11/16/2012 07:50 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

A Q&A on Syria: How Strong is Assad?

Recently, I was approached to give an interview by a rather right-leaning foreign news program. It may be no surprise, but our visions did not fit together. The news show, however, sent me a list of questions about the future of Syria, the Assad regime, and the prospects of the newly unified Syrian opposition. Here are my answers.


Recently, I was approached to give an interview by a rather right-leaning foreign news program. It may be no surprise, but our visions did not fit together. The news show, however, sent me a list of questions about the future of Syria, the Assad regime, and the prospects of the newly unified Syrian opposition. I think it may be helpful to review these questions, and my answers to them, as a platform for debate or critical thinking -- in spite of the non sequitur that became the interview appearance.

Here are the list of questions with my answers :

Question: The leader of Syria's newly united opposition is heading to Arab League headquarters in Cairo to push for diplomatic recognition (in the same way Libya's opposition looked to outside powers for recognition). Is this a good idea? How representative is this new body, particularly since the West was becoming disenchanted with the Syrian opposition in exile and on the ground?

Answer: The first step forward for the opposition is to find diplomatic recognition from international powers. They have to do this if they are going to received aid -- either military or non. In terms of a "good idea," one has to ask "good for whom." If we are talking about the international powers getting an idea of what this united opposition is going to look like, what their platforms are going to be, and "who" they are -- then yes. It is a good idea. If we are talking about for the rebels, then it may be another instance of infighting and a cause for fractionalization and dissent. That, of course, would not be very good.

They would further entrench the view that they are an unknown and volatile entity. If we are referring to the Assad regime, well, then again, the answer is probably "no." Assad is digging in his heels and refuses to come to a negotiation table. A unified opposition receiving diplomatic recognition from the international powers would further undercut his grip on power.

Question: Has the West and its regional proxies given up on a military-humanitarian intervention?

Answer: I do not think that the U.S. has given up any of its options. Currently, the assessment is that diplomatic action is the way forward, but that is because of the fractionalization of the opposition, the tactical landscape on the ground, and the fear of political fallout from Syria's allies.

However, should the crisis continue to escalate -- with Israel and Turkey being continually drawn into the fray -- then military intervention is not off the table. It might not be justified on humanitarian grounds, but it would have obvious humanitarian impacts.

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Question: Just how strong is Assad? He has weathered 20 months of war and he is still standing.

Again, I think we have to ask what the metric of "strength" is here. Assad is intransigent. He has continually manipulated the international powers by agreeing to ceasefires, or negotiations, only to backtrack. Moreover, he has continually pressed his military capability and advantage on the rebels, by using fixed wing aircraft to cluster bomb civilian centers, attempting to either kill off or demoralize the opposition.

He has made this conflict a zero-sum game -- either he wins and the rebels lose (via total defeat or death), or he loses -- (via total defeat or death). There is no middle ground for him. Thus we might say that he has a strength of will, and currently, he has the monopoly on coercive force -- due to the regime's weapons cache. However, should there be a third-party intervention, that balance of forces could change and he finds himself no longer in a stronger military capability position.

In foreign policy terms, Assad is in a domain of losses, that is he is losing in terms of legitimacy, and the rebels are refusing to capitulate. He is therefore "upping the ante" at each stage, trying to regain control and power -- but by continually targeting noncombatants and perpetrating war crimes, he is looking for a bigger and bigger pay off. Ultimately, that may not happen. It is like someone gambling -- the more one loses, the more one wants to bet in order to regain one's losses.

Question: Agree or disagree? If Washington has a genuine national interest that is at stake in Syria, it would be that the country stay united and stable to keep it from becoming the latest playground for Jihadi warriors.

Answer: In the simplest terms -- yes. The state of Syria is populated with many different sects of people, and all of them are worried about the others taking power. Assad's family has instituted a system of privilege for some, and a system of oppression for others. Thus those who are privileged fear that the oppressed will become oppressors if they take power.

Thus it is in the United States' interests to keep the state at peace, and negotiate with a new democratic leadership. The US wants peace -- it does not want to see the Middle East engulfed in a regional war. Moreover, that there is a fear of extremists coming to power is a real one. It is in America's national interest to have regimes friendly to it, not vice versa.

Question: War fatigue equals disenchantment with the opposition? In Syria, people are beginning to say, echoing what was said in similar conflicts, that "the fighters say they are dying for the people, but it is the people who are dying for the fighters."

Answer: I think that we cannot adequately assess this at the moment. The situation is very complex, and there are a variety of rebel groups and fighters under differing commands. Thus the answer is somewhere along the lines of: where you stand depends upon where you sit. The civilian population in areas of Syria hardest hit, probably feel this way, as they have been at the receiving end of this war for 20 months.

However, areas to the East have not been engulfed in fighting, and so they are not as disenchanted. Moreover, I think that Secretary of State Clinton's call for a more inclusive and united opposition is to get away from this very worry. Her call was to include fighters from on the ground inside Syria, so that there was a sense of those fighting and dying included in the dialogue and debate at the higher levels. The decisions for Syria cannot be made by those who do not live there, or who have never helped or fought for the people.

Perhaps this might give some insight into this ongoing and highly fragile situation.