On February 16, 2012, Stimson hosted a panel discussion with the Middle East Institute, “No End in Sight: Syria After the UN Vote.” The discussion explored multiple facets of Syria’s deepening internal challenges. The panel featured Aram Nerguizian, visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Randa Slim, research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute; and Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor on the Middle East and director of the Pathways to Progress project at Stimson. Vice President of the Middle East Institute, Kate Seelye, moderated the event.
Aram Nerguizian discussed the conflict’s regional dynamics. He stated that the Arab uprisings sparked critical changes in the region’s balance of power and left a vacuum in inter-Arab and regional security politics, with the Gulf States now emerging as significant political players. Yet he pointed out that they are limited in their ability to shape the struggle in Syria, as these countries lack any diplomatic or military capacity to influence the regime. Turning to Iran’s role in the conflict, Nerguizian noted that Iran has hedged its position in the conflict by not only supporting its key ally, but also by discussing engagement with the opposition. Iran’s strategy serves two goals: 1) create a deeper divide among opposition groups and 2) adapt Tehran to changing realities on the ground. Nerguizian then addressed Turkey’s more subtle approach to the situation, given Ankara’s limited ability to pressure Iran and the potentially destabilizing effects humanitarian intervention could have on its border. He briefly mentioned the two “wild cards” in the situation. First, he discussed Lebanon and Jordan, stating that both countries are politically unstable and at risk if unrest from Syria spills across their borders. Second, he asserted that Syria has become “depleted geopolitically,” and will no longer play a role in future regional politics.
Randa Slim discussed the Syrian opposition and what steps the international community must take moving forward. Slim stated that the opposition is severely divided, adding that although numerous opposition groups exist, there is no unified group that presents a credible alternative to the Assad regime. She pointed to the Syrian National Council (SNC) as an example of this disunity, stating that although it is the strongest of all opposition groups, the SNC is marred by internal divisions and has failed to unite with other groups (such as the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and the Free Syrian Army). Slim then addressed Syria’s Alawite community, discussing how it sees its fate tied to the Assad regime’s survival. Given that groups like the SNC are majority Sunni and have failed to reach out to the Alawite minority, many in the Alawite community perceive the current conflict as an existential threat. Turning to the international response to Syria’s internal unrest, Slim said current notions of arming the opposition will prove futile without the formation of a united opposition group. She then proposed an Arab-led initiative, with the assistance of Turkey (an “A3+1” Initiative), to bring all opposition parties together and force them to unite around one platform, bringing the military under civilian control and establishing the necessary alternative to the Assad regime.
Mona Yacoubian made two key points with respect to the international community and its handling of the crisis: 1) the international community’s response has been marked by a lack of consensus and a deepening impasse that has been exploited by the Syrian regime to engage in harsh repression; and 2) there are no good options looking forward. She stated that current international efforts have underscored the United Nations’ inability to forge a consensus among key international actors, especially within the Security Council. She then presented a broad spectrum of potential routes the international community might take in approaching the situation: 1) continuing to issue resolutions of condemnation; 2) implementing stronger economic sanctions; 3) pursuing humanitarian interventions (buffer zones, safe havens, etc.); 4) providing arms support to the Syrian opposition; or 5) staging an outright military intervention. Yacoubian then endorsed Slim’s earlier proposal for uniting the opposition, and highlighted the need to move action into a group led by the United States, Europe, Turkey, and the Arab League – the “Friends of Syria Group” – if the United Nations failed to reach a consensus on Syria. She added that there is still time to exert political, diplomatic, and economic pressure as a means to avoid a protracted civil war, asserting that funneling arms to opposition groups could spark an eventual regional proxy war. Yacoubian concluded that the international community must peel away two main constituencies from the Assad regime -the military and the Syrian merchant class. Once that is accomplished, she said, there will be a clear alternative to Assad, easing the current existential threat that may serve to tear Syria apart.