Running counter to the wishes of the United States and other western nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently announced that they are taking steps to arm the Free Syria Army (FSA). Despite the significance of this step, it is unlikely to shift the civil war in favor of the rebels. The FSA, armed with light weapons, suffered a number of strategic setbacks. Their tactical retreat from the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs paints a picture of a rebel group that lacks the operational capacity to challenge the Assad regime directly. Even with more equipment and firepower supplied by the international community, without a no fly-zone, similar to Libya, the FSA is likely to face more strategic losses.
“The Free Syria Army don’t (sic) have heavy weaponry, and without them, I’m not sure they can survive,” said the FSA’s Mulham Jundi. Still, despite the reservations that the Obama administration has for arming the rebels, the United States is keeping its options open. While meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in the Oval Office last month, Obama reiterated the position of his administration: the international community must continue to send Assad the message that he must step down from power, and the United States, with allied support, must use every available tool to “prevent the slaughter of innocents” in Syria.
“It is time for that regime to move on, and it is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government,” Obama said from the Oval Office. “All of us seeing the terrible pictures coming out of Syria and Homs recently recognize it is absolutely imperative for the international community to rally in sending a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition.”
Friends of Syria
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s longtime foe and one of Syria’s few remaining allies, has signed off on sending small amounts of armaments to the Syrian opposition. Isolating Assad even further, Hamas announced that it was endorsing the Syrian National Council (SNC). Speaking before a thousands gathered at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh said, “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy, and reform.”
Providing the Free Syrian Army with armaments is the most direct method of leveling the “playing field.” The issue at hand is that the shipment of weapons into Syria by a foreign power plays to Assad’s desire to make the conflict openly militaristic, rather than guerilla warfare which is less accommodating for military planning. Moreover, foreign intervention has the potential to not only reinforce Assad’s base, but also to promote the ingrained feeling of “fighting for independence” in military officers that would strengthen their resolve and undermine possible defections.
Timing is everything when intervening in a civil war; making the rebels a legitimate fighting force may remove sympathy from the international community – as they become a legitimate fighting force – and it also justifies the Assad government’s use of force. While attending the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunisia, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, said, in response to a reporter’s question about the wisdom of arming the Free Syrian Army, “I think it’s an excellent idea.” Prince Saud went further when asked by a reporter the reasons behind the Saudi decision to arm the opposition: “Because they have to defend themselves.” Additionally, Kuwait’s parliament recently took a significant step by passing a nonbinding resolution that encouraged its government to follow the Saudi and Qatari lead and arm the Syrian opposition.
The gathering in Tunisia was attended by nearly 70 countries and their diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoğlu, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Shortly after the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning President Assad, the Friends of Syria was formed. The idea of arming the rebels has been floated for many months ever since the situation on the ground has rapidly deteriorated. The dangers in arming the opposition are that there could be unintended consequences beyond simply enabling the Syrian rebels to defend themselves. A contained civil war could lead to wider unrest beyond Syria’s borders.
An understanding that the no-fly zone and subsequent regime change undertaken in Libya several months ago cannot be replicated in Syria drives the hesitation on the part of the United States and the United Kingdom to not become more fully engaged. Simply put, Syria is not Libya and the U.S. and others are cognizant of this reality.
Fighting in Homs
The uprising in Syria is still largely isolated in certain cities and there have not been the widespread military defections that occurred in Libya. While there have been defections within some Syrian military units, Assad has skillfully managed to imbed loyalists within key military units, like those shelling Hom. The civil war in Syria reached a fever pitch recently with the killings of the American journalist, Marie Colvin, and French photographer, Remi Ochlik, during a shelling of the Baba Amr district in Homs. In that same neighborhood, two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, were able to escape only after the French government sent a plane into Syria to rescue them. Shortly after this development, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that his government was closing its embassy in Syria. “We have decided to close our embassy,” President Sarkozy said while in Brussels where he was attending a European Union meeting on developments in Syria.
