and Gaza (Israeli attacks against Palestinian terrorist organizations and the launching of hundreds of rockets into Israel). It celebrates Palestinian terrorism, which is called “resistance,” and denies the very existence of Israel, which it defines as “an imperialist settlement entity” which is of “an aggressive nature” and which “drove a nation from its land by force to establish a racist state.” The U.S. is also blamed by the Egyptian parliament for its unconditional support of Israel.
The committee’s statement included a list of operative recommendations to the political echelon, including:
- An official definition of Israel as an enemy – “Post-revolutionary Egypt will never be a friend, partner or ally of the Zionist entity, which we see as the foremost enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation. Egypt will treat this entity as an enemy, and the Egyptian government should reconsider its entire relationship and agreements with this enemy and the threat it poses to the security and national interests of Egypt.”
- Severance of diplomatic relations with Israel – “The expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Egypt, returning the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, cessation of the export of Egyptian gas to that entity, freezing of activities under the QIZ agreement [the Qualified Industrial Zones trade agreement] whose terms violate the sovereignty and national interests of Egypt.”
- Full support for the armed struggle against Israel – “Providing all means of support to the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank, in order to allow this nation to stand firm against Israel’s policy of aggression. Adopting resistance in all its forms and manifestations, and referring to this path as the strategic path to the liberation of occupied land, after the leaders of the Zionist entity stressed that the so-called peace process is nothing but a track of lies and red tape in order to gain time to Judaize and annex all of what that entity wants to Judaize and annex in the land of Palestine.”
- Re-adoption of the total boycott of Israel – “A return to the total Arab boycott policy that includes the Zionist entity and the international companies that maintain ties with it, and referring to the boycott as a factor which supports the struggle.”
- Raising the issue of Jerusalem as a major issue in the international arena – “Demanding from the Arab states and the Al-Quds Committee [of the Organization of the Islamic Conference] to act against the Zionist entity’s plans to Judaize Al-Quds [the Arabic name of Jerusalem] and force it to become the eternally united capital of the entity, and to work diligently in all international organizations and channels in order to determine that the Zionist attacks which threaten the Al-Aqsa Mosque are crimes against humanity, history and culture.”
- Support for a united Palestinian front for the liberation of Palestine – “A call to all Palestinian organizations and factions to unite, renounce their differences and divisions, and work for the restoration of the PLO to lead the Palestinian struggle to liberate the occupied land.”
- Reviewing Egyptian nuclear policy – “A demand that the Egyptian government reopen the Israeli nuclear issue and discuss Israeli nuclear capabilities, as they can cause a direct threat to Egyptian national security and Arab national security. The U.S. and the international community…must act as seriously toward the Israeli nuclear threat as they act toward what they consider an Iranian nuclear threat. Egypt must be prepared to immediately examine the Egyptian nuclear policy which is opposed to nuclear proliferation and which demands to make the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. Israel is the only country that refuses to sign a treaty against nuclear proliferation and to open its nuclear facilities, and particularly the reactor in Dimona, to inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
- An active and effective policy against Israel – “We demand action and not just words, serious actions are worthy of post-revolutionary Egypt, its government and its parliament. We swear that we will never be neglectful in protecting our homeland and our nation.”
The Arab Affairs Committee’s statement was unanimously accepted and applauded in Parliament and reflects the true perception of the Islamic elements in the Egyptian political leadership (which is also shared by the leftist organizations). In its eyes, Israel is the foremost enemy of Egypt and the Arab and Islamic world, and the peace agreement with it (the Camp David agreement) is considered a dead letter.
The new Egyptian tone indicates the beginning of the formation of an Egyptian policy of confrontation against Israel, first of all in the political and economic spheres and through direct support of the Palestinian armed struggle. Egypt is setting itself on a collision course with Israel, using the Palestinian issue in all its aspects – including Israeli military operations against Palestinian terrorism as well as Israeli policy in Jerusalem or the West Bank – as an excuse for direct Egyptian intervention. At the operational level, the new Egyptian leadership declares its commitment “to assist the Palestinian struggle/resistance in all its forms and manifestations,” which means providing direct assistance to Palestinian terrorism, which may be expressed through money, weapons, training, and transfer of intelligence.
Defining Israel as a “major enemy” which threatens national Egyptian and Arab security is of great importance, since its translation into action means building a military capability to deal with the “Israeli threat,” including an attempt to deny Israel any advantage in the nuclear field and/or the development of Egyptian nuclear weapons.
