The Gate conducts regular conference calls with a group of journalists and invited experts. An edited transcript of a July 22 roundtable is below
- Russia will maintain its presence in Syria at all costs in order to prevent a repeat of the NATO Libya intervention last year—even if this is unlikely in an election year.
- The Free Syrian Army is a tribal and confessional patchwork not presently capable of ruling.
- Assad is likely to survive, possibly by creating an Alawite enclave surrounded by a chaotic tribal region in which various Sunni factions contend for power; Russia would back this.
- Russia is additionally concerned about Islamist elements in Syria igniting trouble in its own Muslim regions, and is worried that Syrian chemical weapons might end up in the hands of terrorists.
Pepe Escobar, Roving Correspondent, the Asia Times
David P. Goldman, "Spengler" columnist at Asia Times and PJ Media and president of Macrostrategy LLC
David Samuels, Contributing Editor to Harper's Magazine
Jim Davis, President, South Shore Consultants
Tony Badran: Across the Bay blog, Fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
David Samuels: After the devastation wreaked by some unseen hand on the command and control structure of the Syrian security apparatus, including the killing of Assad's brother-in-law, Asaf Shawkat, do you imagine Russian military advisors will be stepping in more directly?
The second question is whether the Russians are going to support Assad in carving out some type of Alawite-dominated rump state, or if this was merely a short term adventure and now the party is over?
Jim Davis: From my point of view, I really do believe that what the mass media is saying about the Russian influence in Syria right now is slightly exaggerated. Russia does not have very heavy leverage or influence on Assad. Russia basically is very interested in Syria from many points of view, but mainly from an economic point of view. After the disaster in Libya and other countries around the Middle East, Syria remains the main consumer of Russian export products, i.e. – weaponry. Additionally, Syria is the last country in the Middle East where Russia is maintaining its influence.
But mainly Syria is kind of a nuisance; from what we know right now, Russia tried to influence Assad to take a more flexible position with the opposition just two weeks ago, and Assad mainly ignored what his Russian friends told him.
Now to the question of Russian military advisors in Syria – their numbers are very limited. I've seen different figures, I don't have a confirmed figure, but their functions are limited to teaching the Syrian military how to use Russian military equipment. There are no political advisors at all to the best of my knowledge.
David Samuels: The naval bases there are important to them.
Jim Davis: There is no naval base in the Western understanding. If we compare to an American military structure, the best description is that there is a naval station. The infrastructure of the station is very limited, mainly fit for refueling of Russian military vessels there.
David Samuels: So maintaining those docking rights is just a matter of prestige?
Jim Davis: That is what it is mainly. The main purpose of this base was to serve the vessels belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The Black Sea Fleet is basically one big ship and around a dozen small ships and tankers, that's all they have there.
The Russian Navy is in a very difficult position right now. It's very obsolete. And a good 35 percent of their naval power is just on paper. When they sent this task force to the Mediterranean about a week ago, they took ships from two fleets, the Northern fleet, which is traditionally the strongest one, and from the Baltic fleet.
David Samuels: So your understanding is that this was a cheap adventure, and in the end Putin can walk away and say, "oh well, too bad…"
Jim Davis: Very interesting question. Russia is paying a very high price right now in terms of its prestige in international public opinion. So it is not so cheap. Providing limited military assistance and sending all the ships and supporting naval stations over there, it costs a lot of money.
David Samuels: So you think Putin will change his mind now and walk away?
Jim Davis: We should take into consideration the factor of Putin himself. He believes if he withdraws right now, he'll repeat the mistake of Medvedev when he agreed to the United Nation's resolution on Libya. He believes he should hang on until the end, for if he doesn't, whether its true or not, he fears the United States and its allies will interfere and he'll see the same as outcome as in Libya - and that's exactly what he's trying to avoid. But I believe that psychologically the Russians are ready to withdraw.
Pepe Escobar: What the Americans and the Russians agreed to in Geneva to three week ago is that Russian would have a "breather" of three months or so to try to coordinate some sort of a political transition in Syria. This was the official statement "we want a diplomatic solution somewhere in the next three to four months".
Jim Davis: The Russians are not idiots. They realize clearly that they don't have that time anymore, after the attacks that effectively eliminated the top brass of the Syrian military. I do believe that Syria as a State is down for the count. Syria and its government cannot control the security situation in the country.
Pepe Escobar: The head of Syria's four military intelligence agencies were not killed in that blast, and this is something that is really puzzling. General Assef Shawkat, more or less the mentor of Bassar Assad, was killed, Hisham Ikhtiyar, the national security chief died of wounds two days ago. The four guys who control the military intelligence apparatus are still there, they are probably all at the Presidential Palace discussing their next move. So the head of the snake is still there, most of the snake is still there – so it is not over by any means.
Jim Davis: They are still there, but I don't believe they can hang on. Even if the security apparatus is in place they can't hang on, because of the situation is deteriorating every day.
David Goldman: Tony Badran, can you explain what you've been writing about a "rump" Alawite state and a possible division of Syria.
