“The Sunni-led opposition appears in recent days to have made significant inroads against the government, threatening the Assad family’s dynastic rule of 40 years and its long alliance with Iran,” writes Neil MacFarquhar for the New York Times:
If Mr. Assad falls, that would render Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, isolated as a Shiite Muslim alliance in an ever more sectarian Middle East, no longer enjoying a special street credibility as what Damascus always tried to sell as ‘the beating heart of Arab resistance.
The assassination of prominent Sunni imamMohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is “a great blow to the regime and the remaining Sunni supporters of the president,” says a leading analyst.
“He was the most important Sunni clerical supporter of the Assad regime,” said Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the Syria Comment blog:
Landis said the sheik had been reviled by some Syrian revolutionaries when he came out early in the conflict to denounce the uprising. He was known for having a prodigious memory, was the author of at least 40 books and was ranked 23rd on a list of the most influential 500 Muslims in the world.
But the moderate secular forces within the Syrian opposition are still being outflanked and marginalized by better-funded radical Islamist groups, raising concerns about the nature of a post-Assad transition.
“For the longest time we spoke about the Free Syrian Army, but the FSA has gone from being a something people hoped would become a structure to a concept that with every day is just a shadow of its former self,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The reality is that the economics of warfare have exposed them to corruption and have exposed them and the folks who support them to warlordism,” he told USA Today:
Among Western nations, one of the biggest concerns has been the emergence of radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. classified as a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Islamist groups have grown in large part because of their access to outside funding, much of which comes from donors in the Arabian Gulf according to numerous reports from Arab news media. Most opposition groups have struggled to operate amid shortages of supplies, relying largely on equipment captured from the Assad army.
“This has become a resource-driven conflict,” said Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Most important above all is the ability to provide enough money for salaries for your fighters and have enough weapons.
“It’s increasingly a problem for the opposition to have enough money to provide services for the civilians in the areas they control,” he said. “The biggest driving factor behind the Islamization of the opposition is that they have access to resources.”
The disparity in resources and empowerment of radical Islamist forces, and concern that the West is losing its chance to shape the post-Assad transition are prompting renewed efforts to push the Obama administration to arm more mainstream factions of the Syrian rebels.
House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) this week introduced a new bill calling on the administration to provide lethal assistance, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports.
“The United States has special capabilities that should be used to help facilitate and prepare for a post-Assad transition,” Rogers told The Cable. “As the Assad regime deteriorates and loses control, the chaos created will create a serious humanitarian crisis. This slow-motion nightmare will quickly turn into a fast paced reality for thousands. The transition will undoubtedly be turbulent and painful, which is why we must prepare immediately.”
If the administration’s policy does change it may well be due to a change of heart on the part of Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
His “influence is being put to the test again on the issue of Syria, where the president has so far resisted more than modest American involvement,” the New York Times reports:
After two years of civil war that have left 70,000 people dead, Mr. Rhodes, his friends and colleagues said, is deeply frustrated by a policy that is not working, and has become a strong advocate for more aggressive efforts to support the Syrian opposition.
Rhodes has evidently changed his position after opposing a joint proposal from the State Department, Pentagon and CIA to arm the Syrian opposition, and he is now in a position to influence the president’s decisions.
“He became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure,” said Michael A. McFaul,* the US ambassador to Russia, who worked with Rhodes in the National Security Council.
The protracted conflict is raising the likelihood of a fracturing of the Syrian state, says Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
“As we watch sectarian violence unfold, and the ways in which various Syrian communities are increasingly isolated, there is some degree–and it’s hard to document–of soft partition, where various minorities go back to places where they feel more safe,” she recently told the Council on Foreign Relations.
“One wonders: Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant? This would be a shift of historic implications,” she said.