The opposition Syrian National Council appears close to reluctantly concluding that military intervention is the only realistic solution to the year-long conflict between the country’s pro-democracy movement and Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.
“If Assad continues on this path, there will have to be some outside intervention,” says Radwan Ziadeh, an SNC member (right, with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun, center). “The momentum is moving [in that direction], even if the price is very high.”
The exiled umbrella group has opposed international intervention, but appears likely to shift its stance as the U.S., European and Arab states prepare to convene the “Friends of Syria” group in Tunisia this week.
Meanwhile, the apparent softening of China’s stance on Syria may provide encouragement to the opposition and international community’s efforts to reach a solution to the crisis, although other observers suggest that transition prospects are impaired by divisions within the opposition’s “eclectic alliance” of combatants, liberal democrats and Islamists.
“We are really close to seeing this military intervention as the only solution. There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war,” said Basma Kodmani, a senior SNC official (left, with SNC colleague Ausama Monajed).
She hoped the “Friends of Syria” meeting would officially recognize the Free Syrian Army and agree to help coordinate opposition activity within Syria.
“The responsibility of the SNC is to ensure that the groups on the ground are connected with each other and come under an integrated command,” Kodmani told The Wall Street Journal. “We expect the Free Syrian Army to be recognized as an important player, because defections from the army are our best hope for a rapid fall of the regime.”
The SNC also wants Russia, which vetoed action against Damascus in the U.N. Security Council, to persuade the regime to allow safe passage to humanitarian convoys carrying aid to civilians. The corridors would run from Lebanon to the besieged city of Homs, from Turkey to Idlib and from Jordan to Deraa, she said.
“In order to not militarize, the idea is to ask Russia to exert pressure on the regime not to target humanitarian corridors,” she said.
China has refrained from supporting Russia’s attack on the Friends of Syria meeting later this week, “in a move that shows a small but potentially significant political gap between Moscow and Beijing,” reports suggest:
Beijing’s more emollient stance – part of a flurry of diplomatic activity on Syria this week – highlights how Chinese policy is motivated primarily by a general doctrine of non-intervention rather than the kind of direct political and security ties that link Damascus and Moscow.
“Russia’s position is a bit harder, a bit more clear-cut, and China is more low-key,” says Li Weijian of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
While Moscow has a long history of close ties with the Assad government and is the country’s largest arms supplier, Beijing’s handling of the Syria crisis is much less driven by such direct interests, say Chinese specialists. China has less than $20m in investment in Syria, and about 30 companies and little more than 100 workers – a far smaller number than the 30,000 who had to be repatriated from Libya.
The “Friends of Syria” meeting is “part of our ongoing efforts with our friends, allies, and the Syrian opposition to crystallize next steps to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people and pursue a transition to democracy in Syria,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“We don’t believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria. What we don’t want to see is the spiral of violence increase,” she said. But, she added, “if we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.”
The announcement amounts to a “shift of emphasis” on Washington’s part, Reuters notes, signaling that Assad’s failure to accept would perforce promote consideration of policy alternatives, even if Syria’s distinct characteristics still militate against a Libyan-style intervention:
As in the Balkans, as over Iran, the realpolitik of a global power confrontation puts Syria in a very different situation from Libya, a geographically isolated, thinly populated, socially homogeneous state whose ruler’s talent for shifting foreign alliances had deserted him and left him vulnerable.
Syria’s population is four times that of Libya, jammed in to a tenth of the territory. Its population is similar to that of the former Yugoslavia or Iraq, yet it is smaller than either, about the size of Florida. It is socially diverse, packed into fast-growing cities and across well-peopled farm-belts.
It is the sort of space where, even were the opposition to coalesce as Libyans did into a greater semblance of a rebel army, there would, unlike in Libya, be little chance for clear frontlines along which foreign powers might deploy air power and every likelihood of bloody, confused civil war, as in Bosnia.
So when Syrians appeal to “the world” for help, they must know that world appears as divided as Syria itself. Assad can go on using those divisions – at home and across the Middle East and globally – to hold his ground, at least for now.
“The SNC reflects the entire spectrum of the street and of the opposition,” SNC President Burhan Ghalioun said recently, insisting that the exiled umbrella group would help lead a post-Assad democratic transition.
