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In conversation: Syria in perspective

Fawaz Gerges and Rosemary Hollis with Robin Yassin-Kassab at the openDemocracy conference Syria's peace: what, how, when?, discussing the regional proxy war, class dynamics in Syria, intervention and the costs of not negotiating with Assad.

This conversation was filmed at the openDemocracy conference Syria's peace: what, how, when?, building on issues tabled at the morning panel session which was held under Chatham House rule. The conference was held with the support of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF).

Robin Yassin-Kassab: My name is Robin Yassin-Kassab I'm a novelist and I suppose a journalist as well, a bit, and I'm very pleased to be sitting here with two experts, to use that horrible word, two scholars of the Middle East, the region, Syria, who I'm sure you will have heard of before and, like me, you will have profited from their analysis. First on my left, your right, is Rosemary Hollis who is a professor of Middle East studies and the director of the Olive Tree scholarship programme at the City University here in London. Before that she was the director of research at Chatham House, before that she was at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. Her latest book is called Britain and the Middle East in the 9/11Era.

And on my right is Fawaz Gerges who is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics. His books include the rise and fall of AL Qaeda, and Obama and the Middle East, the end of America's moment?

In a moment I'll talk very quickly about some of the points that were raised by this morning's panel and panellists, especially for our online audience who won't have seen that. And I'll ask Fawaz and Rosemary and I might but in as well, to comment on some of these points. Before that I'd like to hand over first to Rosemary then to Fawaz for them just to make a quick opening remark, so – Rosemary.

Rosemary Hollis: What I wanted to clarify is that I’m not here as a Syria expert per se, but over the last thirty years in the course of working at various think tanks, getting my PhD in Washington and so on, I have had perhaps the dubious fortune of participating in many brainstorms with members of the armed forces, government personnel and so on about contingencies across the Middle East, be it the 1991 war over Kuwait with Iraq, or be it the Arab-Israeli war or be it the invasion of Iraq. And So I hope that what I have to offer today is some perspective based on previous debates about options, scenarios and possibilities.

RYK: Thank you, Fawaz.

Fawaz Gerges: Thank you, well I am a student- no expert- of the Arab world and the Middle East in general. In the last 20 months one of the lessons I have learned about Syria is the need for all of us to show what I call intellectual humility when we talk about Syria. Because I think there is an intellectual poverty. We have very limited info-base about Syria. Most of the narratives and assertions have proved to be wrong about Syria. Really the situation is extremely difficult to decipher, for a variety of reasons, and most of the information we are getting from Syria is basically very limited in terms of time and space and scope. So please remember everything that I say, I say with a sense of humility, for a variety of reasons, and you will see from our discussion that we start and we end with a question mark. Because what we don't know is a great hazard for all of us, than the things that we know about this country.

RYK: One of the points that I really agree with that was raised by the panellists, one panellist –or two panellists – said that the dynamic of what's happening in Syria is Syrian. The thing started, this problem, this crisis, this revolution, the good parts and the bad parts, they all started in Syria, they came from Syria, and any solutions that happen are going to finally happen in Syria. I completely agree with that. However, of course this is a thing which has all kinds of regional and international ramifications, and I'll start talking about that because a lot of the presentations this morning were about specific countries in the region and their role- or lack of role- in what's going on.

So for example we heard criticism of Turkey for not policing its border properly, for playing off Salafis or, as someone else pointed out, Arab tribes against Kurds in Syria. Of course we heard some quite amusing criticism of Russia, its corruption, the way in which there are corrupt cliques in Syria who are in contact with corrupt cliques in Russia, which has an influence on the international relations. We also heard criticism of what was called the Cold War rhetoric in the west. The way the West was using a discourse of 'you're on the wrong side of history' – Russia and China is on the wrong side of history – and this wasn't encouraging Russia and China to get involved. We also heard – and this is what I'd like to start with, but of course both of you talk about any of those countries or regional aspects that you'd like to talk about –

