Conflict & Justice

Iran, Jihadists pose threats in Syrian conflict, US experts say


Bodies of people killed by Syrian security forces during protests in Daraa city, stored in a mobile refrigerator, May 4, 2011.

There are no easy solutions to the conflict in Syria, experts said today in a conference call with reporters.

The experts, fellows from The Council on Foreign Relations, pushed for a cautious approach to US intervention. "It's still not clear that the enemy of our enemy is our friend, so it's still hard to ally with the parties in Syria," said Robert Danin, a Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, referring to the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. "Those who were calling for us to provide sophisticated arms to the rebels, I think we really have to think twice." 

While Danin said there is "no question" that Assad has to go, he argued that US intervention in Syria should, at least initially, lean more heavily on careful diplomacy than on providing weapons, an approach that he says is already happening. "We are now on the ground, we are now providing logistical support," he said.

He added later: "In any case, I think we're heading toward greater intervention whether we like it or not. And let's face it. The administration doesn't want to commit itself to something dramatic before November."

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CFR Middle East fellow Ed Husain mostly agreed with Danin's cautiously optimistic views of the Free Syrian Army rebels. "It was encouraging yesterday to see the Free Syrian Army signing a 'code of conduct' to not violate human rights. That's a first for the Free Syrian Army," Husain said.

Bloodshed is getting worse in Syria, with the fellows estimating an average of about 200 deaths per day. But they argued that the fighting has gone beyond a clash between rebels and Assad. The fight is turning into a religious conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, bolstered by the fact that it is mostly Sunnis who are being targeted by Assad. "The sectarian dimension to this conflict is very much alive in Syria and the risk is whether it spills over" into neighboring countries, Husain said.

The experts said that Iran, an ally of Syria, is one of the riskier regional players in the conflict. "The Iranians are quite willing to take risks and act boldly, if not recklessly," Danin said. "The plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in downtown Washington is just one example." Danin also cited a recent bombing that killed Israeli tourists in Bulgaria — Israel blamed Iran for the attack — as an example of tensions from the Syrian conflict spilling over.

Another major concern is the presence of jihadists in Syria, which the experts said is likely to grow. "I think we are at risk here of ignoring the rise of jihadi elements," Husain said. "The bottom line is that Al Qaeda in Syria is on the increase, with or without Assad in place."

Husain later added: "The Palestinians seem to detest by and large both Iran and Bashar al-Assad," citing his interviews with Palestinians and Arabs in Jerusalem. "They felt that even Israel would not even treat Palestinians the way Bashar al-Assad treats his own people."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is planning to hold emergency talks on Syria this weekend in Turkey, a move that both of the fellows praised during the conference call.