WASHINGTON—The protest in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime that began in March 2011 and morphed into an armed revolt has entered a new phase.
The rebels have apparently gained the upper hand, especially in northern Syria in Aleppo Province. But the rebels are unable to knock out Assad’s warplanes and helicopters, which continue to assault rebel strongholds—the war is deadlocked with neither side able to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
The number of casualties in Syria’s civil war surpasses 40,000, according to humanitarian organizations, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
Even with the large number of deaths and atrocities, the increasing radicalization of the opposition forces, and the potential for sectarian violence, the United States has steadfastly refused to intervene and arm the rebels with weapons to shoot down Assad’s airplanes and helicopters.
The United States has withheld intervention, providing only, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “humanitarian aid and nonlethal assistance.”
It is understandable that America is war-weary and wants to focus now on domestic issues. Americans do not want to be engaged in yet another Middle East war after Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.
One reason frequently given for U.S. nonintervention is that the Syrian opposition has been disunited. Another is the fear that the arms would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Also, the West has not been able to get the U.N. Security Council to agree to action. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions that threatened Assad with sanctions if he did not stop the regime’s violence.
Regime on the Defensive
In recent weeks, Syrian government forces have been overwhelmed, losing key tactical positions and airbases.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, explained the significant difference between north and south Syria. In the south, the regime’s militias have a strong presence and continue to terrorize. The north is largely controlled by rebel forces, and is out of reach for Assad’s ground troops and artillery. But it is not a safe zone; air attack is the government’s main advantage.
It’s hard for civilian authorities to “set up shop” and coordinate public services in towns, because when an office is doing that it gets bombed, he said. Malinowski was speaking on a panel discussion about U.S. policy options at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 28.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the opposition has obtained a small number of anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles.
Anti-aircraft weapons were seized from captured army bases. “Rebels have captured at least five army and air force installations in the past 10 days, putting pressure on Assad’s forces in Aleppo and Idlib and the eastern oil region of Deir al-Zor,” reported Reuters on Nov. 28.
Given that air attack is the government’s main advantage, an increase in the rebels’ ability to counter these attacks is a significant gain.
Threat of Jihadist Extremists
Elizabeth O’Bagy is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. When she was in Syria in early November, she found there were areas in which the opposition was fully in control, especially in the countryside of northern Syria.
Civilian peace units are filling the vacuum that the government left behind, and have set up logistic units to provide for limited food and medical supplies, O’Bagy said.
I think [al-Qaeda] is a real threat and I think these types of groups could pose the greatest challenge to stabilization in a future Syria.
—Elizabeth O’Bagy, research analyst, Institute for the Study of War
She was surprised to see the level of cooperation between citizens and the rebel groups and saw this as a hopeful sign that after the war is over, Syria will stabilize. However, she saw a disturbing trend in which the rebel groups were taking control of community services, pushing civilian groups to the sidelines.
Activists had given up, she said, in asserting their civilian leadership. They were instead boosting their influence “by grabbing onto the coattails of rebel commanders.”
She also saw units flying the black al-Qaeda flag. “I think this is a real threat and I think these types of groups could pose the greatest challenge to stabilization in a future Syria.” Their influence now “is limited, but growing.”
Malinowski said that the rebels could probably win just by a war of attrition with enough time.
If the West refrains from military intervention, the conflict could be drawn out longer, with troubling consequences. We will likely see many more civilian deaths, opposition powers less receptive to Western influence, and a greater likelihood of sectarian violence, Malinowski said.
Malinowski said that Human Rights Watch’s field people, when speaking to rebel commanders in the north, tell them about the Geneva conventions, avoidance of torture, and protection of prisoners. Some of these commanders have answered, “Why should we listen to your Western ideals when you are not doing anything to help us?”
Malinowski said that one limited military option would be to take out Syria’s air power sufficiently so that areas in the north could be turned into safe zones, similar to Benghazi during the Libyan civil war.
Limited military intervention would afford more civilian protection, allow the civilian opposition to begin to govern, and the opposition would look more favorably toward the West because of the aid rendered. But the risk is that the region does not stabilize, and a sectarian struggle ensues for an indefinite period like what happened in Lebanon—and we would be in the middle of it all.
Malinowski said, “We have not seen the nightmare scenario of large-scale [sectarian] revenge killing attacks—Alawites, in particular, and Christians—by the Sunni dominated opposition—something everyone fears.” Many experts agree that a politically stable post-Assad Syria needs to accommodate the predominate minorities in Syria (Alawites, Christians, and Kurds).
Hope for Unity
The disunity of the opposition may have been resolved after the establishment of the “National Coalition Forces of the Syrian Revolution” announced Nov. 11.
Although the United States wanted to avoid the appearance of setting the agenda, the meeting was convened at the urging of Secretary of State Clinton. Clinton said that the National Syrian Council had failed as the representation of the Syrian opposition. Many of its members had not been in Syria for decades, she said. A body was needed with “representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today.”
If a unified Syrian opposition becomes a reality and can be responsible for the delivery of outside supplies and aid, then this development “would be a game changer for Western policymakers,” write Marwan Muasher and Katherine Wilkens in a blog for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nov. 29.
Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council have already recognized the opposition organization as the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, according to several news sources. The United States has so far held back.
“It would revive the option of providing direct military assistance and reinvigorate international diplomatic efforts to increase pressure on Assad to leave the country,” Muasher and Wilkens write, but caution that it is still too early to tell.
Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway and Omar Hossino were skeptical that the new broader coalition will “overcome the fragmentation reflected in the conflicting positions.” They note that the Free Syrian Army or its brigades failed to even respond officially and no mention is made on their Web pages.
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