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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