Time to Back the Syrian National Coalition
Despite various parallels with Tunisia and Egypt, a close look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime is unlikely to fall.
This article appears in the Foreign Affairs/CFR eBook, The New Arab Revolt.
After almost two years of bloodletting in Syria, there is little chance that negotiations of the kind UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been urging would end the conflict. More likely, they would prolong it. And worse, they would perpetuate Bashar al-Assad’s favorite strategy of fanning fears of rebel sectarianism and extremism to dissuade the world from intervening against him.
A rebel scopes out an area controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters)
The Syrian conflict is almost two years old. More than 40,000 Syrians have died, an estimated half million have fled the country, and the violence shows no signs of subsiding. Recently, rebel forces seem to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, and they are in direct control of about 40 percent of the country. They have brought the battle right up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's doorstep, at times closing off the airport in Damascus. But Assad remains in control, and he has reacted to rebel gains by becoming steadily more violent, most recently launching Scud ballistic missiles against his opponents.
The original anti-Assad protesters, who were largely peaceful and refrained from calling for the regime's ouster, were sidelined long ago by the escalating war. Iran and Hezbollah have provided weapons to the Syrian army, and donors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have sent a steady supply of munitions -- mostly small arms -- to the opposition. This support has primarily reached the more extreme groups, with whom the donors are more ideologically and politically aligned. Last week, one such group, the al Qaeda–affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, was reportedly able to capture the command center of the Syrian army's 111th regiment. The move was a blow to the Assad regime but also an indication of the extent to which Syria's more moderate rebels have been eclipsed by the impressive successes of more radical groups. Today, the moderates are the only forces in the country without a steady flow of foreign arms; the European Union and the United States have refused to send weapons directly to the fighters. Fearing utter obsolescence, moderate groups have repeatedly called on the West to provide them with the ammunition they need to overthrow Assad.
For several sound reasons, Western decision-makers have rejected any notion of comprehensively arming Syria's opposition. For one, the kaleidoscope of opposition groups in Syria had seemed too fractured, and their ideological leanings too opaque, to merit support. Second, policymakers worried that supporting one side in the Syrian conflict would exacerbate violence that, for months, was relatively contained; arming opposition groups, many feared, would effectively close the door on negotiations with the regime. Third, the aftereffects of the Libya intervention, from the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to pervasive lawlessness and corruption, were sobering reminders of the challenges that might follow the end of fighting. Although the Libyan rebels succeeded in toppling the Qaddafi regime, they were less successful in controlling -- or unwilling to control -- the dispersal of arms after their victory.
That reasoning remains somewhat compelling. And, unquestionably, there is no easy way to get around the fact that handing arms to opposition forces goes hand in hand with losing direct control over the military hardware. But the facts on the ground have increasingly overrun the standard arguments against supporting anti-Assad forces, and the case for arming the rebels grows stronger by the month.
Critics of a more active support for the opposition have long bemoaned the lack of a coherent opposition body that could bring together the various political and military opponents of the regime. But now, the newly established Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was founded with U.S. assistance in Qatar in November, has done just that. Further, at a meeting in Marrakesh last week, the Friends of Syria -- a group of over 90 countries, including the United States -- recognized the National Coalition as Syria's legitimate government. U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the National Coalition as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime."
The National Coalition has thus fully replaced its frustratingly ineffective predecessor, the Syrian National Council, although a significant number of representatives from the council continue to serve in the new coalition. Opposition forces also seem to have made some progress toward uniting the myriad armed groups confronting Assad. Last week, in Antalya, Turkey, 500 representatives from different Syrian armed factions created the Supreme Military Council, an elected body of 30 representatives from their ranks. The relationship between the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council is still evolving, and the council faces difficulties winning comprehensive acceptance by moderate forces. But the fact that an umbrella opposition group exists and is now recognized abroad changes the conflict's parameters.
Arming and financing the National Coalition could strengthen the more moderate opposition forces in Syria. Observers on the ground have repeatedly noted that originally moderate opposition fighters have increasingly embraced Islamist rhetoric, stating that they can "only rely on Allah." This is believed to be a direct response to Western passivity. Radical opposition groups attract supporters not necessarily by virtue of their ideology but through the size of their armories. Thus, Western support could draw fighters to the National Coalition and, in turn, significantly increase Western influence over their decisions. Without it, though, radical groups are well poised to determine the development of a post-Assad Syria -- to the detriment of Syrian and Western interests.
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