AP: Is it your understanding that the US has asked Gulf countries aka Qatar and Saudi Arabia to halt the channeling of funds/weapons to rebels and is this only since al-Nusra was listed as terrorist? More importantly, how has this affected the direction of the fighting on the ground in Syria?
Prof. SOUAIAIA: My understanding is that the U.S administration has always been wary of the free flow of weapons to Syrian rebels even before the declaration of al-Nusra a terror organization. A number of US intelligence and military agents have monitored the situation from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Moreover, US public (and official) position, all along, has been to provide non-lethal aid to the rebels. The declaration made that policy concrete and it provided a legal framework for both the US administration and its allies, including those in the Gulf region. The news of a plan to arm the rebels being turned down show the caution of the US administration about this matter.
Regarding the impact of the declaration on the ground in Syria, all evidence point to a slow down in rebels’ advances. The declaration created a different reality for the sponsors of the rebels. Some may have stopped providing weapons to groups affiliated with al-Nusra, but even the most determined supporters have to be mindful of the legal implication of being found, now or in the future, supporting a terrorist organization. Minimally, those who want to continue supporting al-Nusra and its affiliates must do so covertly and that would slow down the flow of arms, which impacts the way the war was fought on the ground.
AP: Do you think that the rebels have essentially lost the momentum in their fight to topple Assad, or at least to achieve a breakthrough on the ground in terms of advancing toward Damascus for example?
Prof. SOUAIAIA: Evidently, the rebels lost momentum and the French foreign minister said so last week. I would characterize it differently though. I think the war in Syria has reach a dynamic equilibrium. That is a situation where some areas and neighborhoods will remain under the control of the government and other areas will not be safe for government forces. There will be attacks and counter attacks. But it is unlikely that one side will gain full control over the entire country. Damascus is likely to remain in the hand of the government given its symbolism (state sovereignty etc.). The dynamic equilibrium is also present in terms of the identity of the two opponents: now, each side knows who they are fighting. You will notice that there were no significant defections in the last 7-8 months. In a way, the Syrian military has been purged from elements whose loyalty could be questioned. With over 60,000 people killed on both sides, it is reasonable to say that leaders on both sides have blood on their hands now. There are no innocent/clean hands at this point. Even if some may defect now, they will not be easily accepted and integrated into the FSA. So the fault-lines are now drawn and only a political, historical solution can end the cycle of violence.
AP: Some in the Syrian opposition think the West is having second thoughts about removing Assad, fearing the rise of extremists etc.. does that strike you as somewhat correct?
More or less. But I would hesitate to say that "the West is having second thoughts about removing Assad." The West has always wanted Assad out. But the question has been about the how. I think Qatar especially miscalculated the speed and resources needed to oust Assad and the West may have accepted that estimation without independent verification. Some thought that a sensible leadership can emerge to replace him. Now, many have doubts about that. Some Westerners are now thinking that ideological and sectarian makeup of the rebels is more dangerous for their interests and strategic alliances than that of the regime.
AP: Do you see any hope of a diplomatic settlement to the Syria crisis? Can talks between al-Khatib or any other opposition figures with regime members yield any results?
If Syrians decide to end this crisis they can do so without diplomacy that involves outsiders. After all, it is the inaction of outsiders that is prolonging the pain and suffering of the Syrian people. It is possible that al-Khatib has recognized the fact that the world community is incapable of ending the crisis but he and other Syrians can. For that to happen though, al-Khatib must take his group outside the influence of "axial patronage." Engaging in the politics of the "axis of evil" and "axis of resistance" while the country is being destroyed is utterly irresponsible; the sooner he and other opposition leaders realize this the sooner they can stop the war. The fact that he finally talked to the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich this weekend show that the National Coalition's president is maturing in his role as a national leader not a factional ideologue.
So, absolutely, only a political settlement of the Syrian crisis can end the cycle of brutal violence. It won't happen that quickly however. And even after a political solution is reached, violence will persist in Syria for some time still. Many fighters inside Syria are not even Syrian and many Syrian rebels have ideological and sectarian reasons to continue to fight. It will take time to bring everyone under control and it takes sacrifices on both sides to bring about true reconciliation. The world community can help speed all that up, but it is up to Syrians to talk to each other and reach a settlement that will preserve the dignity of all Syrians.
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