External actors could play a decisive role in bringing Syria’s 20-month-old uprising to an end, says a prominent analyst, amid growing signs that the Assad regime is losing ground diplomatically and militarily.
The duration of the conflict “depends to an extent on what the external actors in this drama now do,” says David Gardner, a Beirut-based analyst:
“The regime is cornered,” judges one top Arab security official. Even officials in Russia, Syria’s most important international ally, have started murmuring that they see no way out for President Assad.
“But there is little sign of intermediate measures – between embracing the [new opposition] National Council [left] and threatening an assault on loyalist forces – that could hasten the implosion of a regime that is offering tantalising glimpses of decomposition,” Gardner suggests.
In a potential sign that Russia’s support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be softening, Moscow’s top diplomat will meet jointly Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.N. envoy for Syria, a senior State Department official said. Russia has been the main international defender of the Assad regime, a military and trade partner, and the chief obstacle to tougher U.N. action to pressure Assad to end a 20-month civil war.
“I think that the Russians at the moment are realizing that they are going to have to deal with a new Syria,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s going to be hard to deal with a new Syria when they are harboring, or possibly harboring the former president.”
Russia’s apparent equivocation is the latest sign that the endgame may be approaching, say observers.
“It is bloody and long,” a French official said. “But my feeling is there has been an acceleration of dynamics in the last few weeks, an erosion of the regime while the morale of the activists is higher and higher. I believe it is now possible the regime will fall soon. Whether that is weeks or months, I don’t know.”
The growth of extremist factions within the rebel ranks has increased the urgency of developing a political alternative to match opposition military gains, according to the French official and others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomatic talks.
“This is a real concern for the United States, for France and for the Syrians themselves,” the French official said. “The quicker the fall of the regime and the stronger the political alternative, the more you empower it .?.?. the more likely that Syrians themselves will be able to resist radicalization.”
The jihadist groups’ increasingly visible role has alienated potential opposition allies from within Syria’s minorities, say analysts.
“The Syrian opposition, in which Sunnis in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular dominate, has not done enough to convince the Alawites, and other minorities such as the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds, that their future is assured in a plural Syria without the Assads,” says the FT ‘s Gardner:
Part of the reason Syria’s minorities are fearful is that they see Islamist forces gaining influence in rebel ranks. While western powers hold back, Qatar is arming and financing the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis are aiding more radical jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the spearhead behind several recent rebel gains.
The strength of radical takfiri groups linked to al-Qaida is “growing in intensity,” says Washington Institute analyst Tabler, who recently returned from the Syrian border region.
“And the reason why these groups became more prominent and why actually the opposition’s worried about it is that they received the weapons when Syrians were in their hour of need from Saudi Arabia and from other donors in the region,” says Tabler, author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria:
The problem is, is that the Assad regime was in systemic failure, so the regime’s weapons fell into the wrong people’s hands anyway. If we had intervened earlier, we would’ve had a hope of saving the state and securing those weapons. Frankly, in parts of Syria, we’re going to be dealing with people we’ve never dealt with before. …It’s going to be like Libya but with more people, more affects, more different kinds of problems than we’ve ever seen right smack in the middle of a very strategically important part of the world. So I don’t really see how the United States doesn’t get involved there.
But some opposition activists dismiss fears of radical jihadists groups exercising disproportionate influence at the expense of relatively moderate democratic factions.
“Many groups labeled by the administration as al Qaeda are actually not,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “What is the reason the U.S. administration is considering it [Nusra] al Qaeda? All of our focus is on getting rid of the Assad mafia. We welcome anyone in the fight against Assad.”
Engaging Russia could be a vital factor in facilitating a transition, observers contend.
“You need everybody who is part of the problem to be dragged into the solution,” observes one European foreign minister. “Otherwise they’ll be spoilers.”
Thursday’s meeting comes ahead of a gathering of the Western-backed Friends of Syria group in Morocco next week, The Washington Post reports, at which the United States is expected to recognize a reorganized Syrian political opposition as the legitimate successor to Assad.
The US should recognize and support the newly-formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, says Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma:
The United States has spent the last 21 months insisting on unity in what turns out to be a very fragmented Syrian opposition. This group is as good as it is going to get. It is filled with elite Syrians, who are educated, relatively pro-American, not too anti-Israel and not too Islamist — many of whom have gone to jail for their beliefs. The problem is that events on the ground in Syria have largely overtaken this effort at statecraft. ….They tend to look at the coalition as a foreign concoction, selected by unknown hands, and representing only itself.
“The Syrians fighting in the militias come from a very different background than those placed at the head of the coalition… Salafism is the ideology of the day, taking root with growing speed,” says Landis, who writes Syria Comment, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics.
The National Coalition might be more legitimate than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, “but its rank and file are dominated by the same tired figures,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled Syrian dissident living in Washington, D.C. “Worse, the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on the group’s decisions is even more pronounced, as the Brotherhood has reportedly gained more power within the coalition, far in excess of its actual support on the ground.”
The question before us is .. how the U.S. can recognize what is essentially an Islamist opposition that refuses to provide any real guarantees on the future of the country, even as it lobbies for the provision of arms and international support.
There is more to acquiring recognition than providing a new facade. The U.S. should recognize the coalition only after it provides credible guarantees that it will match majority rule with minority rights, and address the concerns of the secular components of the opposition and the Syrian society at large.
“The leaders of the opposition must realize that, in order to successfully lead a nation through the difficult transition ahead, they will have to represent the concerns and aspirations of all Syrians, irrespective of where they fall now on the political spectrum,” argues Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who writes the Syrian Revolution Digest blog.
“If the U.S. were counting on eventually playing a leading role at this late stage, it should have factored in Syrians’ current reactions,” she argues. “Whether by design or by mistake, the Obama administration has diminished any influence over Syrians it once had.”
By failing to intervene, the US is “betraying yet again what America claims to stand for,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the U.S. State Department’s former head of policy planning. She called for “decisive action to save tens of thousands of Syrian lives and possibly tip the balance of the conflict.”
But the administration’s reluctance to arm Syria’s opposition was informed by its experience in Libya, where Western arms found their way into the hands of extremist elements, The New York Times reveals:
The Qatari assistance to fighters viewed as hostile by the United States demonstrates the Obama administration’s continuing struggles in dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings, as it tries to support popular protest movements while avoiding American military entanglements. Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.
“To do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is now dean of Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins University. “If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”
Washington’s recognition of the new coalition does not imply military assistance, but does entail “bolstering the political stature of the new coalition.,” writes Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:
Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Coordination Council have already committed to the coalition, but where this decision falls in terms of military support for the rebels who are still fighting on the frontline remains unclear. Because of this risk of making matters worse, the United States should continue to stay one removed and allow for its allies to lead.
“That way, success of the Syrian rebels will not be tainted as yet another American military intervention in a Muslim country and thus fuel anti-Americanism,” he claims.
*Anne-Marie Slaughter is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.