But divisions within the opposition and the disproportionate influence of Islamist factions help explain Western policy-makers’ reluctance to empower or arm the anti-Assad movement, says Michael Weiss, director of communications for the Henry Jackson Society in London, but diplomatic recognition for the Syrian National Council is an option.
“If Western states could recognize the SNC at this summit, that would be the ultimate rebuke to Assad,” he said, “but the problem is that the SNC is a work in progress, one with a disproportionately high level of Islamist participation – particularly in its upper echelon – and not enough representation of minority groups.
“Diplomatic options have been all but exhausted,” Weiss said. “The only way this regime is going to go if it is forced to. I think ultimately some kind of military intervention will be undertaken, the nature of which will be determined by the extent and scope of the brutality over the next few months.”
A Libyan-style intervention raises some “very nasty scenarios,” says a leading analyst:
George Joffe, a north Africa specialist at Cambridge university, says the Libyan example suggests any outside military intervention, direct or indirect, in Syria would be “desperately dangerous” in its potential to fuel regional conflict if the Assad regime collapsed suddenly and left a power vacuum. “Afterwards you are going to end up with a Libyan situation [but] where you can’t guarantee security in a state that’s in the heart of the Levant,” he says.
“Then you begin to get some very nasty scenarios,” adds Mr Joffe, referring to Syria’s position at the centre of a region including such uncomfortable neighbours as Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
“Unilateral military efforts won’t work this time and the people in the US and in Europe understand this – with Libya you had two [UN] resolutions to point to,” says Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Centre. “But we are also seeing more support for the opposition and it’s something we all worry about. You give people the right to defend themselves – but it also takes us to a more precarious situation on the ground.”
The precarious regional situation leaves Mr Assad’s foreign opponents with two apparently conflicting goals – they want the regime to go, but in a controlled way and without official outside intervention…[T]the external powers are trying to reconcile these desires by adopting a two-track approach. Western states apply diplomatic pressure and offer humanitarian assistance; regional countries back the armed opposition, under cover of an Arab League resolution this month that calls for political and material support for the rebels.
The opposition is still plagued by divisions between secular and Islamist factions, internal and exiled groups, and the resulting absence of a coherent leadership and strategy, say analysts:
Internal disagreements persist even within constituent groups such Islamists, Spath wrote this month on the institute’s website. “Only recently have leading Muslim scholars from various Islamic trends come together in search of a formula to unite in support of the revolution,” [according to Andrew Spath, a Middle East scholar writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a policy group in Philadelphia.]
The SNC has to draw disparate groups together even as it is “still trying to overcome all the challenges of what really began as an amateur opposition” in October, said Steven Heydemann, a special adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace, a non-partisan policy group funded by Congress. The leaders are “academics, professionals, people who were not hardcore, street-fighting opposition types,” Heydemann said in a telephone interview.
In addition, SNC leaders are hampered by weak ties to Syria itself, [Syria specialist Joshua] Landis said. Ghalioun and the other SNC officials who met with Clinton in Geneva in December “have been out of the country for 20, 30 years,” he said. Ghalioun is a political science professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
“There are myriad divisions that are very difficult for Syrians to overcome, but democracy and toppling the regime are two things that everyone can get behind,” Landis said.“It’s very difficult to get them to agree on anything else.”
Consequently, “one of the biggest tasks facing President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents is to bring coherence to a movement that is as diverse and fragmented as Syria itself,” observers suggest:
An eclectic alliance of fighters, liberals and Islamists need not be fatal to a successful rebel uprising – as the movement that ousted Muammer Gaddafi in Libya showed. But Syria’s rebels are still struggling to establish themselves as a rallying point.
Add to this the support Mr Assad still seems to enjoy – broader and deeper than that for Gaddafi – and the opposition’s need to establish their authority becomes even more crucial.
Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, an advocacy, says that “squabbling, lack of vision and lobbying for an ill-defined outside intervention” in the Syrian National Council, the best-known opposition group, scared some citizens “back into the regime fold” instead of rallying them to its cause. It “convinced all too many people that this revolution could turn into a disaster”. ………..
Western states are unlikely to supply arms but could provide communications equipment and similar supplies that enhance the rebels’ combative capacity.
“We can do the job ourselves if we have more equipment,” says one rebel leader. “With more sophisticated weapons, we can take the fight to Assad.”
Follow developments in Syria as they happen on NOW Lebanon.
Radwan Ziadeh is head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.