At present, the new Egyptian political leadership cannot translate these policies into actions. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi party attained an absolute majority in the Parliament and the Upper House, but the full transfer of powers from the military government to the elected civilian government has not yet been completed.
Today, Egyptian foreign policy is not directed by the Egyptian Parliament. For now, Egypt is still controlled by the military and the government leaders appointed by it. This situation is likely to change after the presidential elections on May 23-24 and the establishment of a new civilian government. The division of responsibility between the new government and the military in the future remains to be seen. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the presidential election could potentially complete its takeover of the political system in Egypt and allow the Islamic movement to accelerate its political consolidation, to purge the army of its old guard, and to recapture a leadership position in the Arab world, based in part on the struggle against Israel.
The Egyptian position, which is completely supportive of Hamas and the struggle against Israel, in practice, eliminates the ability of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, to lead political moves toward an historic compromise agreement with Israel. Moreover, it gradually prepares the ground for permanent political friction with Israel which, if not addressed, could even develop into military clashes (against an Israeli action in Gaza or along the border between Israel and Egypt).
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Analysis: Egypt uneasy in dealings with Israel
By ZVI MAZEL
Jerusalem Post, 14/03/2012
Army shares security interests with the Jewish state, but the Muslim Brothers’ rhetoric has not been dampened.
Egyptian policy regarding Israel these days is a troubling indication of the instability in the country. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is on a collision course with the new political forces and particularly the Muslim Brothers.
On the one hand Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi did approve last week the appointment of a new ambassador to Israel, but on the other the lower house of the newly elected parliament adopted a declaration stating that Israel was the No. 1 enemy of Egypt and calling for the Israeli ambassador be expelled as well as stopping the sale of natural gas to Israel.
At the same time, it is due to Egypt’s strenuous efforts that the present round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza was brought to an end. Without these efforts it is doubtful that the flare-up could have been halted without an IDF ground operation from Israel which could have ignited the whole region.
The Supreme Council thus demonstrated its pragmatism and the fact that it is well aware of the importance of the relations with Israel – and with the United States. There were many in Israel who were afraid that no new Egyptian envoy would be appointed when the incumbent completed his tour of duty and that relations would be downgraded to the level of a charge d’affaires according to the often repeated wish of the Muslim Brothers and of others who want the peace treaty reopened.
It remains to be seen whether the new ambassador will arrive before the army transfers its powers to a civilian government led by the Brothers.
Regarding the exchanges of fire between Israel and Gaza, the Supreme Council did not want a major problem on its borders at a time when it is desperately trying to deal with a volatile internal situation which could at any minute turn violent.
Equally important, Cairo’s handling of the crisis was a means to show the Arab world that Egypt was still the major player on the Palestinian front.
Not that it was easy, since as usual the Egyptian media lashed at Israel for its alleged atrocities against civilians in Gaza, and even recycled pictures taken during the Cast Lead Operation in January 2009 – but did not mention the hundreds of missiles fired at Israel towns and villages for days on end.
As for the Muslim Brothers, their electoral successes have not been followed by a new awareness of political reality.
The rhetoric of their leaders against Israel has not been dampened, and their tirades have whipped the crowds into a frenzy, leading to the shameful attack on the Israeli Embassy in September and perhaps to the repeated assaults on the pipeline – 13 so far – bringing Egyptian gas to Jordan and to Israel. Stopping the flow has already cost Egypt more than a billion dollars in lost revenues.
The lower house of the Egyptian parliament is powerless to implement its demands regarding the ambassador or the gas, since it has no executive powers; indeed, the government appointed by the Supreme Council in accordance with the temporary constitution does not answer to the parliament and a noconfidence vote would be meaningless. However, it is a clear indication of what the Muslim Brothers have in mind and what they will try to do when they form the next government at some point after a president is elected in June.
Not that the army’s attitude has always been a model of rationality.
It is still hard to understand why security forces let protesters storm the embassy building and reach its doors – in flagrant violation of a number of international conventions.
It is even harder to understand why Tantawi refused to talk with Prime Minister Netanyahu and only a call from President Barack Obama finally spurred him into action.
Perhaps this is due to the generals’ lack of experience: after all, it is not easy to adapt to ruling a huge and heavily populated country when the president has been deposed, civilian institutions are only partially operative and the economy is spiraling down.
This was demonstrated in the way the recent foreign NGO crisis (which has nothing to do with Israel) was handled; having tacitly sanctioned the raids and subsequent legal procedures against these organizations, the Supreme Council then let the American employees leave the country, which led an enraged parliament call for the downfall of the government.
