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.
Some will still question whether bolstering the National Coalition will inflame the conflict and close the doors on a dialogue between Assad and the rebels. A dose of political realism is in order. Delivering arms to conflict zones may seem a counterintuitive way to restore peace. However, even the staunchest critics of intervention should find it difficult to deny that the conflict has fully degenerated into an all-out war. At this point, Western support for the moderates cannot be stigmatized on the basis that it will further inflame a conflict that has already spiralled out of control. Rather, it should be seen as a long-overdue decision to back up symbolic recognition with actual support. Similarly, although a politically negotiated end to any conflict is preferable, prospects for one in Syria today seem remote. Western powers encouraged Assad to negotiate a political solution for months at the start of the conflict, which repeatedly went unheeded. He decided, instead, to bury compromise under scores of dead civilians.
Backing up Western murmurs of approval with concrete support for moderates would also strengthen the prospects for a faster resolution to the fighting. At the Friends of Syria meeting last week, Riad Seif, a leading opposition figure, stated that, with Western support, the opposition could "finish off the battle within weeks." Although his assessment is probably too optimistic, Western arms could very well tip the balance. And there is little doubt that an accelerated opposition victory would not only alleviate the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria but also be instrumental in preventing further internal disintegration resulting from a prolonged war of attrition.
There is a real possibility that the coalition won't be able to enforce the peace once the war ends. But it has a better chance of doing so if it has international support and if the United States and the European Union design their involvement very carefully. After deciding to recognize the National Coalition, the United States promised an attempt to "build up a nation-wide network of ethnically and religiously diverse civilian activists, which will help promote unity among the Syrian people and accelerate the country's democratic transition." That is certainly a laudable goal, but, in light of raging battles, unlikely to be sufficient. British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent initiative in the United Kingdom to lobby for amending the comprehensive arms embargo on Syria is a more meaningful step in the right direction. Although it is unclear whether his proposal will gain broad support, European foreign ministers have now agreed to discuss his suggestion at an upcoming meeting on 31 January.
It is high time for Western powers to rethink their reluctance to get more directly involved in Syria. Although military assistance to the National Coalition should be at the top of the West's agenda, the West should also try and synchronize the flow of international funds from Arab and Western states to the National Coalition. Certainly, weapon flows from Saudi and Qatari donors to the more radical rebels reflect deeply held ideological convictions. However, a majority of Arab states are on the same page as the West when it comes to bolstering the National Coalition. The Gulf Cooperation Council was among the first international organizations to recognize the National Coalition. Now Arab governments should be encouraged to back up their formal recognition of the body with efforts to prevent private donors from giving aid to radical factions.
At the same time, any Western support should be given only conditionally. The West should set clear benchmarks for the National Coalition, including that it broaden its support base in Syria by including a bigger proportion of minorities such as Druze, Kurds, Christians, and, most important, Alawite dissidents. While including Alawites will certainly prove the biggest challenge, it is by no means impossible. Western support should also be conditioned on the coalition's adherence to a code of conduct far stricter than the regime's. Here, taking note of the dismal fate of the coalition's predecessor, the Syrian National Council, is crucial. The council never received comprehensive recognition or substantial support from abroad and thus had difficulties expanding its support base in Syria. Similarly, without a change of course from the West, the National Coalition may very well lose political momentum.
Funding and arming the National Coalition involves well-known risks in Syria. However, there are international pitfalls, too. Most notably, open military support for the National Coalition would lead to an outcry from Russia. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has already lashed out at the United States' formal recognition of the National Coalition. Even so, there is some possibility of finding a common ground with Russia. It is conceivable that the West could secure a tacit (if not explicit) change in Moscow's stance by guaranteeing that vital Russian interests in Syria -- for example, the strategically important Russian naval base in Tartus -- would be protected.