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Middle East expert sheds light on Syria conflict

NBC analyst Rick Francona headlined recent Cazenovia Forum event

— Francona knows the region well. He has served with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the C.I.A, with operational duties in virtually every country in the Middle East. He peppered his talk with anecdotes of his dealings with major political and intelligence figures from the region.

Francona next took his audience through the history of Syria’s political evolution: its flirtation with Pan-Arabism; the establishment of the brutally ruthless regime of Hafez Assad and the ascension of his son, Basar; the country’s break with the Arab nations to ally with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war; the decision to side with the U.S. in the first Gulf War, and the rise of the Islamist factions in the region.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in the war and millions have been displaced. Historic sites have been reduced to rubble and the inhumane brutality of the fighting makes Francona believe that Assad will never surrender. “The Arab Spring is fast turning into the Muslim Winter,” he said.

Francona speculated that the carnage in the war could rival the slaughter in Rwanda and he fears that without intervention, it could exceed those numbers. “It’s not Rwanda yet, it could be, look at what the Islamist are doing up in the areas they control, they’re crucifying people. I mean crucify, on a cross,” he said.

So who is winning the war in Syria? The Syrian regime of Basar Assad, said Francona. When it looked in 2012 like he might be overthrown, he turned to his old allies, the Iranians.

“Bashar went to his Iranian and Hezbollah allies and said ‘I need help’ and the Iranians sent troops and Hezbollah sent thousands of troops. Between the Iranians and Hezbollah with the Syrian Army and the guidance, probably from the Russians, they turned this thing around,” Francona said. “If it continues as it is today the Syrian Army will win and not too much longer because it’s very difficult to defeat a standing army with rifles.”

The Cazenovia Forum series will continue on June 6 with a screening of the award-winning film “Inequality for All,” followed by a panel discussion hosted by David Rubin, former Dean of the Newhouse School and host of WCNY’s “Ivory Tower.”

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