Even as Syria’s rebels advance on Damascus and reorganize their political leadership, the political calculus of the concerned parties remains unchanged.
Samer Araabi, last updated: December 04, 2012
Inter Press Service
As Syria descends further into civil war, the Barack Obama administration has struggled to balance its support for anti-Assad groups with its concerns that the opposition leadership – including the newly-formed umbrella coalition – is controlled by hardline Islamist groups.
Washington’s support for the rebels has become increasingly tenuous as the escalating violence has led to worrying developments from both sides. Noting “increased concern” of potential chemical weapons deployment, President Obama warned recently that the use of WMDs by the Syrian government would be “totally unacceptable”.
Washington has been reluctant to get too directly involved in the conflict, despite appeals from pro-war organisations, Syrian rebels, and other Western states. U.S. officials have enacted rigorous sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the Syrian government, and have furnished the rebels with “non-lethal” material support, but have been unwilling to commit U.S. troops or weapons.
However, NATO officials announced earlier today that Patriot Missiles have been approved for deployment on the Turkish border, bringing the U.S. and its European allies closer to direct conflict with Assad than ever before.
Joshua Landis, associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and proprietor of the widely-read blog Syria Comment, does not expect the NATO arms shipment to lead to a direct confrontation with Syria.
“The Patriot missiles have been in the works for months, when the situation on the ground was quite different,” Landis told IPS. “Things are moving fairly quickly in Syria, and the rebels have made a lot of advances…and events on the ground have overtaken the initial issues.”
Phyllis Bennis, a Mideast expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, largely agrees. “There is a danger, although still small, that the Obama administration will look at the escalating European support for the newly configured – though largely unchanged – rebel alliance, and decide that it is more risky to remain outside,” Bennis told IPS.
Consolidated opposition struggles for control
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella group created after U.S. and its Gulf allies grew disillusioned with the existing opposition organisations, closed out a three-day conference in Cairo in late November. Though the coalition made little progress in determining the make-up of its 11-member executive political assembly, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to wield increasing control in coalition proceedings.
Attendees claim that members of the Brotherhood have overwhelming control in the determination of the final leadership body, as well as the drafting of the organisation’s internal constitution.
Riad Hijab, who served as the Baathist prime minister in Syria until his defection earlier this year, currently serves as the liaison between the coalition and the rebels on the ground. With the fragmentation of the armed movements inside Syria, the coalition will have to find a means to reunite right-wing Islamists in northern Syria, armed tribal elements in the East, and Kurdish militias in the northwest, none of which have expressed a willingness to fall in line under the leadership of the coalition.
Local fighters buck national leadership
Days after the formation of the coalition, rebel groups in Aleppo rejected the organisation’s leadership, denounced the coalition’s “conspiratorial” attempt to seize power, and declared their intent to establish an Islamic state in Syria, rather than the purportedly secular plan of the coalition.
Though Syrian rebels have made striking gains in the past few weeks, launching an offensive in the capital in early December, profiles of opposition figures and Syrian regime arrests show an increasing internationalisation of the opposition. Some rebels have recently acknowledged the growing influence of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which claims to have up to 10,000 fighters in Syria.
It is near-impossible to determine the influence of such groups on the overall opposition, but many are concerned that the protracted conflict has empowered the wrong actors to properly manage a post-Assad transition.
Bennis cautions that, “It appears that the vast majority of the weapons flooding the conflict by outside forces are being used by partisans of the first few battles, far less by those concerned with Syrians themselves.”
Friends of Syria plan for the future
Late last week, delegates from dozens of states gathered in Tokyo for the fifth meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton promised that the U.S. would “do more in the weeks ahead” to aid the Syrian opposition, the Obama administration’s path forward remains unclear.
The United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and most Gulf states have already recognised the new coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said on Thursday that he “strongly, strongly, strongly” supports the efforts of the coalition, but Washington has yet to extend any official recognition to the body, though it has maintained strong networks of support and assistance to the group.
