Can Foreign Intervention Forge a New Syrian Leadership?

The U.S. wants to reshape Syria's opposition. But there is no guarantee the plan will work

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Javier Manzano / AFP / Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fighter looks at smoke billowing from a bus that caught on fire after a regime sniper allegedly shot at it in the northern city of Aleppo on Oct. 28, 2012

With the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising looming amid a military stalemate that leaves President Bashar Assad still very much in charge, Washington appears to be trying to take matters in hand. Not that it’s considering any direct military intervention, which has been ruled out by both U.S. presidential candidates, nor even a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s air force from bombing rebel-held territory. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, long the most passionate champion of that idea, conceded last weekend that it can’t be done without U.N. Security Council authorization, the prospects for which remain remote. Instead, the New York Times reports, “the United States indicated on Wednesday that it was undertaking its most aggressive attempt yet to reshape the Syrian opposition.” Creating a single, inclusive and pro-Western political address for what has until now been a divided rebellion with growing jihadist influence would be a precondition for the U.S. enabling heavier weapons to reach rebel fighters, although a senior Administration official told the Washington Post that no such decision is currently under consideration, given the growing danger of extremism.

Renewed calls to arm the rebels, particularly through the provision of antitank and antiaircraft missiles, arise from the military stalemate, in which the regime is able to compensate for its numerical disadvantages on the ground by concentrating overwhelming firepower to prevent the rebels holding ground in major urban areas. “Regime forces are undoubtedly overstretched, under-resourced, battered and undermined by defections and desertions,” writes Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But they have adapted their military strategy accordingly, abandoning then pummeling areas where they have no hope of beating the population into loving or fearing the Assads again. The air force has been useful in that regard, terrorising civilians and going after large gatherings of rebels.”

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The regime’s advantages in weaponry are considerably enhanced by the disarray in command-and-control on the rebel side. “Only half of the armed groups operate under even the nominal leadership of the Free Syrian Army,” Hokayem continues. “Tensions among civilian combatants, defectors and foreign fighters are increasing, and competition over strategy, territory, tactics, resources and ideology is intensifying.” Still, Hokayem advocates providing weapons, not because that would necessarily hasten the fall of the regime, but because he believes it would provide Western powers with the leverage to discipline, restrain and organize the insurgency through creating a dependency on Western arms. Others, however, fear that injecting heavier weaponry onto the rebel side could exacerbate the mayhem and is an unlikely strategy for mitigating the danger of sectarian violence and regional war.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over arming the rebels — an option for which Governor Mitt Romney has expressed more support than has the incumbent Administration — it’s unlikely to happen absent a single chain of rebel military command under the authority of a political leadership deemed acceptable by Washington. And it’s on creating such a leadership that Washington is currently focused. “The Obama Administration has spent the past several months in secret diplomatic negotiations aimed at building a new Syrian opposition leadership structure that it hopes can win the support of minority groups still backing President Bashar al-Assad,” the Washington Post reported Thursday. “The strategy, to be unveiled at a Syrian opposition meeting next week in Qatar, amounts to a last-ditch effort to prevent extremists from gaining the upper hand within the opposition and to stop the Syrian crisis from boiling over into the greater Middle East.”

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The plan would reportedly create a new political leadership structure for the Syrian opposition, which would fold-in but supersede the largely exile-based Syrian National Council on which Western hopes had previously rested, despite it failing to overcome paralytic political infighting and marginal traction on the ground. The new structure would give far greater weight to the local revolutionary councils throughout Syria, while providing nonlethal support to enable rebel governance of a de facto liberated zone along the Turkish border. Protecting such a zone with purely nonlethal aid might be far-fetched, however, since the regime has used its air power to terrorize civilians in rebel-held areas and prevent the establishment of normality under opposition control.

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It’s not clear to what extent the idea of a new rebel leadership established under U.S. tutelage would take hold, given the multiple constituencies that would challenge the idea, ranging from jihadist fighting groups to at least some of the unarmed secular opposition groups on the ground in Syria. And to the extent that it displaces the Syrian National Council, that group — which has been dominated by the exiled Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and continues to enjoy support from Turkey and Qatar — is also likely to push back. “There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said while traveling in the Balkans. “And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.”

She also stressed that creating a more representative leadership required bringing in more of those “in the front lines fighting and dying,” i.e., not relying on longtime exiles in the Syrian National Council. The challenge is made more complex by the fact that it’s precisely because they’re in the front lines fighting and dying — and also killing — that the extremists to which Clinton refers have grown so influential in a rebellion whose center of gravity has shifted from its roots among protest organizers to autonomous insurgent commanders. The ongoing rebel effort to seize the second city, Aleppo, is instructive: constant reports from the besieged city suggest the rebel military offensive lacks the support even of the city’s anti-Assad opposition political forces. This week’s clashes in the city between Free Syrian Army insurgents and Kurdish militia fighting for their own autonomy from Arab Syria, mistrustful of both the regime and the rebels, highlight the growing challenge in simply holding Syria together.

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Secretary Clinton’s concerns about minority groups is well founded because the regime’s ability to fight on is based in no small part on the belief among its core-constituency Alawites, as well as among Christians and Kurds, that the rebellion threatens their well-being. But after almost two years of increasingly sectarian civil war, the communal schisms may be too deeply rooted to be remedied simply by adding a few minority representatives to an opposition leadership council.

And, of course, the rebel military forces haven’t been invited to the Qatar meeting. Still, all of the anti-Assad forces in the field know they can’t get anywhere without one another’s cooperation, and that together with the recognition that the battle to get rid of Assad could continue well beyond the two-year mark it’ll reach next February, creates a basis for consensus on the need for new opposition political structures. But whether the leadership that emerges in Syria’s rebellion accords with U.S. preferences remains to be seen.

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