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Syria: The Tragedy Continues

It is unfortunate—though not surprising—that a meeting in Istanbul this weekend revealed persisting divisions among governments who oppose the regime of President Assad. The U.S., European and Arab states that constitute the group called the Friends of Syria do agree that with more than 70,000 killed and millions of people displaced, the Syrian crisis is, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “horrific.” In recognition of the escalating gravity of the crisis, Kerry announced a doubling of his country’s non-lethal assistance ($250 million in total) to the Syrian opposition. He did not provide specific details about the nature of the assistance package, but it appears that President Obama has signed off on advanced communications equipment and other military equipment that is defensive in nature but could be used in combat to aid Syrian rebels battling regime forces. Kerry also urged international donors to make similar pledges, with the goal of reaching $1 billion in total international support for the opposition.

The package promised by the U.S. is bound to disappoint the Syrian opposition leaders, who arrived at the meeting seeking interventions to neutralize the Assad government’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, and hoping to obtain heavy weapons and high-tech equipment. Still, the move by Washington to expand assistance to the armed rebels reflects a growing international effort to change the military balance on the battlefield in Syria and increase pressure on President Assad to step down. At the summit, the Friends of Syria (including the Arab states now sending weapons to the rebels) also agreed to funnel all future military aid through the Free Syrian Army, which has tried to distance itself from the extremist factions of the Syrian opposition.Kerry also warned that other types of aid would be considered if efforts to end the crisis remain stalled.

The challenge for the international community—a challenge that President Obama will try to address in a series of meetings with Middle East allies in the coming weeks—is to find a way to support the rebels enough to induce the Assad regime to negotiate a controlled transition, but not enough to trigger a chaotic regime collapse that might allow radicals to take over.

At present, however, many Western states are reluctant to ship arms to the fractious Syrian rebels for fear they might end up in the hands of Islamist units like the al-Nusra front (which recently announced an alliance with al-Qaida). This reluctance will likely persist in spite of efforts by the Syrian opposition to assuage Western fears by stating that it condemns “all forms of extremism”. Opposition coalition head Moaz al-Khatib also pledged that all Syrian minorities would be protected in a post-Assad Syria, and called on Assad’s allies to stop propping up a murderous regime.

In Washington, President Obama’s refusal to send weapons to the Syrian opposition has been criticized by senior Republicans, who argue that by failing to act more decisively, the U.S. has effectively left the provision of aid and arms to the rebels to Gulf monarchies led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who may be more interested in advancing their own agendas in the region than promoting Syrian freedom.

Meanwhile, Britain and France are leading efforts to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria, which expires in May. Their argument is that allowing transfers of weapons to the rebels could increase pressure on the Assad regime. Other EU members (including Germany and the Netherlands) remain skeptical about arming the rebels, arguing that such a move would likely lead to further bloodshed.

The dilemma faced by the Western states is real, but further delays also constitute a form of decision—not least because arms from the Persian Gulf have already strengthened the al-Nusra front and other Islamist units, increasing the likelihood that such groups will have a significant role in a post-Assad Syria. This would undermine the prospects for a peaceful, democratic post-Assad Syria, and would also heighten the risk of instability in a region already deeply affected by violence. The challenge for the international community—a challenge that President Obama will try to address in a series of meetings with Middle East allies in the coming weeks—is to find a way to support the rebels enough to induce the Assad regime to negotiate a controlled transition, but not enough to trigger a chaotic regime collapse that might allow radicals to take over.

The situation is further complicated by the complex and often unhelpful roles played by various regional actors. Indeed, as pressure on the Syrian government mounts, President Assad’s allies appear determined to continue supporting him. There are reports that Iran has already provided at least U.S. $12.6 billion in financial support to help the regime stay afloat and pay its followers. Moscow and Teheran are both believed to have renewed their commitment only to allow Bashar al-Assad to go as part of a balanced orderly transition that would retain much of the regime structure and state institutions. Iran’s Hezbollah allies from Lebanon are also apparently active on the ground, fighting rebels around important Shia shrines in Syria. Furthermore, some senior diplomats believe Hezbollah is providing part of the regime’s inner praetorian guard, as some of the Alawite clans have become so unhappy about the level of casualties they have sustained that their members are no longer regarded by the Syrian regime as entirely reliable.

At present there seems to be little reason to hope that Iran and its regional allies will change their stance on Syria. But Secretary Kerry, who is due to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week in Brussels, insists he has not abandoned hope that Russia could end its support for President Assad. Such a shift would indeed make a meaningful difference in the balance of power between the Syrian regime and its opponents—potentially enough to lead to the removal of President Assad from power. It remains to be seen if the U.S. can persuade Moscow (more specifically, President Putin) to reverse its position on Syria.

For the moment, Syria continues to spiral toward what U.N. officials call a humanitarian catastrophe, as both the Syrian opposition and the international community remain divided on key issues, effectively allowing a bloody military stalemate to continue.

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