…and the West may regret its lack of assistance for the opposition, says Michael Ignatieff, a former Canadian politician, now at the University of Toronto:
The agonized questions the international community has been asking for the last 18 months are becoming irrelevant. Do we arm the rebels? They are already armed. Do we provide them with safe havens? They have them already. Can we stop the killing? Not anymore.
As the endgame approaches, the real question is whether, having done so little to secure the rebels’ allegiance, Western governments have any leverage to shape their conduct now that they are winning. The US will soon anoint the Syrian opposition as “the” legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but the militias inside the country who have done the fighting will not surrender power to these ‘outsiders’ without a struggle.
As the International Friends of Syria grouping prepares to meet in Morocco, the big question is….
“Can the Friends of Syria out-buy the extremists? Buying loyalty on the ground, that’s one of the big questions on the table,” said a Western diplomat involved with the Syrian opposition.
The new opposition coalition’s “relative success—Western diplomats say they have started to work with it to engage local councils in the country— has created a genuine momentum for the rebels,” The Wall Street Journal reports:
Underscoring the new Western focus on sidelining extremist rebels, military and intelligence officials from the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, and some Arab countries attended a meeting in Turkey of Syrian rebel fighters last week. The meeting named Salim Idriss, the secular head of the War College in Aleppo, as the chief-of-staff of a new, 30-member rebel council, people who attended the meeting said.
The council is supposed unify rebel ranks and eventually bring it under the civilian authority of a rebel government. It aims to sideline some of the most extremist Islamist groups by excluding them from an organizational structure that will receive foreign funding and arms that are flowing with the coordination of Arab Gulf states.
But leading the fight on key front lines are the rebel groups the West views as most problematic. Sidelining them may be impossible.
“We strongly believe with the coalition there is a possibility to have a real, credible alternative to the regime,” a senior French official said, adding, “We also believe that we, and the Syrians, will not have so many options. This may be the last serious opportunity…to avoid having long, destabilizing dynamics.”
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood today said Washington had made a “very wrong” decision by declaring the jihadist Al-Nusra Front rebel group a terrorist organization. “The designation is very wrong and too hasty. I think it is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the grey atmosphere in the country,” Farouk Tayfour, deputy leader of the group, told Reuters.
The protracted and violent nature of the conflict may have ruled out any prospect of a democratic transition, some analysts fear.
“If nearby Iraq is any guide, outsiders will be swept aside by insiders and the transition from violence to politics will be bloody,” Ignatieff contends:
The challenges facing any post-Assad Syrian leadership will be daunting: securing these weapons, protecting minorities from revenge massacres and preventing the Syrian state from disintegrating altogether into warring sectarian enclaves.
The armed groups who come out on top in the struggle will seek outside help, and each outside actor, whether it be the Qataris, the Saudis, the western governments or the Russians, will struggle for influence over a chaotic situation.
“There is still reason to believe that the worst can be avoided,” Ignatieff asserts:
It’s not unimaginable to see the Russians and Americans co-operating in a joint UN mandated force to secure weapons stockpiles; or to see them jointly promoting a strong UN political mission to channel the factions of Syria towards constitution making and elections. The reason that erstwhile antagonists like Russia and the US might co-operate in a UN mandated transition in Syria is paradoxical: each has lost something by doing nothing in Syria, and all might gain something if they act together to secure an end to bloodshed.