With the formation of the Syrian national coalition in Doha last weekend, the Syrian conflict seems to have entered a new phase. For the first time since the breakout of the Syrian revolution almost 20 months ago, the Syrian opposition has a representative body that can speak in its name.
Western governments have long been complaining about the inability of Syrian opposition groups to form a credible alternative to President Bashar Al Assad’s brutal dictatorship. They have always cited this problem as the main reason for holding back support for the Syrian revolution. The decision by the Syrian opposition groups to form The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) has withdrawn this pretext. Some have therefore expected the West, particularly the US, which put tremendous pressure to help create the new opposition umbrella, to change its policy.
It does not seem to be the case.
Right after the announcement was made about the creation of the new political body, the Daily Telegraph warned against taking uncalculated decisions in support of the Syrian opposition. “Just because the Syrian opposition is now showing signs of getting its act together doesn’t mean that we should start arming it. Doing that would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Al Assad’s regime, with all the implications that would have for the rest of the region.
“If we supply the rebels with arms, then Moscow and Tehran will intensify their efforts to support the Al Assad regime, and we would soon be dealing with something far more serious than a nasty civil war in Syria,” the Telegraph argued.
Beside warning against the regional and international implications of deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict, complaints have already been made by several European governments about the increasing influence of Islamist and jihadist groups in the Syrian opposition, and thus giving one more reason for not providing real support for the Syrian people to remove their tyrant.
In the US, the Obama administration seems even less enthusiastic about doing more to secure a quick end to the Syrian crisis. In fact, the Obama administration, which has so far been struggling to establish its own doctrine in foreign policy, seems to have got one at the start of its second term and that doctrine does not seem to favour deeper involvement in Syria.
The new doctrine defines the major threats that can precipitate action by the US. The conflict in Syria is not one of them. Besides, the doctrine states that the US does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached. Washington thus expects that the opposition forces in Syria would be able to deal with Al Assad’s regime and is prepared to allow this to play out. It also expects the regional powers to address the Syrian question by their own means.
From the American point of view, the Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris have great interest in circumscribing Iran’s regional influence. They also have the means to determine or shape the outcome in the Syrian conflict. Any intervention would have to be then regional and driven by each participant’s national interests.
But the Turks seem to have realised that their own national interest, while certainly affected by Syria, did not require a major military intervention, which would have been difficult to execute and which would have had an unknown outcome.
The Saudis and Qataris, never prepared to intervene directly, did what they could covertly, using money, arms and religiously motivated fighters to influence events. But no country was prepared to risk too much to shape events in Syria. They were prepared to use indirect power rather than conventional military force. As a result, the conflict remains unresolved.
Under the emerging doctrine, the absence of an overwhelming American interest means that the fate of a country like Syria is in the hands of the Syrian people. Clearly, the US is unwilling to take on the cost and calumny of trying to solve the problem.
The formation of the NCSROF may have been a requirement for further support by the West, but it will indeed not precipitate a major shift in the West’s policies towards Syria.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.