Syrian Center’s Ziadeh: US abandoned Syria

As the death toll in Syria climbs and the Syrian conflict is causing one of the world’s worst refugee crises, this week’s guest for Monday Talk has said that the Syrian people are disappointed with the US policy on the matter.

“The Syrian people have been calling for air strikes, a no-fly zone, a safety zone and arming the Free Syria Army with advanced weapons. And the Syrian people have been getting none of that. This is why United Nations officials have recently said that the Syrian crisis is the worst since Rwanda,” said Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS), based in Washington, D.C., and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) in Syria.

UN officials recently said that at least 92,901 people have been killed in Syria — among them more than 6,500 children — between March 2011 and the end of April 2013; and an average of 6,000 people flee Syria every day in 2013. UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said refugee numbers had not risen “at such a frightening rate” since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Observers say that with the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah, the balance of power on the battlefield is in Assad’s favor, giving him less incentive to negotiate, and the West has had no strategy to end the conflict soon.

Answering our questions, Ziadeh elaborated on the issue.

Last year around this time, the talk among Syria observers was how President Bashar al-Assad will come down, rather than when, because the expectation was that his leadership would end soon. Could you talk about the current situation of Bashar al-Assad and why his fall has not happened as expected?

What we have in Syria is a stalemate. The Assad regime was on the defensive at first, and now it has moved on the offensive, especially after the strategic battle of al-Qusayr. Before the battle of al-Qusayr, the Free Syrian Army had the initiative, but after that the regime forces gained some territories that were under the control of the opposition.

The Syrian Army and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah launched the offensive (April 4, 2013) with the aim to capture all the villages around the rebel-held town of al-Qusayr. The town is important because of its location next to Lebanon, and it allows for the control of the border with Lebanon and the Lebanese village of al-Qasr.

In the last year-and-a-half, the Assad regime has lacked the human resources to fight, and he could not control the liberated areas in the north of Syria. And now Hezbollah is filling the gap. The Assad regime has regional backing from Hezbollah and Iran, and he has the backing of Russia, which is providing the Assad regime not only simple weapons but also rockets and missiles. This is how the Assad regime can survive after two-and-a-half years.

In our Monday Talk interview in May of this year, Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi said that the Iranian government’s support for the Assad regime keeps it alive and that the war would end if Tehran stopped supporting him. What do you think of this idea?

There are a lot of Iranian people who do not support the Assad regime. But look at the Iranian media; they repeat the propaganda of the Assad regime and ignore massacres Assad commits against his people; they try to brainwash the Iranian people. We support Shirin Ebadi’s and Iranian activists’ position. We hope that the new Iranian president understands that the long-term relationship between Iran and Syria will be protected by the Syrian people, not the Assad regime.

‘Free Syria Army needs advanced weapons’

What would you say about the support for the opposition by the coalition, Friends of Syria?

They don’t really support the opposition with the means. They have meetings after meetings after meetings. … The Syrian people have been calling for air strikes, a no-fly zone, a safety zone, arming the Free Syria Army with advanced weapons. And the Syrian people have been getting none of that. This is why United Nations officials have recently said that the Syrian crisis is the worst since Rwanda. This is the result of the failure of the international community to respond. We know that Assad is a crazy guy who can kill all the Syrians and destroy all the infrastructure in Syria just to stay in power.

What is the situation with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)? Why isn’t it able to unify the opposition?

The division in the international community is reflected within the opposition. There are two camps within the opposition; the first camp holds the idea that there is no end to the Syrian crisis without international intervention with the implementation of a no-fly zone and a safety zone. But nothing happens there, and this makes the argument weak. Then the other camp supports trying negotiations, but Assad is not interested in negotiations. There are of course ideological differences among the opposition, which is normal.

There have been new elections in regards to the coalition [National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]. Would you tell us about the results and whether or not the new leadership will be able to present a united front for Syria’s opposition?

At the beginning of July, the coalition conducted elections and had Ahmad Jarba as its president. [The president’s post had been empty since April, when the former president of the coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, resigned, citing frustration over what he called a lack of international support; the coalition has a council of about 63 members including 22 members from the SNC]. The new leadership has huge challenges ahead. There has been, unfortunately, an internal fight in the coalition, whereas the focus should be on the decisions that need to be taken. The Syrian people expect more from the opposition; they need strong leadership.

‘President Obama needs to make a decision’

You’ve been in Washington since 2007, and you’ve been observing what’s going on in the capitol with respect to the Syria policy. What would you share with us about what’s happening in Washington in relation to Syria?

There are not enough words to tell how we feel about the US policy toward Syria. The US abandoned Syria and left the Syrians to be killed by the thousands by a mafia regime, the Assad regime. Washington is doing nothing. It’s a shame on the Obama administration when the situation is like the one in Darfur and Rwanda. This administration is domestically oriented and is not looking at things from an international perspective.

The international community needs leadership from the United States because neither Arab nations nor Turkey can interfere themselves; they need an international coalition to come against the Assad regime. The US administration has missed opportunities to take action in the last two years, and now the administration thinks that it is too late to intervene.

We are stricken by the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry is involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue knowing that there will be no results — as many secretaries tried before and failed — and doing nothing in regards to Syria. He is doing nothing to convince the Obama administration to end the Assad regime.

