Encouraging rebels to believe they could topple Assad prolonged Syrian war – Obama MidEast adviser

The Syrian civil war is again escalating, after taking only a short breath to celebrate the fall of ISIS. With neighboring powers getting more deeply involved in the quagmire, what’s next for the war-torn country? We ask Robert Malley, Obama’s adviser on Mid-East, now head of the International Crisis Group.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Robert Malley, the Obama administration's adviser on ISIS and the Middle East, now head of the International Crisis Group, welcome to the show. Good to have you with us. The U.S. State Department is blaming Russia for the failed ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, saying that Russia has the influence to stop Damascus from attacking. That is true, and Russia is using that influence to establish daily ceasefires and humanitarian corridors. But who has the influence over the rebels in Eastern Ghouta, who will tell them to stop firing rockets into Damascus? Could possibly the State Department apply pressure to that side as well?

Robert Malley:I worked, as you said, on Syria for a long time including with the many Russian colleagues over the years. And it’s not a situation where you can point… Too many parties are responsible. But I think, it’s a fact that in the case of Eastern Ghouta it’s the regime that has preponderant firepower, that is using this power in ways that are hard to describe sometimes, but certainly have been visible to people who watched them. And Russia has some influence, I wouldn’t say total influence, but some influence in getting the Syrian government to respect the UN Security Council resolutions. That is something that Russia can and should do. There are other parties that have influence over the rebel groups, Turkey is one of them, the U.S. may have some - it depends, in each case groups are different. The popular opinion is that in Eastern Ghouta it would have some impact if it saw that the bombing from the regime were to stop, it would also put pressure on the rebels to stop. In none of these cases, would I say, there’s a single culprit, but in the case of Eastern Ghouta, I think, there’s no doubt that the principal, by far the principal aggressor has been the government. I think, that’s been widely recognised and that should stop.    

SS: I think, if we follow the general logic, the regime whether it’s a good or bad regime, is fighting a war. So it can’t just sit there and do nothing, right? They are being fired at as well. When the fight in Eastern Ghouta is discussed, like you said, it’s usually about civilians and Assad’s troops. But Assad’s troops are really only there because the rebels are. So instead of - or at the same time as - telling Assad’s forces to stop their offensive (which I agree - they should), why not also tell the rebels to give up and take the buses to Idlib, like it happened in Aleppo, or Homs?

RM: The Security Council resolution is clear, right? And Russia was one of the parties that agreed to it. It says that it needs to be a ceasefire. Now after that there can be modalities that are going to be negotiated in conformity with the international law. But let’s stop the firing on all sides. Certainly, the International Crisis Group is calling for all sides to stop the firing. As I say and it’s clear to people who are watching it, there’s one party that has preponderant use of force. Nobody’s asking it not to exercise self-defense. But this is not a case of self-defense, this is the case... From the reports we see whether there is often offensive action being taken against civilians in Eastern Ghouta. So, yes, the rebels will to have to stop what they do. There’s going to have to be an answer to the problems that are represented by the rebels some of whom are engaged in activities that you have just described as well. But the mandate, the lesson of the Security Council resolution was very clear: it called for a ceasefire. So let’s end the fire, allow humanitarian access, people who want to leave could leave, people who don’t want to leave, don’t have to leave. I’m talking about civilians now. There’s going to have to be a solution to the question of the rebels as well, but let’s not mix things - there’s a Security Council resolution which Russia’s agreed to, which other members of the Security Council agreed to. Let’s implement it. I think that’s the first step.    

SS: So you said Russia has some influence on Assad’s forces, not a lot but some. What leverage does the U.S. have in the situation ...

RM: I didn’t say ‘not a lot’. I said ‘not total influence’...

SS: Ok - not total influence - I just want to see what influence the other side has. What leverage does the U.S. have in the situation on the ground in Western Syria? How exactly can it influence the situation in your opinion?

RM: You know, I’m not sure today the U.S. has a preponderant influence on the rebel groups in Syria. Others do. I mean, Turkey in some situations has far more influence over the rebel groups than the U.S. has or even than the U.S. used to have. And the U.S. today has less influence over the rebel groups because it gives less support to the rebel groups. So by definition it’s going to have less leverage. I think, it’s the case where all the parties which have provided support, whether it’s material or moral support to the rebels, need to tell them that they need to stop shelling the regime-controlled areas as well. It has to stop because it gives a justification, a pretext for the regime to go in with disproportionate force. Again, if you look at the pictures and hear the accounts, it’s hard to call this simply a matter of self-defense, it’s hard to call this consistent with the international humanitarian law. So I think those shouldn’t really be matters for debate. Yes, the rebels have to stop firing at the regime. There needs to be a ceasefire and some solution needs to be found. And Russia today has a role, a stronger role probably than virtually anyone else in this theatre, to try to make that happen. They should use that influence to stop the shelling of civilians, certainly on both sides. But it has real influence on what it can get the regime to do.       

