The intervention waiting game: a window for a new opposition?

March 11, 2012, Sunday/ 13:14:00

As the international community remains hesitant about military intervention and Syria’s largest political opposition group remains divided, the likelihood for a new opposition leadership to develop amidst the country’s strengthening rebels may be growing.

“As the military opposition in Syria grows, a central leadership could emerge from the battlefield,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “If it can begin to coordinate the military resistance effectively, it might gain recognition as the Syrian opposition’s legitimate leadership,” he said in a Wednesday interview with Today’s Zaman.

Landis’ words come as the US, European, Arab and Turkish “Friends of Syria” alliance remains hesitant about military intervention or channeling arms to opposition groups, leaving Syria’s rebels to face Damascus’ military without outside aid for the foreseeable future.

In one episode that illustrated the reluctance of outside powers to intervene in Syria, last week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for “humanitarian aid corridors” to be established inside Syria in order to deliver needed aid to Syria’s most devastated cities. The announcement seemed little more than lip service when days later, Turkish President Abdullah Gül said Turkey would do everything it could to risk a military intervention, telling reporters during his visit to Tunisia that “an [outside] intervention, if it happens, could risk being exploited.”

“Of course, any aid corridor would have to be backed up by military force, and Turkey knows how dangerous this move would be. The prime minister’s words demonstrate the difficult political position everybody is in -- countries are expressing their outrage, but at the same time nobody wants to take the responsibility to intervene,” said Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert for the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM).

Hesitancy about even a “limited” humanitarian intervention is merited by a glance at recent history. As cries rise in the press to intervene before Homs becomes “another Sarajevo,” the very example of Bosnia provides a cautionary tale about a well-meaning humanitarian mission quickly calling in tanks and warplanes. A more recent example is Libya, where a NATO no-fly zone rapidly turned into a “no-drive zone,” as the mission changed from civilian protection to regime change. The possibility of “mission creep” abundantly clear, outside powers will be especially reluctant about intervening in a conflict whose future cannot be predicted.

One of the biggest unknowns in Syria has been whether or not the country’s fragmentary opposition, represented by the umbrella of opposition groups known as the Syrian National Council (SNC) will be able to pull together a coherent political and military opposition with a firmly established leader. So far, the SNC has remained fractured and doubts have grown about the leadership of Burhan Ghalioun, the group’s present leader. The SNC’s relationship with Syria’s armed opposition has also been tenuous, with rebel leaders criticizing the group for failing to provide them with money and arms.

“If Turkey and the international community see that the military and political opposition matures into a more unified, cohesive group, they will be more willing to help,” said Orhan. “That isn’t the situation right now.”

A new leadership on the ground?

With the influence of outside powers and opposition groups at a minimum, the question of opposition leadership may be left to Syria’s rebel forces. According to Landis: “If the conflict is left in the hands of local forces, the leadership question is going to be settled on the battlefield. A successful commander might emerge as the Washington or Atatürk of the resistance, and possibly of a new Syria.”

Presently, the country’s loosely coordinated group of anti-regime militias, known collectively as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), act independently. The present leadership of the FSA, headed by the defected Col. Riad al-Asaad from the Turkish border province of Hatay, has largely been ineffective at coordinating the FSA’s patchwork forces, while the unofficial center of the country’s opposition, the devastated city of Homs, was lost to the rebels this month as security forces pressed resistance hot spots across the country.

But as the brutality of Damascus’ crackdown has grown, defections to the FSA have sharply increased, with senior rebel leaders claiming that a record number of 50 officers -- allegedly among them six brigadier-generals and four colonels -- defected to the ranks of the anti-regime FSA last week. The number of low-level defections is also reportedly rising, with scores of newly posted online videos showing small bands of soldiers proclaiming their own revolutionary brigades.

Rising defections, says Landis, are only one sign that the regime is losing its grip in the country. The economy has been hard hit by sanctions, with the Syrian pound losing 90 percent of its value in recent months. Meanwhile, the use of indiscriminate violence in majority Sunni areas, says Landis, has succeeded in turning much of the country against the minority Alawite regime. “I don't see Homs as a lethal blow. More and more Syrians are coming to the understanding that it has no future. Syrians are hungry and cold,” he stated.

While other analysts have speculated that the opposition will nevertheless remain a mild nuisance to the Syrian military, Landis says Damascus will be gradually less and less able to keep up with a growing insurgency. “Even if there are several different, uncoordinated militia groups, they are going to attack in a classic guerrilla strategy. Insurgent improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers are going to snap the military’s morale pretty quickly and, if it can’t move on the highway because of IEDs, whole chunks of the country will fall out of its control.”

Last week, a Pentagon report stated that IED usage by the opposition has more than doubled since December. If such tactics do win Syria’s militias independent territory, it might allow room for them to meet and coordinate the resistance under a single leadership.

Managing the opposition from abroad?

As questions abound regarding the ambitions of Syria’s militias and Western fears grow about al-Qaeda’s potential influence on the resistance, the anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” alliance may wish to exert its own influence over the opposition through arms transfers, argues Steven Heydemann of the United States Peace Institute.

Heydemann, who told Today’s Zaman that peaceful political opposition groups like the SNC have been sidelined by the military opposition, believes that outside powers would be wise to stem the potential rise of a strictly military leadership by channeling arms to the opposition through the SNC. “The issue here is managing the militarization of the opposition. If we allow armed groups to form their own leadership without any command and control flowing back to civilians, we will see the proliferation a ‘guys with guns’ form of leadership,” Heydemann said. “Instead, the ‘Friends of Syria’ group could use arms to strengthen the SNC’s relationship with the Free Syrian Army. If the SNC could offer militias badly needed arms and supplies, I suspect that the odds are fairly high that they could reach a deal.”

However, the probability of such assistance seems slim in the foreseeable future. “We really don’t know who [the opposition] is that would be armed,” US Secretary of Sate Hillary Clinton told the press last month as she noted al-Qaeda and Hamas’ recent endorsement of the FSA. Growing fears that Damascus’ vast stockpile of chemical and biological weapons could be stolen during the conflict have not helped to ease hesitation about arming the rebels. A Wall Street Journal report in early March suggested that even the Gulf States -- once strongly for funneling arms to the opposition -- have refrained from arms deliveries for fear of extremists’ involvement in Syria.

As outside help remains elusive, the possibility looms that the rebels may ultimately be defeated or wage a bitter and prolonged guerrilla war against the regime. But the conflict may lack a more expedient solution.

“If, for instance, American jets kill Assad, you decapitate the government before the opposition is prepared to rule the country. … There may be less violence and a better outcome if they are allowed to determine this on their own,” said Landis. “The Syrian opposition needs time to develop a leadership and unify. Their ability to do this is going to be decisive in determining whether we will see widespread killing and disorder in the country or not.”

The broader point may be that outside powers now have little control over the course of the conflict and the opposition that fights it. “The US and other ‘Friends of Syria’ nations won't be able to hand the keys of the government to an opposition of their choosing when the conflict is over. They've raised the rhetorical bar against Assad, but there's not much else they can do,” Landis said.

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