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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: The Tragedy and Hope for Syria

Summary report on the Roundtable on “The Tragedy and Hope for Syria,” hosted by the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs at The Washington Times, Green Room, September 26, 2012. The moderator was Hon. David Newton, former US ambassador to Yemen and Iraq, and currently adjunct scholar, Middle East Institute.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011, just one month after Egypt’s revolution. Today, over 20,000 have been killed in what is now a civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his regime. Russia and Iran have inhibited the peaceful resolution of this conflict.

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Unlike the case of Libya, to date, there has been minimal international involvement in this conflict. Many feel that more needs to be done immediately to pressure Assad to step down or otherwise enable the Syrian opposition to overcome the military superiority of the regime’s forces. Regardless of when Assad may fall, serious planning has been underway since January, facilitated by the U.S. through the U.S. Institute of Peace, to prepare a transition process for a more democratic Syria.

Our forum invited Syrian and Middle East experts to explore the background and evolution of this year-and-a-half long conflict, where the civil war presently stands, the possibility of greater intervention by the West, the immediate impact of the conflict upon Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel, as well as the positions taken by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the roles, counter-productive or productive, being played by Russia, Iran, the EU, and the U.S. We also discussed in depth the various potential outcomes of the civil war, including more pessimistic ones that involve the permanent fragmentation of the Syrian nation, as well as more optimistic ones that foresee a democratic and unified Syria as a viable possibility.

Opening remarks by Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs:

Good afternoon distinguished guests, scholars, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us for a discussion of one of the most important topics currently facing the international community. On behalf of UPF International’s Office of Peace and Security Affairs, I welcome you to our roundtable discussion on the theme “The Tragedy and Hope for Syria.” After the horrific events that occurred in Benghazi, Libya, and subsequent two weeks of tense political protests that ricocheted throughout the Middle East due to an offensive amateur film, the world is now refocusing on the bleak situation in Syria.

With President Assad’s refusal of international assistance in brokering a solution, and the Syrian army’s continual attacks against civilians, countries in and out of the region are desperate for a tenable solution. With an estimated over 20,000 dead and thousands more likely to follow, it is indispensable that the international community work with the necessary actors to prevent further death and destruction and lay out possible ways forward.

But who should those actors be? Where does the United States fall in this discussion?  Who are the internal actors that may be useful in solving the conflict?  Who are those actors that consistently create barriers to peace?  There are many questions surrounding this issue and numerous possible answers.

There are those of us who sincerely believe in the universal longing of individuals and the collective to find their sovereignty, the call for freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom of conscience, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Many of us believe these social gifts are not mere Western inventions but universal aspirations of human beings regardless of their backgrounds. We can’t but hope that these gifts and blessings will be made available to the people of Syria to rebuild a country that can bring the maximum of peace and prosperity to all its people and to the region.

There are many in our midst who doubt the process of “democratization” in the Arab world, who believe that this process will eventually work against our own interests, that totalitarian forces are using “democracy movements” to achieve sinister political ends, and that those cultures can never be fully democratic. To them I say, there may be a circumstantial period of confusion in which one political group or ideology takes advantage of the situation, as we see in the development of democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Libya. That fear paralyzes the political will for action in Syria, and even in Israel and Palestine. But the reality is that the phenomena of one party rule or of totalitarian regimes using democracy as a façade are transient things. They are not sustainable anymore; they are short-lived, and bound to change because of the irreversible process of social media, the free flow of information and communication, best ideas, best practices, technological innovations, etc. This process unparalleled in the history of humanity is changing the minds of educated and uneducated public opinion. We are not in 1917, or the 1950s, or even the 1990s. Societies everywhere are fighting for participation in how to define and construct their destinies.

The conditions for the imposition of a single ideology or one party rule are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. That applies to the Islamic world as well, where countries have been able to maintain a form of orthodoxy on “purity” of thought for centuries. They are in the middle of a universal transformation that will inevitably lead them to freedom and democracy, not Western style, but adapted to their culture and traditions.

Today, we are privileged to have here experts in that area of the world, good minds in the field of mediation and peace-making to discuss Syria’s options.  Although there has been so much tragedy in this nation, there is always hope for a future better than the present.

