The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on January 9, 2017, about the Syrian conflict after the fall of Aleppo to regime forces. The panelists were Moaz Al-Khatib, former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces; Daniel Byman, senior fellow at Brookings’s Center for Middle East Policy; and Louay Safi, professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University. Tarik Yousef, director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Yousef opened the event by noting that the unprecedented conflict that Syria has experienced will have significant implications for its future, but he expressed hope that 2017 would be the start of peace, stability, and the re-emergence of a Syrian state.
Khatib first observed that all conflicts end, although interventions often prolong them. The Syria issue is complicated, but he thinks there is political will to improve the situation, and that positive interventions might help. Khatib said he is optimistic, despite knowing it will take Syria decades to recover from the past six years. He added that change on the ground will require all of the involved external parties to cooperate.
Safi described the conflict as having multiple levels. At the local level, the majority of Syrians want to replace the political regime because it is a corrupt dictatorship. At the geopolitical level, international forces are battling to expand their influence in the Middle East. Safi conceded that the Aleppo battle changed the balance of forces in favor of the regime, but argued that the regime winning battles will not result in victory; because the majority of Syrians remain committed to the fall of the regime and will not tolerate Russian and Iranian occupation. Safi expects fighting to escalate in 2017 because the Trump administration will prioritize restricting Iranian influence. Turkey shifting toward Russia also complicates things further.
Byman then explained that the current presidential transition is causing more uncertainty regarding U.S. foreign policy than normal because Trump has no track record, is erratic, and has chosen advisors with divergent views. Byman argued that while Obama took into account regional stability, humanitarian concerns, and counterterrorism in making calculations on Syria, counterterrorism alone will drive Trump’s policy. Trump has called for cooperating with Russia, but also calls Iran dangerous. Byman concluded that U.S. foreign policy is likely to be crisis-driven, and that a significant terrorist attack would probably lead to a significant, if incoherent, military response.
Yousef then asked the panelists if they truly expected 2017 to be the same or worse than 2016. Khatib predicted that the United States, once the new leadership gets up to speed, will remain more likely to use muscle than brains, resulting in more catastrophes and terrorism. Meanwhile, the Assad regime remaining in power in its current format will foment extremism in the region. Khatib said that Syrians would like to have “meticulous, surgical kind of change,” not brought about by force. “We tried to follow the American axis for 6 years,” he recalled, “and what was the result?” Khatib was adamant that nobody will win in Syria, saying it “will be a defeat in battle for everybody.”
Khatib continued, describing the Russians as trying to come up with an initiative that can end their involvement. If this attempt is ignored, he said, then the Russians will slowly solve the Syrian issue through occupation along with Iran. Khatib argued that while the United States is not going to effectively intervene for a long time, there are roles to be played by regional powers like Turkey, as well as actors like the EU. In his view, the humanitarian dimension should be a priority in finding a solution, or extremist groups will continue to benefit. Unfortunately, Khatib concluded, many international powers are pursuing narrow interests and lack both expertise and humanity.
Turning to Safi, Yousef asked about the feasibility of a regional settlement for the Syrian conflict. Safi said it was still possible, but that he could also see further radicalization. Speaking more broadly, Safi asserted that “the Middle East needs a change…. The region cannot be ruled anymore by dictators.” He explained that millions of young Arabs now want better lives, jobs, and to live under the rule of law. It is necessary to reconsider “the escalation of the deterioration of political conditions.” Accordingly, Safi said that a strategy of propping up the Assad regime is irrational. “There is ethnic cleansing today in Syria,” he continued, adding that the stability of the whole region is at stake. Safi reasoned that because Russia will support Assad at any cost, it will be up to the new U.S. administration to ensure an acceptable level of political participation for the majority of Syrians in any new regime.
Yousef went on to ask Byman if Trump’s desire to work with Russia could lead to cooperation on Syria. Byman said he would not give Trump and Russia the benefit of the doubt, and that their priority will be Europe. Additionally, the Trump administration endorsing a Syrian regime that would allow for even more Iranian influence would draw heavy criticism in the United States. Byman argued that Russia would not settle for anything short of the Assad regime controlling most of the country. Since “Russia believes it’s winning,” it does not see a need to compromise, he added.
The panelists touched on a number of other related points in response to audience questions. Safi cautioned that Trump and his National Security Advisor view Islam, not just extremists, as a problem, and will not support the Syrian opposition. More broadly, Safi identified Turkey as a good model for a changing Middle East because it both underlines its Islamic heritage and respects diversity. He argued that “any cultural change in the Arab region should be based on values and ethics and religion.” Safi also predicted that Turkey, Iran, and Russia will become stronger allies if Trump puts pressure on Iran.
Byman addressed the Islamic State group. He called it an ideal enemy because it hates everyone, but warned that its fall will be a source of division. Byman said the lesson many Trump advisors are taking from the Arab Spring “is that the alternatives in the Middle East are not between dictatorship and democracy, but between chaos and dictatorship.” He added that with Iraq, Libya, and Syria all being disasters, Americans are skeptical of the United States’ ability to have a positive impact. Byman concluded that the United States and the region have to decide if American involvement is good or not.
Khatib lauded neglected efforts to absorb and contain terrorism, not just combat it, positing that 90 percent of so-called extremists want to go back to their normal lives. Regarding Israel, Khatib said it benefits from Arabs being backward in some areas of their thinking, particularly in assuming that negative things happen by coincidence or due to external reasons. “We are responsible for our own problems,” he contended. Khatib also identified India as the greatest democracy in the world, and a better model for Syrians to look to than Western versions. Lastly, Khatib called for “a higher level of humanitarian thinking.”
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[Bolton] tried to persuade Trump to adopt a particular approach on Syria, but that policy didn’t match the president’s inclination to pull the U.S. out of Syria.