Think tank director Gavrilis: Assad has more firepower, support than we think

Think tank director Gavrilis: Assad has more firepower, support than we think

George Gavrilis (Photo: Today's Zaman, Onur Çoban)

July 15, 2012, Sunday/ 16:18:00/ YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN

George Gavrilis, executive director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue in Washington, D.C., told us for Monday Talk that the Syrian army's recent naval exercises mean that Syria has more firepower and support than the international community thinks.

“If you're a world leader that can't import necessary goods, is running out of hard currency and has an economy which is about to collapse, why would you waste your ammunition on maneuvers? The fact that he's using quite a lot of ammunition for this tells me that their military stock is in a better position than we think,” he said.

Syrian television aired video of a variety of missiles being fired from launchers on land and from ships; the video was provided by a state-controlled Syrian television station. Additionally, there are concerns that Syria might have moved its chemical weapons deposits to new locations, according to a July 13 report by The Wall Street Journal that quoted unnamed US sources. The Syrian government denies that its chemical stockpiles have been moved.

Meanwhile, UN observers are investigating a recently reported mass killing in the Syrian village of Tremseh in what anti-regime activists have called one of the deadliest events of Syria's 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad which activists say has resulted in the deaths of more than 17,000 people so far. Estimates of the death toll for the Tremseh massacre range from 103-152, but activists expect the number to rise as hundreds of residents remain unaccounted for and locals believe bodies remain in nearby fields or were thrown into the Orontes River.

Observers point out that Assad remains in power today largely because of international disagreement over how to handle the crisis.

Answering our questions in İstanbul at the dialogue conference Foreign Policy and Competing Mediation in the Middle East and Central Asia, held on July 11-14, Gavrilis elaborated on the issue. Please note that his responses during the interview are his views only and do not necessarily represent those of the Hollings Center.

The Obama administration is reluctant to take military action in Syria, partly because the government does not want to take any risks prior to the approaching US presidential elections. Do you think, however, that the US administration would act differently if there were no pressures related to the elections?

If we remove the coming elections, would the US have a different approach? I think the answer is no. Some people have noted, for example, how the Republicans have criticized the Obama administration, but if the Republicans were in power right now, I don't know that the response by Washington in Syria would be any different, and the reason for this goes back to what's happened in the region and beyond. The US public is extremely fatigued from the spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they don't want another conflict. Iran is a little different, but there are very few Americans that want to see the US involved in any sort of sustained military campaign in the Syria crisis.

US Senator John McCain made some recent statements on the issue; he said he finds President Barack Obama not so outspoken on the issue of Syria. Does he represent the thinking of the Republicans?

He really believes what he's saying, but, if the Republican Party were to win the elections, I don't think their response to the Syrian crisis would be much different from [that of] the Obama administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to take a harsher tone with regards to the atrocities of the Assad regime even though the US is not going to act militarily on the issue of Syria. Would you offer some thoughts on that?

US official statements on Syria have evolved, and it has gone from harsher to much harsher. The US is upping the game by being a lot harsher on Syria and on Russian policy towards Syria. Clinton is closing ranks with a number of players. One of them is Turkey, which has also stepped up condemnation of Assad, but another is the Arab League, which is extremely frustrated with what's happening in Syria. So, by engaging in much harsher diplomatic language, she's showing solidarity with the Arab League and the Turkish perspective.

Much attention is being paid to Russian support for the Syrian regime, but isn't the real force behind Damascus Tehran? And is there a chance that the US will change its policy and include Tehran at the table to solve the Syrian crisis?

Iran doesn't have many close friends in the region. The Syrian government is one of those remaining friends, and so the Iranian government doesn't want to see Assad go and there are a number of things that it is doing for that. It disagrees with the sanctions, it disagrees with the criticism of the Assad regime and it also continues to send supplies, money and so on to Syria. So that's the Iran factor here.

You asked if the US might include Tehran in resolving the Syrian crisis. The US will not engage Iran directly in talks over Syria. Even if it did, Tehran would be unlikely to shift its support for Assad, especially if there is even a remote possibility that a successor government in Damascus will spurn close relations with Tehran.

You know a Turkish jet crashed off the Syrian coast in an incident on June 22 and there is a possibility that it might have been shot down by Syria. Some observers in Turkey are debating how the US would respond to Syria if one a US jet were to be taken down by Syria in a similar situation. What would you say to that?