At which point Tantawi made it clear that the government, having been appointed by the Supreme Council, would remain in place until a new president has been elected.
It is to be expected that this dual and ambiguous attitude toward Israel (and the United States) will continue for quite a while. There are some steep hurdles before the end of the transition period. First, a special committee of 100 people must be appointed to draft the new constitution. Then the constitution must be approved by referendum. Only then are presidential elections to be held, it is hoped with the first round taking place on May 23- 24. Should no candidate get 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held. Final results are expected by mid-June; coincidentally, the verdict in the Mubarak trial is due at the same time.
There is ample room for conflict on any and all those issues, and the people might take to the streets once more. The Brothers with their heavy parliamentary representation will do their utmost to give the constitution a deep Islamic slant while granting more and more power to the parliament at the expense of presidential prerogatives. They will also do their best to ensure that a president with a “true Islamic background” is elected.
The character of the new constitution and president will both have far reaching implications for the nature of relations with Israel. True, Israel and Egypt have common security interests and the dialogue between the relevant services are ongoing, but would a government led by the Brotherhood put a stop to these vital exchanges? What about trade relations, and the sale of natural gas to Israel? What about the existence of Qualified Industrial Zones, which in cooperation with Israel let Egypt export its products – and especially cotton – to the United States without having to pay import duties? Should the agreements be revoked, the entire Egyptian textile industry would be at risk of collapse.
Then there are Sinai, Hamas – which is the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and last but not least, Iran, long seen as an enemy by Hosni Mubarak but which is now trying to ingratiate itself with the new regime.
So many questions… and so few answers.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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An American in the Den of Assad
Michael J. Totten
World Affairs, 10 March 2012
Now that the Syrian army is waging a scorched earth campaign against civilians as well as dissident rebels, Andrew Tabler can count himself lucky. He managed to live and work in Damascus for years and even got to know the Assad family back when that was still possible. And the much-feared Palestine branch of military intelligence ran him out of the country before all this mayhem broke out.
In the meantime he landed himself a job at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and wrote a book about what it was like to live and work in Syria during the cold war with Assad. The end product of all this is his terrific book In the Lion’s Den.
He and I spoke on a panel about the Syrian uprising today in Washington, DC, and I had a chance earlier to talk with him about his book, his time in Damascus, the anti-Assad insurrection, and what the U.S. and Israel ought to do about it.
Andrew Tabler: This book is part memoir and part policy analysis. I wanted to introduce my readers to Syria and explain what it was like to live and work there, especially when I was working with the First Lady’s charities and Bashar al-Assad.
My disenchantment with the regime came early, within the first couple of months, when I had to turn down a bag of money. That told me everything I needed to know. The question after that was, what do I do?
My business partner and I didn’t like working for Asma al-Assad, so we took our Syria Today magazine out of her business incubator where it was founded. We had to find people to invest in it. It was harder that way. If we had accepted the bag of money we would have been able to survive more easily without having to do much.
But when things kicked off in Lebanon following the Hariri assassination, it allowed us to have the independence to write about things going on in Syria, including the opposition coming out and organizing around the Damascus Declaration. We got away with a lot before they lowered the boom on us.
As a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs I could write for foreign publications without having to worry about government censors. It was only when one of those articles was exposed by Imad Mustafa, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, that I got into serious trouble.
I wrote an article about the Syrian opposition called “Democracy to the Rescue.” This was in the spring of 2006. A few months later there was a huge bust-up over it when Joshua Landis, in an article for the Washington Quarterly, misquoted my article as saying one of the Syrian opposition members, Michel Kilo, went to Morocco and met with the Muslim Brotherhood a few days after Hariri was killed. That was an enormously sensitive thing. You never want to say a member of the Syrian opposition met with the Muslim Brotherhood because it’s punishable by death. Kilo was in custody at the time. Any Syria expert should have known that. So there was a huge fight between Joshua Landis and Michael Young about this.
MJT: I remember when that happened.
Andrew Tabler: It all came from my article with the Institute of Current World Affairs. And it threw my work with them into the limelight. When Imad Mustafa found out about it, he wrote a diplomatic cable to Damascus that accused me of being a radical.
The government then sent the Palestine branch of military intelligence—the scariest branch in the country—to my office. That’s when I had to leave Syria.
I spent a lot of time in Damascus. The question at the time how to deal with the government. Assad is so ruthless and so good at turning things around on us. At that time, of course, it all revolved around the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah when everyone rallied around Bashar’s flag in Damascus.
