The rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been seeking recognition, money and resources for months. Now that they’ve started making significant progress toward ousting him, they might get some.
What’s spurring the U.S. and its allies into action 21 months after the rebellion began are the radical Islamists associated with al-Qaeda who are flocking to the fight and concern that Assad’s regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons, said three United Nations Security Council officials. The officials, who are tracking developments, asked not to be identified because the Council hasn’t decided how to respond.
As the conflict approaches a turning point, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will join the leaders of other nations and organizations opposed to Assad at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco tomorrow to discuss how to usher him out while averting the kind of chaos that’s engulfed Somalia and other failed states.
“This is shaping up to be just about the best chance so far of trying to mitigate some of the effects on the ground,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “The opposition is not the best it could be by any stretch of the imagination, but it has built momentum.”
The loose-knit anti-Assad alliance of exiles and insiders, secular figures and Sunni Muslim Islamists is united more by a shared hatred of the Assad regime than by a common vision of Syria’s future.
Diplomacy has failed to prevent Syria’s descent into a bloody civil war that’s killed at least 40,000 people, according to opposition estimates. Still, last week’s emergency meeting in Dublin among top diplomats from the U.S., Russia and the United Nations, coupled with the opposition’s recent gains, mean that the gathering in Morocco has the potential to break the gridlock after a series of what Shaikh called largely “useless” meetings.
The U.K. and France -- as they did in Libya -- have paved the way for the U.S. by recognizing the opposition alliance, which was rechristened the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces at a meeting last month in Doha, Qatar.
The U.S. is seeking to draw a bright-line distinction between the opposition alliance -- which it may recognize this week -- and the radical Islamists who have proven to be among the most determined fighters. Burns is representing the U.S. in the place of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who last night canceled her plans to attend because of illness, according to her aide Philippe Reines.
The U.S. and its allies want to bolster the moderates at a time when the fighting has increasingly split Syria along sectarian lines, with a Sunni Muslim-led opposition confronting a government whose top officials, including Assad, are drawn from the minority Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam.
The Syrian violence is creating an environment “that extremists can now try to exploit,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Burns will arrive to Marrakesh as the U.S. adds the al-Nusra Front -- one of the most successful rebel military groups -- to its terrorist list, citing its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq, an extremist Sunni group designated a terrorist organization in 2004.
“All rebels are fighting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and before we designate anybody or accuse anyone of being a terrorist we should tell what they have done to terrorize others,” the Free Syrian Army new military command, Brigadier General Salim Idris, told al-Jazeera television yesterday. “Not everyone wearing a beard is an extremist.”
The al-Nusra decision complicates the Obama administration’s stance on the opposition, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While the U.S. has counterterrorism concerns, Tabler said, most Syrians welcome al-Nusra’s successes.
“It’s being seen as something where the U.S. is more concerned with counter-terrorism issues than the plight of the Syrian people,” Tabler said in an interview. “On Facebook, on blogs, people are very angry.”
As the U.S. tries to isolate al-Nusra, it’s offering backing to the new Syrian opposition to create an alternative to extremist factions, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said in a telephone interview.
“They’re trying to create some momentum and belief to counter this mad rush to Salafism,” Landis said, referring to ultraconservative Sunni interpretation of Islam. “They need to prove Western secular ideas have a place here, so Syrians have another place to throw their lot.”
U.S. support to the opposition to date has been for humanitarian assistance and non-lethal equipment such as communications gear. Qatar has been arming the opposition, citing the three vetoes cast by Russia in the Security Council that have blocked UN action against Assad.
Assad’s military has lost control of barracks, heavy weapons, oil fields and roads. Rebel fighters have control of mainly Sunni Muslim areas stretching from the northeastern outskirts of the capital to the southwest of the city.
“It’s over,” Syrian Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, who defected in July, told Dubai TV on Dec. 9. Tlas, a Sunni Muslim like the overwhelming majority of the Syrian rebels, was a confidant of Assad, who’s a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi gave the Security Council a bleak picture of what may come of Syria in a Nov. 30 briefing: “Institutions withering away, lawlessness spreading, warlordism, banditry, narcotics, arms smuggling, and worst of all, the ugly face of communal and sectarian strife.”
At the Dublin meeting last week, Brahimi told Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he wanted to try again to implement a transition plan envisioned by his predecessor, Kofi Annan. Brahimi has kept a low profile for the last three months.
The worst-case scenario, dubbed “Somalia” by UN diplomats, might emerge if the rebels refuse to negotiate and Assad or his generals unleash chemical weapons -- a move that would drag in outside forces, according to Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
No matter how the war ends, there will be a wave of revenge attacks against Assad’s Alawite minority, and possibly other ethnic and religious groups, Gowan said. Moreover, the rebels often lack discipline and have no strong central control, and they’ve already committed atrocities, although not on the scale of those carried out by pro-Assad forces and militias, he said.
The more surprising scenario would be if Assad were persuaded to step aside.
That possibility hinges on several improbable “ifs,” Shaikh said. First, the Americans and Russians, who’ve been mistrustful of each other for months, would have to reach an understanding about Assad’s future and what would replace him. Second, it’s not clear how much leverage Russia has over a Cold War-era ally and arms customer, he said.
“We don’t have anything yet, and nobody should be, you know, sanguine about whether this is going to be easier, whether this is going to be quick,” Nuland said yesterday.