Might the western powers and their allies be making a mistake in Syria? Several of them — Britain and France, together with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — have recognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces formed in Doha on November 11. They will now come under intense pressure to provide the rebels with heavier and more sophisticated ‘defensive’ arms, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.
This is what is now being discussed in several capitals, but will better weapons be enough to bring down President Bashar AlAssad? Most military experts think it doubtful. The rebels have made significant advances, but are still far from landing a decisive blow.
Worried about the rise of Islamist fighting groups — much like those it is fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — the US has so far hesitated to recognise the new coalition, although it played a major role in its formation. This is an illustration of the dilemmas facing western powers.
If the rebels get better weapons as seems likely, Al Assad’s regime is bound to respond by throwing its own more advanced weapons into the battle, such as MIG-29s, heavy battle tanks, missiles and long-range artillery, which have so far been kept in reserve.
The military escalation will be a recipe for more bloodshed rather than the beginning of dialogue.
The opposition wants more than weapons. What it really hopes for is a western military intervention on the Libyan model. But such an intervention does not seem probable — the Russians will veto any UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. In any event, no western power wants to be drawn into the Syrian conflict. All are happy to hide behind the Russian veto.
By arming the rebels, the western powers and their allies are in danger of undercutting the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy, to halt the bloodshed and prepare the ground for a negotiation — in much the same way as they undercut the efforts of his predecessor Kofi Annan.
To pay lip-service to the goal of a ceasefire and a negotiated transition of power while arming the rebels is to guarantee that fighting will continue.
Arab diplomatic sources say that Brahimi has drafted a new roadmap for peace, which he is expected to present to the UN Security Council and to regional powers in the coming days. His plan is said to call for the formation of a national unity government of both opposition figures and regime loyalists, with the task of conducting free and fair elections under international supervision.
According to these sources, Brahimi has left open the contentious issue of the fate of Al Assad. The opposition refuses to consider talks so long as Al Assad remains in power, while regime supporters, both domestic and foreign, believe that he must be part of the transition process. Brahimi, like Annan, seems to think that the process has to be ‘Syria-led’ — which implies that Al Assad has to be involved.
But Brahimi’s task is well-nigh impossible. Neither the regime nor the opposition shows any sign of being ready for a deal. Most opposition factions — and certainly the fighting groups — declare that they will continue the struggle until Al Assad is toppled. He, in turn, evidently hopes to crush them.
In a word, both sides believe the time is not ripe for a political settlement. Each believes the military balance must first be changed in its favour before a negotiation can take place. In any event, so much blood has already been spilled, and so much hate generated, that there is at present no room for rational thinking or mood for compromise
The new umbrella coalition is, however, a distinct improvement on the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), which it has incorporated and replaced. It is more representative of the various opposition factions. Its president, Muath Al Khatib, has much in his favour: he is a Damascene (as is the industrialist Riad Saif, one of his two vice-presidents); he is a moderate Muslim, acceptable to many Christians and to part at least of the silent majority.
Some regime loyalists may even be prepared to fall in behind Al Khatib. Above all, he has lived and worked in Syria all his life, and knows the different communities which make up the country’s mosaic. He left his native country only recently — unlike some SNC members who have lived in exile for decades. But Al Khatib is no politician. He is an intellectual and an academic. It may well be that expectations of what he can achieve have been pitched too high.
The coalition he heads has many failings. It does not represent Syria’s many minorities. No Kurdish group has agreed to join. Needless to say, the Alawites are absent. Above all, this group of civilian exiles will find it difficult to impose its will on fighters inside the country, who dismiss it as a foreign creation. Jihadi groups, in particular — who are steadily gaining in strength and are linked in some cases to Al Qaida — detest the civilian opposition abroad. They have no time for anyone who is not a jihadi. Their aim is to create an Islamic state by force of arms. One already exists in embryo in that part of Aleppo which the rebels control.
Al Khatib must also wrestle with the fact that the countries which have chosen to recognise his coalition are themselves far from united. Each country seems to be backing a different group with a different agenda. Syria has become a battlefield for foreign powers
It is all too easy to predict the likely outcome of current western policy. It seems set to lead to military escalation; to a higher death toll on both sides; to more material damage; to greater sectarian divisions and hates, with each community taking to arms to protect itself. Even more serious is the fact that a military escalation will fragment the country even more than at present. Each side will fight to defend areas under its control. The struggle over the coming months is likely to be bloody.
A major casualty of the conflict is the loss of Syria’s regional role. Syria has played a pivotal role in Arab politics since the Second World War, in. association at different times with Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, in recent times, Turkey. It used to be said that there can be no war without Syria and no peace without it. It has been the kingpin of resistance to Israel ever since the creation of the Jewish state — a role it has continued to play in recent decades as part of the so-called ‘resistance axis’ in association with Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah. With Syria’s collapse, a new regional configuration of power is likely to emerge in which Islamists of various stripes seem destined to play a bigger role.
As a prominent Arab exclaimed to me this week, ‘Syria, as we know it, is finished!’
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs