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Foreign Intervention in Syria? A Debate with Joshua Landis and Karam Nachar

StoryFebruary 22, 2012
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With estimates of well over 5,000 deaths, the uprising in Syria is believed to be the Arab Spring’s bloodiest conflict to date. As the toll mounts, calls are growing for the international community to intervene by arming rebels fighting the Assad regime and even direct military intervention. We host a debate on the merits and pitfalls of foreign intervention in Syria with two guests. “I’m not opposed to helping the opposition. The problem right now is that we are not sure who to arm,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of “Syria Comment,” a daily online newsletter on Syrian politics. We’re also joined by Karam Nachar, a cyber-activist and Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University working with Syrian protesters via social media platforms. “There is a humanitarian disaster unfolding on the ground,” Nachar says. “[The world has] a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our program with the crisis in Syria. Thousands of people have died in what is likely the Arab Spring’s bloodiest conflict to date. Syrian opposition activists said today that two Western journalists had been killed in the city of Homs: French photographer Rémi Ochlik and Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times. Shells reportedly hit the building they were staying in, which is believed to be a makeshift media center or medical clinic. This BBC video shows what is believed to be Marie Colvin’s last report.

MARIE COLVIN: Just today, shelling started at 6:30 in the morning. I counted 14 shells hitting just this civilian area, Baba Amr, within 30 seconds. There’s a small clinic. You can’t even really call it a clinic. It’s an apartment that has been turned into a clinic. I mean, you have plasma bags hanging from coat hangers. There was just a constant stream of civilians. I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times in a BBC News video, thought to be her last report from Homs.

A citizen journalist was also reportedly killed in Homs yesterday. Rami al-Sayed provided live video streams and posted more than 800 videos on YouTube under the name “Syria Pioneer.”

Meanwhile, Syrian activists say Assad’s forces killed more than 60 people in attacks on villages in Homs yesterday. Syrian forces also opened fire earlier this week on demonstrators in Damascus.

With estimates of well over 5,000 deaths in Syria, the shocking toll has sparked ongoing calls for international intervention to stop the bloodshed. Speaking yesterday in Jerusalem, Republican Congressman John McCain of Arizona told reporters that the U.S. should employ every option available to assist the Syrian resistance.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We can use the lessons of the past, and we can work with a contact group, we can work with Turkey, we can work with the Arab League, which has played a lead role, and provide what’s necessary to the Syrian resistance. Now, the pushback you’ll hear, “Well, we don’t know who they are. We don’t know—we don’t know who to identify, how do we do it.” There are ways to help people that are fighting for freedom and are willing to give up their lives on behalf of it.

REPORTER: Such as?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Pardon me?

REPORTER: Such as?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Such as, there are ways to get weapons to people who are fighting against this kind of repression. We showed that in Libya. There are ways to—first of all, by giving them the moral support that they deserve. I’m a little embarrassed that a lot of the world has not spoken up more strongly on their behalf.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arizona Senator John McCain.

Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters yesterday that the United States still believes a political solution would be the best outcome in Syria. However, Nuland noted that additional measures might be considered if Assad’s regime doesn’t yield to pressure.

VICTORIA NULAND: We still have a chance for a political solution. We still have a chance to get to the kind of transition scenario that the Arab League has laid out and that many of the Syrian groups support. So, from our perspective, we don’t believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria. What we don’t want to see is the spiral of violence increase. That said, if we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.

AMY GOODMAN: This Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet representatives of some 70 countries in Tunis for the first “Friends of Syria” meeting to coordinate possible next steps. The 22-member Arab League has endorsed the meeting, and the U.S., European Union and Russia are among those invited to attend. However, Russia has declined the offer and yesterday joined with China and Iran in renewing its declaration of support for the Syrian government. Earlier this month, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad regime’s crackdown. The U.N. General Assembly passed a measure with similar language just last week.