One interesting thing was about Iran, Iran's potential role. Several people said that Iran cannot be excluded because it… there was a dispute about why Iran was backing the Syrian regime so much, some people – one person- thought it was to do with ideology. Another person thought, no, its much more practical, its to do with security and defence in the region. And I thought- then, I remember Mohammad Morsi the Egyptian president when he was invited to the non-aligned movement meeting in Tehran, of course it was a bit of a coup for the Iranians to get him there. It was the first time there'd been a visit of an Egyptian since the Iranian revolution to Iran. And at the time Morsi seemed to be working on some kind of plan whereby Egypt would give support to Iran on its nuclear programme, it would talk against sanctions in international fora, it would try to build a closer relationship with Iran for the first time in decades, and in return the Iranians would withdraw from its support of the Assad regime, and that certainly hasn't seemed to happen.

We also heard criticism of Saudi Arabia, of course Morsi tried to set up an Egyptian-Turkish-Iranian-Saudi group that would discuss Syria, and it was the Saudis who wouldn't turn up to meetings because they didn't like Iranian involvement. So do you have any comments either of you – anything you'd like to say about the regional implications, about the roles of foreign powers, about how you can get countries like Iran to sit down with countries like Saudi Arabia to talk about the issue?

RH: To pick up on that question, and to direct a further question at Fawaz, could we consider to what extent its useful to think of analogies with Lebanon, at war, within, between 1975 and 1990, and the number of foreign interventions - including an Israeli invasion, the fact that the United States committed its armed forces to helping reconfigure the Lebanese army to consolidate and to provide a security force and then 240 US marines were blown up in their barracks and the US decided Lebanon was no longer a vital interest and went home. There was hostage taking in the Russian embassy, the Russians didn't have any truck with negotiating, they went in by force people got killed, but they weren't taken hostage again, whereas Westerners were frequently taken hostage. There was the rise of Hezbollah in response to the Israeli occupation of the south, there was the expulsion of the Palestinians, on and on, and in the end it was the regional players who came together at Ta’if, and Syria got the brief to keep the peace, right? What can we learn from this involvement in Lebanon, and how far are we into the Syrian conflict if the analogy holds?

FG: I think, since we're talking about history (and I'm a historian), I think this particular period what's happening in Syria reminds me not of what happened in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 as you said Rosie, in fact it reminds me of the 1950s and 1960s when a fierce cold war, what we call an inter-Arab cold war, raged in the Middle East. Malcolm Kerr one of the foremost historians has a great book its called The Arab cold war – it was between the so called radical Arab nationalists and the monarchists, and on top of the Arab cold war you had also a global cold war between the United States-led front and the Soviet Union. I think what we're seeing in Syria today, literally, and I think you're absolutely correct Robin, I mean it started as a political conflict, crisis, uprising, it has mutated into an armed Syrian conflict, and now there is another mutation that the reality is that even though still you have multiple players on the Syrian front this has become – even Hilary Clinton in her last address at the White House she said the worst scenario, the worst case scenario in Syria has materialised: this is a war by proxy.

And I think we know this. This is not part of what we speculated earlier. We know that there is a coalition of states made up of Turkey, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, they are waging a war against the Assad regime, on the other hand you have Iran and Iraq, to a lesser extent, along with Hezbollah who are trying to support the Assad regime. On the top of this war by proxy you have also, I mean think of the rhetoric that has taken place now in the last twenty years. You have I mean Russia and the United States. Literally what's happening in Syria, many of us ask the question, and probably you will want to say a few words about it, how important is Syria to Russia? With all my respect to my Syrian colleagues Syria is not very important. Syria is a one of the poorest countries in the Middle East; it doesn't have any strategic value to Russia in the same way lets say Iran or other states. Syria is a case whereby Putin is trying to make the point that the international system, the rules of the international system, cannot be dictated by the Western powers particularly the United States. It's not just about Libya and the way that Russia and China voted for a Security Council Resolution. And this is why I fear that what started in Syria as a legitimate political uprising in similar spirits to what started in Tunisia in Egypt and Yemen and Bahrain has now mutated into a fierce and bloody and deadly regional conflict and also a cold war rivalry as between the Soviet Union and United States.

