While international outrage grows over the mounting atrocities perpetrated by the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, prominent Middle East expert James Zogby warns in an exclusive interview with Newsmax.TV that “all bets are off” in dealing with the dictator.
Zogby believes that the United States must tread carefully before intervening in the troubled country.
“In the case of most regimes of this sort, it is about survival. And when survival is threatened then all bets are off in terms of how they will respond,” declared Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI) Foundation.
“It is difficult to imagine how we move forward. I think that the sanctions are right. I think that the growing condemnation in the world community is right,” Zogby said Tuesday. “But it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how one intervenes — or what intervention actually looks like — as you go down the road.”
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Zogby is especially concerned that the Syrian rebels are too disorganized and fractured to have a cogent plan for a post-al-Assad Syria.
“The difficulty is that we have a brutal regime with no vision for the future, an opposition that is at best fragmented, at worst it’s in total disarray — the inside, the outside, they don’t even seem to be able to hold a reasonable election among themselves,” according to Zogby.
Prior to the 14-month-old uprising, al-Assad had been viewed as someone who stood up to the United States, while pushing for internal reform in his own country.
At one time al-Assad enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings in the Middle East, based on Zogby’s polling data. His research also shows that U.S. favorability has dropped precipitously under President Barack Obama’s watch as compared to the final year of President George W. Bush’s time in office.
“The difficulty is that the regime’s got to go. That’s clear. But what replaces it? And how [do] you get to the point of replacing it? That is I think the difficulty that everyone is facing,” explained Zogby, author of “Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters.”
He cautions against military intervention. “While there have been those critics here in the States who say that Obama ought to do more, our favorable ratings are pretty low in that region,” he explained. “Remember what happened when we went into rescue Afghanistan?”
Any time majorities are opposed to the United States, and view it as a threat and a danger, “you move very warily in situations like that. So I think that the hesitation of the administration is appropriate.”
Zogby said that America’s poor favorability rating has been compounded by the Iraq war and “other blunders, failures, and bad behavior over the last several years.”
Even so, Zogby predicts that the world will not wait indefinitely before taking action in Syria.
“I put the fault ultimately on the regime, and I think that the writing is on the wall,” he said. “Their days are numbered. But the question is, How do we get past them? And how do we get to a situation where we can begin to think about a future regime?”
The tipping point may be another massacre such as the one this weekend in Houla that claimed the lives of 108 people, including many women, children, and families — most of whom had been shot at close range.
The State Department is expelling Syria's top diplomat in Washington as part of a coordinated response with at least seven other Western countries, which also expelled Syria's ambassadors from their capitals on Tuesday. The joint action marked a new phase in the international effort to force al-Assad from power.
Zogby doesn’t foresee any military intervention taking place without the U.S. or NATO.
“We may get to that point. I don’t think we’re there right now, but this regime ought to know that the world, U.S. opinion, is not going to ingest many more of these massacres,” he said, noting that he does not see any good coming from military intervention at this time.
“It may be a reaction that will be necessary because people simply say ‘enough is enough.’ My hope is either we don’t have to get there — that at some point there’s a grown up in the mix — maybe the Russians, maybe even the Iranians who will say, You know what, guys? This isn’t working for anybody.”
The United States in February closed its embassy in Damascus, withdrawing Ambassador Robert Ford and all U.S. diplomatic personnel due to the worsening security situation in the country. But Ford and his team have continued to maintain contact with both Syrian government officials as well as opposition activists.
Efforts by the West to take stronger action against Syria have been stymied to a certain extent by opposition from Russia and China, both of which are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
“I do know that the regime is isolating itself not just from the West, but increasingly isolating itself in the region,” added Zogby, noting that both China and Russia appear to be distancing themselves from Syria in the past week.
“The slow path certainly is taking lives, but remember the slow path may be the better path because there’s not going to be a quick win here — and you could go from 10,000 [dead] to a multiple of 10,000 dead and you don’t want to do that lightly,” insisted Zogby. “A full-scale civil war, or a full-scale invasion, could result in many more deaths than we’re seeing right now, and many more atrocities than we’re seeing right now.”
One of the more troubling questions for the West has been how best to protect Syria’s minority Christian population.
“It would be awful if this thing continues to the point where Christians are at risk,” observed Zogby, adding that Christians would most likely not be singled out any more so than other groups. “In any situation where war goes on so long — where so much blood is drawn — everyone is at risk.”
Nevertheless, Zogby said it’s premature to try to anticipate whether Islamist parties would be likely to take control of a future Syrian government — presumably one that does not include al-Assad.
“I can’t see Syria surrendering that to the kind of situation that unfolded in Iraq,” he explained. “It’s also my sense that Syria has it within its culture to not go down that road — and to protect its pluralistic civilization, which is one of the things that’s made it so unique in that region.”
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