There has been a new appointee to the UN as the US ambassador, Samantha Powers, who is known to be the person who convinced President Obama to go to war in Libya. With that appointment, do you expect anything to change in President Obama’s view of Syria in regards to a war against the Assad regime?

Yes, she convinced Obama to take action in Libya — now look at Libya and look at Syria. If the international community did not take action in Libya, they could still be fighting, and the war in Libya could be unmanageable. The decision-maker in regards to the issue is the president himself. There are newspaper reports that in Obama’s first term Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the director of the CIA and the secretary of defense recommended Obama arm the Syrian opposition but Obama rejected it. Right now, the US administration is helping the Syrian opposition with arms, but these are only light weapons that would not make much difference.

What is your expectation from Turkey at this point?

We appreciate Turkey’s logistical support for our meetings. We also appreciate what Turkey [which hosts close to half a million Syrian refugees] is doing for the Syrian refugees. And the number has been increasing. It’s important that Turkey does not close the doors and endures problems. There have been attacks inside the Turkish border, which have huge implications in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Turkey has chosen to be on the side of the Syrian people and work with the UN and the United States. Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan has a close personal relationship with President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan should use it to put some pressure on Obama to take action because we cannot wait any more, as more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed.

‘We’ll announce Syrian Transitional Roadmap in İstanbul in August’

You’ve been working on a project on how to move towards a transitional government in Syria. Would you explain what exactly the report you are working on suggests?

It’s been a year of hard work; we had our first meeting in İstanbul in September of last year to manage the transition in Syria. The Syrian Center spearheaded the effort with the participation of 200 opposition activists and revolutionary councils, and we established a Syrian experts workhouse with five working groups: political and administrative reform, electoral system and political parties, constitutional reform and rule of law, economic reform and transitional justice. We have come up with conclusions agreed upon by the opposition groups, including the Syrian National Coalition. For example, we suggested a parliamentary system like in Turkey for Syria. Look at what happened in Egypt; two or three years after the revolution, they are back to square one. We are trying to avoid that with a transitional government, and our work is called the Syrian Transitional Roadmap. We will announce it on Aug. 14 in İstanbul.

What steps do you suggest for this transition?

After the fall of Assad, we will need a transitional government, and we suggest that it should last for a year-and-a-half. During that time the transitional government would be able to manage an election through a constitutional assembly that will be the legislative body. And those who have blood on their hands and committed war crimes should be held accountable and be brought to justice. Other Syrian officials can be part of the transition. Our plan of transition will be presented internationally in important capitals.

Apparently, Bashar al-Assad will not accept such a transitional plan, will he?

That’s why we want the international community to forcibly take Assad down through military action. We’ve tried sanctions, negotiations and none of this has worked.

‘Lessons from Egypt: importance of consensus among opposition’

Would you elaborate on the lessons learned for Syria from the Egyptian case?

The Syrian transition would be different from the one in Egypt. The Syrian army collapsed — it is not as strong as the one in Egypt. The important lesson that we should have learned is the importance of consensus among all the opposition groups during a transition and about the need for clear steps as to where to go after Assad’s fall. If there is no plan and more importantly if there is no consensus on a plan, then we would go back to square one like Egypt did. There is a need to build consensus among Syrians first.

What do you suggest in the center’s plan for the transitional government period in Syria in regards to how to solve and avoid sectarian conflict in the country?

This will be done through transitional justice and reconciliation. Without reconciliation, Syrian society will break down. The sectarian issue is the most challenging issue for Syria’s future because the Assad regime has invested in the civil war through arming Alawites against Sunnis. This will have huge implications for the future if we cannot manage it well.

‘Assad dreams of regaining control’

Before we started recording our interview, you mentioned a ministry called the National Reconciliation Ministry established by the Assad regime. What does that ministry do?

No one buys it because no government can call for reconciliation and at the same time continue killing its own people with long-range missiles. This ministry, along with some of the local opposition members, was trying to soften the sectarian language between two villages, an Alawite village and a Sunni village. In Homs, there is a Sunni majority, but there are also Alawites who are still loyal to the Assad regime, so there is a sectarian war among some villages. But the members of the reconciliation committee were trapped and killed by militia close to the government. This also shows that Assad has no interest in national reconciliation.

In one of your recent articles you indicated that Assad is no longer the president of Syria but the governor of Damascus. Would you explain what you mean by that?

When we look at the map, we see that Assad’s army is holding less than 30-40 percent of the country. Even in Damascus, Assad cannot leave his palace. But, of course, he still has the state’s resources, including rockets and chemical weapons. Assad still believes that he will regain control of the areas he lost, but this is only a dream.


Radwan Ziadeh is both the executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS), based in Washington, D.C., and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) in Syria. A visiting scholar at Lehigh University, he is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington, D.C., and managing editor of the Transitional Justice in the Arab World project.

Ziadeh formerly headed the Foreign Relations Office of the Syrian National Council, which is influential in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (referred to generally as the Syrian Coalition or Coalition) and was founded in Doha in November 2012.

He left Syria in October 2007 to be a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., where he wrote “Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East.” His earlier book “Human Rights March in Syria,” written in 1999, was published in Beirut and forbidden in Syria.

 Today’s Zaman