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America and the Arab Spring 

Ambassador Theodore Kattouf
President and CEO
Amideast

July 13, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Ambassador Theodore Kattouf discussed how the history on Syria demonstrates that the country is fundamentally different from Tunisia and Egypt. The “relative ease” of ousting Ben Ali and Mubarak, he said, was tied to the fact that Tunisia and Egypt each has a strong national identity rooted in a historical narrative. Conversely, states with significant “sectarian and ethnic cleavages,” like Syria, have greater potential for violence. This is particularly true when a formerly oppressed minority group, like the Alawis in Syria, hold most of the regime-sustaining positions in a society, while the majority of the population is oppressed, like Syria’s Sunni Muslims.

Ambassador Kattouf said that U.S. policy options are limited in Syria because of these and other difficulties. He acknowledged that no one (domestically or internationally) wants to see military intervention, and said that the lack of support from China and Russia makes significant action from the U.N. Security Council unlikely. Moreover, he cautioned against using the Internatinal Criminal Court to condemn the Syrian President, because it effectively cuts off al-Assad’s “escape route” and would incentivize the brutal dictator to cling to power. The Ambassador said that Turkey would be the power most likely to intervene due to the co-religionist factor, but he said even this was unlikely in the short term.

Ambassador Kattouf also spoke to the role of NGOs coming out of the Arab Spring, suggesting that a “new day” was at hand as governments became less likely to suppress civil society. He said that U.S.-based NGOs could operate with more credibility and work cooperatively with foreign partners because they avoid the suspicion typical of direct government aid. Ambassador Kattouf said that with the elimination of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, the role of public diplomacy largely falls now to NGOs and the private sector, a role which he finds in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people and the pluralistic society that defines the United States.