Editor’s Note: In an interview with Al-Monitor, Salman Shaikh highlights the importance of a national dialogue in Syria, emphasizing that it must be done in a more structured way and with additional regional and international support, in particular from the Russians, moderate Arab states, the United States, and Europe. Shaikh adds that the chemical weapons crisis is only encouraging the Assad regime to become more intransigent.
Al-Monitor: Are all these communities willing also to collaborate to isolate the insurgent elements?
Shaikh: Yes, they are, and in the end most of the tribal peoples and most of the Sunnis know that they will have to fight those extremist elements. That is what the tribes have been telling us, but they were not given support. They blame the regime for having released most of those extremists and even supported them in some ways. Now we have extremist groups that are already established, with financial sources of revenue, by trading oil, for instance, and which are controlling the relief of certain populations. This creates a very dangerous situation.
Al-Monitor: From your experience in the region, do you believe that the West has a partner in the Syrian opposition?
Shaikh: The official opposition has not been able to build credibility and presence on the ground. That is a fact. But the regime and the official opposition are not representative of the majority of the Syrians. The challenge is how you engage with those people for a change to happen. It could become more of a possibility if there was an understanding that Assad would actually step aside.
One of the reasons I have been such an advocate of a genuine intra-Syrian dialogue, is the desire to prevent the Alawite community from being attacked after Assad’s fall. However, I am afraid that the official opposition has so far failed to present itself as a credible vehicle for such a dialogue.
Al-Monitor: Does the American threat to remove Assad have any impact?
Shaikh: There is no credible threat of the US force now on the table and I think it is a big mistake.
Assad will collaborate on the chemical weapons, but only because he looks at the large picture: He still believes in victory and thinks he can get it. People in Damascus reported to me that during those few days leading up to a possible American strike, the situation inside the regime was one of real panic. Now they are sitting rather comfortably in Damascus, there is less of a sense of fear and encroachment for the regime. It is an undeniable situation on the ground.