The Office of Peace and Security Affairs is part of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), an international NGO active in more than 140 countries in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN. UPF works actively worldwide to create a culture of peace and reconciliation. Our office in Washington puts together monthly programs where global problems that affect the international community are discussed and the results are disseminated to a constituency of Ambassadors for Peace numbered in the tens of thousands around the world. Many of these individuals are in leadership positions in governments, legislatures, academia, think tanks, mass media, and the private sector.

It is a great pleasure to have a distinguished panel that will be led by our moderator, Hon. David G. Newton. Ambassador Newton, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and lecturer and TV commentator, returned home in 2004 after six years in Prague as the first director of Radio Free Iraq. Before that appointment, he had retired from a 36-year diplomatic career, having served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen and ambassador to Iraq.  Other tours included deputy chief of mission in Yemen and Syria, political counselor in Saudi Arabia, Near East division chief for intelligence and research, and director for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and PLO affairs.  He received a presidential medal for his Iraq assignment, numerous Foreign Service awards, and a U.S. Army medal for outstanding civilian service. From 1990 to 1993 he was deputy commandant for foreign affairs and chairman of the national security policy department at the National War College, and from 2007-09 he was president of the National War College Alumni Association.  He received his B.A. from Harvard College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. (End of Dr. Betancourt’s remarks)

After welcoming the participants, Amb. Newton laid out the agenda. First, what are the various reasons that led us into such a violent struggle? Second, the situation of the minorities – Alawite, Kurd, Druze, Christian, and Ismaili. Third, potential outside intervention from the U.S., Russia, China, and the regional powers. The Ambassador outlined three possible outcomes: First, the regime crushes the opposition, which he doesn’t see as very likely. Second, the opposition wins out. Third, the violent situation continues.

Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born specialist, professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University, and a member of the Syrian National Council (a coalition of exile opposition groups based in Turkey), called the situation in Syria a “catastrophe of huge proportions” and one of “unprecedented brutality.”

Dr. Jouejati believes the regime is close to collapse. He cited three examples that support this view: First, more than 80,000 members of the opposition forces, largely composed of former Syrian soldiers who refused to fire on civilians. Second, the number of high-ranking military officials who have defected from the regime to the rebels. Third, the nation’s skyrocketing inflation and unemployment rates.

Syrian President Assad, he said, isn’t concerned with sanctions, international courts, or condemnation. “Assad deems Syria as his family farm, and he is determined that if he is going to go down, he is going to take with him the rest of the country.”

Dr. Jouejati condemned China, Iran, and Russia for sending military aid to support Assad. “The government of Russia is a partner in mass murder, and let history show that,” he said.

Dr. Mark Barry, scholar with the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs, commented that the inhumanity in Syria should be considered in not merely political or sociological terms, but psychological. Assad’s contempt for his people is reminiscent of the communist genocide against the Ukrainian people, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or how the North Korean leadership treats its citizens.

Tom Dine, the former director of AIPAC (America-Israel Public Affairs Committee), and currently Senior Advisor, Syria Program, Search for Common Ground, said, “Syrian society is deeply, indeed dangerously, divided for and against the ruling family, among religious and tribal sects within Syria and among its bordering neighbors. Lethal force and chaos continue to increase.”

As to what initiated the violence, another participant representing Search for Common Ground raised the issue of wide-spread corruption and its disrespect for human dignity. “This resentment against the regime was underlying and bubbling.” Any person who simply wants to go to the market has to pay off the policeman in order to park their car, and then another bribe to bring the goods home and another and another; this corruption is found throughout the government.

James G. Jatras, former senior policy adviser to U.S. Senate Republican leadership, spoke about America’s responsibility in contributing to the situation. Throughout the history of the United States, he said, dictatorships were supported when it served the geopolitical interests of the U.S. In the case of Syria, he feels the U.S. was “awfully quick to pull the trigger on the demand for regime change.” By doing so, he feels we lost credibility and “guaranteed that Russia and China would be forced into the corner.”

Tom Dine disagreed with Mr. Jatras’ opinion and emphasized the “corruption from top to bottom” in Syria as the primary cause, and characterized the civil war as “an internal strife situation.”

Ralph Winnie of the Eurasia Center said the United States’ “best strategy from the outset should have been to talk about the chemical weapons” in Syria, and argue “that if they fell into the wrong hands of the radical Islamic groups then extreme instability would be generated in the region.” This would have been a much easier argument to sell to the Chinese and the Russians to get them to come on board, rather than deal with a civil uprising or calls of genocide. Winnie feels there would have been quicker international reaction, but that now the situation looks like “it could spiral out of control and radical Islamic fundamentalist groups are waiting to fill the vacuum.”