For a debate on the merits and pitfalls of the foreign intervention, we are joined by two guests. In Norman, Oklahoma, we’re joined by Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes Syria Comment, a daily online newsletter on Syrian politics. And via Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by Karam Nachar, a cyber-activist who’s working with Syrian protesters via social media platforms, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University in the History Department, specializing in the modern Middle East.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Landis, let’s begin with you. You’ve heard the State Department saying they’re weighing intervention. Talk about the significance, what this would mean, and why you’re opposed to it.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I’m not opposed to helping the opposition. The problem right now, the dangers right now with arming the opposition, is that we’re not sure who to arm. There’s the SNC, which is the political umbrella group with which Clinton will be meeting in Tunisia shortly. They have just reappointed a leader, a French professor, for another two months, but they can’t agree who should lead the group, except for in these two-month and three-month intervals. There’s clearly a lot of turmoil in the leadership. The Syrian—the Free Syrian Army, that is led by a colonel in Turkey, just called the SNC a bunch of traitors a week ago on BBC News. And then, there are dozens of little militias in Syria that have emerged and are forming part of this very potent opposition. The question is, who—which one of those militias should America be arming? And the danger is that if you jump in early and try to pick a winner, then you might end up, later on, with supporting an opposition group that doesn’t turn out to be the winner when the dust begins to settle on this revolution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joshua Landis, there’s some speculation that, in fact, the opposition is already being funded by the U.S. Is that correct?

JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t know if it’s being funded by the U.S. It’s possible that they’re getting aid, intelligence. There have been reports of drones flying over Syria and so forth. And there is undoubtedly some assistance. There have been satellite phones, communication efforts. You know, intelligence has been playing a role. But it’s probably getting funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, other groups. Turkey is clearly helping the Free Syrian Army, to a limited extent. But people have not jumped in.

The Syrian opposition is starved for arms. They’re starved for money. You know, the foreign sanctions have devastated the Syrian economy, and that hurts the government, but it hurts the people even more. It’s the poorest and the weakest who are most hurt by sanctions. And that means they can’t fund the revolution, they can’t feed their families. Syria needs hundreds of millions of dollars. They need lots of heavy arms. The Syrian army still has tanks. It has helicopters and potentially airplanes, if it should move in that direction. But this Syrian opposition is going to need lots of heavy arms, training, central command and control. This is a major effort.

And people, foreigners, are in disagreement. They have gone to the U.N. They’ve gone to the Arab League. They’ve gone to Turkey. Nobody wants to get in charge of this opposition. It’s a “you first” situation. We saw what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. America is exhausted with taking the lead in regime change in the Middle East, and it’s hanging back. Now, we’ve got a lot of rhetoric, as we heard from Senator McCain and we’ve heard from others, calling Assad a terrible dictator and—but very little action on the ground. The opposition still needs a monstrous amount of aid that people are quite reluctant to step up to the plate and give.

AMY GOODMAN: Karam Nachar, your position on intervention in Syria?

KARAM NACHAR: Well, to start with, I disagree with Professor Landis’s portrayal of the situation with the Syrian opposition. It is true that, for instance, in the Syrian National Council, there are a lot of disagreements. But most of this turmoil, most of these problems stem from the fact that the base of the Syrian revolution, the protesters, the demonstrators and the activists inside and outside the country, are still frustrated with the leadership of the Syrian National Council because of its inability to solicit more international support. And so, international support or international community should not be deterred by the problems that the Syrian National Council is facing at the moment. In fact, if there’s more enthusiasm, if there’s more support, if there’s more unequivocal support for the Syrian protesters, first and foremost, if there’s more empathy to the quagmire the Syrian people find themselves in, I think that would actually reflect positively on the unity of the Syrian opposition. And I believe that the State Department, Secretary Clinton and the American administration is heading towards that. They’re realizing that empowering the opposition would actually help it consolidate itself, consolidate its position and present a united front not only to the people inside, but also to the international—to the international community. So there’s a difference here.

Obviously, the ideal is not—the situation is not ideal. We’ve wanted to do this on our own. And I speak here not just as a cyber-activist; I’m a member of the Local Coordination Committees, one of three bodies of the grassroot movement that started on March 15, 2011. And we’ve been—we hoped for around eight months that we were going to be able to replicate a Tahrir Square moment. And people said we want a peaceful, peaceful movement. We want change to come from within. But the main factor here was in fact regime brutality, the intensification of repression, of brutality, of killing. We moved from using live ammunition and firing randomly at demonstrators to rolling in tanks into entire cities to random shelling of entire residential neighborhoods, something which we still see for the past 18 days in the city of Homs.

