Who's Who In The Battle For Syria

Violence in Syria continues to escalate, with government forces reportedly shelling the city of Homs. Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller talk about who the key players are within Syria and what they want.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Violence in Syria continues to spiral with no end in sight. A U.N.-sponsored ceasefire plan lays in tatters with no clear alternative. The government shows no signs of giving in, and while the Syrian National Council elected a new leader over the weekend, opposition exiles remain weak and divided, and any number of groups operate inside the country, organizing everything from protests to attacks on government forces.

To add to the confusion, there's Syria's neighbors and its enemies and its allies. As the crisis continues to boil, today a look at the players inside and outside and how their roles are changing. If you have a question about who's who in Syria, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, on The Opinion Page, the advent of the fetal genome prompts Ross Douthat to consider parents' choices. But first who's who in Syria. Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," he joins us from our bureau in New York, nice to have you with us today.

ANDREW TABLER: Good morning.

CONAN: And let's begin with the biggest player in Syria, of course that's the government. And we'll get to Alawites and other divisions first, but this is the Baath Party, the same party as Saddam Hussein.

TABLER: That's right, and not only that, but it's the same kind of regime. In Iraq, you had the Sunnis, a minority in that country, using Baathism to rule over the majority Shia population and the Kurds, as well. In Syria, instead of Sunnis, you have Alawites, who are about 12 percent of the population, ruling over the majority Sunni population, which is about 75 percent. And so very similar things, similar brutality and also extremely difficult regimes to displace when the time comes to do so.

CONAN: We remember in Iraq circles of security forces and countersecurity forces, everybody spying on everybody else.

TABLER: Exactly. Living in Syria is like living, for example, there are many movies out there which I think, you know, sort of depict life in the Eastern bloc. "The Lives of Others," if you've ever seen it, comes to mind. That's what living in Syria is like.

The Mukhabarat, which we call security services, really in Arabic just means informers. So if you're there, and you're working there, it's not just the secret police, the guys in black jackets who show up in leather jackets, but it's many times your friends and your colleagues who report on you, and that's how Syrian society has been ruled for decades.

CONAN: And Alawites, the ruling family, the Assads, who have been in power now for 40 years, they are Alawites, the leadership of the country. What's an Alawite?

TABLER: An Alawite is a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam. The mainline Shia, like those in Iran and Hezbollah, are what they call twelvers, waiting for the 12th imam. Alawites are eleveners. They - it - they primarily come from the Syrian coast. They have been regarded by many Muslims, including Sunnis, as apostates and were treated horribly under Ottoman rule.

And so since the 1960s, when Hafez al-Assad finally came to power, Bashar al-Assad's father, in 1970, they've run roughshod over Syria. And so that's what makes the current insurgency, civil unarmed insurgency against the Assad regime, take on a very sectarian nature. You have Sunnis trying to displace an Alawite regime.

CONAN: And if one were to think Alawites, the ruling party, the ruling family may want to leave and go somewhere else, there's not an awful lot of places for them to go.

TABLER: No there isn't. They could - and I think this is the current thinking is that as the regime degrades that the Assad regime's forces will withdraw to the Syrian coast. When Syria was a mandate, after the First World War until 1936, actually there was a separate republic on the state, the Republic of Latakia, and that's where Alawites come from. They come from the coastal mountains. We think that they would retreat there, and that would of course allow them to continue their links with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well.

CONAN: So those are the - some of the divisions. But we also look to - no party could rule without some political support. The Alawites, a very small fraction in terms of the population, but they must have support from some within the country.

TABLER: Absolutely. Traditionally, other minorities gathered around the Alawites, and for example, Saddam Hussein's regime, you know, Sunnis were about 25 percent of the population. They didn't need so much cooptation. In Syria, they need much more.

So they have Christians, which are about 10 percent of the population, Druze and other small sects gathered around them. And so collectively, minorities are about 25 percent. But that really wasn't enough to rule the country, and Hafez al-Assad stabilized the system by bringing in other Sunnis, the (unintelligible) bourgeoisie and also the tribal Sunnis of eastern Syria and the settled tribal Sunnis of the Haran region south of Damascus.

And that gave the regime a sort of Sunni - what I call a Sunni veneer. The problem that Assad has now is that that Sunni veneer is - has rapidly come off the regime, and the system now is destabilized. It doesn't mean it's going to fall over tomorrow, but there are large parts of the country in which the opposition in the Free Syrian Army now, you know, can control the different areas for extensive periods of time.