From the perspective of the West, according to Dr. Jouejati, there is a rise of Islamic extremism, but initially, “there were peaceful demonstrators – Sunnis, Christians, Kurds – and there was no hint of Islamist terrorism.” He said the people called for freedom and dignity. It took quite awhile for the United States to say something about the situation because the U.S. was “concerned about its strategic interests,” rather than what he described as a simple problem. Dr. Jouejati said, “if we are to reduce it to its basic core, it is a small but ruthless dictatorship that is facing a popular uprising. Over time it is evolving into issues of weapons of mass destruction and sectarianism, but at its core, it is not dissimilar to what is happening to the entire neighborhood – it is a domestic issue.”

Amb. Newton brought up the situation of the minorities – Christians and Kurds – caught in the middle of the violence in Syria.

Dr. Jouejati said the Kurds, which are the largest ethnic minority in Syria make up 9% of the country’s population and have faced routine discrimination and harassment by the government. Recently, the government has granted citizenship to more than 300,000 Kurds. This is clearly a gesture by President Assad to appease and placate them. The Kurds want to make a deal – they want an autonomous state, however, if Assad gives the Kurds autonomy, then what about the other ethnic minorities: Alawite, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, etc.?

Tom Dine raised the role of Turkey in dealing with Syria. Recently the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) moved their command center from Turkey to Syria. Turkey will continue as the rear base for supplies and reinforcements. The rebels have taken large areas of Syrian territory bordering Turkey. Besides Turkey, the Syrian conflict has spilled into Jordan and Lebanon. Relations between Turkey and Syria, once close allies, have deteriorated sharply. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is committed, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, to bring about regime change in Damascus. It has allowed the Syrian opposition to set up headquarters in Istanbul, and it is arming and training the Sunni rebels.

Mr. Dine pointed out that the mainstream of the population in Turkey is Sunni (more than 80%), but “they have never to my knowledge had the kind of sectarian bitterness that exists in either Lebanon or Syria, and that this conflict is being taken from the domestic level which is a dictatorship to regional sectarian warfare.”

There was concern expressed that the Muslim Brotherhood has established its own militia inside Syria. There is no affiliation to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but some worry their motivation is to foment jihad or struggle for Islam, and not work for the sake of a peaceful Syria.

Ralph Winnie said Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey tried his best to promote a pure secular society. Turkey has been a successful model for democracy in the region for many years, but recently, he says, “the whole system is cracking and they don’t seem to be influencing other countries.”

Dr. Barry pointed out that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25, focused on the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which Iran is now the chair. In a world where nations cannot rely either on the West or the socialist camp, the Iranian leader sees the NAM as the third way that nations can follow. Barry says this is very relevant to the future of America foreign policy and its role in the Middle East.

Amb. Newton spoke about the importance of religion in the Middle East and how it plays a significant role in the dividing line on the question of willingness to use violence as opposed to political means.

Dr. Betancourt spoke about the role of religious leaders in reconciliation. He testified to the work of the Universal Peace Federation, specifically in bringing more than 10,000 Ambassadors for Peace from around the world to the Holy Land (2005-08) to dialogue. “Let us propose,” he said, “legitimate religious leaders who are willing to dialogue -- even some with radical views -- but willing to engage and use religion as an instrument of non-violence, not to divide, but to bring people together, and together find workable solutions.” The UPF has successfully facilitated negotiations in Liberia and Kenya.

A participant from Search for Common Ground asked about the prospects of revenge killing. The present generation is being brought up to hate, particularly against the Shiite Alawites, which is the same ethnic minority as President Assad. Once he is ousted, and that was the accepted consensus of the panelists, will there be a bloodbath against the Alawites and the Shiites by the Sunni Muslims?

Search for Common Ground promotes “programming dialogue that could plant the seeds now for the massive reconciliation that needs to be carried out down the road... How do you put a spoke in the wheel of the kinds of revenge killing that are taking place now that are going to happen?”

Tom Dine said that despite what is going on now in Egypt and Syria, Israel in fact is very concerned about Jordan. They worry that King Abdullah is not strong enough to withstand the regional trend toward Islamization. There is a lot of disquiet in Jordan (along with a large inflow of Syrian refugees). Israel shares a long border with Jordan along the Jordan River, which differs from the very short border it shares with Syria and the buffer zone of the Sinai Peninsula as the border with Egypt.