A document released by the European Union states, “The European Union supports the Syrian opposition in its struggle for freedom, dignity and democracy, recognizes the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians and calls upon all members of the Syrian opposition to unite in its peaceful struggle,” and it also pressed Russia and China to act proactively to end the violence. While meeting in Brussels, the European Union has decided to recognize the Syrian National Council as the, “legitimate representative of Syrians.” Meanwhile, a positive development in Homs is the announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that is has recently begun to evacuate women and children who were trapped in the Baba Amr district. “It’s a first step forward,” ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters. “The priority now is evacuating the seriously wounded or sick.”
While the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia will do little to advance any real progress in ending the months long bloodshed it is hoped that a long-term ceasefire with the Assad regime can be agreed upon. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her opening remarks in Tunisia, “If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands. So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime. We call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately.”
Clinton’s reference of course was directed at China and Russia who have blocked action in the UN Security Council to condemn the Assad regime. Although the international community remains reluctant to engage inside Syria, it always has the option of an indirect approach to resolve the conflict. Efforts need to made to erode the Assad regime’s internal and external support systems. Support exists for defending Assad because the alternative of not knowing what will follow should Assad fall, is of greater concern.
This is not a purely Russian or Chinese concern (as was seen with individuals who decried the Arab spring before embracing it) but is a concept shared by all governments concerned about developing international strategies. Russia and China’s defense of Syria in the region has less to do with natural resources or influence, and more to do with what a regime change would mean in the Near Abroad that might undermine the borders of both nations. Moreover, Russia uses Syria’s ports in order to ship supplies and they do not know if a new government would allow them access.
Despite Russian and Chinese resistance to the UN Security Council’s attempts to pass binding sanctions on the Assad regime twice, the UNSC adopted a unanimous statement calling for the Syrian government to “allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance.” The ongoing Syrian bloodshed has also forced Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to distance himself from the perception that Russia will remain a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime.
Sensing that the ongoing violence is tarnishing Russia’s international image, Vladimir Putin, currently running for the Russian presidency, told the editors of six major foreign newspapers including The Times, Italy’s La Repubblica, Canada’s The Globe and Mail, the French Daily, Le Monde, Germany’s Handelsblatt and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, “In order to solve this problem, you can not stand on one side of an armed conflict or on the side of one of the warring parties, sorry for the tautology. We need to look at the interests of both, get them to sit down, get them to cease fire.” Putin insisted, “We don’t have a special relationship with Syria. We only have interests in seeing the conflict being resolved…It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country.”
Despite international recognition for the Syrian National Council it is still a largely powerless group, based in Istanbul, Turkey. It constitutes roughly 70 percent of Syria’s opposition movement and finding consensus is difficult. While it has been recognized by roughly a half-dozen countries worldwide, the SNC is still largely a group made up of Syrian political exiles. Even so, its acceptance of the decision to arm the Free Syrian Army is a significant development. For months the SNC has been attempting to control the narrative regarding external involvement in Syria by the international community.
“If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves,” an SNC spokesman said recently. As the next weeks and months play out in Syrian cities and towns besieged by Assad’s forces, the reality on the ground is that Assad holds all the cards and it is likely that without international intervention along the lines of Libya, the violence will not abate in the near term.
The problem the Syrian rebels have is that they are not as cohesive as were the Libyan rebels. The depoliticization that has occurred in Syria for years has taken away a solid base of discontent within the population. The rebels need to unify the factions and share resources if they want to succeed. What they lack is a single voice and a legitimate leader who is willing to move the rebels forward, work with the international community, and be motivated to defeat the Assad regime for the right reason and not for personal gain. In a final analysis, Saudi and Qatari possible engagement in the Syrian crises is driven by efforts to undermine the regional symmetry of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which has been the Saudi goal all along.
To this point, Josef Olmert, of the University of South Carolina, argues in the Huffington Post, “At the beginning of the (Syrian) uprising, the Saudis adopted their usual model of a reserved attitude, sitting on the fence and watching where the wind blows. But then a change occurred. The Saudis realized that the uprising has the potential of bringing the regime down, and much more so, with that happening, inflicting a devastating blow to Iran’s policy in the Middle East. Here is the key to understanding Saudi motivation regarding Syria. Yes, instinctive sympathy towards the plight of the oppressed Syrian Sunnis is on display, and with it the built-in disdain towards the Alawites. But then, there is the Saudi regional interest and their view of the neighbor from the other side of the straits of Hormuz, the Islamic Republic of Iran.”