And so, while I do realize that liberals around the world, in particular, are very wary of a replication of the Iraq scenario, for instance, the world, I think, should know that this is not Iraq. This is a society that has been mobilizing against the regime for the past year. There is a humanitarian disaster unfolding on the ground. There’s a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people. This is not a perfect situation. It’s complicated. It’s going to require a lot of money and a lot of courage and a lot of involvement on the part of the international community.

But I think the situation—I’m sorry, the Friends of Syria group in Tunisia, the upcoming meeting, is a step in the right direction. And I think the Arab League in Turkey should lead the efforts to help and—to help and channel some kind of support from the United States, from the Europeans, into the Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition has made several attempts to present a united front, but their problems today are not the result of some innate inability to unite, but actually as a result of their inability to get more international help. Help and support will actually solve the problem of the Syrian opposition. It is also not true—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Karam Nachar, sorry, can I just interrupt you briefly to ask you, who’s in the Syrian National Council? Is it an umbrella group of opposition groups in Syria? Just say a little bit about what makes up the group, who’s involved.

KARAM NACHAR: Well, thank you for this question, because a lot of American listeners and viewers are also thinking maybe that the Syrian National Council is some kind of a replica of the Iraqi opposition before 2003, the Iraqi opposition that was based in exile. This is completely false.

It is true that certain members, certain groups—so it is an umbrella organization. It includes more than eight different—eight different political groupings. Three or four of these groupings are basically Syrian political parties that had been based in exile or have always been in exile, since, I think, the late '70s, the early ’80s. The most prominent political group of these would be the Muslim Brothers. But there are also political groups that are based inside the country that actually sent delegates and members to the Syrian National Council from inside. This includes the Local Coordination Committees, the umbrella organization that I'm a member of. It’s a grassroot movement that was formed in the first months of the revolution. It includes two other groups that are basically active on the ground among the young demographic, the young demonstrators and protesters. One is called the General Committee for the Syrian Revolution. Another is called the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution. Now, why we have all these different bodies, because the situation on the ground doesn’t really help people to communicate with one another. And so these bodies emerge, and now we have these three main grassroot—grassroot organizations.

The fourth body, which is also extremely key, is the Damascus Declaration. This is an opposition group that was formed inside the country. It was officially promulgated in 2005. Most of the members of the Damascus Declaration are based inside. They live in hiding, underground. Some members are veteran opposition figures, who have always lived inside the country and have always tried to get peaceful, gradual change and believed that Bashar al-Assad could, at some point, deliver this. They obviously lost hope, long before the beginning of the revolution. And as a result of the revolution, they decided to join ranks with some of the figures outside.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Professor Joshua Landis back into this. So, here we have Karam Nachar laying out who the opposition is, that in fact they’re attempting to work together. Your response? And can you also bring Libya into this discussion, in the sense of the lessons learned from Libya?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I mean, as we heard, this is an opposition which has—extremely courageous. It’s grassroots. It’s coming up from the bottom up. But it’s largely leaderless. There is a—the Syrian National Council has spearheaded the attempt to get foreign aid and has been very good at it, in fact. They’ve gotten pretty devastating sanctions put on Syria. They’ve mobilized the international community. But they are still extremely divided. This is the beginning of a revolutionary process.

If America wants to give arms and give money to the Syrian oppositions, it’s unclear to whom to give it. We’re not really sure if anybody is really giving orders. Mostly, what we believe is that local groups, on the village and neighborhood level, have emerged. They’re beginning to take up arms. They’re beginning to get a command structure, but on the village level. They’re not communicating amongst each other that much. At least they’re not taking orders from a central—a central office. And so, America, I think, is a bit confused at this point on where to give the aid. Who should they back?