And we expect that this - that the degradation of the regime will continue in the weeks and the months to come.

CONAN: We're talking with Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. We're trying to figure out who are the players and the stakes in Syria, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And John's(ph) on the line with us from St. Louis.

JOHN: Hi, yes, my question is - I heard you mention that the Alawites are a small percentage. What approximate percentage of the population are they?

TABLER: Approximately 12 percent of the population are Alawites.

JOHN: OK, OK, well, thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from St. Paul.

DANIEL: Yes, well, thanks for being on the show. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DANIEL: I heard a year ago, say, give or take, from someone with similar expertise that there were, like, 11 secret service police or agencies in the country, and so there could be theoretically 11 simultaneous investigations into the same family, none of the agencies necessarily sharing information. Does that make sense to you, as an expert?

TABLER: That's absolutely right. I have a very good friend of mine whose father disappeared in the Hama massacre of 1982, in which between 10,000 and 30,000 people died. And the reason why we don't know how many people died that day, the regime shelled the fourth-largest city, Hama, is that so many people disappeared. They were just arrested.

His father was arrested, and they never heard from him again. And still to this day, members of different branches of the Secret Service will come to their house looking for my friend's father. And of course their response is, well, we haven't seen him since February of 1982. We were hoping you could tell us where he is.

And the officer, who probably wasn't even born in 1982, just looks at them and says oh my God, I'm so sorry they never told you what happened to him. And they said no. And they said, well, we don't know what happened to him, either. This is very similar to Nazi Germany and a lot of other authoritarian systems in the Eastern bloc.

Syria's Mukhabarat was the secret service. They were trained by the East Germans, the Stasi. They're very good at what they do, and they're very good at spreading fear.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

DANIEL: OK, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. As we think about this, again using the example of Iraq, what we found was that various families, various tribes played all sides against the middle. They would have some members of their family in government pay and others with the opposition in various parts of the opposition. Is that also happening in Syria?

TABLER: That's right. The - traditionally the Assad regime has been able to divide and rule the country. Syria is a collection of different sects and ethnicities and, you know, different religions. Also, you know, a sizable chunk of the Sunni population is Kurdish. So what the Assad regime is able to do - and Hafez al-Assad was very good at doing this - was able to, you know, play off one community against another.

So the community that the Assad regime hates traditionally are the Sunnis who lived closest to the Syrian coast, where the Alawites are from. This is in the northwestern part of the country, around Hama, Idlib and Homs. And so what they did is they organized other Sunnis, from Damascus and Aleppo in eastern Syria, in the Haran region, against those Sunnis.

And they successfully did this, until, of course, the outbreak of the current uprising in March of 2011, when the regime decided to use - to use a lot of live fire on protesters in the Haran Region, one of their area of support, after people went out in the streets, because the regime had arrested a group of children for scrawling on a wall the people want the fall of the regime.

That's what set it off, and they've been losing that Sunni veneer ever since, and not only that, but even members of the different minorities in Syria have also been, you know, walking away from the regime but I think much more silently. They're starting to understand that Bashar al-Assad can't really hold on in the long-term.

CONAN: You mentioned the Hama massacre back in 1982, again the father of the current President Assad. But that was the Muslim Brotherhood, who had been exerting more and more power in that town. Are they a factor today?

TABLER: They are. They are primarily a factor in exile from Turkey. They make up a sizable part of what's called the Syrian National Council and just elected a new leader recently. They're trying to overhaul the organization. They are one of the most organized exile groups, and Turkey supports them substantially.

Inside of the country, though, it's unclear about their prominence. I think in the northwestern part of the country, where people traditionally, you know, their traditional base around Idlib, Hama and I think even Aleppo. I think that they have some traction elsewhere; it's hard to say. They'll be a factor in a post-Assad Syria, but it's unclear whether they'll actually dominate it.

CONAN: And the opposition largely Sunni, exclusively Sunni?

TABLER: It's largely Sunni, but it's not only. There are Christians and Druze and...

CONAN: Druze another offshoot of Shia Islam.

TABLER: That's right and which has gone even further away from Shia Islam than Alawites. The - and so they're also part of the opposition. And so - but increasingly, you have this Alawite-versus-Sunni dynamic going on, and this is what we've seen in the massacres in the last few days in Homs, in Hama province.

CONAN: We're talking about who's who in Syria. If you have questions, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Up next, the many players maneuvering outside of Syria's borders, all of them with interests and all of them with allies. Aaron David Miller will join us. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, said today he was gravely concerned about ongoing violence in Syria. Fighters for and against the government now blatantly ignore his ceasefire plan, and many fear the situation may rapidly deteriorate into civil war, if it's not already there.