MJT: What drew you to Syria in the first place? You were in Cairo for a while and decided you couldn’t stay there after September 11, which I understand perfectly. But why choose Damascus as the alternative?
Andrew Tabler: Aside from the year I worked for Asma al-Assad’s charities, I always had a journalist visa. Because I was well-known in the country and had worked for Asma for a year, I was given a multiple-entry visa. That allowed me to come and go from Syria as I pleased. No other person could do it unless they were a diplomat. So I was able to spend almost half my time in Lebanon.
MJT: Right, that’s how I first met you. You were in Beirut every weekend.
Andrew Tabler: And for good reason. [Laughs.]
Andrew Tabler: It was the only way I could keep it together. And it was the only way I could tell the story that’s in my book. So in a way I moved from Cairo to Damascus, but I really moved from Cairo to Damascus and Lebanon.
MJT: You said in your book that you left Cairo partly because the Egyptian response to September 11 was, shall we say, alienating. Was Damascus a more politically friendly environment, at least as far as the reaction to Osama bin Laden’s attacks against us? And if so, what do you think accounts for the difference?
Andrew Tabler: That’s a good question. I was in Cairo when it happened so I witnessed the knee-jerk reaction. It was a hard thing to watch. When I got to Syria several days later, people were much more friendly and much more apologetic. Had I been in Damascus at the time, I might have seen more knee-jerk reactions. But it really was different. In Damascus there was a lot more sensitivity to the matter just as there was in Beirut.
I felt extremely alienated in Cairo and in Damascus I didn’t.
MJT: There’s a whole chapter in your book about you and bunch of other journalists at a Syrian government conference.
Andrew Tabler: [Laughs.]
MJT: Writing about something like that would normally be a thundering bore, but this was fascinating. The authorities did everything in their power to make sure nobody understood anything or left the conference with any information whatsoever. Why do you suppose they spent so much time and effort making themselves all but impossible for mere mortals to understand?
Andrew Tabler: One of the ways the Syrian government defends itself is by obscuring everything that happens inside the country. Right now there’s a huge question about whether or not to intervene. The government can dispute whatever argument pro-interventionists have. This isn’t unusual for these kinds of regimes. Assad is a master at manipulating the press. Often times hardly anyone is even paying attention to Syria, though that’s changed now. At the time they could snow job us, but now it’s a lot harder, especially when so much violence is being captured on YouTube.
MJT: There was an article in Vogue magazine last year about Asma al-Assad—I’m sure you read it— that was widely condemned for its fawning portrayal of the wife of a mass murderer. You actually know Asma al-Assad. What did you think of her at the time you started working for her and what do you think of her now?
Andrew Tabler: The Asma al-Assad I first met seemed humble and chilled. I thought she was smart. She was really into fashion. She liked nice threads. She was glamorous like a lot of women in the Levant and that created some tension. On the one hand she was relaxed and down to earth, and in other ways she seemed like a model. That was my first indication that she had a dual nature.
We’re seeing that again now during the uprising. The Vogue article was so grotesque—they even took it off the Web site, which is the first time they’ve ever done that—because she said the country was extremely poor while going on and on about her 800 dollar shoes. Now she’s publicly standing by her man during the uprising. They’re married and have children and I realize it might be hard to break away, but she’s always had this dual nature.
She’s a Sunni from Homs. That’s her background. And the regime right now is raining artillery down on Homs and killing her fellow Sunnis. It’s not a pretty picture. But she’s made her bed and is going to have to lay in it.
MJT: What, in your view, drives the Syrian government to align itself with Iran and with regional terrorist organizations?
Andrew Tabler: There are several dimensions to it. Hafez al-Assad stabilized Syria by focusing the country’s energy on conflict with an out group, the Jews of Israel. The regime uses the so-called Emergency Law [a supposed national security response to the state of war with Israel] to indefinitely detain people.
The justification for authoritarianism is domestic instability. Syria was once one of the most unstable countries in the world. Hafez al-Assad turned all that around by resisting Israel. Militarily that happened in 1973 [the Yom Kippur War] and indirectly in 1982 [Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and Iran’s creation of Hezbollah]. Since that time, they’ve been supporting groups that fight Israel like Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc.
Syria also supports groups that destabilize neighboring countries, including leftist Palestinian groups, the PKK in Turkey, and jihadists who went to Iraq to kill Americans.
MJT: What do you think the odds are that the revolution against the government will succeed?
