Syrian rebels today seized control of the latest of several border crossings they now control on the frontier with Turkey, as the leading opposition bloc today called for Arab states to collaborate on a Libya-style international intervention.
“We call on the Arabs to undertake a clear and serious initiative, like the position they took towards the Libyan revolution,” said Abdulbaset Sieda (left), head of the Syrian National Council, following talks with Qatari officials.
The move coincides with renewed calls for Western intervention amid concerns that the anti-American unrest across the Arab world is accentuating fears of a post-Assad transition empowering radical Islamists.
“These incidents will further give people pause because already our intelligence agencies have been telling us that amongst the Syrian opposition — the people who we’re supposed to support — some of them are Al Qaeda affiliates,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a center-left Washington think-tank.
But Syrian rebels are countering the jihadists’ influence – killing an Al-Qaeda-linked fighter in one recent confrontation.
Syrian democrats also counter that Western abstention is undermining moderate forces and leaving a vacuum for extremist elements.
“The groups currently vying for influence across the Middle East include many pro-democracy forces with widespread support, but they are competing with others who often do not share our goals,” says Radwan Ziadeh of the Damascus Center for Human Rights.
A recent study by the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank headed by former Islamists, notes that jihadists comprise less than 10 percent of rebel forces, but wield disproportionate influence because they are better armed and funded.
“It is clear that they are in the process of creating their own infrastructure and organizations independent of the fighting, since they plan to become independent organizations following the regime’s overthrow,” says the report.
“The vacuum created by relatively weak central governments in places such as Libya makes it easier for extremist elements to attempt to exert their will,” says Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Only continued strong diplomatic and humanitarian engagement and support by the United States will thwart those forces.”
His anxiety is shared by independent analysts.
“You can see why the U.S. would want to disengage after what just happened in Cairo and Benghazi,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center. “But, in fact, the chaos and the Islamists we saw in Libya should be a warning to us about this policy of standing back. Syria could become far, far more dangerous than Libya for the United States and the region, and it’s still not too late to make a difference.”
A limited, tailored intervention would help the democratic forces within opposition and give the US and the West a degree of leverage over post-Assad transitional developments, analyst Mark Katz argues in Foreign Policy.
“[M]any have expressed fear that al Qaeda and its allies are gaining ground with the Syrian opposition. Clearly, though, America and the West can do more to prevent this through getting involved in the Syrian conflict than not doing so and thus clearing the field for al Qaeda,” he notes. “It should be recalled that in the 1990s, one of the aims of the Clinton Administration in aiding the Bosnian Muslims was not to let Iran be their principal external supporter. The same logic applies now.”
Syria is likely to dominate the forthcoming UN General Assembly that begins Sept. 25, observers suggest. But a breakthrough is unlikely since both Russia and China, two of the Security Council’s five veto-wielding members, remain staunchly opposed to intervention.
This “means we’re heading into a very dark time in Syria — more violence and a slow grinding conflict that’s going to test everyone’s limits on non-intervention,” Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Associated Press.
“I think it’s the elephant in the room in the sense that it’s a lightning rod issue,” Tabler said. “It’s a crisis the U.N. is unable to deal with. And so, basically what happens is that you’re going to have a lot of speeches … but unless you get the Security Council agreeing I don’t see anything happening.”
Michael Weiss, research director at the London-based Henry Jackson Society think tank, said no breakthrough is likely at the General Assembly because Russian President Vladimir Putin has done nothing “to repudiate Assad.” Also, he added, Obama is reluctant to intervene in the Middle East as he fights for reelection on a record of ending the U.S. military role in Iraq and setting a 2014 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“All you are going to see for the next six months or longer is this continuing state of civil war,” Weiss said. “The rebels may assassinate members of the Assad regime, but until they have parity of weaponry and forces, Damascus will not fall.”
The anti-American turmoil in the region is likely to produce a more selective and nuanced approach to assisting Syria’s opposition, but radical forces will only benefit from Western passivity, observers suggest.
“The risk of not intervening is not just that you create greater operating room for jihadis,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “You also risk not having any allies on the ground the day after Assad falls,” and no power to shore up moderates in the new Syria.
Apart from the question of intervention, the latest anti-American protests could influence the way the United States allocates the limited support it has been providing to the rebels fighting Mr. Assad’s government.
“The focus so far has been on identifying rebel groups to support” and weeding out the more Islamist elements, Hokayem tells the New York Times. “You can be sure those categories are going to harden.”
The Obama administration has cited concern that providing weapons to the opposition could inadvertently bolster jihadist groups as a reason for limiting support to the rebels to non-lethal supplies.
“However, U.S. allies are already providing material support to the Syrian opposition, and competing sources of funding threaten Syria’s future stability by enhancing the influence of more radical elements,” according to Jihad in Syria, a new report from the Institute for War Studies. “The confluence of jihadist interest with that of the Gulf states raises the possibility that these states may leverage jihadists for their own strategic purposes, while simultaneously limiting Western influence,” it warns:
In order to counter this effect, the U.S. should seek to channel this support in a way that bolsters responsible groups and players while ensuring that Salafi-jihadist organizations … are unable to hijack the opposition movement. If the U.S. hopes to counter this threat and stem the growing popularity of more radical groups, it must clearly identify secular and moderate Islamist opposition groups and encourage the international community to focus resources in support of those groups alone. Such focused support would increase the influence of moderate opposition groups and undercut the appeal of Salafism.
France has taken a more energetic approach to aiding – and possibly arming – the Syrian opposition.
Its U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud believes that the Security Council “has never been as paralyzed as it is today since the end of the Cold War.”
“It is essential that we support the democratic opposition in Syria,” Araud said. “Some believe it is possible to choose between Assad and the Islamists. We tell them, `If you keep blocking, you’ll get Assad and then the Islamists.”‘
His concern is echoed by friends and associates of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador killed during the attack on the Benghazi consulate.
“Chris believes, and would say, ‘This takes a robust form of diplomacy that we’re not good at because we’re used to dealing with dictatorships,’ ” said Tabler, a Syria expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He knew there were risks. What I’m worried about is if Libya is used as an excuse for the United States to pull back from the region. The reality there has just changed, and the people now are a factor in these countries.”