We're focused today on the players, who's who in Syria, and what they want. If you have questions for our guest, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria." And joining us here in Studio 3A is Aaron David Miller, who served for two decades at the State Department as an advisor to six secretaries of state. He is now a distinguished scholar in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. And Aaron David Miller, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And in addition to that stew of groups inside and outside in terms of the Syrian exiles, there is any number of Syria's neighbors who are vitally concerned with what's going on, and Andrew Tabler mentioned Turkey a little while ago, at one point probably Syria's most important commercial ally, more and more a political ally until tables were turned.

MILLER: Right, and in fact Erdogan and the Turks were determined to maintain a relationship with the Syrians and the Iranians and to pursue a policy of no hostility toward any group. The Turks are now in a real bind. They have to watch and are affected by refugee flow, 70, 80 thousand. They see their Sunni compatriots being killed across the border, and yet they're very reluctant to lead.

They're very reluctant to basically force the issue of military intervention or even take a primary role in creating safe zones because I think they really are afraid of several things: undermining their soft power - we want to be liked by everyone.

They don't want to get in a tussle in the Iranians. And they have their own minority groups, the Alavis and others, who might be opposed to intervention. So the Turks like so many of Syria's neighbors and the external players, are not all talking or speaking or acting from the same page, and that's the real problem.

You have a coalition, but it is a coalition of the unwilling, the opposed and the disabled, and the problem is, unlike Libya or any of the Iraq ventures that we participated in, you have outside parties that are working at cross-purposes with no unified strategy to either stop the killing or effect the political transition that will be more stable or better than the Assads.

CONAN: Another neighbor or set of neighbors, and that is Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who appear to be supplying weapons at this point to the opposition in Syria.

MILLER: Right, and I think the Saudi view goes to the broader game, which is a Shia-Sunni game and their fear of Iran and their fear of a so-called Shia Crescent. The Saudis are determined...

CONAN: Shia Crescent running from Iran, through Iraq, through Syria, into Lebanon.

MILLER: And Lebanon. And of course the Saudis perceive and ascribe(ph) to a conspiratorial view of these matters as well. So Bahrain becomes a sort of Achilles heel, if you will. How deeply the Iranians are involved on that is a matter of speculation, but from the Saudi perspective, there is this problem with encirclement.

And the question is how to prevent at all costs the emergence of a Sunni regime, those extremists in character, from taking over in Syria. So for the Saudis the stakes, it seems to me, are very high. And yet again it's virtually impossible for the Saudis and anyone else to have the kind of leverage or the kind of allies on the ground to effect real change, stop the killing and create a political transition of consequence.

CONAN: Well, moving a little further afield, you turn to the great powers. Russia, in the guise of the Soviet Union, several, many decades ago, well, Syria was one of its important client states in the Middle East.

MILLER: Very important, probably the last remaining relatively reliable Russian ally. But again, here the Russians are driven more by fears than by hopes. I think the - I think Putin really understands that Assad, and I think Andrew is right - of course we've been saying this now for the last seven months, it's only a matter of time, it's only a matter of time, and yet Assad still continues and survives.

But I think the Russians understand that there will be a transition. It's just they do not want to see that transition occur without their hand being very influential. And they do not want to see another ally fall at the urging of the United States.

Think about it from their perspective. Saddam is gone, a former ally. Gadhafi is gone, a former ally. Both as a consequence of American, Western initiatives. They want us to put pressure - want them to put pressure on Iran, another Russian ally. So I think they're clearly in a position where they don't want to see Assad fall as a consequence of some external military pressure, and they want to preserve their own assets - warm-water ports at Tartus, their stake in Syrian.

The debt problem has been resolved. But again, Putin believes that Russia is still a great power, and great powers have influence are looked to to provide help with problems, and that's where he wants to be.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, we read from time to time of Russian freighters docking in Tartus with shiploads of weapons. How important is Russia?

TABLER: They're vital for the Assad regime to survive. They - it's more than just the provision of weapons, which they've given throughout the uprising, and, you know, they're an old, you know, Soviet client state. It's also the political protection at the U.N.

Time and time again - remember, like, you know, now what's hailed as progress at the U.N. is when the U.N. issues a press statement, when you can actually get everyone to agree on something on Syria. And this would seem to be progress if the situation wasn't deteriorating so badly.

