Rebels Without a Leader Show Limit to U.S. Role in Syria War

Even Mustapha al-Sheikh, among the first senior officers to defect from the Syrian army, says the rebels he joined are too divided to gain much from a possible Western military attack against President Bashar al-Assad.

“The strength of the regime comes from the weakness of the opposition,” al-Sheikh, who was a brigadier-general in Assad’s army, said in a phone interview yesterday from an undisclosed location in Syria.

Because of those divisions, as the U.S. and its allies consider military action against Assad, they are struggling to identify potential successors to the Syrian leader should his regime collapse. More than two years into the conflict, hundreds of militias fighting Assad aren’t unified under a national command and don’t report to opposition politicians in exile, who have been cultivated by the West. Some of them are radical Islamist groups allied with al-Qaeda.

That has constrained U.S. efforts to provide support for the rebels. It’s also likely to limit the scope of any U.S.-led strikes to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, according to al-Sheikh and defense analysts in Europe and the Middle East.

“We don’t have an opposition that I think we should be putting in power,” said Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, speaking by phone from London. “The opposition is dominated by al-Qaeda and other extremists, so it’s going to be bad, possibly worse than Assad himself.”

‘Face-Saving Move’

Al-Sheikh said he expects any military strikes now to be no more than a “face-saving move for Western countries,” because “a sudden change of regime will create a political vacuum that both the West and Arabs fear.” U.S. and British officials have said the possible attack won’t aim to topple the government.

The threat of military action comes after the U.S., along with the British and French governments, accused Assad of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that some opposition groups say killed 1,300 people. President Barack Obama had previously said that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” for the U.S. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied the allegations. A team of United Nations experts are in Syria to investigate the claims.

The prospect of international involvement in the Syrian civil war has helped send oil prices to the highest level in two years, while emerging-market currencies such as the Turkish lira and the Indian rupee weakened. Dubai’s benchmark stock index slumped 1.3 percent, taking its three-day loss to 8.4 percent at the close today in the emirate.

‘Doesn’t Exist’

The Obama administration and regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sought to unify the anti-Assad groups, holding “Friends of Syria” conferences to rally political, military and financial support.

Their efforts included consolidating the political opposition in exile into one body, the Syrian National Coalition. Within less than a year of its creation in Qatar, though, the council has had two leaders, while an interim prime minister who was supposed to lead a cabinet in exile resigned four months after taking the job.

“For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist,” said James Fallon, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. “The U.S. knows who it wants to back. It knows what it wants the Syrian opposition to look like. But those groups are only part of a larger, more disperse grouping of opposition.”

‘Impossible Task’

Assad’s crackdown on initially peaceful protests has gradually turned the Syrian conflict into a war involving more than 1,000 rebel groups, according to an estimate from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in July. Al-Sheikh, the rebel commander, said that number was accurate.

“Uniting the different groups is almost an impossible task,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the London-based founder of Cornerstone Global Associates. “It’s going to take many months to shore up one particular part of the opposition and put it in a leadership position and make others rally around it.”

The fighters include Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist organization classified as terrorists by the U.S. which has been accused of beheading regime loyalists, and other similar groups. The influence of such militants within the rebel movement rules out a sustained military campaign by outside forces to topple Assad, said Firas Abi Ali, a London-based Middle East analyst at research firm IHS.

‘Real Power’

“Nobody wants the Islamists to end up taking power in Syria, and they are the ones in the best position at the moment,” he said.

Louay Almokdad, a logistical coordinator for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said Western strikes can neutralize Assad’s artillery and reduce “his ability to use planes and rockets.”

“We believe that stopping Bashar’s artillery capabilities, especially after he’s used hundreds of artillery and unconventional weapons, is very positive for the Free Syrian Army,” he said by phone yesterday.

Al-Sheikh, who counts himself a member of the FSA, is less optimistic about its capabilities. The West’s delay in providing enough support for the rebels, he said, has turned the group into “an empty address without any real substance,” while leaving Islamists as “the real power on the ground.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.