And no I think the Arab states in 1990 Rosie did not really come and basically mediate the conflict in Lebanon. In 1990 the war – the Maronites lost the war. Syria came on top. What the Arab states did in Ta’if was to basically formalise Syria's dominance of Lebanon in 1990, and if we have learned really one of the major lessons of history, since Rosie said we need to apply history, civil wars – and again I'm using the term, the first time that Hilary Clinton in her last address used the term that Syria has mutated into a civil war, the Americans, and a war by proxy – the only way this particular war unfortunately is going to be resolved either by one camp coming on top or somehow an intervention by a group of regional powers or international powers. In the meantime – this is my last point – is that, and we're not supposed to talk about the internal dynamics, again we started by saying think of the analytical poverty we have on Syria, think of how assertions and narratives – and I'm sure in the morning you have discussed this – in terms of 'Assad's days were numbered', 'his ship was sinking'. And I think one of the reasons I have started is that we know very little about what we call in Arabic bunyat al-nizam, the structure of the regime itself, how the regime is made, the ‘asabiya, that tie the various elements within the regime. We tend to compare Syria to Libya – well Gaddafi -

RH: No we don't

FG: Well some of us do in the field, I mean the whole idea is that somehow you might have a Libyan case.

RH: Well indeed, but that's not really what's going on in the –

FG: One of the major premises on which the Syrian conflict, basically the dominant narrative, was that somehow a Libyan scenario can be applied in Syria. At least significant elements made this particular assumption. The reality is and again for some of you, I mean, from the late 1960 or early '70s, Gaddafi systematically basically destroyed the institutions, particularly the –

RH: Well can I pick up on this point of what we know and don’t know about the regimes and what it means for the revolutions -

FG: And the final point – and I'll give you it, it's yours – is that while the Assads for forty years they built an ideological army. An ideological army based on set narratives and ideological narratives we don't have time to flesh them out. This army has been prepared for the worst case scenario. And the reason why Assad's days have not proved to be numbered, because this ideological army has been constructed to defend the state itself as perceived by the Assad family. And so far unfortunately despite, or fortunately regardless how we see it, despite everything that has taken place in Syria, I would argue – again with a question mark – the Syrian military machine, the Syrian army, remains intact. And this poses another question for us, that is how are you going to bring about a break through, how are you really going to end this bloody conflict? That's the point I'm trying to make comparing to Libya, in the sense that what you have in Syria is an ideological army constructed to support the family itself and the ‘asabiya, the community. In Libya you had a regime that destroyed the army and relied on the support of the popular committees, and we know what happened to the popular committees.

RYK: Rosemary.

RH: And I wanted to make a very similar point which is that I think we do know a fair amount about the regimes that are under threat or have already been toppled, and its very important to read forward what we know about the nature of those regimes to what we should expect once they are toppled. And in the case of the invasion of Iraq, you had the very fine British expert on Iraq, Charles Tripp, warning about the shadow state. These days its become called the ‘deep state’. What you can't see on the surface what you can 't eliminate by the dismissals that Paul Bremmer made at the top of the civil service and the education system in Iraq. The punishing of the innocents who joined the army or joined the party because that was the only way you got on in society. And my dealings with Syrians I compare over the years to my dealings with Iranians, with Americans, with Egyptians, with Palestinians, with East Bank Jordanians versus Palestinians, and in this cross-cultural comparison I discern some particularly disturbing things about the Syrian system.

In comparison with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, there was a kind of psychological drama going on in both countries but it’s of a different shape I believe. And the one in Syria it seems to me that the role of fear in the motivation of people and the control of people had reached a kind of pernicious level, in the sense that the regime was capable of framing somebody in order to control them. And no Syrian could really be sure of whom they could trust. And any Syrian with any stature in society, the government would have something on them, and it would therefore be the case that if the government wanted to come get them, or they fell foul of some other members of their community, they had baggage, they had history, they had a record. And the brutality with which the school children and thence their parents were dealt with in Dar’aa in the beginning I think was a signal that the society had been so corroded by the system that it was going to be touch and go that it could come out healthy on the other side.