“The U.S. has made clear that it has no intention of stopping its regional allies, primarily Qatar, Turkey and the Saudis, from arming the various factions of the Syrian opposition,” said Bennis.
With Washington’s acquiescence, rebels’ weapons and money from the Gulf States have flowed freely into Syria through Turkey, while the regime appears to have secured arms shipments through Iraq.
According to Landis, much of the problem stems from a lack of long-term planning at the start of the uprising: “Back in 2011, everyone was predicting that Assad was going to fall within a couple of months, and everyone miscalculated badly.”
The escalating warfare – which in late November alone involved aerial bombardments, car-bombings, and a government shut-off of national internet service – demonstrates an unwillingness of either side to consider the possibility for a negotiated outcome.
Though most of these actions evince a growing confidence and organisation among the rebels, the political effect remains largely the same.
“Developments in Syria these last couple of weeks have escalated militarily, with the opposition forces showing greater capacity,” said Bennis. “But politically, little has changed.”
Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web and Inter Press Service.
Brigette Gabriel, a Lebanese-born anti-Islamic activist and founder of the right-wing group ACT! for America, is notorious for making fear-mongering claims about terrorism and Islam. She has called the Islamic faith “not compatible with Western civilization” and insisted that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this year, Gabriel drew scrutiny after she verbally attacked a Muslim American law student, questioning whether the student was an American. More recently, capitalizing on right-wing hysteria over immigration and extremist groups in the Middle East, Gabriel alleged that ISIS members were crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, citing reports from unnamed “members of the Department of Homeland Security.”
As a director of the Project for the New American Century in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gary Schmitt helped spread inaccurate information about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and promote the invasion of Iraq. Schmitt subsequently supported U.S. intervention in Syria, whose own civil war was directly linked to the fallout from Iraq. Schmitt has also been a vocal advocate of NATO expansion, which many observers think has contributed to the current tensions between the West and Russia. Schmitt has also advocated revoking U.S. security guarantees for Western European countries unless they increase their military budgets and adopt a more controversial approach to Russia.
AIPAC’s failed efforts to force U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war and to scuttle U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, along with its increasing alienation from younger Jewish Americans on the Palestinian issue, have led many critics of the lobby to conclude that its formidable influence is slowly eroding. “Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them,” reported The New Yorker in a lengthy profile last August. On the other hand, the group was still able to push through emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, prompting one GOP Senate aide to complain, “The worst part was having to vote for this at a time we are all so upset by the killing in Gaza. It's as if AIPAC knows how angry we are so the whole Senate has to take their test. They will make us cast a totally symbolic vote, just to show who's in charge.”
Despite the origins of the terrorist group ISIS in the fallout of the Iraq War, leading Iraq hawk Bill Kristol has no qualms about potential blowback from sending U.S. troops back to the country. “Intellectuals overthink things,” he said in August. “We got involved in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union and probably helped create, indirectly, some of what came about in Afghanistan and ideas that led to 9/11. That’s life. Maybe we could have been cleverer in all these cases, but often, when you mess around in the real world, you have unintended effects and some of them are bad.” Seeming to forget his previous point, Kristol concluded by wondering, “What’s the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that could be bad there. We could kill a lot of very bad guys.”
The controversial anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller—notorious for her “pro-Israel” ads in subway systems referring to Muslims as “savages”—recently convened a small rally in New York in support of Israel’s latest war on Gaza. Attempting to link Hamas to ISIS and other far-flung terrorist groups, Geller said the rally was aimed in part at stopping “the enemedia”—Geller’s term for most media outlets—“from separating the threat to the Jews from the threat to everybody.” When a writer for the Huffington Post estimated the turnout of the rally at 150—as opposed to the “thousands” claimed by Geller—Geller responded, “Who is the Huffington Post shilling for—the Islamic State? Clearly, they'd like to see my severed head on a pole.”
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