The Anti-Assad Offensive: Can the West Oust Syria’s Strongman?

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Ed Giles / Getty Images

A fighter from the Shohada al-Haq brigade of the Free Syrian Army prepares for a raid to clear a new apartment building in the no-man's-land area near the Salahudeen district of Aleppo, Nov. 3, 2012

Scarcely hours after his re-election, President Obama was under pressure from U.S. allies to take stronger action on Syria. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters on Nov. 7, during a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, that “one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius added to the clamor on Nov. 8, telling reporters he planned to call for more urgency from Washington on Syria at a planned meeting later in the day with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promising that the message would be reinforced by “swift and necessary” talks between President François Hollande and Obama. On Syria, said Fabius, “The Americans have recently been in the background a little.”

Some hope that the Obama Administration may be less risk-averse in the wake of the election and possibly more inclined to arm Syria’s rebels. Until now, the U.S. has offered only nonlethal support to Syria’s disparate rebel groups, largely for fear that weapons could end up in the hands of elements — which make up a substantial part of the Syrian insurgency — hostile to U.S. interests and allies in the region. While such concerns remain, “there is now less risk aversion,” believes Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London. “Before, if the weapons got into the wrong hands in October and turned on the Turkish forces, for example, all those things would have been hugely embarrassing for the Administration at a moment when they wanted to avoid all risk,” he says. “It is less important that Obama has won than that someone has won.”

There are still anxieties about arms being turned against U.S. interests, including possibly in future attacks against Israel. And yet the anti-Assad offensive is intensifying. Cameron seemed to move ahead of his more cautious U.S. allies this week, announcing on Nov. 7 that Britain would open direct ties with Syrian rebel leaders, which was interpreted by many as opening the way to more military support for the insurgency.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion, Bloody Civil War)

A Libya-style Western military intervention remains highly unlikely, partly because Russia and China would deny such an operation legal authority in the U.N. Security Council and partly out of fear of being drawn into an open-ended civil war that has already spilled over Syria’s borders into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Lesser forms of intervention, such as training and equipping rebel groups or enforcing a no-fly zone over territory they control, would still require substantial military commitment from Western forces. “The British don’t want to do this unilaterally, without trying to get the Americans on board,” says Salman Shaikh, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. “Cameron will try to get Obama to step up.”

But whether Cameron, Hollande or anyone else can persuade Obama to commit U.S. assets to a more direct role in the Syrian conflict remains to be seen. The British Prime Minister and his fellow Western leaders would prefer that the problem simply go away, in the form of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s accepting defeat and choosing exile. Midway through his Middle East trip, Cameron told al-Arabiya television in Abu Dhabi that leaders were desperate for “anything, anything, to get that man out of the country,” adding, “I am certainly not offering him an exit plan to Britain, but if he wants to leave he could leave. That could be arranged.”

Not that easily, of course, given that even Cameron later added that he supports the call for Assad to face charges at the International Criminal Court for his role in unleashing the violence that has claimed upward of 20,000 Syrian lives over the past 18 months. The prospect of an ICC indictment and life in prison would remove any incentive for Assad to accept defeat. Says Joshi: “If you don’t drop the idea of the ICC indictment, why would he ever leave?”

Not that Assad sees any reason to pack his bags, having retained the support of his key backers, Russia and Iran, and effectively fighting the rebellion to a military stalemate — albeit one that leaves him in control of much less of Syria than he was two years ago. The Syrian strongman has already rejected two proposals, one from Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki last April and the second from the Arab League in July, for safe passage abroad. Asked during a Russia Today television interview on Thursday whether he might leave the country, Assad fumed, “I am Syrian. I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”

Of course, Assad’s calculations might change if the rebels acquired the weapons, particularly surface-to-air missiles, that might neutralize some of the regime’s military advantages. That, together with the efforts of Obama and others, could influence Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to persuade his Syrian client to step down. But that may be some time in coming. Until then, the killing is likely to continue.