Tony Badran: I'm not suggesting they are going to have a "State" in the way that we understand the word. I'm suggesting they will have a protected enclave, which is a little bit different. I think if you look at the pattern of the regime's operations in recent weeks and months, if you look at geographic location of these battles, especially the big high-profile massacres, they involve mass killings in Sunni villages that are adjacent to Alawite village, within the traditional Alawite coastal mountains or Sunni villages on the Eastern edge of the coastal Alawite mountains along the Al-Ghab Plain.
If you look at Syria in Google Maps in satellite form, you'll see where the mountains edge down to the plains, (where the Orontes river passes) this is really the fault line in Syria, between where the line of Alawite villages ends and the west end and the Sunni interior begins. The regime has been trying to control things in two directions, in a North-South direction and also in an East-West direction. The North-South is the Damascus to Aleppo main artery. The towns along that strip are where the heaviest fighting is going on. These are all the names of the villages we keep seeing.
So what is the point of this? They are preparing a buffer zone to keep the Sunni interior at bay, and to prevent the East-West axis from reaching to the Alawite coast. This is where the fronts are, on the entry points to the Alawite areas. If you look back to the Crusader period, this is where the Crusader forts were as these are strategic access points dating back centuries and centuries. If you look at that, there is clearly something going on here, namely that a stronghold is being prepared.
One of the things that was lost on the Obama administration was the basic equation – the Alawites are outnumbered, they are facing geographic constraints as well as demographic constraints. The situation very much resembles how it played out in Lebanon for Christians, where they were able to hold on for quite a while with access to the Mediterranean and conduct what became static warfare.
Far from being over for him, if Assad can create security there, they can create a long-term war with the interior area, with access to the Mediterranean, with all that that entails with access to weaponry and stuff like that, the Iranians would definitely support this scenario, and frankly why wouldn't the Russians support it, too?
Jim Davis: If that scenario comes about, Russians will most likely support it. The Russians are most concerned with the radical Islamization of the Middle East. They have terrible headaches with their own Islamization, not only in the Caucasus, but also within traditional Russian areas. There were a couple of terrorist attacks last week in Khazan, which is close to Moscow. They really do believe this is a threat, and that is a big reason they are supporting Assad – because he's not an Islamist
Tony Badran: A few months ago, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that "if the current Sunni regime were to fall, there would be a desire and pressure by some countries in the region to establish a Sunni regime, I have no doubt about that." He didn't say Islamist mind you, he said a Sunni regime.
My point is that for Russia, there is nothing to lose in this case, and everything to lose if Assad falls. If anyone is going to project influence in a unified Syria post-Assad, (if that were in fact possible, to achieve a unified Syria post-Assad) it would be a Sunni regional power, be it Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar projecting power into the area, it will not be Russia and it will not be Iran. It is the marriage of the strategic and the sectarian, and they will not be able to project power.
If you are capable of maintaining an Alawite protectorate on the Mediterranean, which also coincides with another strategic interest of Russia, to be a player in Eastern Mediterranean energy market to Europe. That also coincides also in another Russian interest – screwing the Turks.
They want to make sure that Turkey does not get empowered in the post-Assad period, and if you can make an Alawite enclave with a Border with Lebanon and Turkey, while the Sunni-Syrian interior including the Kurdish north and east goes up in flames, all the better, as far as they are concerned.
Pepe Escobar: I'd like to add something about the Pipelinistan angle, the oil and gas angle. I'm referring to the deal, that Tehran, Damascus and Baghadad sealed last year, a $10 billion dollar deal, to build a gas pipeline from Iran, across Iraq, into Syria and then to the Mediterranean coast. And who would lose in all this – Turkey. Then Iran and Iraq and Syria would have a direct outlet to sell gas and oil via the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe bypassing Turkey. What is the absolute obsession of Turkey currently? To become the transit energy corridor to Europe.
Jim Davis – You're absolutely right: Turkey has been working in that direction for the past 15 years.
David Goldman: To summarize, the balance of power could be maintained with Alawite enclave, limitations on Turkish power being put into place by the Saudis, with the Saudi money holding the purse strings and keeping the Turks in place. What could go wrong in this scenario? The chemical weapons? What are the possible fault lines where the scenario can go wrong.
Jim Davis: I can tell you from the Russian point of view. Their real concern is that the US and Western allies can go and deal with the situation in Syria beyond the framework of the United Nations. That's the nightmare from Moscow. That is what they believe can undermine all the slants and scenarios in the region.
David Goldman: I agree it would be a terrible idea. I think it's extremely unlikely in an election year. A vast majority of Americans are against US going into Syria.
Jim Davis: Hypothetically from the Russian point of view, the Russians, who are very suspicious people, see the situation could occur, and they are afraid of this.
David Goldman: What is you view on the Syrian chemical weapons?
Jim: Russians are equally if not more concerned as the American people. These weapons could be smuggled into Russia and used in Russia or in Central Asia in other places of vital concern to Russia.
Tony Badran: Where are the main (chemical weapons) sites? I don't have new intelligence, but its known they were in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo, as reports came on that these were moved long ago, from Homs already a year ago.
