Syria’s Opposition Needs More than Arms from the United States
WASHINGTON—Two years have passed since protests in Syria evolved first into an armed rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime, then into a regional confrontation, and finally an international proxy war. While the regime in Damascus — abetted by Tehran, Moscow, and Hezbollah — holds primary responsibility for the destruction of the country, responsibility also extends to supporters of its opponents, who have often acted at cross-purposes and exacerbated the damage. With President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will provide military support to rebels, it is time to redress some of the imbalances that have festered in the absence of U.S. leadership.
The Assad regime is not significantly stronger than the opposition: its authority often does not extend beyond the line of sight of its armed personnel. But the regime has been able to contain the uprising, and has even achieved some recent military gains, because of the nature and quality of the support it has received. Iran’s firm commitment to Assad’s survival has resulted in its backing Damascus financially, supplying it with weapons, training its paramilitary forces in counter-insurgency methods, and employing its ally Hezbollah in direct military interventions. For its part, Hezbollah has had to sacrifice its long-cultivated image as an indigenous Lebanese force. Meanwhile Russia, with fewer strategic stakes in Syria, has successfully leveraged divisions in the transatlantic camp and has expanded its international role in a manner not seen since the end of the Cold War.
With the United States initially opting for a hands-off stand, support for the Syrian rebels was diffuse, split between three fundamentally incompatible approaches: containment and targeted support by Turkey intended to minimize the risks of spillover, a strategic commitment to population protection by many European governments, and an overt attempt to topple the regime by several Gulf Arab monarchies. Such policy differences among the rebels’ supporters led to a lack of coordination on the ground and that has allowed the regime and its backers to regain the initiative over the past weeks.
The Syrian opposition has not asked the international community only for weaponry. It is naturally essential for the opposition to be able to face the regime’s forces, which over the course of the past two years have resorted to increasingly more lethal and indiscriminate means and succeeded in repeatedly pushing the limits of atrocities that the world community is willing to tolerate. But it is even more important to be able to present a coherent alternative to Assad that the Syrian public could embrace. For such an alternative to be credible, the rebel coalition must transcend its own divisions. It also needs to centralize its military command and social and financial support. The emergence of parallel networks and rival commands in the past two years cannot easily be reversed or reset.
Only the United States is in a position to foster a framework of coordination to redress the imbalance of power between regime and opposition. So far, the calls for a negotiated solution have been used by the regime and its backers for their own self-preservation. Only with a coherent stand from the opposition could the regime’s supporters concede to the inevitable. The opposition has to overcome not just its internal divisions, but also a lack of experience, and continuous attempts at subversion by the regime. A more active U.S. engagement, based on a sober assessment of the high cost of inaction, can fundamentally alter the current dynamic, and hasten the departure of the Assad regime.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.