SS: So, in your organisation’s recent article, Russia is called ‘a reluctant driver in the Syrian war’ and urged to take a more proactive role in the conflict - what you’re saying right now. Syria’s battlefield is becoming largely internationalised. Russia may have good relations with Israel, Iran and Turkey, but do you really believe Moscow can tell these regional powers what to do?

RM: No, even the U.S. government can’t tell its partners what to do. There’s often a myth about how strong powers can snap their fingers and lesser powers will obey. They won’t because they obey to their own logic and their own sense of self-interest. But our sense would be in the report that we issued not long ago which was not about Eastern Ghouta, it was about south-west Syria where we’ve seen this confrontation between Israel against Iran and their allies in south-west Syria and beyond. In that situation Russia does have a real influence because it controls the logic and the skies over Syria. Israel would have hard time flying over Syria if Russia didn’t want it to do so. And also it does have leverage, again, not total leverage, but some influence over the regime, over Iran, over Hezbollah. Certainly, they would listen to what Russia has to say, although they may not always follow what it has to say. But today there’s no actor in Syria (and this is something, I think, Russia wanted to achieve) that has as many and strong contacts with all players, all belligerents. You’ve mentioned them: Israel, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, Iran, Turkey. All of them do talk to Moscow, all of them want to talk to Moscow, all of them have an interest in preserving good relations with Moscow. It’s not the case with the United States today. The U.S. obviously has strong relations with Israel. It has ambivalent relations with Turkey. It has no relations or bad relations with Iran, Hezbollah and the regime. So when we say ‘they are in the driver seat’ what we mean is that that they do have this sort of pivot place, this pivot role. And it should be in their interest to prevent things from getting out of hand as they almost did a few weeks ago between Israel and Iran. President Putin appears to have stepped in and talked people into calm-down. But it might be better, certainly, for Syria, we would argue, it would also be better for Russia’s interest and for others, to step in sooner to try to make sure that miscalculations or misunderstandings don’t blow up, probably, not even intentionally, between the belligerents over whom, as we say, Russia has some influence and some leverage.              

SS: The International Crisis Group previously called for outright U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. Do you still feel that at this point...

RM: Never.

SS: Really?

RM: I don’t think the International Crisis Group has ever called for the U.S. intervention in this civil war. Certainly not when I wasn’t there. You know, there was a period of time...

SS: But you did call to get involved.

RM: Well, you have to be specific about being involved. Being involved also means brokering a solution in terms of trying to…

SS: Ok, Rob, let me rephrase the question - do you feel like America should be more involved than it already is at this point in the Syrian conflict?

RM: Not in the Syrian conflict. I think the U.S. should play a role, as others, to end the conflict. Let’s not try to pour fuel on the fire, but try to end the conflict. I’ve said in the past, I think, part of the mistake... I’ve said this publicly, about the policies that I was involved in. That was inability to separate the humanitarian goal which is to lessen if not end the suffering of the Syrian people from the political goal which was to get rid of Assad. I think, that goal should have been put aside and the focus should have been on what do we need to do to end the suffering of the Syrian people. That should have been the priority from early on. You know, that it was not the case. So today my organisation has a mandate, it’s not about the regime change, it’s not about getting rid of Assad, it’s about how do we end the violence between all sides. That’s why we do call on Russia which has a role to play, which has influence to bear, to play that role. The U.S. also shouldn’t be... What we make clear is that the U.S. should not use Syria as a battlefield against Iran, to use it as a battlefield to try to stop or block Iran, that should not be the goal. The goal today (and I’ve believed this for some time) from early on should be to end the violence, to end the conflict and to put the political issues aside for now. You have hundreds of thousands of Syrians who died as a result of this conflict. They should be the one who we think of.

SS: Mr. Malley, you met president Assad in person. Do you think he will stop short of conquering the whole territory from the rebels? I mean, would recovering its unity under Assad be ultimately better for Syria than splintering it into a patchwork of rebel warlord controlled areas?

