“Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground,” writes Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin.“We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress,” a senior administration official told The Cable:
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the “Riad Seif plan,” named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians’ human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012. Seif [above] is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
“We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they’re setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it,” the official said.
“We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you’re going to do this now. We aren’t going to waste any more time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now.”
“There’s a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda.”
But Western states are “increasingly marginal in the dynamics of the Syrian conflict,” writes Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The question is whether they can afford to be irrelevant. They have dragged their feet so far, not investing enough attention and resources into this admittedly dangerous game while regime allies are marshaling all their resources in its support,” he notes.
Western states are concerned that arms will find their way to radical Islamist groups, but, as Hokayem notes, Washington analysts Andrew Tabler and Jeffrey White have established useful criteria to vet and equip rebel groups, including:
Location on the secular-Islamist spectrum. In order to gain leverage with the armed units operating throughout Syria, Washington will have to become better at sorting out their orientation — determining which commanders are secular figures who came up through the Baath system or observant Muslims, on the one hand, and which are Salafists or otherwise extremist on the other, then developing relationships with the former.
Attitudes regarding Syria’s political future. Once the regime collapses, the revolution should be consolidated by elites and the people through elections, not simply meetings among armed men.
Relationship with civilians. Although armed groups may be calling the shots after Assad is gone, they are not the only part of the opposition. The United States should channel assistance to units that have deep relationships with local, prominent civilian actors who are capable of leading their communities.
Shunning extremist funds. Many groups in Syria receive aid from private individuals and entities in the region that oppose U.S. interests. Washington should avoid assisting groups that are heavily supported by radical Islamist elements, and ask those units it does support to drop aid from regional sources associated with extremism.
“Some will retort that [arming the rebels] is too late and too risky,” writes Hokayem. “Many rebels already feel that they were abandoned in their moment of dire need, so why would they accept conditional help from outsiders now? But the realisation that victory for the opposition is not on the battlefield alone should prompt some new, if counter-intuitive, thinking.”
Many prominent analysts and observers, including former UN envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and former State Department Policy Planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter (both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy), have called for the US to provide weapons to Syria’s opposition.
But the Obama administration is refusing to countenance directly arming rebel groups, a stance that many observers believe is diminishing the influence of pro-democratic factions and inadvertently boosting radical Islamist groups.
Radical takfiri groups like Jabhat al-Nusra “have been able to take an extremist identity and really give it a popular following in a context of bloody civil war,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, the author of a sobering study of Syria’s jihadists for the Institute for the Study of War. “They have become the most significant threat to long-term stability in Syria.”
Several prominent commentators argue that the West “can scarcely be surprised that, following the bitterness caused by the unspeakable inertia of the great democratic countries, in the atmosphere of despair prevalent in Aleppo, Homs and Deraa, radical Islamism in all its varieties, and sometimes the most dreadful, is incessantly gaining ground.”
“It goes beyond even the Middle East,” say former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, combat zone field surgeon Jacques Bérès; Mario Bettati, a professor emeritus of international law; and philosophers André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy:
It involves as well changing the face of the democratic nations back to one marked by something other than gutlessness: a face that is humane, marked by solidarity and generosity. And it is about breaking the hideous and fatal spiral of the supposed “clash of civilizations,” as was done in Libya. To further the fall of the governing tyranny without encouraging the aspiring tyrants of radical Islam, this is what the democrats of Syria expect of us, and, beyond Syria, what the world expects.
“To fail to intervene, while the massacre of innocents accelerates, is, on the contrary, to send the very worst message, strengthening, in particular, anti-Western sentiment,” they conclude.
Leaders of the mainstream Free Syrian Army, “don’t support the jihadists or their tactics,” writes The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl. “But as the war in cities like Aleppo becomes more desperate, Jabhat al-Nusra has provided precious reinforcements:”
Thanks to generous support from sources in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, its units are often better-armed than secular forces, which have been starved by Obama’s ban on U.S. weapon supplies. The result, says O’Bagy, is that the character of Syria’s opposition has changed. “It’s no longer a pro-democracy force trying to bring down a dictatorship. It no longer holds the moral high ground. They have muddied the waters.”
“Have the horrors being perpetrated in Syria, let alone the dismal aftermath of the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, roused Western governments and opinion makers from their blind faith in dictatorial regimes as a force for stability or reform?” asks former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.
“Both U.S. presidential candidates have spoken of the importance of tying financial and diplomatic support from the free world to evidence of democratic reform in the Arab world,” he writes. “All of this is well and good, as far as it goes,” notes Sharansky, author of The Case for Democracy:
But a policy of linkage is not a matter of a campaign, or a season, or a year. Nor can it be selective. It must be unwavering and consistent for many years, applied with as much force to Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority as to Egypt and Libya. Needed from the governments of the free world is a combination of pressure and encouragement, two instruments aimed as one at nurturing the spread of free institutions, the rule of law and democratic institutions in all areas of civic life. Only under conditions in which sufficient numbers of citizens are prepared to fight to preserve their hard-won freedoms can one begin to imagine the advent of truly representative governments in the Arab world
“Rebels engaged in street fighting may no longer realize it, but the game is still fundamentally political,” Hokayem notes:
In the short term, incentives and guarantees must be offered to key social and minority groups, and fence-sitters. At a later stage, a political discussion over Syria’s future will have to happen, not with the regime but rather with its remnants. It will require credible interlocutors able to deliver on compromises. The example of the recent, failed Eid truce is instructive: there was no one in the armed opposition to call and even then, no leverage over them……”Positive dependency” is fundamentally about strengthening the political hand of the Syrian opposition. It is also about containing the worst instincts of warlords and military leaders who, having seized power through blood and force, will be reluctant to abide by the rules of politics.
“Better weapons would require better training and organisation to be effective,” Hokayem concludes. “Herein lies one last opportunity to instil discipline and create dependency. For external actors who worry about the day after the Assads, this is a momentous challenge.”