Sarkis Naoum, Senior Columnist for Annahar newspaper in Beirut, discussed the crisis in Syria and its implications for Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran.

On April 15, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a meeting, “A Conversation with Sarkis Naoum.” Aaron David Miller, Vice President of New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.  

Naoum described the crisis in Syria as sectarian in nature, as the Alawites continue to support the Bashar al-Assad regime fearing retribution from the Sunnis while Christians and other minorities also maintain their allegiances accordingly. At its outset, unrest in Syria began as a movement of popular protest against the ruling regime; yet, in time, sectarian tensions have taken on greater dimensions in the conflict, embroiling the country in its current state of civil war. For this reason, Naoum argued, even if Assad falls, the conflict will continue unabated.

According to Naoum, Assad is not the sole decision-maker among the political and military elite in Syria. The military has historically played a significant role in Syria, and its leaders wield significant power over the decision-making processes in the country; thus, their input will likely determine the outcome of the conflict. Naoum projected that the Assad regime will fall in time, but he characterized it as a partial fall—the regime will maintain power in certain regions while being forced to relinquish it in others. For this reason, Assad and his allies could sustain the conflict indefinitely.

Naoum also assessed the regional and international dynamics shaping the Syrian conflict. He argued that American, Turkish, and Arab hesitation to support the rebels has, in turn, empowered the Assad regime. Thus, he implored major powers in the region and in the international community to form a consensus and work with the Syrian opposition to form a united Free Syrian Army. He cautioned against direct Western military intervention, however, which he argued would enflame a region that is already experiencing rising rates of Islamism and widespread discontent with American and European policies.    

Regarding Iran’s role in the conflict, Naoum described Iran’s role as providing critical support for the Assad regime and, thus, allowed the conflict to endure. Iran has traditionally maintained four lines of defense in the region, allying itself with the Shiites in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and the Palestinians. Thus, Iran will not easily abandon its ally in Syria. In order to ensure a peaceful transition, Naoum concluded that the international community, and in particular the Americans and Russians, must convince Iran that it is in its interest to cooperate with the Syrian opposition because the threat of Sunni extremism is a threat to their security as well. If the Iranians and Russians get involved in the negotiating process, the Assad regime could take more substantive steps toward transition and, more importantly, reconciliation. 

By Darya Razavi, Middle East Program