And in the case of the Annan plan, the six-point plan, which was put forward a few months ago, the - we had a situation where President Assad didn't even implement the plan. He didn't implement the plan to withdraw forces on April 10 or to a ceasefire on April 12.

And then after that we didn't do anything because the Russians would block any move that we would try and make, and that kind of paralysis at the U.N. level has exacerbated the situation and I think made it worse, considering the current situation.

CONAN: You also have then reluctant Europeans - for example, the new president of France, Francois Hollande, saying that he will do nothing without a United Nations Security Council resolution, which is clearly not forthcoming, Aaron David Miller.

MILLER: Yeah, I mean, yeah, he's just not Sarkozy. I mean, he's focused elsewhere. He doesn't have Sarkozy's relatively inflated or exaggerated notion of France's self-importance as Sarkozy drove the situation in Libya. And so you're not going to get action from the Europeans. The U.N. is only as strong as the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The Russians fear a post-Assad Sunni extremist regime, and I think they really do blame the Saudis for this. They don't trust the Saudis for their support of so-called Wahhabists in Chechnya. That's very much on Putin's mind: What comes the day after Assad?

And that leaves, of course, the greatest great power of all. And here again, I think - and I empathize and sympathize with the president on this one. I think his cardinal objective between now and November, I call him the not-now president, is to avoid any military action, either in Iran, or in the case of the Israelis, have the Israelis do it, or a unilateral, risky, half-measure military initiative in Syria that essentially makes him vulnerable.

Americans are not focused on foreign policy. Romney cannot touch him on foreign policy. The only thing that could hurt him is a stumble. And Iran and Syria are both places where the United States has demonstrated in the past and can continue to demonstrate real ineptitude. He has to be very careful and think through the consequences, even at the expense of watching this horrific killing, what America should do.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, and this is Michael, Michael with us from Beaufort in North Carolina.

MICHAEL: ...Syrian (unintelligible) about the Druze population across the borders. And I'm wondering whether - what - where Israel is, especially they've got the Golan Heights and they've got Druze population. I wonder how that population is reacting to what's going on in Syria, and if you could just discuss Israel's stance about just watching or being active or preparing or whatever.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, you would at first blush think the Israelis say this is one of our most implacable enemies and has been for many years - bye-bye, Assad, we will cheer as you leave Damascus.

TABLER: Yeah, the Israelis have no love for Bashar al-Assad. It's - this goes way back. It has, actually, nothing to do with the uprising. Bashar al-Assad had flown by every red line that was ever put down for his father, Hafez al-Assad, whether it's provision of Scud missiles to Hezbollah. I mean, his track record was terrible, and despite a lot of real efforts to engage him.

I think the Israelis are looking very carefully at what's going on around them. They also realize - they don't want into play in Assad's rhetoric. Assad's tried to spin this as an American Zionist conspiracy. But I think they're also kind of realistic in that they realize that really what's going on in Syria, the hurricane that is building there, and it is, it's absolutely a hurricane, and I don't see it going away anytime soon, doesn't have a whole lot to do with them.

It does have a lot to do with them, though, if Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpile gets loose. They have one of the largest stockpiles in the Middle East, and this is not a fantasy or even something up for debate, like Saddam Hussein's program.

There's - there are real concerns about what happens as - if the state degrades, and if those weapons get loose, what happens? And that's a major factor in their thinking.

CONAN: And Aaron David Miller, they also have to be at least thinking about the contingency that a cornered President Assad may say, well, let's complicate matters a little more and get the Israelis involved.

MILLER: Well, at this stage, I used to believe that in fact that was an option for the Syrians. I'm not sure it is anymore. I think it's the issue of a degraded non-state that concerns more. And think about it again from their perspective. Lebanon is a non-state to their north. The Palestinians a non-state in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. Their relationship with the Egyptians is only going to get worse even if the treaty survives. The Golan agreement signed June 1, 1974 has provided the quietest space in the Middle East for the longest period of time.

It's actually quite remarkable. Not that that's in jeopardy. It might be in the event the Syrian state actually collapses and it fragments. So that's a concern. But again, their involvement I'm sure is clandestine. I'm sure they have people on the ground. I'm sure they're up doing a whole lot of things we don't know about. But on the overt side, they're watching and waiting.

CONAN: On the overt side, they are more concerned about Iran and would consider anything involving Syria a distraction.

MILLER: A distraction but potentially a wedge, a weakening lever to pull in the event the Syrian-Iranian relationship collapses. But again, with collapse, with the end of authoritarianism, with the evolution of centrality comes chaos and additional problems.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Hamad(ph), and Hamad's on the line from Houston.

