Four Questions on Syria
Penn State faculty experts on the day’s big news.
Ask anyone on Penn State’s faculty about Syria, and they’ll likely point in the direction of Flynt Leverett, professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. Leverett is a former CIA analyst and the former senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council. He’s been studying Syria for decades, and he’s even met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in person — most recently in 2010.
I chatted with Professor Leverett Tuesday afternoon, and he offered his take on the current situation in Syria — and on what should happen next:
The latest development is the Russian proposal asking Syria to turn over all chemical weapons. Was that a good move?
I understand the logic of it from the Russian point of view, and the Syrians responded very quickly that they were willing to go along with this, which makes me think they knew it was coming — that Russia made sure the Syrians were aware of this, had it lined up. It’s very much in keeping with the Russian way of trying to constrain what they see as a U.S. superpower that, in Moscow’s view, regularly resorts to force outside the bounds of international law and the UN Charter. The Russians see U.S. interest in coercive regime change (e.g., in the Balkans, in Iraq, now in Syria) as symptomatic of the bigger problem—the United States as outlaw superpower.
So far, polls have shown that the American public is against military intervention in Syria. Why such a strong response?
At this point, polls show that most Americans think the war in Iraq was a mistake. They think they were lied to. So you have that backdrop. Now people don’t necessarily trust claims the Obama administration is making. They don’t have any confidence that U.S. military intervention will do anything constructive, and it raises the risk that we’ll be sucked into something bigger. Basically, Americans feel they’ve been burned by past experience. And it’s not a partisan thing: Democrats aren’t buying this argument any more than Republicans.
In your opinion, what’s the long-term solution?
You know, since the conflict broke out in spring 2011, I’ve been saying publicly that the only real solution is a political settlement. Assad and his opponents need to be part of a negotiating process. I don’t think Assad will ever be overthrown; he has the support of at least half of Syrian society. In the end, you’ll end this war with a power-sharing deal, so constituents in Syria who don’t think they’re represented today will be guaranteed some degree of representation in the future. The U.S. has said there needs to be a settlement, but the U.S. has taken this position of, “We’ll go to the table, but Assad has to go first.” Instead, we have to negotiate with Syria with Assad as its head. Russia and China understand this and have been more constructive in getting that process lined up.
You’ve interviewed Bashar al-Assad several times. What’s he like, personally?
He’s very soft-spoken and quite intelligent. I think he has a very clear sense of what he thinks Syria’s interests are, and he understands regional and international dynamics well. I don’t think he’s a psychopath. He uses force when he thinks he has to. Remember the famous line from The Godfather? “It’s not personal. It’s business.” That’s very much how he looks at using violence to keep his country together, to keep foreign-backed insurgents from overthrowing him. People underestimate him at their peril.
Mary Murphy, associate editor