The Ongoing Crisis in Syria (Agenda)

9 MINS READSep 21, 2012 | 18:23 GMT

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Video Transcript:

Colin: The conflict in Syria gets worse and all efforts to solve it founder. In recent days there looks to have been an increase in bombings by government forces of civilian targets. Thirty people were incinerated in their cars at a gas station at Raqqah in the northeast. But like many protracted conflicts there looks to be a stalemate.

Welcome to agenda. And joining me this week is Stratfor's Reva Bhalla. Reva, what are the reasons behind this stalemate?

Reva: Well if you look at the position that the rebels are in right now, they're still outgunned and outnumbered. They're not getting the supplies that they need, and so the front line keeps moving because the regime also doesn't have the strength to overwhelm the rebel forces. We're seeing in effect that Lebanonization of Syria. And neither side has meaningful force yet to change this equation. On top of that you have a lot of different factions within the rebel groups. And every time there's an attempt to unify them, those fissures come to the fore even more. And that's very frustrating for the foreign stakeholders who are watching this conflict and are trying to decide whether they need to invest more or whether that's going to cause more problems.

Colin: Of course there are many differences — ideological and intent — between the many factions that come under the umbrella title of "opposition."

Reva: Certainly, you see a lot of factions within the rebel camp. On one hand you see a lot of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army that come from a more secular background and who are trying to instill discipline with a largely civilian force of rebels, and that they're encountering a lot of difficulty in that. And then you've got the Muslim Brotherhood representation within the opposition, where Turkey is strongly backing this faction and wants to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent role in a future government. Egypt also is promoting that view.

And then you've got another strand of more radical Salafist jihadists, who are — have a lot of battle experience, who are coming into the Syrian theater in larger and larger numbers. But they have a very different ideological view of what a post-Assad Syria should look like. And there's a lot of concern over whether they should — how much leverage they should be given — in the fight right now — especially with foreign stakeholders worried about the growing trend of jihadism emanating from this crisis.

So while right now all these rebel factions agree on the need to topple Assad and so are coordinating on some level. Now when Assad actually comes down, that's when we're going to see those fissures reemerge in a very prominent way.

Colin: The foreign stakeholders are also split. There are the Turks and the Saudis, there's the United States in the throes of an election campaign. And there's France, which seems to want to get more involved.

Reva: Well the Turks are the closest to this conflict. And while they have been the most aggressive in displaying their support for the rebels and investing a lot into this conflict, they are also getting cold feet. They no longer talk about a no fly zone for instance as a probable or even an imminent event anymore. And over the past few months Iran and the Syrian regime made it a point to signal to the Turks the consequences of pushing hard on Syria, by using the Kurdish militant threat via the PKK mainly and militant affiliates, to basically threaten the Turks. And that message I think was understood by Ankara, and now you're seeing a bit more reticence there and more willingness by Turkey to talk to the Iranians.

On the other hand you have the Saudis, who have been responsible for funneling a lot of militants into the Syrian theater, primarily through Lebanon. A lot of the militants that have been coming with Saudi backing come from a Salafist, some jihadist, ideological orientation. And while on the one hand that's good for Saudi, in that these people are far away from the Saudi borders, on the other hand there is a Saudi fear of the backlash in the long term, as regional jihadism could come back to the kingdom. So there may be some reticence there as well.

Now then you look at the United States, and just if you look at the past week's events and particularly if you look at the assassinations in Libya, that sent a very clear message to the United States. It was an eye opener of the consequences of toppling these regimes, especially when you don't have a clear and a unified transition plan in place to replace that former regime. And so that is a concern for the United States, and looking at this growing jihadist presence in particular among the rebel factions, and the United States simply doesn't want to take the responsibility for managing the consequences of this conflict. It wants to share that burden.

But Turkey doesn't seem quite ready for that, and now we have a new player coming into the mix more prominently, which is France. And France of course has a historic legacy in Syria and Lebanon as the former French mandate countries. They have a lot of relationships there to rely on, but France has a lot of — a lot on its plate right now in dealing with the economic crisis. On the one hand this conflict can serve to demonstrate France's strength in foreign policy issues, kind of as a distraction for a lot of these issues it's dealing with at home. But there's also maybe an expectation by France that the Syrian conflict has come so far already that, if it's only a short time until the regime falls, it's a good time for France to come in, get more deeply involved and then take some of the credit for this regime change. But then there's a question of whether it is going to be an easy or an imminent fall, especially with such a fractured opposition, and so France faces the same constraints as these other foreign stakeholders.

Colin: The Russians are also watching with keen interest.

Reva: Right, so Russia is dealing with a lot more issues at home. Especially in October, it will be holding regional elections. It's been cracking down — just this week we saw the closure of the USAID office. And so Russia's sending a message that the U.S. needs to stay out of its domestic business, especially in this delicate political time. Now Russia doesn't trust the United States in this, and so we're seeing that confrontation develop, and while Russia has been a bit quieter when it comes to the Middle East — it hasn't been showing really strong support for the Iranians, it's kind of been backing off of these showy displays of support for the Syrian regime — it is still likely maintaining a steady flow into Syria with weapons, using transit states like Belarus, that serve as a key supplier. And that's something that the United States tried to expose this week by saying Belarus continued to ship weapons into Syria.

And so we're still going to see that tit for tat continue between Russia and the U.S. where the Middle East comes into play. Now will Russia make any bold moves in the Middle East in regards to Iran or Syria? Probably not, but it is going to maintain some stake in this conflict and use that as sort of a pressure point on the United States for when it really needs to bargain with Washington.

Colin: And then there's Iran — supplying arms to al Assad via Iraq. But also, we learn, talking to the rebels. When we last spoke, we saw the conflict as being a threat to Iran. But the chaos in the Middle East would seem to present Tehran also with a big opportunity.

Reva: Well the Syrian stalemate certainly plays to Iran's advantage, because you know, on the one hand Iran is on the defensive in the region now with Syria and the future of the Assad regime in question. But if the foreign stakeholders don't have a clear vision and aren't able to really act in providing meaningful support to the rebels out of their own concerns, then Iran has some room to maneuver in trying to edge its way into a negotiation over the transition. And that's precisely what we see the Iranians doing.

And just this past week, the Iranian national security chief paid a visit to Ankara and met with the Turkish leadership, had an important discussion with the Turkish prime minister. That very same day, the Turkish prime minister called up President Obama and they discussed a number of similar issues. And so what we're watching for are these early indications that Iran is feeling out a dialogue with the United States, understanding the constraints on the U.S. in the other foreign stakeholders on the stalemate in Syria, and then trying to see where can they achieve some common ground.

Maybe the bigger issues like the nuclear program you're not going to see much in way of concessions, but there may be more of a discussion when it comes to sanctions, when it comes to the future of Hezbollah and Iran's plans to try to preserve that movement, but maybe also agree to, or at least signal to these powers that Hezbollah could be neutralized while integrating it more formally into the Lebanese security apparatus. So I think there's a lot of issues that are on the table that Iran may be using to incentivize a dialogue. We're just going to have to see where that goes.

Colin: Reva, there's much more we can talk about but we'll have to leave it there. Reva Bhalla, ending this week's Agenda.

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