The conflict in Syria is fast becoming a struggle not just to remove a tyrant, but also to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a base in a failed state at the heart of the Middle East.
The U.S. and its allies are responding more actively as events on the ground gather speed. However, the Obama administration remains too cautious after 22 months of fighting and an estimated 50,000 deaths.
Now, as more military bases fall to the opposition and U.S. intelligence suggests that the increasingly desperate regime is deploying Scud missiles against the insurgents, the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, if not of the war itself, may be getting closer. Even Russia, which has been Assad’s stalwart defender, has acknowledged that the opposition may win.
The U.S. has no appetite for becoming embroiled in another Middle Eastern war, yet a much larger American commitment -- one that is seen and felt within Syria -- will be required to shape the outcome.
President Barack Obama’s decision this week to recognize the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is, as he said, a big step. It opens the way for more decisive measures, such as turning the coalition into a government in exile. The recognition followed the U.S.’s public blessing of a unified Supreme Military Council for the opposition, and the listing of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, which is also battling the regime, as a terrorist organization.
Taken together, these moves prepare the way for the U.S. and its allies in Turkey, the Gulf states and Europe to work more directly with the opposition. The thinking here is sound: Without a vehicle for a political solution in Syria once Assad goes, the conflict is doomed to devolve into a Lebanon-style war among its militias -- Islamists, secular Sunnis, Alawites and Kurds -- with or without a no-fly zone or bombing campaign. Under such circumstances, Assad’s army would probably emerge as just the best trained and equipped of the militias vying for power.
Creating a combined military command makes it easier to provide the rebels the U.S. wants to promote with cash to buy weapons and the training to use them. The designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist group makes clear that U.S. support is conditional and that al-Qaeda cannot be a legitimate partner in the struggle. Just months ago, according to a report by the analyst Aron Lund, radical Islamist groups such as al-Nusra were marginal. Now they are the opposition’s frontline troops.
That’s why the Muslim Brotherhood and Free Syrian Army commanders have condemned the listing of al-Nusra. The group is one of the most effective rebel fighting forces and is increasingly popular, because unlike some of the non-Islamist militias, its members don’t steal and loot. The opposition has declared Dec. 14 “We’re all al-Nusra” day.
The steps taken over the past days make sense in Washington, but from the vantage point of the rebels in Syria (and therefore in practice) they make almost none. The U.S. has been too distant from the conflict to have the standing to tell Syrians which political leaders they should acknowledge, which commanders they should follow and which fighters they should reject.
To gain influence in Syria, now and after the war, the U.S. will have to take greater risks. We continue to believe that direct military intervention would be counterproductive. Instead, the moment is ripe to apply new pressure on Russia to change its stance and to support efforts at the United Nations Security Council to end the war. The benefits of backing Assad are disappearing, and Russia may be ready to salvage some sort of post-conflict role in the country.
The U.S. needs to make a commitment of more money, as well as weapons training for chosen units of the opposition, including for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Some rebels already have these, after seizing them from the army or getting them from outside backers.
A government in exile without funding to show results on the ground will be worse than useless. Similarly, the atomized units of the Free Syrian Army are unlikely to obey anyone who doesn’t provide access to money and weapons. If, as is the case now, these resources come only from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Islamists will continue to be the main beneficiaries.
Money is also needed to provide aid and basic services in rebel-held areas. The opposition’s leadership in exile will be relevant to the long-suffering Syrian population only if it can provide these services.
Some of the cash no doubt would be stolen or wasted. Sophisticated weapons bought with U.S. funds and provided with U.S. training could be passed on to anti-American Islamists. These are problems to be dealt with, however, by strengthening the opposition forces inside Syria that the U.S. can work with once the fighting is over.
The U.S. has so far committed $210 million to Syria, adding $14 million this week at the Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco. That sounds like real money, until you consider that Turkey alone has already spent $400 million on aid for the estimated 200,000 Syrian refugees it now hosts. An additional 2.5 million people are displaced within Syria and also in dire need. The Obama administration’s lead-from-behind strategy is designed to protect U.S. interests without a commitment of troops. Even doubling or tripling the current spending looks cheap compared with the $1 trillion spent in Iraq.
Unless there is a more visible engagement from the U.S. and its allies, it’s hard to see how policy makers in Washington and elsewhere can succeed in grafting a government of exiles onto the Syrian forces that are doing the fighting; or force unity onto the Free Syrian Army; or influence how, and with which allies, the opposition fights the war.
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