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How do you see the situation in Syria playing itself out?
We’re desperately looking for a solution. We’re engaging with the Russians because we feel that’s the best option on the table—having the Russians as guarantor to the regime—and finding an exit policy that allows a peaceful transition.
Are you worried about the number of extremists coming in, al-Qaeda and others, as part of the Free Syrian Army’s effort?
We have been worried about that from the start. Whenever you have a crisis, you’re always going to have the extremists taking advantage of the situation. We have been monitoring al-Qaeda elements coming into Syria from the beginning. We know they’re there. We know they are established. But because of chaos, it is fertile ground for them.
Do you believe there’s still hopefor a political transition?
We have to hope that there is. That’s our job, to continue to push for a political solution. But we can’t be naive at the same time. I’ve been concerned over the past two months that the tone has changed internally on the ground.
Characterize that change.
Well … sectors of society going against each other. Syria’s different from Iraq or other countries in the region because there’s such a mosaic of Syrian societies. You have the Alawites. You have the Sunni merchant elite. You have Christians, Jews, Kurds. When you put all the minorities together, they become the majority. And when there’s chaos, you get to a point where those groups sometimes have a go at each other. And we’ve seen that level of deterioration.
I still think there’s hope. But what I’m worried about is, the longer we take to find a political solution, then we may be pushing Syria into the abyss. I mean, conference after conference is great. International forums where we get the Russian and Chinese involvement is fine. But we can’t afford the time.
And what is the abyss?
The abyss is complete and utter civil war which will take us years to come back from.
What role are the Iranians playing?
Strategically, the loss of Syria from their influence would be a tremendous blow for them. From their point of view, they will continue to support the regime as long as possible. And supply arms, because as long as the regime goes on it’s in their definite interest.
Clearly, the rebels are getting stronger, though.
You’ve called for Bashar al-Assad to step down, as have others. What do you think is going through his mind?
It’s a good question. I think in his mentality he’s going to stick to his guns. He believes that he’s in the right. I think the regime feels that it has no alternative but to continue. And I don’t think it’s just Bashar. It’s not individual. It’s the system of the regime. This is why reaching out to the Alawites and making them feel that they have a major stake in the future of Syria’s so important.
He has to look at what’s happened to Mubarak, to Qaddafi, and say,“Do I want to go out in a body bag or be part of a transition?”
I’ve tried to put myself in his shoes. And the options don’t look very good. If there is an exit policy for him to go out, where would he go? I have a feeling that if he can’t rule greater Syria, how do we enclave his Plan B? If that happens, it means the breakup of Syria, and that means everybody starts grabbing. If Syria implodes, that would create problems that would take us decades to come back from.
He’s said he won’t use chemical weapons against his own people, but he’s killing them anyway. Do you think he might?
I hope to God that he wouldn’t because that would be a tripwire for many nations in the international community. Qaddafi’s miscalculation was the use of his air force against his people.
How big a problem are the refugees?
As of today we have roughly 145,000. We’re averaging between 300 to 1,000 an evening, mainly coming over at night. So it’s a pressure on us, and the numbers look like they’re increasing.
And how much cross-border gunfire?
Mainly the Syrian army firing at refugees.
And you fire back to protect them?
When the Syrian army opens up against the refugees trying to cross, we fire at the Syrian positions to stop them.
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