November 23, 2011 ▪ Interviewed by Viktor Kaspruk
Josef Olmert, a well-known political scholar, shares his opinion on the potential outcome of the conflict between the government and opposition in Syria and the difference between the uprisings in Syria and Lybia
Image: Jeff Watts, American University
Dr. Josef Olmert offers a rare combination of talents; he is a top Middle East scholar, former peace negotiator, political insider, published journalist and author, as well as a seasoned public speaker. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC.
A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities in his home country. He has previously taught at Cornell University, City College of New York, and York University (Canada).
In addition to his teaching work, Dr. Olmert has served in senior positions in the Israeli government, such as the Director of Communications under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Policy Advisor to Defense Minister Moshe Arens. Dr. Olmert served diplomatic missions across the world and participated in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and subsequent Israeli/Syrian peace talks.
His media experience has included penning a political column for Israel’s largest circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot, as well as The Jerusalem Post, and numerous appearances on radio and TV programs at home and abroad.
In addition, he has been a frequent participant in United Nations-sponsored conferences on the Middle East. His fluency in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as well as his command of Russian and French added value to his role.
U.W.: Dr. Olmert, іn one of your last articles “Now Libya, But What About Syria?” you write that, “The massacre in Syria has gone on for too long. It has to stop, and the US and its allies should do a lot more to achieve that, even if they refuse to intervene militarily”. Are the uprisings likely to stay and intensify?
The uprising shows no signs of declining in intensity. The opposite is true, and the struggle is now becoming even more violent, as defections from the armed forces are very significant and the Sunni rebels are using their arms against their former ”comrades”. The biggest problem the Assad regime has is that the barrier of fear that was imposed on the Syrian population after the massacre of Hammah in 1982 does not exist anymore. The regime cannot buy off the rebels because it lacks the funds to do so, and whatever they are left with they need to allocate to the armed forces to maintain their loyalty.
U.W.: Is it possible then to help Syria? What are the difficulties inherent in such a mission? If US will not interfere publicly in Syria, will it do so covertly?
Russian and Chinese objections to more UN effective sanctions mean that the US, EU and Turkey should intensify their own sanctions against Syria. The Americans could and should encourage Turkey and Jordan to open centers for Syrian refugees. The West should also provide the rebels with arms, so they can stand up to the Syrian forces. There should also be covert operations, particularly encouraging high Syrian officers to defect, by offering them financial rewards. According to some unsubstantiated reports, this is already happening.
U.W.: But Syria’s forces are immensely more powerful than Libya’s. The opposition has no land or arms. And wouldn’t support from the Arab world be much harder to gain?
Yes, the Syrian military is more powerful than the Libyan one was, but it is getting weaker due to mass defections. Even now, there is no need for outside direct military intervention, and the Syrian opposition is not looking for it. No situation in the Arab world is the same, each has different conditions. The current situation is basically a war of attrition and the Assad regime cannot sustain it for too long.
U.W.: Democratic Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania proposed creating a “Friends of the Syrian People” contact group last month. He said today the group would serve “as a main point of international engagement for the democratic opposition and the Syrian people”. It this really the first step to real help?
Referring to Senator Casey; what the West should do is to encourage the Syrian opposition to reach a better political understanding among its constituent groups. Then the US and its allies should recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government of Syria. Most of the Arab countries will then follow suit. In that case, the absence of more UN sanctions, due to opposition from Russia and China will be neutralized.
U.W.: Saudi Arabia, which is wary of the growing influence of Shi’ite regional power Iran, Syria’s biggest remaining backer, is one of the Arab nations leading the push for stronger measures against Damascus…
Saudi Arabiais very concerned about the Shi’ite problem. About 10% of its population are Shi’ites and they live in the eastern province, known as Hasa, where most of the oil is produced. The Saudis intervened militarily in Bahrain exactly for that reason, to prevent the Sunni kingdom from being toppled by pro-Iranian Shi’ites. According to Wikileaks and multiple other sources, the Saudis are very worried about Iran and particularly its nuclear program.
The Saudis however are known for their very deliberate, slow decision-making process, so it took them a long while to go against Bashar Assad, but now they will lead the charge in the Arab League against him.
That shows that they see his downfall as a defeat to Iran, not only in Syria, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also shows they are pretty certain that the Syrian regime is indeed going to fall.
U.W.: Are Arab nations eager to avoid seeing another leader toppled violently like Moammar Gadhafi was last month?
The Arab nations may not like to see too many Arab rulers being overthrown, as it is a challenge to regional stability. However, the case of Syria is different, as it is another display of the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle. The Alawite regime in Syria has never been popular in the Arab League, but seemed to be stable, so not much could be done against it. But now it is a different situation, and there is a real chance for its downfall, so that is supported by the Arab League, which is mostly Sunni.
U.W.: The Arab League plans to impose as yet unspecified economic and political sanctions on Damascus and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors. Can this affect Damascus?
The overall impact of international pressure on Syria, be it the US and the EU or Turkey and the Arab League is very significant. The effect is felt in Syria. The opposition is very encouraged by that and it fuels the uprising. More sanctions are needed and they will come in the near future.
U.W.: Can US sanctions against Syria be expanded to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to step aside? Are the stakes of long-term instability very high?
The Arab world is entering a period of great instability, which may last for quite some time. Some countries like Yemen and Syria could have internal violence for months to come. Jordan is also on the verge of explosion, due to the bad economic situation and simmering Jordanian-Palestinian tensions. Lebanon is also restive, because of the fallout from the Hariri affair. The situation in Egypt is also very uncertain, because the military council is showing no sign of being ready to give up its virtual control over the country. Altogether, the economic conditions in most of the Arab countries are worsening and that is a great challenge to stability.