Andrew Tabler: The odds are good, but Assad may be able to hold on longer than most people think, including those in the Obama administration. He’s not making the choices he could to get out of this. He’s not reforming. He’s not going to change the minority nature of the state.
At the same time, he has—and I talk about this in the book—he has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East. The demographics are a mess. Many Syrians were born in the ten years after the Hama massacre in 1982. Syria at the time had one of the fastest growing populations on the planet. All those young people are now out in the streets. In the long run I don’t see how a system run by the Alawite minority and that has been unable to reform under the Assad family for 42 years can accommodate the new Syria. In the end the regime will go down, but it could be very bloody.
Syria could become like Algeria where the regime just holds on while 100,000 people die and it could go on for years until there’s finally a negotiated settlement. Or it could go on for years and year and years and finally he falls. Either way, I don’t see Assad exiting quickly. I hope I’m wrong, but we’ll see.
MJT: If he were to leave, where do you suppose he’d go? The Saudis wouldn’t want him, would they?
Andrew Tabler: The Emirates are a possibility. I heard about an offer from them earlier. He might go to Central Asia.
MJT: Really? [Laughs.]
Andrew Tabler: He might to go to Iran.
MJT: What about Russia? Do you think that’s a viable option?
Andrew Tabler: The Russians would probably let him in. But other than that, I’m not sure.
MJT: What are the odds that Syria will descend into full-blown sectarian warfare like Lebanon and Iraq have?
Andrew Tabler: That’s a good question, isn’t it?
MJT: It isn’t that bad yet and maybe it won’t be, but I don’t know. How sectarian-minded are the Syrian people compared with the Lebanese and the Iraqis? You have a better read on it than I do.
Andrew Tabler: They are sectarian below the surface. How sectarian they’ll behave depends on what’s eating down through the general good will of the society. Violence will do that. It sets people off. Death and destruction lead to revenge killings and become a cycle.
A lot of people are saying the West shouldn’t intervene in Syria because it’s complicated and we don’t want to inflame the situation. But what’s driving this is that the regime can’t reform and there are too many young people in the country. And they’re clashing.
People are dying. The people in that region who have a lot more invested in the country than we do—and I’m talking about the Saudis, the Turks, the Iranians, the Iraqis, all the neighbors—they’re going to support whoever in the country is on their side. They’re going to send assistance. In some cases they’re going to send weapons. And that will threaten to set off a proxy war. Syria is already experiencing an armed insurrection.
Homs is more communal. The mosaic of Syria comes together around Homs. You have Sunnis in one area next to another that’s entirely Alawite. Right now it’s an insurgency. It’s the people against the regime. As this goes on, though, it has the potential to turn into something intra-communal and that will be extremely dangerous.
MJT: Do you think outside support from the neighbors will make things better or worse?
Andrew Tabler: The question is, worse for who and when? Five years from now, the neighbors giving arms to one group or another might look like a bad idea. But today, giving somebody arms to keep them from having their head blown off is probably a good idea. It all depends on where you’re standing.
It’s natural and human to protect people you feel akin to when they’re in a time of need. And self-defense is a right I wouldn’t deny to anyone. As an American, I just can’t. But unfortunately I think this has the potential to morph into a conflict that is an intra-communal proxy war. Syria is at the center of the Middle East. It has one of the largest chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in the region. And this conflict could go on for years no matter when Assad falls.
MJT: What do you think about the speculation that the Alawites might try to break off the Mediterranean region from the rest of the country if they lose power? Is that even possible? It’s a sectarian patchwork even over there. The city of Latakia has a Sunni majority.
Andrew Tabler: The coastal cities are always Sunni as are the valleys. It’s the mountains that are usually Alawite. The Alawites eventually came down to Latakia and Tartus and the cities became more mixed.
The Alawites could retreat there—it would be a natural place—but the country is so diverse now. It would be extremely difficult for Alawites everywhere to just pick up and go home.
MJT: Do you think they’re actually planning something like is as a backup? Michael Young has said this might be the case.
Andrew Tabler: Yeah.
MJT: How much of this is speculation and how much of it is actually happening?
Andrew Tabler: That people are going home?
MJT: That the Alawite regime is considering an Alawite breakaway state as a viable option.
Andrew Tabler: All Levantine people have a Plan B, a Plan C, and a Plan D. It would be natural for them to plan something like this, but how many of them are actually doing it is unclear.