The Turkish public is angry that the jet was shot down by Syria [if this is the case]. It's very angry that the pilots are dead, that Syrian actions have caused Turks to die and, in that respect, it reflects some of the very palpable public anger here in Turkey, as with the Mavi Marmara incident [a raid in 2010 by Israel of a Turkish-owned aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, while it was in international waters. The raid resulted in the deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American]. And the government necessarily has to respond to public outcries. However, is this incident enough to cause a hot war between Turkey and Syria? Absolutely not. If a US jet had been shot down by Syria, the US government would have to necessarily discuss whether to retaliate, for example, by bombing Syrian military installations, but it would probably end there. There have been other incidents when countries have downed other countries' military planes and it hasn't led to war. There was an incidence during the Bush administration when a US surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese military jet over the South China Sea and that was handled diplomatically -- there were some tense weeks, but it was handled diplomatically.

How long do you think the Assad regime will be able to stay in power?

At least six months, if not more. When this first started back in March 2011, everyone was predicting a very quick fall because they had Egypt and Tunisia in mind. They were of course also predicting a very quick fall for [Muammar] Gaddafi, and even that took months. The second thing predicted was ... maybe not as rapid a fall as Gaddafi but as soon as his money runs out, he's going to fall, and that didn't happen either. So now there's the issue of reserves: How much money does the Syrian government have in reserve? And it seems that they're not going through it as fast as we thought they were. Then there's the issue of military: People thought that the Syrian military would fall apart through defections, but there haven't been as many defections as some predicted and the military has stayed together relatively well. The Syrian army started doing naval maneuvers and people are speculating as to what this is about. Is it meant to intimidate Turkey and the US? Is this meant to intimidate the rebels on the ground? The more important question is how, during a time of conflict and war, Assad has enough firepower to waste it on maneuvers. Because he has more firepower and support than we think. If you're a world leader that can't import necessary goods, is running out of hard currency and has an economy which is about to collapse, why would you waste your ammunition on maneuvers? The fact that he's using quite a lot of ammunition for this tells me that their military stock is in a better position than we think.

What would be your comment on the international fears that what is happening in Syria could spill out into the whole region?

It is hard to imagine a regional war on the basis of what's happening in Syria. Countries do very well at maintaining their borders or keeping major problems at bay. For example, Turkey's border closures can really minimize any possibility of a major spillover, the Lebanese have become increasingly vigilant against any spillover from Syria and the Israelis are in the sense that they have always been good at fortifying their borders as much as possible. A more probable scenario is that Assad stays in power, but permanently loses control of many outlying regions. So you can imagine that certain outlying parts of Syria, if they're out of government control for a very long period of time, could become havens for rebels -- Kurdish rebels or more extremist Sunni rebels.

Who do you think might bring down Assad?

If he is brought down, then he will be brought down by the people that are in Syria fighting right now, fighting him.

There have been ideas to establish a buffer zone and/or a no-fly zone near or in Syrian territory. What are the difficulties in that regard?

A buffer zone on the Syrian side gets into really difficult issues of sovereignty because no state can go into Syrian territory without the government considering it an act of war, so it's a really difficult situation. But having a no-fly zone is more realistic than creating a buffer zone. But the no-fly zone is also very difficult because you're not just declaring that Syrian military jets cannot fly over Syrian airspace -- you also have to enforce it somehow, which means that you will have to use military force when the Syrians refuse to abide by that. Then the question is who is going to use military force? Is it going to be NATO? Is it going to be Turkey? Is it going to be the US? There is very little popular political support within the US for a no-fly zone. A lot of people say that NATO should do it, but NATO is in a terrible economic position. Some see the Libya operation as a successful precedent, but NATO officials during the Libya operation were hoping and praying that it was going to end quickly. If the operations were going to continue for a few more weeks, NATO wasn't going to have the money to pay for it. So I really don't see anyone immediately being able to implement a no-fly zone.

We sometimes hear Washington say “Syria is not Libya.” What does that really mean?

Some observers note that the transition in Libya was faster; it was cleaner and simpler. I think that you haven't seen anything yet. Libya's going to be a huge mess for years and years to come. And there's no way that you're going to get a centralized government in that country. I'm not even talking about a democratic government -- I'm talking about a centralized, stable government. We're going to see a mess, and that's because the country is quite politically, socially and regionally diversified. There are many political factions, so I think that people who make that contrast, thinking that Libya is an easier case, are going to be proven very wrong. But with respect to Syria, it will be messy if Assad goes.


