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Syrian Conflict May Be At A Turning Point

Are we seeing the endgame to the conflict in Syria? Melissa Block talks with Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria. We ask Tabler about what the collapse of the Bashar Assad regime might look like and the possibility that government forces could use chemical weapons.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The State Department said today it is aware of informal offers of asylum for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family, offers coming from the Middle East and elsewhere, though a spokesman said he couldn't vouch for the offers' sincerity. There is a lot of talk now about a post-Assad era as the bloody civil war wears on in Syria.

Here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking at a NATO meeting today in Brussels.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: We believe, as you know, that their fall is inevitable. It's just a question of how many people will die until that date occurs.

BLOCK: Their fall is inevitable. Well, if so, when and how? We're going to talk through some possible scenarios with Andrew Tabler who specializes in Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Andrew, welcome back to the program.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Let's consider this series of developments that we've seen recently: an escalating battle for control of the capital, Damascus; reports that all European diplomats have now been pulled out of Damascus - lots of U.N. personnel also removed; rebels for the first time have brought down government aircraft with missiles. All of this leads many people to think that we are now at a real turning point, that the Assad regime is teetering on the precipice. Do you agree?

TABLER: I think that it's about ready to pull back, and we're going to enter a different phase of the conflict. But the collapse of the Assad regime is not going to look like in Egypt or Tunisia with a clean landing or something that's, you know, rapid and sort of goes away. I suspect that the conflict between the regime's forces and the opposition, it's going to go on for some time.

BLOCK: There has been a lot of concern and a lot of warnings from the West that a desperate Bashar al-Assad will use chemical weapons against his own people. How plausible is that to you that this would be a man with nothing left to lose?

TABLER: I think that Bashar al-Assad historically, unlike his father, is a very difficult person to understand. He's very moody. He's under tremendous strain. We're entering a very bloody and dangerous phase now of the conflict, and unfortunately, chemical weapons could be part of it.

BLOCK: Could be part of it. How likely a scenario do you think that is?

TABLER: I think it's increasingly likely, because the regime, in order to maintain control over the country and to reassert itself, has been using fixed wing aircraft and helicopters increasingly combined with artillery. Recently, the rebels have overrun stocks of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. And now, there are videos showing hundreds of these weapons, sometimes on the shoulders of those with al-Qaida affiliates, who are basically saying: We're going to set up our own no-fly zone in the country.

So if aircraft are out of the picture and if artillery is being pushed back, then what's left is the chemical weapons stockpile.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler, you recently went to the Syrian border region. You were talking with opposition groups there. What can you tell us - what did you learn about the strength within those rebel groups of the extremist groups linked to al-Qaida?

TABLER: Yeah. They're growing in intensity. And the reason why these groups became more prominent and why actually the opposition's worried about it is that they received the weapons when Syrians were in their hour of need from Saudi Arabia and from other donors in the region. So the problem is that the pleas for weapons from the United States went unanswered. And they believe they were abandoned by the Obama administration in their hour of need, and they're very, very angry.

BLOCK: You have advocated arming the rebels for some time. The counterargument, though, from the Obama administration has been if you do that, these weapons will fall into the wrong hands and there will be blowback.

TABLER: Well, the problem is, is that the Assad regime was in systemic failure, so the regime's weapons fell into the wrong people's hands anyway. If we had intervened earlier, we would've had a hope of saving the state and securing those weapons. Frankly, in parts of Syria, we're going to be dealing with people we've never dealt with before.

It's going to be like Libya but with more people, more affects, more different kinds of problems than we've ever seen right smack in the middle of a very strategically important part of the world. So I don't really see how the United States doesn't get involved there. We'll have to wait and see what the Obama administration's choices are.

BLOCK: Is any U.S. role now, do you think - whether it's military or diplomatic - too late? Is our influence pretty much bypassed at this point and our leverage is gone?

TABLER: No, it's not because this conflict is going to go on for a while, and they're going to need assistance - technical assistance. And the civilians inside of the country look to the United States for leadership. The question is, you know, are we going to see this out of the administration. Even if they don't go down the road of providing weapons, are we going to see it just in terms of aid provision or anything else?

And this is going to be a real challenge because, suddenly, we're going to have to deal with the fact that those who are taking the shots against Assad now are going to be calling the shots once he's gone. And we have very little political relationship with these groups.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler, thanks for coming in.

TABLER: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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