Remember that a lot of Alawites haven’t done well under the Assad regime. The Alawite region is one of the least developed parts of Syria even after all these years. It’s completely forested in oak. It’s weird.
MJT: Why do you suppose that is?
Andrew Tabler: It was always an underdeveloped part of the country.
I had lots of Alawite friends when I was in Syria. I still consider them my friends. They came down from the mountain two different ways. One was through education. The other was through the military and the security services.
Many of those who came down from the mountain from education are accomplished in their fields. Some of them are the best of people. I really enjoyed working with some of them.
Those who came down from the mountain through the military and the security services know brutality. Once you get engaged in that kind of thing and it becomes a tradition in your community, it rubs on you like soot. It’s hard to get clean. Those kinds of people don’t tend to have many sentimental feelings for developing their communities back home. They also aren’t very well educated. Most of them didn’t go to university.
MJT: If Assad falls and is replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood government, do you think that would be an improvement or would Syria be even worse off than it already is? Obviously we wouldn’t want to see that, but would it be worse?
Andrew Tabler: Well, Syria isn’t Egypt. The Sunni community in Syria is extremely diverse. You have folks who are conservative from the northwest. You have urbane Sunnis in Aleppo and Damascus. There are the tribal Sunnis in eastern Syria. They’ve always had problems getting along. It will be hard for the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in that kind of environment.
Even if they end up with a prominent role, they still won’t be able to pull off the kind of thing they have in Egypt. It will be so much harder for them in Syria.
But let’s say they do. We wouldn’t like how they run things domestically, but there will be a lot more tension with Iran. There will be a lot more tension with Hezbollah. Whether they’d be outright enemies of Iran and Hezbollah would partly depend on what Iran was willing to do for them, or what the Saudis and Turks were willing to do for them.
MJT: What do you think the U.S. should be doing about this? If the White House asked you for advice, what would you say? What should American foreign policy be right now?
Andrew Tabler: Right now we have a top-down strategy. We’re hoping to use diplomatic pressure to get the Russians on side for a solution like in Yemen where there’s a negotiated exit for Assad or the military decides to pop the ruling family. I think these approaches are worth pursuing and hopefully they’ll work at some point, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on either of them.
We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we’re going to have to work this from the ground up. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to work more closely with the Syrian opposition—not just the Syrian National Council, but also those who are on the ground. We’re going to have to accept the fact that the Free Syrian Army is the force on the ground and figure out how we’re going to engage it and what we’re willing to do with it.
I think we should be cautious because we don’t fully understand them yet. There are many different parts to the Free Syrian Army. But I think we need to engage it somehow. The smartest way to do that is through the local protest groups inside the country and to encourage them to coordinate.
MJT: What should the Israelis do? Sit back and watch? Or should they be doing something?
Andrew Tabler: They’ll need to prepare for contingencies, but they’ve smartly said they don’t want to play into Assad’s hands or his rhetoric. They also realize that what’s going on in these countries doesn’t have anything to do with them. It has to do with the demographic problems and the way the regimes rule their own societies.
If I were Israel I’d watch very carefully, I’d worry about the WMDs and take precautions against them, and I think they are. I’d also start planning on how to deal with whatever emerges if the Assad regime does go down. How will Israel deal with a Sunni-led government in Syria for the first time since the 1960s? And what about the Golan Heights?
The Israelis haven’t wanted to give the Golan back to a regime that has been transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah. That wouldn’t make any sense. Who would do that? But what if there’s a key moment where they can make a deal with a new government and sweep out support for the resistance, for Hezbollah?
But it’s too early to talk about that.
MJT: What do you suppose the average Syrian would think about a new government signing a peace treaty with Israel? Is that even a viable option?
Andrew Tabler: Here’s the thing. Arab rulers who sign a peace treaty with Israel suffer a lot of domestic criticism. They can be killed for it, such as Anwar Sadat. It will be very difficult for a new Syrian government to go through with it, but it depends. The Middle East has taught me to expect the unexpected.
I watch what’s going on every day. I’ve been watching Assad rocket Homs. He’s just pounding the place. There’s a Facebook page up with maps that show little teardrops wherever there’s a protest. During this entire onslaught on Homs the protests have continued throughout Syria every day. It’s amazing. For eleven months this has been happening against one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.
If they go home they’ll just have to wait for the regime to show up and pull out their fingernails, so they might as well stay out protesting. This is their only shot to bring down the government.
Andrew Tabler: People in Syria know they have a choice. It all comes down to an old saying: better to end in horror than to endure endless horror.