Q+A: Lina Khatib on American intervention in Syria

May 27, 2013, 10:57 p.m.

Lina Khatib, co-founder of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, has been an outspoken voice in favor of American intervention in Syria. Together with Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, she authored an article last month in The Atlantic making the case for greater American and international involvement. The Daily sat down with Khatib to further discuss the conflict in Syria and what might come after.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): You said that you were interested in Syria before the uprisings. What captured your interest before everyone else started looking at the country?

Lina Khatib (LK): Before the uprising, my work on Syria was mainly about the struggle between the citizens and the state. I was interested in finding out whether any voices of dissent existed within Syria so I went on fieldwork to examine both state propaganda and activists. At the time, I came to the conclusion that the political space in Syria was very closed and that the state really had the upper hand.


TSD: Looking at Syria now, what is your reaction to everything that is going on, and how the international community has decided to respond?

LK: Because the state in Syria is so strong and it had succeeded before the uprising in quelling any kind of oppositional political voice within Syria, it has been very difficult for the Syrian opposition since the start of the uprising to stand up to the state effectively. I think this is not surprising because of the lack of experience in engaging in oppositional politics. Having said that, the international community has set the bar too high for the opposition in terms of expecting the Syrian opposition to be more sophisticated, to be more united, to have clear goals — it’s not realistic to have these kinds of expectations knowing the context of Syria.

These kinds of issues have been used for the past two-and-a-half years or so as an excuse for the international community not to intervene in the Syrian crisis — neither diplomatically nor militarily. What we’ve witnessed is a process of leading from behind where the international community says the right things in terms of supporting the resistance against Bashar al Assad, but this rhetoric has not been coupled with enough practical support.


TSD: What exactly is “practical support?” Military aid?

LK: Practical support early on in the crisis could have been simply diplomatic pressure on certain international actors who were still supportive of the Assad regime. Today, unfortunately, the time for a diplomatic solution, in my opinion, has passed. Practical help means both diplomatic pressure and military support. I don’t think the Assad regime will fall with the current level of resources. The Assad regime is much stronger on the ground — you need to tip the balance in favor of the opposition and one way of doing that is by having multilateral international military support.


TSD: Do you think the United States could lead such a multilateral initiative without Russia and China’s backing?

LK: The problem really is mainly with Russia because Russia regards Assad as a key ally. It has not only sent weapons to support the Assad’s regime but also military personnel who are manning some of the anti-aircraft missile bases in Syria. Part of Russia’s motivation for doing this is geopolitics. Russia wants to maintain its position vis-à-vis the United States in global politics. But, it is not in Russia’s long-term interest to keep supporting a regime that is definitely falling. The United States can do more to reassure Russia regarding its political reputation in the region but at the same time to forge a new kind of relationship with Russia whereby partnering with the rest of the international community to find a solution for the Syrian crisis. The United States cannot lead international action without bringing in Russia and China onto the same side.


TSD: If the international community decided to act militarily, what would that mean on the ground with regards to the growing humanitarian crisis and potential terrorist groups who can take advantage?

LK: Unfortunately, the longer the crisis is left to simmer as it is, the more opportunity terrorist groups have to become more powerful and influential in Syria. This is not helped by the fact that certain actors in the international community are supporting these kinds of groups simply because they are proving themselves to being more viable than other militants fighting the Assad regime. By sending weapons to nonextremist Syrian rebels, you are not only able to fight Assad more effectively but also not allow extremist groups to become more powerful. I don’t think that the scars of the Iraq War should be used as an excuse for non-intervention in Syria.


TSD: How can you be sure the weapons will reach the right people?

The way to ensure that the weapons reach the right people is to have a clear channel of communication and dissemination that identifies trustworthy, local Syrian leaders and working with them. This is certainly doable.


TSD: If a military intervention were to occur, what would happen after the regime falls? How much would the United States be responsible for sorting things out?

LK: It’s always difficult when a regime falls because just because the regime falls doesn’t mean the crisis ends — it’s just an important phase. One always needs to have a plan for how to handle the chaos that is inevitable after the fall of any regime. I am adamant that boots on the ground in any shape or form is not the solution — we’ve seen a good example of that in Iraq whereby the presence of military troops after the fall of Saddam did very little to contain the violence. We are not looking for a repeat of that scenario.

I think that Syria is not yet a lost cause but for this optimism to stay, action needs to happen very soon because if it doesn’t…Syria is heading in the direction of sectarian fragmentation, and if that happens then it will be very difficult for any entity to contain the potential violence. For now, there are enough indicators that there are certain potential leaders in Syria that could be called upon — along with the international community, perhaps the United Nations [peacekeeping forces]…[and] local Syrian leaders in order to prevent the country from disintegrating.


TSD: Notwithstanding the humanitarian needs of Syria, why is it in United States’ best interest to intervene?

LK: It’s because of regional stability in general. Already we are seeing the Syrian regime start a new fighting front in the Golan Heights in collaboration with Hezbollah. This is the first example of the kind of regional instability that could escalate in the future if this situation is not contained as soon as possible. Assad is using the Golan Heights as an excuse to present himself as the leader of a resistant regime.

This is a very dangerous situation to be in because Israel is starting to feel vulnerable regarding its security on its border, and we are seeing the ingredients for a wider regional war as a result. Already, the humanitarian crisis in Jordan is causing the Jordanian regime to start getting worried about stability within Jordan as well — Turkey is the same, starting to see clashes on its border with Syria. All of these things, if left as they are, are likely to escalate into regional instability that would be a real threat to United States’ interests in the region as a whole. It is also not in the United States’ best interest to alienate itself from Arab masses in the post-Arab Spring era. You need to gain allies in the region and you need stability in the region.

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