Back in June 2007 there was a major explosion in Aleppo in a factory which turned out to be a chemical weapons factory for to put chemical warheads for on Skud 2 missiles. At the time of the explosion, it was reported that dozens of Iranian scientists were killed in the explosion.
So it becomes apparent that the government of Iran has been involved since the beginning. With that in mind, the passing on to Hizbollah (of chemical weapons) becomes a moot point. They were involved in financing and helping their allies make it from the beginning.
On the other hand, I don't think the point of this stuff is to attack Israel. It can be turned against the Sunnis of Syria. If you want to secure the Alawite enclave, and keep the Sunnis at bay, it's his ace in the hole: if you come in here, I'm gonna release this stuff and kill people (and I don't know if anyone would care). Assad clearly won't give the stuff away to Al Queda, or in the areas he lost control over, against Israel – that would defeat the purpose because it will mean the end of you. The target is the Sunnis, and not anyone beyond the borders.
David Goldman: The Israelis have expressed the fear that if Iran gets control of a chemical arsenal then they will use it as a sort of second strike capability.
Jim Davis: Sorry to interrupt you, but that is an exaggeration. Iran is known to be in possession of an incredible amount of chemical weapons produced by themselves.
David Samuels: The actual warhead seems less worrisome than the scenario Tony was sketching out before. Syria was under the control of a bad man, but there was still a return address and a functioning state structure. If you imagine a criminal enclave being created on the coast with some Russian support, and then the chaos of an Islamist dominated hinterland, then you've turned Syria from a state actor to a zone of criminality and chaos. You also have all of the people who were employed in these former state programs, and it would be easy to lose track of 50 Syrian scientists, who know how to do bad things and might end employed by whoever can pay the most money or compel their services. What will breed within this vacuum? It's very scary. People will move back and forth between Lebanon and Iraq, and you'll have a human situation with all kinds of groups who will have access to all the creepy things that Assad has been brewing for the past 25 years.
Jim Davis: To remark on Russian support to this hypothetical enclave: I believe Russia probably would render some assistance to this enclave, but it could be very limited. I can explain why. If this happens, Russia would be under pressure from the countries of the European community, which is important today to Russia. Russia's leadership is pragmatic. A top Russian priority is to attract capital. They would not risk losing their trade relationships with the European community, cultural relationships and otherwise. I believe Russia would think twice and approach this problem cautiously.
A second rumor in Russia on the naval force dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean because of the unusual make-up of Naval force. Normally only naval ships participate in this type of mission. The naval force here is carrying 1500 Marines. The use of these Marines is absolutely unclear. There are rumors that the troops are not there to participate in aiding the regime of Assad, but under certain circumstances to try to secure the Chemical weapons. This is at the level of rumors in Moscow.
Tony: The level of fragmentation inside Syrian is so great that the last thing we need to worry about is the notion of a concentrated block of power, this or that, I don't believe any of that.
Look at the interior, in the north and the east, the Kurds smell weakness and are trying to secure as much terrain as possible from both the regime and the opposition, keeping the Free Syrian army out of their areas – as they see this as their break to try to gain control.
But the Kurds themselves are divided between the PKK and the new hodge-podge the Kurdish National Council. The PKK and the Kurdish National Council have signed an agreement to keep the peace until Assad is gone, so at least they can get something out of this. As to who will rule the Kurds afterwards, it's not clear yet.
Further south and in the east – the Syrian tribes are split between those who benefitted and still work with the regime, and those who are completely against the regime. In the central plains, there are myriad factions even of the Free Syrian Army are duking it out.
Aleppo is a situation on its own. The Damascus situation again is completely independent. The cleavages are absolutely immense. This is why Assad and his father were able to take control, because there was never a Sunni a bloc. That's the calamity – the Sunnis cannot agree on anything.
If you look at the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, it support the Assad regime, who oppressed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
If you look at this very fragmented picture, when people talk of the Sunni bloc more broadly, you have to step back and take a deep breath.
David Goldman: Tony, I think that segues into consideration of the Turkish position. Will any post-Assad regime allow for Turkish influence (as Arab nationalists). The Kurds will gain more "play room" however they choose to use it – but never good for the Turks. And all of this no matter what makes them more dependent on the Saudis – who are writing the checks to keep them financed. Turkey is tied up in knots, in my impression, and becoming less of a regional power as a result of the Syrian crisis.
Tony Badran: I think the Syrian crisis has stripped naked and exposed the Turks' every \ weakness. I criticized the Turkish role in Syria, until I found out that one of the things restraining the Turks was the Obama administration. At first I thought it was the Turks desire to reach an agreement between Assad and the Sunni forces, but now I see that Obama was looking a way to put the brakes on any Turkish attempt to take more aggressive action against the Syrians. The Turks are sheltering people, giving weapons and allowing freedom of movement, in what has become a de-facto safe zone in the north and northwest. The Kurdish issue has exposed the weakness of how much they can interfere, as the Muslim Brotherhood is the vehicle for Turkish interference in Syria.