The United States is losing its chance to shape Syria’s post-Assad transition, according to a U.S.-based activist group.
“This is [America's] last chance to catch up, otherwise you’ll have a failed state and no support on the ground,” Sakka says. “If [the US] doesn’t do this, why will people listen? Syrians will think, ‘When we needed them, they didn’t help us.’”
“The U.S. has to have a vision, a plan toward Syria,” he says. “Time is running out, and the absence of such vision has jeopardized [the] U.S. position as [a] world leader.”
Pro-democracy activists are concerned that US and Western reticence is inadvertently handing the initiative to radical Islamist forces which receive considerable financial and military assistance from the Gulf.
“The Qataris are much less squeamish about funding the various jihadist groups,” notes one observer.
Abu Anas, an activist with one such group, Ahrar al-Sham, expects post-Assad Syria will be a dawlet islamiyah, or state governed by Islamic law, he tells NPR:
Lately, Abu Anas’ group and the more hard-line jihadists have worked side by side to take Syrian army bases and weapons with the less religious, more moderate rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. Some analysts say this was a calculated move on the part of the Islamists. Not only are they vying for weapons and power, but for the first time they are bowing to public pressure to be less extreme. Last month Islamist fighters released a video denouncing the political opposition that’s working to bring down Assad. They later retracted the video after criticism from Syrian civilians.
“However, that was a retraction of a video that came out while Assad is still in power and whilst they [the Islamists] have relatively little to lose,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “I think the situation could feasibly change if Assad was actually to fall. There’d be an awfully lot more to play for. And so I think some kind of tension is inevitable.”
US President Barack Obama forcefully warned the regime against the use of chemical weapons, but some analysts believe they are more likely to be used as a defensive rearguard action.
“Today I want to make absolutely clear to [President Assad] and those under his command: The world is watching,” Obama said. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
“It’s likely that these weapons are headed to the coast,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Mideast-focused think tank. “The weapons placed here would be out of reach of the rebels and could be used for the defense of a mini-state.”
The recent Internet blackout and the severing of landline and cell phones services are an indication of the regime’s vulnerability, rather than signs of an imminent crackdown, says Syrian opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid.
“The possibility of accidental damage can be discounted,” he said. “This is something done intentionally by the regime, and reflects growing desperation on account of the recent advances made by rebels, especially in Damascus.”
His assessment appears to be borne out by a Russian analyst with contacts at the Foreign Ministry who has revealed that “people sent by the Russian leadership” in contact with Assad described a broken man, The New York Times reports:
“His mood is that he will be killed anyway,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and the head of an influential policy group, adding that only an “extremely bold” diplomatic proposal could possibly convince Mr. Assad that he could leave power and survive.
“If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people,” Mr. Lukyanov said, speculating that security forces dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect would not let him depart and leave them to face revenge. “If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.”
The U.S. State Department’s former head of policy planning has emerged as “one of the most articulate exponents of intervention,” says a leading commentator.
By failing to intervene, the US is “betraying yet again what America claims to stand for,” Anne-Marie Slaughter* warned recently, calling for “decisive action to save tens of thousands of Syrian lives and possibly tip the balance of the conflict.”
“Alongside the humanitarian arguments, the interventionists also make a more pragmatic case,” writes the FT’s Gideon Rachman:
The rebels are making headway. The eventual fall of the Assad regime seems inevitable. But if the western powers have not provided armed assistance to the eventual victors, the west’s ability to shape post-conflict Syria could be much more limited. As one US official puts it: “We need some skin in the game.”
The interventionists also make geopolitical arguments. The fall of the Assad regime would be a blow to Iran. Some also fear that by hanging back, they are underlining the perception of declining US influence. How can it be, they ask, that tiny Qatar is having more impact on Syria than the world’s sole superpower?………….[B]y holding back, the west is ensuring that it is precisely the jihadists who are gaining power within the coalition of opposition forces fighting in Syria. In a similar vein, the interventionists argue that all the other western nightmares – the fragmentation of the country and the ethnic cleansing of the Christian and Alawite communities – are becoming ever more likely, the longer the conflict drags on.
Administration officials defend the US role in supporting the Syrian opposition, albeit with non-lethal assistance.
“As far as the opposition is concerned, I don’t see any other country that has been more involved than the United States,” says one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The U.S. has supported [the opposition] in their development of a transition plan and political mission statement in Cairo and their efforts in Doha to form the Syrian Opposition Coalition,” the official says of the two conferences this fall. “The Syrian Opposition Coalition is inclusive and broadly representative. A large portion of its membership is made up of folks from within Syria or folks who have recently departed.”
Islamists are also making headway within the broader opposition coalition which recently selected a prime minister to lead a transitional government after talks in Cairo that furthered the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a veteran apparatchik in Assad’s Baath Party before he defected, is backed by Jordan and Gulf states, and is likely to be chosen before or during a gathering in mid-December of the Friends of Syria, according to coalition insiders:
The coalition created an executive body, less than a month after the group was formed with Western and Arab support. The 11-member ‘political assembly’ will be headed by Moaz al-Khatib, the current president of the coalition.
They will include his two vice presidents and the coalition’s secretary general, Qatari-backed businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the new structure. …. Since the coalition was set up in Qatar earlier this month, the Brotherhood has swiftly assembled a de facto majority bloc, according to insiders keeping track of changes in the membership of the coalition.
The US debate over intervention is unlikely to be resolved soon, observers suggest.
“We’re already heading for a failed state, with parts of the country controlled by jihadist militias. What could be worse than that?” demands one interventionist. A US official replies: “Anybody who says that western intervention cannot make things worse in Syria simply lacks imagination.”
*Anne-Marie Slaughter is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.