And part of sitting down in Tunisia on Friday, with the Saudis, with the Turks, with the main backers, the Europeans, the main backers of this movement, is to try to come up with some agreement, because the Saudis are going to want to support the more Islamist and perhaps leaning toward Salafist side of this. The Turks are going to want the more liberal Islamists. The Europeans and Americans will want the seculars. And they have to agree who they’re going to give the money and the arms to and who they want to be—emerge as the leaders of the new Syria that will be empowered by these hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons that will then, I guess, steer the revolution in one direction or another. And that’s the conundrum. And they’ve been demanding—Sarkozy of France has been demanding that the opposition develop a clear leadership.

And just yesterday, the activists were passing around—Syrian activists were passing around a video of the spokesperson for the Syrian National Council, Kodmani, who had sat down with five Israeli authors in France in a TV show and had said, “We need to recognize Israel. The Arabs need Israel. We need peace.” This excerpt, from an hour-long discussion, was taken out, passed around in a viral way, and used to condemn her and condemn the secular leadership of the Syrian National Council, by the more Islamists, to say these people are traitors. And this is the kind of squabble that, of course, is going on within the Syrian National Council, and it makes it very difficult for America to decide who—who to back in this revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back to this discussion. Professor Joshua Landis is with us from the University of Oklahoma, a Syria expert. We’re also joined from Princeton by Karam Nachar, a cyber-activist working with Syrian protesters. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in less than a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about intervention in Syria, a debate. We’re joined by Karam Nachar, cyber-activist working with the Syrian protesters. He’s a graduate student at Princeton University. He’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream. And Professor Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes Syria Comment, a daily online newsletter on Syrian politics. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joshua Landis, one of the things that you mentioned is that the opposition in Syria is leaderless. But hasn’t that been the case in Libya, as well? So how is it that NATO and the U.S. decided who to fund and who to work with then, but they’re not able to do so now?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, they didn’t really have to decide who to work with, because NATO and U.S. took charge of the air power, put in special forces, hunted down Libya’s military, and decapitated the regime, and then handed it over to the Libyans. There wasn’t so much a problem of who is the leader. And we see, today, that in Libya there are about 200 militias that are still working and aren’t—don’t agree. So, we don’t know exactly how Libya is going to play out.

But the real problem here is that if you decapitate a regime, like Syria’s regime, and there isn’t a unified leadership, the point of doing this is to stop the killing. That’s been the call, is the humanitarian desire to stop the killing. But we saw in Iraq, we decapitated the regime in Iraq, got rid of Saddam Hussein, using American forces. The trouble is, is the death rate spiked as soon as the regime collapsed, because a civil war broke out in Iraq, and we got a big ethnic war. Something similar could happen in Syria, because the minorities—25 percent of Syria, the Alawite-led regime, the Christians who support them, 10 percent, other Shiite minorities—are supporting the regime. The revolution is largely manned by Sunnis, who are the majority. Sunni Arabs are 65 percent of Syria. They’re going to take over, when this regime is successful.

Syria is the last minoritarian regime. We saw the Christians in Lebanon fall about—in a 15-year bloody civil war. The Sunnis—America threw out the Sunnis in Iraq, 20 percent of that country, that was leading it, threw them down to the bottom. The Shiites were put on top. But it’s been a bloody 10-year battle. And today, what we’re going to see in Syria is that the minorities, who have had their foot at the throats of the Sunni majority for the last 40 years, are going to be displaced, because we’re living in the final age of, you know, popular revolt and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the majority is going to get rid of these minoritarian regimes that have been left behind by colonial presence during the interwar period.

And the Alawites are going to fall. But they’re not going to fall without a long and bloody conflict, because the future for them is a bit grim. And that means that this Syrian opposition is going to have to carry out a long war. And if America isn’t going to swoop in and do it from the air, but supply arms to them, they need a leadership. They can’t take on a Syrian army that has stayed integral, that has tanks, that has cannons, without a firm leadership. They can bedevil it. They can carry—they can attack it as an insurgency. But ultimately, to overthrow it, they need a firm leadership. And for America to support them with arms, we have to know who we’re giving the arms to, who we’re giving the aid to. We can’t just give it to a leaderless bunch of militias.

AMY GOODMAN: Karam Nachar, your response?