RYK: There's so much to talk about and we don't really have very much time… because Libya was mentioned and the word intervention was mentioned I'd just like to say that in my opinion, as far as I can see, this has been a massive diversion, it’s the hugest red herring of the whole conflict: that the Syrian National council in the beginning seemed to put all its eggs into the basket of the foreign military intervention, leftists vehemently opposed the foreign military intervention, the regime talked in paranoid tones about the military intervention as if that was what it was all about, it wasn't about a revolution. And I think they're all missing the point.

I think it’s a misjudgement of the West, of the fact it's just got into trouble with two silly wars in Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. The West doesn't have money; I don't think that the intervention has ever been on the cards. It may come in the future if things get so desperate for the rest of the world because of what's happening in Syria it may have to come at some point but at the moment and in the past as far as I can see its never been on the cards and we waste time by talking about it, by hoping for it, or by dreading it.

But I'd like to quickly go to another huge subject briefly, if possible, which is sectarianism. Well Fawaz was summing up the regional proxy players in this, and unfortunately they come down that the Turks, the Saudis, the Qataris are Sunni powers on the one hand, these are the people that may or may not, or have been to a small extent arming elements of the, not of the, of the Free Syrian Army or of the Salafist militias, and on the other hand we have Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah which are Shia powers. So unfortunately this thing is feeding into the larger problem of Sunni-Shia sectarianism which has been exploited by rulers in the area and which has become much worse since the invasion of Iraq and the collapse there – do you have any general comments to make about this? It seems as well that the revolutions in North Africa one reason why their first stage at least seemed to be much easier was because there wasn’t this sectarian problem which plagues Baharian, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and now Syria. Fawaz.

FG: Would you like to go first?

RH: No [Laughter]

FG: I think, to come back to my earlier point about the difficulty really of making sense of what's happening in Syria, I think its easy to say, to simplify by saying that what's happening in Syria is a sectarian conflict between the dominant Sunni community and the Shia community. In fact I would argue that a better key to help us unlock the Syrian puzzle is what I call the class struggle inside Syria itself. I mean think where it all started, it started in Dar’aa. Very few people know, well many people now know, that Syria in the last ten years or so has undergone a major socio-economic transformation on multiple levers. We know the father used to care a great deal about the agricultural base of the regime itself, he realised the power base of the regime lies in cities like Dar’aa and Deir Azzor and Idlib and other places. He knew exactly where the power base was. But Bashar is a city boy. But Bashar did not really appreciate that the social basis - Hafez Assad used to boast about the fact that he knew the details of every single officer in the army, 3000 officers, that was part of the – whereas Assad, basically the neo-liberal policies adopted by Assad and the inner circle around him, particularly in the last eight years, have done a great deal of damage to the countryside in Syria.

And the migration, I don't know if you know this, fifty per cent of the countryside basically have migrated to the major cities in Syria, whether you're talking about Aleppo or Damascus. You have what we call hizamaat al-fuqara’ or the poverty belts now emerging all over Syria. Go to al-hajar al-aswad in Damascus or the various poverty belts in Aleppo. You have read many reports about Aleppo, about how the fellahin, the peasants, basically who occupy the houses and the apartments in Aleppo, not just of Alawites, mainly Sunnis and Christians, you have the bourgeoisie class.

So in fact the question regardless of what happens, and we don't know what's going to happen in the next year or so, I think Syria will never be the same, in the sense, in terms of transformation. You have major socio-economic transformation. The people that are in power today the people that are really waging battles against the Assad regime, some of the poor peasants that have migrated to the cities, and they feel empowered, the entire universal welfare system is gone, Syria is again to come back to the idea of a very poor state, how are you going to rebuild, how are you going to provide the universal welfare system that was, as you all know, Syria is a socialist led economy.

RH: Can I leap in before you move on to another point?