‘Turkish foreign policy not as problematic'

There is a lot of criticism about Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's “zero problems with neighbors” policy after what's been happening in the region. Do you agree with this criticism?

I don't think Turkey's zero-problems foreign policy is as problematic as people say. Who would have predicted the events of the Arab Spring? Anyone who says that they saw the revolutions in the Arab world coming is exaggerating. So the Turkish policy was the best in the context of unprecedented and unpredictable problems where you had regimes being overthrown, not to mention that the Arab Spring completely changed Iran's behavior. So everything was upended through events that weren't tied into Turkey's zero-problems foreign policy.

How do we resuscitate a zero-problems approach in a Middle East that has completely changed from two years ago? That's difficult, but you can see if things calm down in the Arab Spring, if events play out in Syria in a way that calms down the situation, you can see that zero-problems policy can come back because, as a policy catch phrase, there's really not much wrong with it. The major criticism of zero-problems policy didn't come because Turkey did something to make the policy fail; it came because Turkey was confronted by the Arab Spring.

Having said that, I think that no country can strategically plan its Middle East foreign policy two, three, five years out. The region may look very different in six months, so Turkey will have to recalibrate its foreign policy accordingly. And, frankly, I think that a lot of the criticisms of Turkish foreign policy have been too harsh because, if we look at the Middle East and countries that have been acting in the Middle East from the outside, we have to ask ourselves, whose foreign policy has been that great or hasn't encountered major obstacles?

Are there lessons to be learned from the war in Iraq in 2003?

Policymakers and the public in Turkey were really divided over the Bush administration's decision to knock Saddam Hussein out of power in 2003. And one of Ankara's points was that it would destroy the security of the entire region. So, in that respect, the Turks were right. However, what is interesting is how much Turkey ultimately was able to take a volatile international crisis and benefit from it. For example, in 2003, 2004 and in 2005, nobody would have imagined that Turkey would have $11 billion in trade with Iraq, and that Turkey would have good relations with the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] as it does today. But back to Syria: One of the things that Turkish policymakers have to be more careful about -- more careful than Americans policymakers -- is that if Assad goes, who's going to take power? Will that person necessarily be able to control all of Syria? Will that person necessarily be able to form a government and assert political and economic control over the country? If I were a Turkish policymaker, that would be the first thing weighing on my mind -- if we take this guy out, who's going to take power?

‘Egypt macro-economically in better position than Greece'

Considering what has been going on in the Arab world, what countries do you think will be able to make the transition more smoothly toward a democratic culture?

Tunisia will be fine, but, actually, the country that I'm quite optimistic about is Egypt. I think I'm part of a small group of observers who are optimistic about Egypt, and there are several reasons for this. One of these is that Egyptians, not only with this revolution, but for at least a decade before, were very politically aware, energized and active. They were on the streets for their political rights. And that's certainly part of what you need if you are going to have a chance at democracy. And it's true that the presidential election didn't have an optimal outcome but, as a friend of mine said, what elections ever have optimal outcomes? Considering the history of the country, the fact that it had a one-party rule for so many decades, that the country had such a relatively smooth transition to presidential elections with a decent choice is pretty impressive. And it's true the country's large, the country's poor, the country's fractured in some respects, but I think in the next five years we're going to see some really interesting political developments come out of Egypt that will be relatively hopeful. And I should add that a lot of people emphasize the economic problems in Egypt and they're right, but Egypt is actually macro-economically in a better position than Greece.


Dr. George Gavrilis

Dr. George Gavrilis, currently executive director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue in Washington, D.C., served as an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and worked with the UN on various policy initiatives on Central Asia and Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. He previously taught international relations and comparative politics at the department of government of the University of Texas at Austin, directed research for the CFR Oral History Project at Columbia University and served as a national security postdoctoral fellow at the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. Gavrilis has written articles for Foreign Affairs and The New York Times on Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and the West Bank. He is also the author of “The Dynamics of Interstate Boundaries” (Cambridge University Press, 2008), in which he explores border control in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century up to Central Asia, China and Afghanistan in the 21st century.

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