Professor Barry Rubin is the author of the new book, “The Truth About Syria.” He is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and the editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
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During the Cold War, we talked to the Soviets. Should we talk to the Syrians and Iranians?
At times the United States did and at other times did not talk to the Soviets. The key factor of course was whether there were thought to be common interests and, more generally, whether it was believed talks could produce results. For example, it was thought that both sides would benefit from nuclear arms’ limitations talks.
There are at least four differences between that era and this one which do not prevail regarding Syria and Iran.
First, the United States had established a credible deterrence. The Soviets doubted they would defeat the United States and wanted to avoid a confrontation with it. The Syrians and Iranians believe the United States, in Khomeini’s terms, “cannot do a damn thing.” They don’t want a war, of course, but they think they have other means of defeating America. In this context, they view negotiations as a sign of weakness. They never give anything real and just demand and await unilateral concessions, euphemistically called “confidence-building measures.”
Second, in fighting the Cold War there was a strategic clarity and an intellectual toughness lacking today. The problem now is not holding negotiations as such but during any such process to refuse unilateral concessions, to demand reciprocity for whatever the West gives, to continue to take actions against ongoing misdeeds of the other side (sponsorship of terrorism for example), and to remember afterward the tricks and intransigence of the radicals.
Third, there was a broad cultural-intellectual basis for mutual comprehension between the Soviet and Western blocs lacking in the present conflict.
And finally, there had been a decline in the Soviet ideological impetus, at much lower levels by the negotiations of, say, the Kissinger era in the 1970s than it had been in the 1930s. Yet the radical forces’ today are still at the peak of their revolutionary enthusiasm.
Incidentally, of course, the greatest basis for U.S.-Soviet cooperation for a time was the existence of a common enemy, Nazi Germany, and even that was only after the USSR had been invaded—before then it was allied with Berlin. There is no such situation today.
You have written about getting our allies in the region together to oppose the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah Axis. Do you believe Russia, China, and the European powers are willing to take a tough stand? Do you fear that the Arab countries will seek to appease the Axis as they see American will power dwindle in the War on Terror?
Oh, they will seek to cut deals of their own no matter happens. Saudi Arabia is a good example. They have tried to build bridges to the Iranians. They tried to do it with Syria in terms of Lebanon but the Syrian demands were too high. They did try to buy off Hamas by brokering the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah, and then saw this break down in a few weeks. If and when Iran has nuclear weapons, the Gulf Arab states will feel compelled to stay on its good side. The state-controlled Egyptian media blame the United States as being the real author of all the terrorism in Iraq. So, sure, one cannot be naïve or romantic about this united front against radical Islamism. Still, it is a strategy worth pursuing if one does so carefully and intelligently, understanding its limits.
To what degree is Syria responsible for the strength of the insurgency in Iraq? Is their support critical to its survival?
The answer to these two questions is different. They have a lot of responsibility for the insurgency’s strength. They have provided funds (or at least given safe haven to Iraqi money stolen by Saddam Hussein’s regime for doing so), training, weapons, safe haven, and transport. This is documented by U.S. and by Iraqi reports. Anyone who gives credibility to Syrian claims that it cannot control the border should be ashamed of themselves as the dictatorship controls its borders at all other times when it wants to do so.
By this time, though, the insurgency has enough resources to continue without the current levels of Syrian support. Yet certainly a decline in such help would hurt the insurgency.
Does Syria have a relationship with Al-Qaeda? If yes, how far back does this relationship go?
As to how far back it goes this is hard to say. As you know this question in regard to Iraq is very controversial. One should never hesitate to admit what one doesn’t know. Yet there are some things we can clearly see. We know that Syria is the main sponsor and facilitator of the insurgency. We know the insurgency is led by al-Qaeda elements. There has to be coordination going on.
Consider the case of Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian who has been working as a Syrian agent since 1983. In 2003 he went to Iraq, joined the insurgency, and was close to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida—Usama bin Ladin’s group—there.
Mr. Absi was involved in al-Qaida’s murder of a U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan on October 28, 2003. Naturally, the Jordanians wanted Syria to extradite him so he could be questioned and punished. Syria refused, clearly because its regime would not benefit from having Absi tell what he knew, especially about Syria’s own role in his activities. In 2004, Jordan sentenced Absi to death in absentia.
In November 2005, Absi went to Lebanon where he organized the Fatah al-Islam group which operated under Syrian backing to disrupt that country. In much of the media this is described as an al-Qaida affiliate but it is clearly a Syrian front, though whether one should say “also” or “instead of” being affiliated with al-Qaida is an open question.
If we were to seek regime change in Syria, would it be possible with the current Iranian government in place? Does regime change in Syria require change in Iran first?
There is as you imply a connection—Iran makes the Syrian regime more secure and provides lots of money—but not a total one. But I stress that Syria’s regime is very well-entrenched and popular at present. It has used the classical strategy of anti-Israel and anti-American demagoguery under Arab nationalist and Islamist banners to whip up support. My book, The Truth About Syria, discusses and explains this in detail, and it is also analyzed in a previous book, The Tragedy of the Middle East. Indeed, this system is a large part of the tragedy.
Do you feel the opposition forces are powerful enough, and organized enough, to bring down Assad?
Clearly no, and they know it. This is an issue I analyzed in my previous book about liberal Arab forces, The Long War for Freedom. Nor can one forget the force most likely to overthrow the regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and also radical Islamists. Syria may be the only country in the world where a liberal dissident could say that the government was fascist but that it had to be preserved.
Should Assad fall, will Muslim Brotherhood come to power?
Depends on how he would fall. But don’t worry, this regime is going to be around for a while.
Do you feel that the West should look to former Vice President Khaddam for help in effecting regime change?
Well he is a former veteran Baathist and a partner to the Muslim Brotherhood. Doesn’t sound so great. But the West should certainly listen to what he says about his experiences in the regime—a very useful source for my book—and his analysis of it.
Which opposition group has the largest following?
I have great respect for liberal dissidents, Kurdish opponents, and people in America who have tried to organize the opposition, but I think they are all aware that there is no strong opposition group or one that has a real base inside the country. Individual dissidents have been imprisoned or forced to leave the country.