KARAM NACHAR: Well, Amy, I think it’s very easy to show how many imperfections the situation on the ground right now has. Obviously, the situation is very far from ideal, especially when it comes to the political opposition. I am just a little wary that this overemphasis on how leaderless the Syrian opposition is is actually a tactic being used of people who actually do not want the regime to be overthrown and who have always actually defended the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, and especially of Bashar al-Assad.

I think the opposition is not that leaderless. I think it’s a sign of political health that are these several political groups. There are the Islamists. There are also the moderate Islamists. There are liberals. There are people inside. There are people outside. It’s a little—it’s a little strange that while this is a democratic revolution, we expect all these political groups to basically all stand behind one strong man, whereas the entire revolution is predicated against the theory of the one strong man. And this is, for instance, why the people, the different political groups that constitute the Syrian National Council, wanted the leader or the president, the chairperson of the Syrian National Council to be a rotating position for every three months, so as to underemphasize this need for the one strong historic leader. This is a political fascination that has unfortunately taken root in the Arab world for too long, and it’s time that we move beyond that.

I also think that, whereas the situation in Iraq was obviously catastrophic on all different accounts, the Syrian opposition, the old one, the new one—most Syrians, in fact—have opposed the war in Iraq. And as I said, what they’re asking for, this intervention that they’re asking for, [inaudible] they realize it’s not perfect. But I think we can learn from the lessons of the past. The vast—the biggest reason, the most important reason why there was civil war in Iraq was because the Americans listened to these exiled figures outside Iraq and implemented a completely foolish policy of de-Baathification, and so basically collective punishment of the entire state structure in Iraq. And that basically created a group of people that were disenfranchised, basically.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to the question of regional powers. Earlier this month, Democracy Now! spoke to Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East and author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. He talked about the motivations behind Russian and Chinese opposition to the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.

PATRICK SEALE: I think, to understand what’s happening, one has to see this as a concerted attack, assault, on not only Syria, but Iran, as well. You see, Iran, Syria and their ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, that trio, a sort of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, has in recent years been the main obstacle to American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. And the attempt now is to bring that axis down. Of course, they’re fighting back with their allies, their friends, like—precisely, like Russia and China.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Karam Nachar, can you comment on what Patrick Seale said?

KARAM NACHAR: I think it’s very unfortunate that a lot of experts on Syria have tried to package what is going on now as a regional and international confrontation between the United States and its allies and Iran and the enemies of the state of Israel, because, in a way, this pushes the liberals and the progressive voices of the West to not want to get involved and to think of this as an imperialist ploy. I think this is a moral fiasco on the part of these liberal and progressive intellectuals.

This is a democratic struggle that started on March 15 of 2011. Of course, a year after, it’s going to get very complicated. But ultimately, ultimately—and it’s, for me, it’s a little strange that I find myself agreeing with Senator McCain, that report that you guys started with, because really the situation right now in Syria is one of a humanitarian—the proportions of a humanitarian disaster, and there’s a need for help given to the Syrian protesters and the Syrian demonstrators. It goes without saying that the United States of America and the Europeans, when they want to get involved in this, they are concerned about the regional implications, the regional repercussions. So are the Turks, and so are the members of the GCC and the Arab League. But ultimately, this is not about the—

AMY GOODMAN: Karam, we’re just about out of time, and I want to get Professor Joshua Landis to respond.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, you know, he’s right. There is a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria. But there’s nothing strange about a reluctance to jump in the middle of what is becoming a conflict over nation building in the Middle East. And Syria has to figure out what its identity is, who is going to lead the country. And America has just jumped in to a number of these—in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And we haven’t necessarily helped the situation. Ten years later in both those conflicts, we’re withdrawing, and there isn’t a democratic government in either country. There isn’t stability. There is an ongoing struggle. The death rate in Iraq today is almost as high as the Syrian death rate. Almost every day, there’s a car bomb going off, as Sunnis and Shiites continue to struggle for primacy in the country. Now, that’s not—as Mr. Nachar said, it’s not a reason not to give aid, not to get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JOSHUA LANDIS: But for America to take the lead, it seems to me, as we’re trying to withdraw from the Middle East and build up our own education system, take care of—your previous program—of a debt problem that is unfolding in America, it seems it would be imprudent.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Professor Joshua Landis from the University of Oklahoma, Karam Nachar of Princeton University.

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