HAMAD: Yes, sir. I was wondering about how can we back the backers of the opposition like mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia and, you know, as far as the human(ph) rights, there's no human rights in those countries at all. They have thousands and thousands of political prisoners (unintelligible) in Bahrain, Saudi, they're killing(ph) them. How can we get involved with that kind of situation?

CONAN: Well, those are some of the people who are very involved in Syria, Andrew Tabler, and yes, indeed, they are American allies.

TABLER: They are. I think that it's important, you know, consistency is important in foreign policy, but in the end we want to achieve our foreign policy objectives, right? And we have a couple in Syria. It's the stated policy of the United States by President Obama that President Assad should step aside. Now, how that happens, you know, is up for debate. Anyone who wants to join in that struggle, I think the U.S. would listen to them, with the exception of extremist groups, like al-Qaida and affiliates, you know.

Now, it's true that those Gulf countries are also authoritarian, but they're also allies, or allies by remote, to the U.S. It's possible to work in concert with them in the short term in terms of bringing down the regime, but the real question about what comes after Assad is the problem. And it's there that I don't think they share our long-term objectives, and it would depend also whether you're talking about the governments of those countries and the individuals in those countries. Many of those individuals are privately supporting the opposition, and they have different goals as well, so you know, a confusing picture.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Also with us, Aaron David Miller, who's with the Wilson Center as a distinguished scholar in the Middle East program. Of course he served in - as a senior member of the State Department under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And that brings us, Andrew Tabler, to some of the forces that are involved - the Syrian army. We mentioned the stockpiles of chemical weapons, but this is a - well, it's certainly - we think about the Libya example, a much more formidable force than Libya. And there's also these militia groups, the shabihas. We heard you talking about those on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED as - describing the word as ghosts, former gangs of smugglers and outlaws who've taken their black Mercedes and now put them at the services of the government as an arm of the armed forces of Syria.

TABLER: That's absolutely right. What's happened is that the regime's response has gone from just using security forces and army to then - and that was not effective. The opposition didn't go away, and that was the civil opposition. Then people started taking up arms. They - so then the regime began using shelling both by security services and by the army. People still didn't go away. The regime goes into areas and tries to clear and hold them. But the problem the regime has is that it doesn't have enough forces.

They have only certain numbers of forces that they can - Alawite divisions that they can rely on. So they go in, in a game, what they call whack-a-mole in policy circles. They go in and try - like the carnival game and try and whack the mole's head, but then the mole goes back down the hole and pops up somewhere else. And this process is degrading the regime slowly, and it's one of the things that, what the Saudis call the killing machine, that is driving forces across the border.

And the latest rendition, what has happened is as this approach has not worked, now what they do is they shell an area to sort of soften the beach, so to speak, in military terms, and then they now send in the shabiha, these Alawite gangs, to terrorize the populations and many times execute people. This is a way to reinstitute the fear factor. The only problem the Assad regime has yet again is it's not working.

CONAN: And we seemed to be encountering - Syria did not suffer the same kind of sectarian violence as Lebanon did, certainly not as its other neighbor, Iraq, did, yet as people line up one side or the other, if you are on the government side now, it is going to be impossible to make your amends with the opposition should they come into power, and vice versa.

TABLER: Absolutely. This is the problem about - I just had a discussion with a senior policymaker about this. The question is, you know - you know, is - I think the genie is now fully out of the bottle. I don't really think that that it's possible for this to settle down anytime soon. And even if Assad - would Assad going be enough, you know, the - what they call the Yemen solution for Syria, it sounds great but it - I really don't know how just the Assad family would go, who would take over afterwards.

And even if that was possible, let's say a rump Alawite regime did try to do - negotiate an exit, and then a - here's the question: With whom in the opposition could they negotiate to clear the streets? We don't - you know, the Syrian opposition is - it's not leaderless, but it's headless, because if it had a head, Assad would try and chop it off, and they're not going to give him the pleasure. So it's unclear with whom he could do the deal, or a rump Alawite state without Assad could do the deal, to sort of handle this transition and move towards election. So I think that's one of the reasons why we're headed towards increased chaos here in the summer before the U.S. election.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, thanks very much for your time today.

TABLER: Thank you.

CONAN: As we mentioned, Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Aaron David Miller, always nice to have you on the program.

MILLER: Pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller joined us here in Studio 3A. He's a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center.

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