The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
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.
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.
The choices in Syria are far from ideal, and future developments are hard to predict. However, given the realities on the ground and the lack of a quick-fix solution, providing more military and financial support to the National Coalition may be the best of many options, several of which are far less desirable. Contrary to the notion of a Western-style military intervention, which remains unpopular in both the West and within the Syrian opposition, such a policy would be met with enthusiasm by the vast majority of moderate oppositional forces. Although it would not end the Syrian tragedy overnight, it would certainly accelerate the end of the Assad regime -- a precondition to beginning a new chapter in Syria.