Dr. Betancourt said the game plan needs to be changed from zero-sum to a win-win. Part of the problem is the correlation between power and diplomacy and between diplomacy and the values of delivering respect and dignity to adversaries or even enemies who from our point of view may not deserve respect and dignity. For the sake of effective diplomatic negotiations you should not deny your adversary or enemy their dignity or respect. This old American tradition could turn “despots and terrible people into potential partners to negotiate peace.”  The fundamental principle, he said, is that all people crave recognition and dignity no matter how “bad” they may be. He related his experience serving as the emissary of Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church to North Korea. Although enemies for more than 40 years, Rev. Moon and Kim Il Sung were able to reconcile on a vision and work towards unifying the Korean peninsula. Betancourt had been directed by Rev. Moon to listen to the grievances of the North Koreans, but instead of responding with malice, defensiveness and anger, Rev. Moon said, “give them dignity and show them respect, even if you think they don’t deserve it, because once there is a respectful groundwork, then negotiations can begin.” Once one side begins to demonize the other then there can be no partners for dialogue since humans do not or cannot negotiate with “demons,” let alone craft a win-win outcome.

Ralph Winnie asked about the role of NGOs in Syria. Dr. Jouejati said, “when the regime collapses, there will be an entire nation to reconstruct but only for those NGOs that do not have a political agenda … NGOs will be extremely necessary for reconstruction, not just physical reconstruction, but human reconstruction.”

Dr. Jouejati said Syria is running out of money. The government has stopped providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country, and has prompted the government to seek more help from Iran. The Bank of Syria reports it is down from $18 billion to less than $7 billion. The morale of the Syrian troops is “really in the basement.”

The consensus among the participants is that President Bashar Al-Assad’s days are numbered. The regime will fall, perhaps it will make it to the end of this year, but not much further into 2013.

Dr. Betancourt outlined the UPF perspective. It is the wish of the UPF that real leadership will emerge – from the U.S., Russia, China, and the UN – to come out with a viable negotiated way out in which there could be a win-win solution not just for the sake of the country, but the entire region.

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Participants

Amb. David Newton, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, Professor, Middle East Studies, NESA Center Strategic Studies, National Defense University
Dr. Antonio L. Betancourt, Director, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office
Mr. Tom Dine, Senior Advisor, Syria Program, Search for Common Ground
Ms. Sonya Reines-Djivanides, Director, Track II Mediation Union, Search for Common Ground
Mr. James G. Jatras, former senior policy adviser to U.S. Senate Republican Leadership
Mr. Ralph Winnie, Director of Global Business Development, Eurasia Center
David Boddie, Executive Director, Federal Allies Institute (observer)
Mrs. Vicki Phelps, former senior editor, The World & I magazine
Dr. William Selig, Deputy Director, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office
Dr. Mark P. Barry, Advisor, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office

NOTE: UPF has convened or contributed to a number of civil-society forums on the crisis in Syria:

Vienna, Austria: All-Sides Consultation for a Political Solution to the Syrian Conflict, Mar. 8-9, 2014
Buenos Aires, Argentina: To Establish Peace in Syria, the Middle East and the World, Feb. 6, 2014
Geneva, Switzerland: Track 2 Consultation: Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Syria, Executive report of the consultation Jan. 25, 2014
Washington DC, USA: Women's Role in Syria's Transition and Reconciliation, Jan. 15, 2014
Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Sciences Convenes Consultation on Syria, Jan. 13, 2014
Jerusalem, Israel: The Crisis in Syria and Its Regional Impact, Oct. 16, 2013
Washington DC, USA: Peace Zones as Avenues for Stability in South Sudan, Syria, Colombia and Korea, Oct. 15, 2013
Amman, Jordan: Prospects for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Syria, Oct. 13, 2013
Vienna, Austria: Syrian Christians in Austria Torn Between Hope and Despair, Apr. 16, 2013
Jerusalem, Israel: The Impact of Syria and Egypt on Israel's Security Measures, Feb. 14, 2013
Washington DC, USA: The Tragedy and Hope for Syria, Sept. 26, 2012

See also: Interfaith Declaration on Peace in Syria, Oct. 13, 2013

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