Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: (In Syria) Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

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Perhaps nowhere does this old saying ring as true as in present day Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote about “The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis” and since then things have not gotten any better on the ground. However, it seems that Western powers are finally organizing the support that legitimate factions of the Syrian opposition need to present a real threat to the Assad regime without relying on the help of extremist / terrorist organizations:

“Ministers from 11 countries including the United States, European and regional Sunni Muslim powers, held talks that Washington said should commit participants to direct all aid through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which it hopes can offset the growing power of jihadist rebel forces.”

“The meeting in Qatar brings together ministers of countries that support the anti-Assad rebels – France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States.”

“Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country has been one of the most open backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.

“Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria’s case,” Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.

“We cannot wait due to disagreement among Security Council members over finding a solution to the problem,” he said. He also called on Lebanon’s government to halt intervention by Lebanese factions in the neighboring conflict.”

“‘We won’t get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition,’ Secretary of State Kerry told reporters before the start of Saturday’s talks.”

“After a series of military offensives by Assad’s troops, including the recapture of a strategic border town two weeks ago, President Barack Obama said the United States would increase military support for the rebels

Two Gulf sources told Reuters on Saturday that Saudi Arabia, which has taken a lead role among Arab opponents of Assad, had also accelerated delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels.

‘In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently,’ one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as ‘potentially balance-tipping’ supplies.”

One can only hope that this aid is not too little too late, and many questions emerge from the concerted arming of the Supreme Military Council by Western powers: Does the political will exist among the opposition to fill the power vacuum in a sustainable democratic fashion upon Assad’s removal? Would a new governing body protect the rights of minorities, including Alawites, in a post-conflict Syria? What will happen to the extremist factions the opposition once relied on (specifically al-Nursa)? Will these groups attempt to sabotage the Western backed opposition?

Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear; the Assad regime has lost all credibility and cannot remain in power / be allowed to run in future Syrian elections (having Assad involved in future elections would inherently distort the democratic process and risk reigniting the sectarian divide). It has also become clear that Russia will continue to honor its military contracts with Damascus, and that Assad has no problem turning the Syrian Civil War into a regional conflict if it helps his prospects:

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the meeting of 11 countries in Qatar was a chance to discuss “efforts to increase and coordinate support for the Syrian political and military opposition”. Kerry said Assad had allowed Iranian and Hezbollah fighters “to cross the lines from Lebanon and engage in the fight on the ground”.

“The Assad regime’s response to a legitimate global effort to try to have a peace conference was to in fact militarize the efforts and internationalize (the conflict) and make the region far more dangerous as a consequences,” he said.”

(In the spirit of fairness, the opposition is also guilty of turning the conflict into a regional one by enlisting other countries help–this is a reality of modern warfare especially in Africa and Middle-East where the sectarian / cultural divide–alongside human rights abuses–underpins the majority of conflicts in the region).

“President Michel Suleiman has called on the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement to pull its guerrillas out of Syria, saying any further involvement in its neighbor’s civil war would fuel instability in Lebanon.” While coming from the right place, such a plea will ultimately be in vain–you cannot end a  2+ year old Civil War by shaming the fighters, as both sides believe they are fighting for a just cause.

Can arming the rebels really help lead to a peaceful compromise? Honestly, I do not think so–I think the idea of a peaceful political transition in Syria is a pipe-dream. Even in the face of defeat, I do not believe Assad will step down–I think he will go down with the ship. His family has been in power in Syria for over four decades, Assad knows nothing else and probably believes his power in Syria borders on “divine right“. I believe that Western powers are building up the capacity of the Supreme Military Council to keep Assad’s forces busy, as a covert “Gadaffi-style assassination” is planned. This may be an extreme position to take, but it is the only realistic solution that does not involve more civil war, human suffering and regional instability.

Former U.S. general Wesley Clark is more optimistic that arming the opposition can lead to a political transition:

“Mr. Assad knows that Mr. Obama can be surprisingly resolute, as in his approval of drone strikes and the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden. While the United States begins to supply the rebels, there is a crucial opening for talks. Russia or China could recalculate and help lead Syria to a real peace process, as Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, did in Kosovo in 1999. Iran could emerge from a truce with Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon (and its strong links to Iran) intact.

The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.