FG: Yes, please –

RH: Because you were inferring that Syria was going to change and, in relation to what? Because I come from the school of thought that says that we are revisiting the borders set by the Europeans in the 1920s and my perspective on this is that the state system that was configured in the imperial era, the European imperial era, passed the fall of the Ottoman Empire - that state system had begun to consolidate by the end of the 20th Century under some pretty authoritarian regimes. I don’t think we should expect anything other than authoritarian regimes because of the way the system was set up – it was never a compact between people and leaders – but, before you leap in, that I don’t see the outside players as ever having left. The nature of their presence changed, during all that time the Americans were involved, for a good chunk of time the Soviets were involved. As the former ambassador of the UAE says in his memoirs, ‘the British left what became the UAE in 1971: “they went out the door and then came back in through the window”; there are more of them in the UAE than ever there were in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th Century when they had their imperial era. We are, we got where we are today, together, so it should be no surprise that the external players as well as the regional players are implicated in where we are.

FG: Unfortunately, my point was not made, not stated very clearly. I was talking about the internal structure inside Syria itself, the socio-economic patterns that have shifted and changed in the last 10 years. And the big point that I was trying to make is that it is not just about sectarianism, it’s about socio-economic mutations that have taken place in Syria and really if you look at Syria itself, you see multiple conflicts collapsed in one and this really shows the complexity. So, on one hand you have sectarian reverberations from Iraq to Lebanon to Bahrain to Syria – it’s a fault line that masks major political ideological conflict. Inside Syria, I would argue, the question is, regardless of who comes to power in Damascus in the next one or two or three years, how are you going to provide the same services to these huge, basically, armies and impoverished people from there and other places given the fact that you need billions of dollars to rebuild. The big point I am trying to make is that even if Assad goes tomorrow, and unfortunately he is not going to go tomorrow, you are going to have perpetual social and economic instability in Syria in the next 10 years.

RYK: This is what I wanted to ask about next. I hope we will have time to talk about negotiations with the regime or with communities who are scared of the future and how that can be worked out if that is realistic, if that can happen without military pressure. I want to get onto that but first, as Fawaz has just said, let’s imagine that the regime goes tomorrow or its stops being in control of Damascus and without any pretension to control the national army and the state. Now, one scenario is that, and it looks in many respects as though this is what the Assad regime is trying for: if it realises that it can’t control the whole country, its plan B, may be, this is what, maybe it is doing, is to create a fractured country in which there are war lords and then maybe the Assad regime, Assad can survive as a war lord. Maybe he’ll retreat, I don’t think this could work permanently, but maybe as a temporary stage he would try to build some state on the coast where the Alawites are in a majority, although not much of a majority; it would involve vast ethnic cleansing of the cities on the plane. The regime pulled out of Kurdish areas and gave PKK-linked Kurds guns so it seems like maybe they are trying to create the conditions where you have a splintered country and war-lordism.

How do you deal with that? How can you, one of the panellists said this morning that we should be helping local governance committees in liberated areas much more so that they can establish some sort of authority but how, forget about the regime at the moment, how do we work against splintering and war-lordism and the lack of central authority afterwards, particularly if the economy is going to be wrecked and there’s not going to be any easy source of money to keep people happy and to show them that we’re rebuilding and so on. That’s not going to happen. So how are you going to stop war-lordism?

RH: And who are ‘you’?

RYK: Anybody. The Syrians, the outside world.

RH: Watching this tragedy unfold, I’m very very conscious that the urge, especially evident in Britain, inclusive of London with its large Arab community, er, the sense that we must do something is very strong and, debating this issue with an American academic who works on Syria: 18 months ago I had a bet with him that as spectators, the Western players, the NATO members would not be able to stomach watching Syria descend into the war that it has and the tragedy that it has, and he said, “I’ll take the bet because there’s no way the Americans are going to put out more troops on the ground, period”. So, the next question becomes, if it’s not a war that the biggest and most important Western player is prepared to fight decisively, the next question is, what is it that can be done by a collective effort from the outside? And, of course, there could be the fuelling of the arms of one or other side, decisively, as Fawaz indicated earlier. That is one choice.

