Manama Dialogue 2012: Global Views on Syria – Michael Rogers

Published: January 4, 2013

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SPECIAL REPORT

[This is the fourth of six reports resulting from the IISS Manama Dialogue regional security summit.]

Editor’s Note:

The International Institute for Strategic Studies convened the 8th Manama Dialogue regional security summit, bringing together 30 delegations to “engage in high level international defense diplomacy on regional security issues.” The Manama Dialogues in Bahrain were launched in 2004 and have become an important opportunity for heads of state, foreign and defense ministers, other officials, military officers, specialists and others to gather to examine the critical issues of the day. The Dialogue is preceded by “Sherpa Meetings,” this year held in February and October, which lay the groundwork for the Dialogue sessions as well as providing “a unique opportunity for delegates who have high-level responsibility for foreign and security policy to engage in an off-the record, substantive exchange of ideas and information about regional security.”

The Manama Dialogue itself opened with an evening plenary session on December 7, 2012 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Bahrain, followed by two full days of plenary and special (closed) sessions. The opening session tabled “Global Views on Syria.” Subsequent plenary sessions addressed: “The U.S. and the Region”; “Priorities for Regional Security”; “Intervention and Mediation”; “The Influence of Sectarian Politics in Regional Security”; and “Middle East Security in a Global Context.”

It is rare to see so many senior U.S. officials participating in a single, open event in the Gulf of the stature of the Manama Dialogue.  Americans participating in the conference included: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Senator John McCainCongressman Michael Rogers and Congressman Charles Ruppersberger. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah Al Saud led the Saudi delegation. Presentations from each of these participants, as well as an interview with IISS Director General John Chipman, courtesy of The Majalla, are provided today including this report of Congressman Michael Rogers remarks. He is Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

US Congressman Michael Rogers, Chairman House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Congressman Rogers, in a conversation with IISS Director General Dr. John Chipman, talked through the U.S. position and perspectives on the Syrian conflict, including how the United States views it as larger than just a conflict within a single country, that it is a dangerous regional crisis. He touched on the danger resulting from a vacuum that will form after the fall of the Assad regime and the threat posed, including the risk of chemical weapons being used or falling into the wrong hands. Rogers concluded with remarks about the threat posed by Iran in the Syrian conflict and other trouble spots.

Today we present for your consideration six reports including video presentations of plenary sessions from the Manama Dialogue and an interview with IISS chief Dr. John Chipman, and commend your attention to the IISS Manama Dialogue web site for more presentations and materials that provide background, context and insight into the Gulf security paradigm. There are links to all pertinent materials following this presentation as well as all of the SUSRIS reports today including:

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Michael Rogers
Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives
The 8th IISS Regional Security Summit – The Manama Dialogue
Special Opening Session – Global Views on Syria
December 7, 2012

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Panel Members:

  • Mustafa Sabbagh - Secretary General, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces
  • Naci Koru - Deputy Foreign Minister, Turkey
  • Wu Sike - Special Envoy To The Middle East, China
  • Michael Rogers - Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives

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[Remarks as delivered]

Dr John Chipman
Thank you very much indeed. We are really privileged to have with us also here today Mike Rogers, from the United States, who is the Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the US House of Representatives, and therefore has access to a great deal of the privileged information that the United States has gathered from its perspective, and with its capacities, on the situation in Syria. We would welcome your thoughts on the political situation, on America’s approach to the Syrian problem, but perhaps you might begin giving us a sense of what your intelligence appreciation is of the current situation in Syria.

Mike Rogers
Thank you, Dr Chipman, and thank you for the opportunity to be here. I am joined by my colleagues, a very senior delegation from the United States Congress, who believe this issue is important enough, even despite our problems at home, to be here to try to help at least push along some resolution to the Syrian conflict. To the distinguished diplomats, I am honoured to join the stage with you today.

I will tell you this: there is a debate in Washington now about what level of intervention happens in Syria, amongst policymakers in Congress and the Administration. Some would argue that the weight of taking a proxy state that has been on the terror list since 1979, Syria, away from Iran is enough. If you look at the humanitarian wave of tragedy that is large and building, I think the time is now for us, and we hope after Marrakech that we have a much better coalesced effort to take down Assad.

I will tell you this, from the intelligence that we know and read and participate in, the work of our military and intelligence services. Those dangerous days of desperation are starting to take hold in the Assad regime. That is the most dangerous time, I think, for civilians and opposition groups all across Syria. Why that concerns us is that this is more than a civil war. I could not disagree more. It is now a regional conflict, and we see 30,000-plus civilians killed. We have some 500,000-plus refugees, some three million Syrians displaced from their homes. We have military equipment finding its way to Syria from multiple places that I would argue in some ways are not coordinated, to the detriment of the effort of unseating Assad.

You have another cancer that is growing, which is very, very concerning, and I was glad to hear Mr Sabbagh talk about the urgency of action now by a unified coalition of countries. You have the Al-Nusra Front, which is gaining strength and support across Syria, and I will tell you a very disturbing trend. Opposition groups, who are eager to displace this regime, find it necessary to rely on Al-Nusra Front fighters. Why? Because they are well-financed, they are well-armed, they are committed to the fight, and they are eager to join in, given the right opportunities.