The conflict, and the diplomacy needed to end it, are likely to play out simultaneously. All parties will be recalculating their options and risks, so any assurance Mr. Obama gives Americans that he will limit our engagement would reduce the chances of success. This is a nerve-racking time, but the consequences of inaction are too high. Working together, America, Russia and China can halt Syria’s agony and the slide toward wider conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision might be the catalyst to get that done.”

I personally do not see Assad as this calculating figure, but time will tell which version of Assad is closer to the truth.

Of course arming the rebels is no slam-dunk. Even if Assad woke up tomorrow and decided he cannot win this war and would leave (which he will not), arming the rebels inevitably creates the risk that one day our own weapons will be used against us, regardless of how thoughtfully weapons are dispersed.

“As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.”

Even if the arms go directly to the Supreme Military Council, there is no telling where they will end up after this conflict is over.

“For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.”

The U.S. learned a similar lesson when arms and training given to Al-Qaeda in the 1970s to oppose Soviet interests backfired.

It is impossible to know where the weapons will ultimately end up–underpinning the ongoing debate of arming the Syrian opposition. Think of the Western world’s “best case scenario”–a legitimate Syrian opposition assumes power following Assad’s removal and attempts to setup a democratic Syria. There is no telling how long that democracy will last (often first attempts at democracy fail). These weapons could be stockpiled by a pro-Western power, only to be lost in a future military coup. The existence of these weapons poses the possibility that they will fall into enemy hands at some point in the future–especially as the conflict becomes a memory and international attention focuses elsewhere.

Still, steps are being taken to ensure the arms are channeled to legitimate branches of the Syrian opposition. If in the future these weapons fall into enemy hands, that will have to be dealt with in the future. Perhaps newer technology, such as GPS or even a remote “kill-switch”, are possible for bigger-ticket items sent to the opposition. If anybody knows anything about how donors keep tabs on military aid be sure to let us know in the comment section.

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: (In Syria) Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

  1. what are your thoughts on a deliberate calculus by western powers to impose a prolonged conflict, and drain at the resources of the regime’s international allies? is there any data out there exploring the cost to the regime’s backers at the level of aid they are providing, and how that compares to what the west is providing the rebels and how effective are they?

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    • I am not sure what you mean by “a deliberate calculus by western powers to impose a prolonged conflict”. UNSC intervention has been vetoed a number of times by China and Russia, neither of which would be considered a western power.

      The U.S. is rightfully unwilling to act unilaterally / invade Syria–we learned our lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that recent developments have left the U.S. and other Anti-Assad factions ready to arm the Syrian rebels. Until now, the U.S. and Western allies have provided largely “non-lethal aid”– intelligence and humanitarian assistance. As far as i could tell, it seems the US has donated around $500 million in such aid–whatever the number is, it falls well short of the nearly $4 billion that the UN HCR (high commissioner on refugees) estimates will be needed to stabilize the region. Also, humanitarian aid is only a band-aid; it will help mitigate human suffering (a noble cause) but does not address the root cause(s) of the sustained Syrian civil war.

      Assad boasts military supremacy over the rebels, bolstered by the continued honoring of military contracts between Moscow and Damascus (it is truly sickening that “national sovereignty” allows Russia to continue to provide Assad arms while simultaneously blocking UNSC intervention, but this is the world we live in). Iran has also been providing arms, and recently Hezbollah soldiers have swollen Assad’s ranks. There is also evidence that Iraq has allowed the Assad regime to use its airspace, bolstering it’s aerial advantage.

      Anti-Assad M-E states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been providing small arms to the rebels, but nothing that can tip the military imbalance of a Russia-backed-Assad. It appears the U.S. and other Anti-Assad forces are now ready to send more advanced weaponry through the Supreme Military Council in an attempt to devalue Jihadist factions which have taken root within the Syrian opposition.

      While I do not have exact numbers, I can tell you that support for the Rebels is not quantitatively or qualitatively the same as support for Assad. Russia has unabashedly assisted the Assad regime (and is the main actor in perpetuating the Civil War aside from Assad himself). There is no easy solution to the Syrian Civil War, but to say Western Powers have deliberately imposed a prolonged conflict I do not think is correct. If any party is guilty of that, it would be Putin and the Russians.

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