As the Syrian conflict has descended into ever greater brutality the West has continued to reject arming the rebels, fearful that weapons might end up in the hands of radicals and only serve to fan the flames of destructive conflict. However the tide may slowly be turning given the regime’s enduring resilience and fears that the longer the conflict goes on the more radical and destructive the end result will be.
Given the constraints imposed by a US election the Obama administration has long been fearful of the political consequences of embroiling the country in another Middle Eastern conflict. That restraint has now been lifted and some US officials have reportedly told elements of the opposition that, if better organised and able to exert some political control over armed groupings, they could receive weapons. This is a view that the French President is reported to share. It is no surprise therefore to see strong US and European support for the opposition conference now being held in Doha. The gathering, which signals a long overdue weakening of the West’s reliance on the discredited and ineffective Syrian National Council (SNC) in favour of the internal leaders of the uprising, marks an attempt to finally push the opposition to get their act together. Diplomats hint that the establishment of a credible and united opposition body could lead towards weapons flows. The UK today announced that it would begin talking to armed opposition groups, having hitherto restricted contact to political forces.
The ball now lies in the opposition’s court. It is clear that so long as it remains disunited, fractured and unable to articulate a strategic vision that draws in both Western support and that of the many Syrians still wary of the opposition, Western intervention will remain off the table. And without Western consent armed support from the Gulf will also remain limited. US pressure on the Gulf States has hitherto restricted heavy arms flows and given the Gulf’s need to maintain US support in light of the threat posed by Iran, this dynamic is unlikely to change without a green light from Washington. A lot therefore hangs on what the opposition manages to achieve in Doha and its immediate aftermath. To be sure, continued divisions mean we are unlikely to see immediate results and the process, like so many attempts before it, could well collapse in a sea of recrimination.
However, a widening desire among Syrians to sideline the SNC and give greater focus to an inclusive body dominated by the internal voices that have real legitimacy points to some positive seeds that could bear fruit over time (though the practical logistics of identifying and drawing in those internal voices remain very complicated). There is also growing consensus among much of the opposition of the need to at least present a facade of unity if they are ever to secure substantial external support (though the SNC’s attempts to derail the new initiative suggests that it does not yet understand this). Given the West’s lack of leverage resulting from their weak financial and armed support, the key element determining the trajectory of the initiative is likely to be the stance of opposition backers from the Gulf and Turkey. The critical financial and armed support they provide may give them the ability to pressure and cajole the myriad number of groups into a semblance of organised unity.
However, even if there is ultimate success in rallying the opposition into some form of coherent body the challenges of providing armed support and using that to effective ends remain enormous. Notwithstanding the fact that the deep political and communal divisions make enduring coherence hard to envisage, the armed groups on the ground increasingly dismiss any attempt to impose political control over them and extremist groups are all the time growing in prominence.
Meanwhile, it remains uncertain how much of a difference increased arms flows to the rebels will actually make. Certainly the ability to bring down regime fighter jets would stop horrific air bombardments and allow the opposition to secure control of the north of the country, and perhaps Aleppo. But the regime maintains substantial ground power, which would likely be bolstered by the regime’s foreign backers given any Western decision to arm the rebels. With the regime’s grip on the cities of Damascus, Homs and Hama relatively firm the battle ahead will be long and bloody, even with increased armed support, leaving the door open to widening extremism. The rebels will certainly struggle to push the regime from power militarily. A view now gaining ground, however, is that a better armed opposition represents the only way of forcing the regime to the negotiating table and forging the political settlement that must eventually come.
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