We have seen what would be normally secular commanders adopt more extremist views in order to attract the Al-Nusra Front to their elements, to win the fight. That is dangerous for a number of reasons, as we see the Assad regime enter the last phase of desperation in holding on. Given the opportunity, the Al-Nusra front will take its fight beyond the Levant. We all know that. That is dangerous to the region; I argue that it is dangerous to the national security of all the countries here, engaged in this dialogue, and it is certainly dangerous for the world at its endpoint.

Why? Because there is always a void, a vacuum, after the fall of a regime like this. We have, unfortunately, lots of great experience in the last decade or so. What that avails to the people who have integrated themselves into some of these fighting units, and these fighting units have then endeared themselves to the Al-Nusra Front and their extremist elements, is that the weapons systems around Syria are terrifying in the hands of those who would use them for political gain. If you look at what happened in Libya, and those weapons spreading from Mali to Somali – some would argue to Sinai, some would argue even in Syria – the trouble that lies in wait, without an organised, transparent, coordinated coalition force on this, is indeed troubling.

If that were not bad enough, you add the element – and you have all seen the recent public reports – of the possibility that Assad has at least assembled, as part of his arsenal, for use, chemical weapons. If we think that the refugee problem and the staggering number of deaths and displacements and distress is bad now, imagine that possibility of mustard or sarin gas being released on his own people. A terrifying prospect indeed, and it should terrify all of us, to the point where we need to take that next, very important step. There is a debate on this as well: do you wait until there is use for a reaction, or do we try to make sure that there is no option for use?

That is a debate we all have to have. It is a debate I think all the coalition partners need to have, but we need to be honest about where we are in this discussion. All of those factors are at play, and that one last piece that I argue, and I think many of my colleagues would argue, and to a large degree President Obama’s Administration would argue, is that a lack of transparency and coming together on one plan to make sure that we fill this void immediately when Assad goes away. It is a dire picture – I paint a dire picture because I think it is [inaudible – off mic]. I think there is a real opportunity here, as the United States has stepped up some $200 million to the effort, as our Arab League partners have stepped up, as our Turkish friends have stepped up. If we can coordinate this in a relatively quick manner, I think we can prevent the use of nuclear weapons. I think we can give Syria back to the people to whom I think it belongs.

Dr John Chipman
Congressman Rogers, you heard Mr Sabbagh say earlier that their hope is to establish a credible military council for the coalition, through which all military aid at present being sent to the opposition could be channelled. If there were such a credible military council established, would you advocate for the United States joining in the delivery of lethal weaponry to the opposition?

Mike Rogers
I have publicly opposed tossing weapons over the transom, as we would say in the United States, to elements that we just do not quite yet understand. I am arguing that there are many who do not understand. At one point there were some 275 different groups claiming status in opposition to the Assad regime, and I think if we are going to do this, we absolutely have to be right about it. I think there is a framework in which we can get there, but it has to be based on training, the rule of law, and the rule of conflict, so that we avoid retribution killings after the fall and all the problems we have seen happen in so many other places so recently.

I think we can do that, if, again, it is a coalition where it is very well-defined how that training occurs, how those weapons are disbursed, and how command and control of those units is done, again with the understanding that there will be no retribution killings, there will be no balkanisation of Syria, and I think that hopefully we can get to those type of very serious discussions through Marrakech.

Dr John Chipman
I think you are on the record as saying that the United States perhaps has not done quite enough to prepare for a post-Assad Syria. At present, what would you recommend the practical steps to be taken for a post-Assad Syria, from the US perspective?

Mike Rogers
I think there are two different issues here, and I have said that. Firstly, I think the diplomatic efforts are well underway to try to put coalitions together. I am concerned, given our experience in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, that it takes intensive planning with our coalition partners – we obviously cannot do this by ourselves – to have real and concrete plans to secure chemical weapons that we all know and agree are there, to secure sophisticated conventional weapons that have fallen into the hands of those who would wish to do harm to other nations. That would be absolutely devastating. I argue we are a little bit behind, based on my belief that, again, we are entering the phase of desperation in the Assad regime.

Dr John Chipman
Finally, before I open it up to questions – and I shall, I promise you all – you also heard Mr Sabbagh call on Russia and Iran to cease their cooperation with the Assad regime. What is the appreciation that your Intelligence Committee has as to the extent, depth and nature of Iranian involvement now in the Syrian situation? How would you characterise it?

Mike Rogers
Extensive. One thing we know, with Iran and its long and troubled history of using proxies and proxy states to engage in acts of terror around the world, is that they have developed an expertise for doing it. I believe, knowing all the things that I see and that we talk about with our intelligence services, that they are actively, until this day, engaged in activities that we would all find troublesome to the peaceful outcome of this conflict.

Source: IISS Manama Dialogue

Michael Rogers is Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives

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