As dramatic and ferocious as it may be, the battle for control of Aleppo is unlikely to settle Syria’s civil war. Rebel fighters may or may not inflict a heavy toll on loyalist forces, but they’re unlikely to prevail over the regime’s vastly superior weaponry and numbers. Nor is any Western cavalry on the horizon — U.S. officials may have warned of a potential “massacre” in Aleppo, the same language they used ahead of the Libya intervention, but they also know that a substantial proportion of the city’s residents have not welcomed the armed rebels in their midst. Aleppo is hard to paint as another Benghazi, the besieged cradle of Libya’s rebellion whose fate prompted the NATO air campaign that eventually toppled Colonel Gaddafi. The Syrian regime is far stronger, its opponents are more divided, and the international players have little appetite for intervention in a far more complex and dangerous conflict.
U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal once used the term ‘government in a box’ to describe his ill-fated plan to deliver instant governance when his forces drove the Taliban out of the town of Marjah. Syria’s transition may be just, if not more, as complicated. It appears increasingly far-fetched to imagine that political authority could simply pass from Assad to the rebellion without triggering potentially catastrophic fallout. The range of political options now being considered by Western and Arab opponents of Assad suggests a growing awareness that regardless of Assad’s personal fate, stopping Syria’s civil war may require some form of political compromise.
The reported warning from the White House to the rebels, last weekend, to avoid repeating the mistakes made by the U.S. in 2003 when it disbanded Iraq’s armed forces was somewhat optimistic: For the rebels to be in a position to repeat that mistake, they’d have to have first assembled the same overwhelming military superiority that the U.S. had over Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq — not exactly an imminent prospect. Still, Western backers of the rebellion are clearly urging opposition groups to consider what it will take to stabilize a post-Assad Syria, and to adjust their demands and expectations accordingly. Defense Secretrary Leon Panetta said Monday that the priority in Syria was to ensure stability after Assad’s fall, and that “the best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.”
Some of the key players in the ‘Friends of Syria’ bloc, that brings together NATO nations and Arab states supporting the rebellion, certainly appear to be adjusting their own plans, based on a recognition of the limitations of both the Syrian National Council (SNC), a largely exile-based political umbrella body they hoped to cultivate as a legitimate alternative government to Assad, and also of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), under whose rubric many of the rebel fighting groups operate, albeit very loosely. The SNC remains riven by internal splits and apparently incapable of establishing political authority on the ground over either local protest organizations or over the FSA — which has faced splits of its own. Neither group, right now, appears to operate with sufficiently broad legitimacy in Syrian society to enable it to contain the centrifugal forces that could be unleashed by Assad’s fall.
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That may be why one ‘government in a box’ option reportedly under consideration among various Friends of Syria players is a military junta along the lines of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — a body that would keep intact the armed forces and avoid a bloody Balkan-style breakup of the Syrian state, while overseeing a political transition to a more inclusive government. Such a plan, putting the security forces at the forefront of any transition, is also seen as more palatable to many in the regime’s key supporters at home, and also to some of its key foreign backers, first and foremost Russia. And one leader apparently being groomed to head up such an entity, if it should emerge, is Gen. Manaf Tlass, until recently one of the most senior Sunni figures in the Assad regime and former confidant of President Bashar al-Assad, whose defection to France was announced on July 6.
Citing Western officials, the Guardian last week reported that Tlass has garnered the backing of Saudi Arabia and France and that his experience in the Syrian military make him an alternative acceptable to Russia. The Wall Street Journal also reported last week that “the Obama administration and officials of some Arab and Western nations are discussing ways to place [Tlass] at the center of a political transition” in Syria. The paper’s sources suggested that the surge of interest in Tlass reflects skepticism in Western capitals that the exiled opposition are up to the challenges of governing in the aftermath of Assad’s fall.
Tlass has played his cards close since his defection, and appears to have sought no role in the formal opposition structures such as the SNC or FSA. But last week, he made a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia, where he was feted by the Kingdom’s political and intelligence leadership (which is playing a major role in funding and arming the Syrian rebels) and, at the same time, undertaking the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca. Analysts saw the latter as an attempt by the urbane, secularist former insider to burnish his credentials with the Islamist-inclined Sunni core of the rebellion. Tlass then flew on to Turkey, another key backer of the rebellion, for talks with that nation’s intelligence chiefs and foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu over plans for a post-Assad administration.
In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Tlass expounded on the need for a political solution based on the current institutions of state, and to keep the security forces intact to prevent civil war. “What is important is that we find a way to reach a solution to protect the homeland from division and sectarian fighting,” he argued, urging that the transition include “many people in the regime whose hands are not stained in blood and who were not consulted [on Assad’s crackdown], and they should not be marginalized.” Rather, he told his interviewer, “we must preserve our national institutions and the Syrian state. We will only refuse to deal with those who were part of the management of the crisis.” Tlass made clear that this meant the inclusion of a small coterie of hawks that surround President Assad.
“It’s too early to say if Tlass will stand the strain and pick up traction or just fade away,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Journal. “The next week or two will reveal his credentials and attractiveness to the various components internally and internationally.” Opposition groups are largely unimpressed, seeing the defector as a longtime insider of the regime with no democratic credentials. Indeed, many opposition activists on the ground are innately skeptical of the political machinations of Western and Arab governments, who are, after all, motivated by their own regional power agendas. But under the current balance of forces, it’s far from clear the various rebel groups will have the last word in shaping a post-Assad political environment.
The rebels, meanwhile, are divided in both the political and military spheres, with reports of a growing presence of foreign jihadist militants causing increasing discomfort among Western governments. And that’s a phenomenon that’s likely to grow as the war drags on — reports from the ground suggest that it’s precisely the skills, discipline and commitment brought to the fight by the jihadists that make them indispensable to rebel commanders on the ground, and attractive to some of the ideologically uncommitted youth who’ve taken up arms
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Assad remains in power after 18 months of bloodletting because large sections of Syrian society have declined to throw in their lot with the rebels. University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis believes that some of these constituencies caught between the rebels and the regime may come to have a decisive influence over events: “Much of Syria’s middle and upper classes have not been heard from yet,” writes Landis. And when Assad goes, “many of them may find someone like Manaf Tlass appealing – perhaps not someone so close to the regime, but someone who had a hand in the regime, is secular, has money, has experience with the army, etc…” he said. “When the regime falls and they do find their voice, they are likely to be suspicious of the many militia commanders now holding sway. They will look to people who had some connection to the regime and whom they will trust not to be vengeful against them or against the wealth of the monied classes.”
The outcome in Syria will be determined by the balance of power — but that balance is more complex than the simple people vs. regime or even crude sectarian calculation allows. Just because the idea of a junta of the type reportedly under discussion last week junta doesn’t appeal to the rebels or the present regime, doesn’t mean it’s a non-starter. As the guns of Aleppo blaze on, neither of the principal protagonists seems to be rushing toward a political solution.