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Syrian staredown

February 1, 2013

At the Munich Security Conference, America's former Israel ambassador Martin Indyk shares his views on Syria with DW, including the links he sees between the Syrian crisis and the conflict over Iran's nuclear program.

Martin S. Indyk, Senior Fellow and Director, Saban Center at Brookings, speaks on the opening day of the US Islamic World Forum in Doha , Qatar, on saturday Feb. 14, 2009. (ddp images/AP Photos/Maneesh Bakshi).Foto: Axel Schmidt/dapd.
Martin S. IndykImage: AP

DW: How volatile and dangerous is the situation in the Middle East after the strike inside Syria - after which both Syria and Iran threatened Israel with consequences?

Martin Indyk: There is a combination of short and long-term factors here. Iran's march towards a nuclear weapons capability and its subversion of regimes around the region is, on the hand, a long-term challenge to the stability of the region. The revolutions have, of course, created opportunities. We see that in North Africa, in Libya, Algeria, Mali and Egypt. Then you have the Syrian crisis, which has been slowly descending into chaos for some time now.

An Israeli F-15 Eagle fighter jet takes off from an Israeli Air Force Base on November 19, 2012. Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Israel has not commented on the origin of the airstrike in SyriaImage: Getty Images

I think that we are going to see that it gets worse before it gets better on all these fronts. While I think there is a potential for an Israeli-Syrian conflict, I don't rate it very high. The more dangerous aspects of the Syrian crisis are a descent into chaos which leads to perhaps even far greater loss of civilian life in Syria and the potential for the use of chemical weapons as a last resort by the regime.

Are you afraid that we could see a larger Middle East military confrontation?

I don't think it is going to come from this latest crisis between Israel and Syria. Unless the Syrians think there is an advantage to dragging Israel into a conflict. The Syrians do not want to loose their air force because they are using it against the opposition. If they start something with Israel that is what is going to happen very fast. I think the Syrians are still deterred, but we will see.

Iran can threaten, but it does not have an ability to do anything except more terrorism. I do not think that is going to trigger a wider war. There is always the potential for an Israeli or American strike on Iran's nuclear facilities if it decides to build the bomb. That could have dramatic reverberations throughout the region.

I think we are moving into a very tense period. 2013 is going to be a year in which the Middle East's volatility is going to be even greater than normal.

Could the presumed Israeli attack prove counterproductive to the Syrian civil war as it gives Assad the opportunity to deflect attention from what's happening inside Syria and let him rally Syrians against a foreign enemy?

That is a problem, but I think the Israelis have stayed out of it for a very long time because they understood that it could serve the regime. But the Syrians crossed an Israeli red line that has been there since 1976, and which is that they would not transfer surface-to-air missile capability to Hezbollah and their clients in Lebanon. This has always been an Israeli red line and the Syrians have known it. They have always respected it - until it appears yesterday. They crossed a red line and I think the Israelis calculated that even though it had the risk that you speak of, it was better to make it clear that they would not tolerate it.

Russia has been very outspoken in condemning Israel's action. What is Moscow's role in all of this?

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006 file photo Vladimir Putin, then Russian President, right, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad smile as they shake hands in Moscow's Kremlin. With even his most powerful ally, Russia, losing faith in him, President Bashar Assad may appear to be heading for a last stand against rebel forces who have been waging a ferocious battle to overthrow him for nearly two years. But Assad still has thousands of elite and loyal troops behind him, and analysts say that even if he wanted to give up the fight, it's unclear those around him would let him abandon ship and leave them to an uncertain fate.(AP photo/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service, File)
Russia is one of Syria's few remaining international supportersImage: dapd

There is a lot of breast-beating, but I don't think it really amounts to much. The Russians are doing their best to contain that conflict, to try to resolve it in a way that keeps their own position of influence intact. They try to distance themselves from Assad, but they do not want to abandon him. They would like him to kind of step aside, but they do not want to say that.

I think part of the Russian fear is that the United States will try to steal Syria from Russia's pocket, and I think this is a misplaced fear. I don't think President Obama wants Syria in America's pocket. It's very clear that he doesn't want to get that involved. There is potential for the United States and Russia to deal together with this horrendous situation before it gets to the point where the regime uses its chemical weapons. That would be a disaster in terms of the loss of human rights and in terms of the escalation.

What is your prognosis for Syria and Assad? How is the Syrian civil war going to play out?

Mohammed, 27, takes aim at regime forces. Photo: Deutsche Welle, Andreas Stahl, January 2013
Idyk had a negative view of short-term situation in SyriaImage: DW/A. Stahl

I have quite a dark prognosis. I think that Assad sees his choices in a very narrow framework: Kill or be killed. And as long as that's the case you have seem to steadily escalate. He is using every weapon in his arsenal. He went from tanks to artillery to helicopters to attack aircraft and bombers and to the hints of using chemical weapons. I think when it comes to a kind of desperate, last act, he will use them to try to establish a rump state and engage in a kind of ethnic cleansing with chemical weapons. And that's a horrendous prospect.

But so far everything has failed and there are an estimated 60,000 people killed. How could that work?

The critical thing that can change Assad's calculation is the Russians. If the Russians made clear they are not going to support him, then the only thing has left is Iran. And the Iranians can't do much to protect him. In fact, the Iranians are very steadily building their relationships with a whole lot of other players than Syria to protect their position. And they too have hinted that they could abandon him. If the Russians abandon him his calculus may change. Then he may understand that the game is up and be prepared to take an exit.

The other looming issue in the region is Iran's nuclear program. This strike - presumably by Israel - serves as a sort of connector of both these problems. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the UN last year that the chance to stop Tehran's program would end this summer. What's your reading of this second hot-button issue in the Middle East?

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb while discussing Iran during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Netanyahu was clear on how Israel saw the timeline for action in IranImage: Getty Images

The two are connected, and Iran will be watching the behavior of Israel and the United States in Syria when Syria crosses lines. When they crossed this Israeli red line and the Israelis responded, the Iranians have to take notice. They better be careful about the red line that has been established for them.

If the Syrians use chemical weapons and the United States doesn't respond having drawn a red line by the president himself then the Iranians don't understand that they don't have to worry about the American discussion of the military option. What happens in the one place definitely effects what happens in the other.

If Assad goes down and Iran loses its position of influence in Syria it will feel more isolated. Will it therefore feel that it has to get the bomb and make a run for it or will it recognize that it better be more careful? It's very hard to tell what the Iranian calculus will be, but there is no doubt that what happens in Syria provides lessons for the Iranians as they calculate very carefully how far they can go and what they can get away with.

Martin Indyk is vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He served as US ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and 2000 to 2001.

Interview: Michael Knigge

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