Friends of Syria still hesitantPosted: 03/04/2012
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East
Representatives of more than 80 countries gathered in Istanbul this weekend to demonstrate their support for the Syrian opposition. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above), a former ally of Bashar al-Assad turned vehement critic, delivered a thunderous speech warning Assad to step down; Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states announced they would set up a fund to pay the salaries of the Free Syrian Army, the loose network of rebels; US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled new measures including humanitarian assistance, non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and the establishment of a Syria Accountability Clearinghouse to document human-rights abuses ahead of criminal prosecution of Assad officials. Meanwhile, to bolster its international cachet, the main Syrian opposition umbrella group was offered an opportunity to address delegates and present its new platform.
In the halls of the conference centre, the mood clearly suggested that these steps, taken alone or together, were no game-changers. Among Syrian opposition leaders and activists, there was rather a sense of resignation that Syria’s current travails would last longer than earlier, optimistic assessments had predicted. Assad will not fall only because of peaceful protests or under the weight of his own incompetence or loss of legitimacy. Rather, a complex, sustained effort needs to be mounted, one that requires two things: an efficient, credible opposition and adequate international assistance.
More than a year into an uprising whose death toll approaches 10,000, and after an initial Friends of Syria gathering in Tunis in February, those two conditions do not yet exist. Key countries still agonise over whether and how to get involved in Syria; or as one senior Western official put it ‘a number of countries think there is a silver bullet to solve Syria, as long as someone else fires it’. The human and military costs of any intervention would dwarf those of NATO’s Libya operation; the regional and strategic consequences would be considerably more significant; and the few powers that could mount a direct or indirect operation are undecided.
Saudi Arabia, a hawkish member of the Friends of Syria, wants to arm the rebels; Iraq, which also attended the conference, opposes any such move. Russia didn’t even show up. Turkey, widely expected to lead any intervention should it obtain international cover, looks at these divisions with concern.
Members of the Syrian opposition are themselves divided over militarisation and intervention. The position of the Syrian National Council – the group of opposition activists in exile recognised by the meeting as the ‘legitimate representatives’ of the Syrian people – is that arming the opposition was never the preferred option but that the Syrian people’s right to self-defence is paramount. In reality, some SNC members admit that they resisted militarisation at first because they thought it would play into the hands of the regime. Several opposition members also worry that local militias and barons will emerge and shape tomorrow’s Syria.
As violence increased, however, they had to recognise the pressure of the Syrian street and grew worried they would lose their credibility to local rebel groups. To remain relevant, the SNC has called for the centralised provision of funding and weaponry. Having a fund to pay monthly ‘salaries’ to rebel fighters will test the SNC’s ability to competently administer large sums of money, as well as to give the armed opposition more coherence and make sure it is responsive to political leadership. Some believe such payments will increase defections from the army to the rebels, but it is unlikely that financial incentives will do the trick. Defections from the military are usually the product of peer pressure, morality, complex calculations about one’s interests and safety, but also the sense that the government’s fall is inevitable. Feeding the narrative of Assad’s impending doom (in effect, winning the propaganda war) would do more to encourage defections.
Some Syrian opposition members have unrealistic expectations of what better-armed rebels could achieve. Many Syrians have turned rebels into folk heroes, often with good reason, but the reality is more complicated. Armed with modern weaponry, enough ammunitions and better communication systems, rebels surely could deal setbacks to the Syrian military. However, as the battles of recent months demonstrate, they are unable to hold ground for long. Doing so exposes them to massive counter-attacks by loyalist forces and endangers the lives of often sympathetic civilians stuck in the middle – as happened in the Baba Amr district of Homs city.
Only if they develop and hone guerrilla tactics will rebels be able to ward off Assad’s forces. Still, guerrilla operations can also be counter-productive, namely in alienating civilians and key groups whose loyalty explains Assad’s continued hold on power. This is why an inclusive political strategy and smart signalling remain more important than mere militarisation.
Interestingly, another argument runs through the ranks of the Syrian opposition. While most insist they want no direct foreign intervention but simply weapons to maintain ownership of their revolution, a few opposition activists make the case for immediate foreign intervention. Their thinking is that only a massive air strike can decapitate the regime, spare the country a long fight and prevent the massive, perhaps irreversible arming of all segments of society. A surgical operation would maintain the structures of the state, especially the army.