RM: I met him many years ago before the war so I can’t really claim that I know from those meetings how he will react. I think we know from the ways he’s been conducting the war that his goal is to reconquer or to retake as much of Syria as possible, perhaps, all of Syria. I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen in the near term because of Turkey’s presence and because of the U.S. and Kurdish presence in the east. So I don’t think that’s going to be an attainable goal. That is the goal that in the mid- to long term the regime is going to continue pursuing. That’s going to raise an issue. Again, one could take a position one way or another about whether Assad should go, but it’s clear that there are many constituencies in Syria that wouldn’t be thrilled to see the regime extended back on that part of the country. Whether there are solutions (and I know that is what different countries are talking about) that would involve greater decentralisation in Syria so that some of the areas that have been not under control of the regime for some time could be slightly more autonomous even though they fall under the sovereignty of the state - that’s something that needs to be discussed in the context of the political talks that are ongoing whether in Geneva or places like Sochi in the context of talking about the new constitution. So, theoretically, should the country be reunited and not be the patchwork and not be influenced by different countries - of course, I’m sure that’s what most Syrians would want. I don’t think that’s realistic under current conditions. It may not be realistic as long as the regime is what it is today. That’s obviously something that the Syrians will have to decide. Unfortunately, a lot of blood has been spilt, and I’m sure it’s going to take some time for many Syrians to reconcile themselves to the different reality.   

SS: The Geneva, Sochi, Astana talks brought about achievements such as deconfliction zones, observation posts, reconciliation centres, but obviously failed to dent the greater war itself. Can post-war Syria be decided during these conferences? I mean, is that realistic?

RM: I’ve spent a lot of time in Geneva both with the Russian colleagues, but also with the UN and others. It’s hard to be particularly hopeful that what’s going to be decided in Geneva is going to make as much of a difference as one might have hoped. The reality on the ground is what’s going to determine the future of Syria. That means the balance of power between the warring Syrian parties, and there the regime certainly appears to have upper hand in most of Syria, the exception is, as I said, the Kurdish area and Idlib. There’s a competition, as you say, among foreign powers - Turkey, Iran, Israel, etc. - and their views are also going to weigh heavily to the future of Syria. So, my own assessment and the assessment of the Crisis Group is that at this point we’re all looking at the patchwork that is not by any means ideal. And, hopefully, that can move to a more decentralised Syria in which foreign parties exit. But again, it depends on what time horizon we’re talking about. I think, for now the aspiration should be to lessen if not to end the violence, and if that means having zones that are slightly different in terms of the ways they are governed, in terms of the kind influence of the regime that exists there, if that’s a price to pay that’s an acceptable price to pay in order to stop the suffering and bombing of hospitals and civilians, the displacement of people. If that’s what we need to do, let’s put a priority on that. And that may mean that for some time Syria will not be as unified as the regime or others may like it to be.      

SS: The deconfliction agreements do not include jihadist brigades fighting in Idlib or elsewhere - and since they control a whole lot of territory, Assad’s soldiers will and have every right to move into Idlib and fight them. And that’s probably what they’re going to do if it comes down to it. Is deconfliction therefore just a symbolic move, seeing how it doesn’t really concern the main front of the war?

RM: That’s been one of the issues that since 2015 we’ve debating with Russia and others when I was in the administration and now the Crisis Group is grappling with. Of course, we can’t treat jihadists the same way as we treat civilians, and they are parties that are going to have to change their behavior or they will be fought. But all too often it’s been used as a pretext or a justification to go in and bomb everyone including if they are not jihadists. There may be disagreements on this but that’s certainly been the experience. I saw the experience of our folks on the ground, that the fig leaf or the pretext that ‘we’re going after the jihadists, after Al-Nusra or after Al-Qaeda’ is often used to indiscriminately bomb people that have nothing to do with them. Now the answer to that would be to not indiscriminately bomb, of course, but it’s also to find ways to pressure these groups to either disband or change. I mean, this has been one of the issues that has plagued Syria. And again, I think, responsibility is not only on the regime and its allies. Many of the supporters of the opposition turned a blind eye when some of the less-jihadist groups got intermingled with jihadist groups, and that became a real issue and that’s probably why we’re in a situation we’re in today. But, again, if one takes a position that the goal today must be to lessen if not end the violence then we need to take some time when we are going to stop the bombing and try to resolve the question of what to do with the jihadist groups and do it in a way that’s not going to affect and kill civilians. Because, I think, you know this and your audience knows this that under the international law it’s not an excuse to say ‘the reason we bombed civilians is because to were going after terrorists’. Sometimes the U.S. have done the same thing, not on the scale Russia’s doing in Syria, I would argue. But sometimes other countries have gone in on the claim that they were going after terrorist groups and they often hit civilians - what seems to be happening in Syria, that’s being done in a more deliberate and large-scale way and that’s what really needs to stop.  