But the other one is that you put saving lives as your top priority. Now, what I’ve discovered from brain-storming scenarios for the way Syria could go, what the humanitarian community, the international Red Cross, Red Crescent and so on, need in order to attend to the humanitarian needs of the population of Syria caught up in this is completely different from what the big powers would need if they wanted to win a military victory in Syria, and the two things are rather muddled. You would have room to do some kind of deal with Assad if your main concern was to get humanitarian corridors into where people are hurting. You would have to, in a sense, do a deal with the devil for the sake of the people. And I don’t see any willingness in the various power centres to concede that to Assad in the name of saving lives.

FG: You ask about the possibility, the potential for an Alawite state . Now, I’m going to speculate and we know, only the fools speculate, as I suggested earlier. Make no doubt about it: there will be no Alawite state in the same way that Rosemary asked me about Lebanon. There was no possibility for a Christian Maronite state. Fifteen years of war, some of the Maronites worked very hard and fronted the idea; the United States sent 500,000 troops to Kuwait in 1991. Rosie mentioned the state system. The state system that was constructed between 1918 and 1928; the very basis of the state system is that, where do you, once you play with the boundaries and the frontiers, where do you end, where do you stop? In Iraq, think at the height of the Iraq war, in 2004, ’05, ‘06, some, even Americans, suggested let’s split Iraq into four states. First of all the international system, based on everything that we know since the system was constructed since the exception of the state of Israel in 1947-48, really, hardly any boundaries have changed and shifted. This is on the international level. An Alawite state cannot survive for a variety of reasons because whoever wins in Syria- it is not viable, it does not have the institutions and what have you and so in this particular sense, and Assad himself, I mean even yesterday he keeps talking about Syria…

RYK: So, so…

RH: - war lordism.

RYK: What about war lordism? Forget about the Alawite state, what about the Farouq battalion in charge…and the Salafis in charge of another group and a different Salafi chief in charge of a another group….How will it be possible at any future stage to put the country back together?

FG: I mean, think of Lebanon between 1975 and 1990: I mean, you have the mother of all situations where you have war lords. Michael Gilson has a book on Lebanon. It is really a wonderful portrait of the functions of war lords in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. The reality is, in Lebanon you still have it and now they own the government; in Lebanon the killers have taken ownership of the state. My fear, my fear, is that the so-called liberal leaning opposition in Syria will not take ownership of the process of government. The war lords in Syria who have the guns, who have blood on their hands will most likely take ownership of the state when and if Assad collapses.

RYK: I really wish we didn’t have to almost stop but what I’d like is a one minute comment from each participant about negotiations because we heard all kinds of discussion this morning about…should there be negotiations with the regime, is it in any way possible, is it serious, is the National Coalition the right person to be negotiating? How do you negotiate with people that really don’t want to negotiate like jabhat al-nusra as well as the regime itself. Am I talking too much? Are negotiations realistic at this stage with the regime or with communities that some way feel represented by the regime. Is it going to happen?

RH: the perspective that I’m coming from is, if the time is not right now, there will come a point when it is. Now, it’s very interesting what Fawaz said earlier that it was not a Ta’if in terms of resolving the Lebanese conflict, it was not the regional players getting together, it was them recognising the victory of one of the factions in Lebanon and, giving Syria some security responsibility to maintain the peace thereafter, uhh, there will be some version of that, it seems to me, that comes out of Syria when the situation has run its course, when the main contenders have exhausted themselves, when there are some winners and some losers; there will not be one winner and one loser. And that point will come and the appetite for negotiations to recognize the status quo emerging will get stronger but I don’t see the appetite there at the moment. Of course negotiations, if they were real, would have to involve Assad.

And I know it’s been suggested here this morning, that the problem is he will not enter negotiations on the kind of terms that would make it acceptable to the various ranks of the opposition. We know, ha, we know this from the Israelis and the Palestinians; what’s on the table, what’s not on the table? Unconditional dialogue or conditional dialogue? The big players, the UN Security Council members – have some bottom lines as to what has to be in the mix for a dialogue so I think the only dialogue that you’re going to get – now - and negotiations that you’re going to get now, are the kind of track to diplomacy explorations to keep some lines of communication open between people who will otherwise become enemies, but the time to resolve it by negotiations, and the UN by the way, Lakhdar Brahimi, they should keep at it! They should really keep at it but it’s… and they will get a lot of criticism for doing so but people get very angry when they can’t have their way when there’s a bloody conflict going on.

FG: Thank you. Just to follow up on what Rosie said. First of all, the irony is that, look what France and the United States and everyone is saying now, almost 20 months after the conflict: the French President a few days ago said France was a spearhead for arming the opposition, but the French President said a few days ago well, you know, we cannot, we shall not arm the opposition because there is still a window of opportunity; the Americans now, even John Kerry, talking about exhausting the diplomatic option. The Russians have been hammering this particular point. Even now, Moaz Al-Khatib and the Syrian National Coalition are contemplating a political dialogue. What I see, even, I don’t know if you’ve read the article, the interview: Ali Haider is in charge of dialogue in Syria, he is saying I’m willing to go anywhere to talk to the opposition.

I think what we are seeing is positioning, what we call in negotiations, both sides are trying to position themselves, to try to maximise their negotiating power; whether it takes place or not, that’s a different situation. I don’t see, myself, I don’t see any common ground so far because you have military deadlock, neither side has the capacity to deliver a decisive blow and thus there is no foundation. But the bigger point, the moral question let me focus on and I will end on this. I think for all of us, I think the big question is in terms of engaging the Assad regime, whether the opposition…I mean, there is, what we call the moral hazard, what is the moral hazard of accepting to negotiate with Assad himself in terms of so much blood has been shed, in terms, why should Assad ease himself out of power even if you engage him, and what kind of lessons we will take out if you engage?

This is, so there is a moral hazard for all of us, not just the Syrian opposition. Let me reverse the question and say what are the real costs of not engaging the Assad regime? Let’s say, if the opposition, and it has a right to say ‘we are going to fight to the bitter end, we are going to fight ‘til we, basically, destroy the Assad regime….300, 400, 500,000 Syrian casualties. My take on it, and we are speculating. At the end of it I don’t think you’re going to have social fabric intact in Syria. I think most of the institutions will most likely be destroyed including the military and various institutions. Foreign intervention will be intensified. At the end of the day, even if the opposition wins and I grant that ultimately the opposition will win because the tactical gains they are making ultimately will accumulate. A year, two, six…it doesn’t matter.

But, the big question is what will the opposition inherit in Syria? Will they inherit a country, a society, a community, a state or will they inherit dust in Syria? These are, for many of us, I mean the question when we say no dialogue or dialogue. There are serious questions involved. I agree with Rosie at the end of the day. I know it’s painful, I know the hazard, the moral questions, but every bit of blood and if we can save and ensure that at the end of the process that Assad will be out, that there will be a transitional government, there will be a different society, and my fear is that even when the opposition - what truly terrifies me, and I’ve never said this before, is that at the end of it, in a year or two, most of the well-meaning liberal opposition will not even be able to travel to Damascus. This is what terrifies me, that, to come back to the inheritance, who will inherit, I mean Syria? And the question is, I mean, these are the questions. I’m not saying these questions will most likely materialise but these are the dilemmas that the opposition and the Syrians, only Syrian people can really reflect on and decide upon.

Syria's peace: what, how, when?

Morning session: No political track?

The political track has been declared effectively non-existent. A 'grand bargain' is needed but apparently unattainable, with conflict frozen into international and regional stances, and actively participant in Syria's on the ground reality. Violence is creating new ground-level political realities. What work should be done now to create and build upon opportunities for de-escalation, and widen options for Syrians?

Chair: Mariano Aguirre

Afernoon session: Groundlevel dynamics, possible outcomes.

Workshops followed by plenary discussion of practical steps forward.

Economic interventions
Convened by Farah al-Atassi (Syrian Economic Task Force)

Addressing social divisions
Convened by Talal Al-Mayhani (Cambridge)

Emerging civil administrations
Convened by Tristan Salmon (Integrity)

Future scenarios
Convened by Shelley Deane (International Alert)

The conveners are joined by workshop participants to build on the day's sessions. What possible outcomes arise, and what implications do they bear for international and domestic actors?

Chair: Scilla Elworthy

The conference took place in London on 12 Feb 2013. Full details including panellists are available here.

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