SS: Ok, this whole ‘Assad must stay - Assad must go’ issue has been a debate for ever. And Washington was first very adamant about ‘Assad must go’, now we hear, ‘well, wait, ok, Assad, you can stay’. Do you feel the State Department has a clear-cut line when it comes to Syria? Does it really know what it’s doing?

RM: Listen, I think what’s happened is we went from the period of ‘Assad must go’... Then during the first months of the Trump administration it sounded as if that position had softened. If you go back and look at some statements of Secretary of State Tillerson or UN ambassador Nikki Haley made one thought that maybe there was a shift. Of late certainly in the words of Secretary of State Tillerson we’re back to ‘Assad must go’. As I said earlier, I think the priority now should be not that Assad must stay or Assad must go. We all could have our views on whether he’s the right person to lead Syria at this time. But the priority for the International Crisis Group is focus on ending the war. Let’s not intermingle the humanitarian concerns which is bombing of hospitals and civilians or shelling of Damascus by rebel groups or bombing by the regime, as I mentioned earlier, - let’s not mix that with the political objectives which some people might still have. We need to put the political objectives aside, they need to be decided at the negotiating table, they are not going to be resolved on the battlefield at this point. So I think, the position of the State Department and the White House, I assume, today is clearer than it had been in the first months of the Trump administration, it’s back to the notion that Assad must go and that the Geneva process needs to lead to his departure. I negotiated this with many Russians and many others. We would spend years arguing over whether Assad should leave and a month, two, six months and years that have gone by. So, let's not waste more time on that.

SS: I agree, we shouldn’t be wasting more time on it. But, like you’ve said, it does feel like the State Department is back to ‘Assad must go’ thing. You seem to be a really sensible man, you’re not really picking sides. Isn’t it a little strange - the fact that there’s a country (or several countries) which openly demand change in another's government by force... Why is that okay? I mean, if Venezuela said “Sorry, we've had enough of you, Trump, you must go” and then started arming anti-Trump extremists, how would that look like to America?

RM: If I had to make a list of who’s responsible we wouldn’t have enough time. But, certainly, the regime disproportionate response, the decision by several outsiders to, as I say, mix the objective which is to end the violence with the political objective which was to get rid of Assad, the fact that Syria became a battleground of regional interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, U.S., Russia - all of that, and the fact that people were in a way encouraging the rebels to believe that they could topple the regime which only further fueled the conflict... I think, we’ll have time in the months and years to come to look back and learn everything that shouldn’t have been done in Syria. Everyone is going to come out of this looking pretty bad. The regime would look worse by some measure. But everyone would look bad as well. But I think, there will be time to debate that, to debate the bigger question about humanitarian intervention - when it’s justified, when it’s not justified - the debate that has taken place now for some decades. But let’s not be paralyzed by this debate, let’s focus on what really matters today which is silence the guns. So there’s a question - and everyone would have their opinion: was it right to call for Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Assad to leave? What has it meant for Middle East? Was it the right approach? The International Crisis Group has written in the past many times about the big flaws of the U.S. policy that has tried to impose its will on other countries often in ways that have hurt not just the countries but the U.S. as well as we’ve seen certainly in Iraq. We could have this debate, it’s a worthy debate to have because this debate is about what does one want to do. Does one want to see massacres in the countries whether it’s in Rwanda or in Syria where hundreds of thousands people are killed? Or does the international community, whatever that means, have a responsibility to step in and to stop that? I think, that’s a real question that people have to face to which we don’t have a good answer today. But all of those questions will have plenty of time to be resolved, they need to be resolved. But let’s not use it as a reason not to address the immediate urgent question of how to stop the killing in Syria.        

SS: Ok, Mr. Malley, thanks a lot for this interview. We were talking to Robert Malley, former adviser to President Obama, now president and CEO of the International Crisis Group discussing the crisis in Syria. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo. I’ll see you next time.

 

RM: Thank you.