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The Militarization of the Syrian Uprising

As pressure mounts to arm rebels in Syria, there is need for a sober assessment of the costs and consequences of the increasing militarization of the conflict there. If history is any guide, a foreign-backed armed rebellion will likely not produce the kind of victory—or engender the kind of support—that the anti-Assad fighters will require to usher in a new Syria. Additionally, there is the very real possibility that many of the rebels—as we’ve seen in Libya—will turn out to be little better than the regime they seek to replace.

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With the Syrian cease-fire hanging on by a thread, many observers are speculating whether the lull in violence will empower the anti-regime forces in Syria. To be sure, many of the individuals who have taken up arms against Bashar Al-Assad’s ossified and reprehensible government have risked their lives for the noblest of ideals. But such ideals are not necessarily shared by the entire opposition, as the case of Mohamed Alloush demonstrates. Alloush, a pro-democracy activist who participated in the mass uprising that gripped Syria last year, has fled to Lebanon, driven away not only by the violence of the regime, but by pressure from opposition forces.

“In September last year I had been arrested again by the regime for organizing protests,” Mr. Alloush said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “After they released me, I ran into a group of men I knew as members of the Free Syrian Army. I walked up to them and screamed: 'You guys have stolen our revolution! You are just as bad as the shabiha,'” the pro-regime militia in Syria.[1]

The uprising in Syria has been an inspiring demonstration of the desire for freedom, justice, and human dignity, as well as a heartbreaking reminder that such aspirations are often not achieved. Many expected the demonstrations, which began occurring across Syria shortly after the rapid and relatively peaceful collapse of long-standing dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, to be the first signs of the impending demise of the 40-year-old Assad family regime. Protestors braved riot police, army battalions, and legions of non-uniformed pro-regime thugs, maintaining an admirable position of nonviolence and universalism.

One year on, the situation has changed dramatically. Relentless violence from the regime, a divided and fractious opposition, and significant foreign involvement on both sides have prolonged and distorted the conflict, pushing aside the demonstrators while empowering various armed factions. For its part, Washington has played right into this dynamic, prolonging a futile military struggle instead of pushing for a negotiated end to the conflict.

The Rise and Fall of the Syrian Opposition

After months of negotiations that followed the initial demonstrations last year, various components of the Syrian opposition coalesced into a single entity in August 2011, which called itself the “Syrian National Council” (SNC). Though some analysts expressed concern about the make-up of the group, many held out hope that the SNC could evolve into an organized, effective, and legitimate representative of the Syrian uprising. Today, the Syrian opposition is disorganized and under-equipped, and its growing armed wing is rapidly losing control of the few strongholds it had managed to defend.

Internal dissentions, competing narratives and ideologies, and a dangerous dose of foreign influence have marred the opposition’s political leadership. This is particularly true of the leadership of the SNC, which has struggled to gain much-needed legitimacy both from international actors and within Syria itself. Its increasing calls for military intervention on its behalf have alienated a significant constituency of the anti-Assad camp, causing a rupture in its fragile alliance with the National Coordinating Committee led by Haytham Al-Manna.[2] In addition, the recent departure of Haitham Al-Maleh and other significant figures has caused a rift to emerge within the SNC itself.[3]

The SNC does not appear to have a great deal of control over the armed wing of the opposition, which has proceeded largely under the auspices of localized militias and army defectors operating under the umbrella of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), a group described by Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation as little more than a “moniker for local insurgency.”[4]

The SNC has also struggled to overcome its image as an organization largely controlled by Islamist elements that have developed close ties to reactionary Gulf regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Several blunders have helped give the impression that the opposition is floundering, such as a leaked YouTube video of senior SNC members proclaiming that “the Ikhwan [Muslim Brothers] are actually making all the decisions.”[5]

Meanwhile, other regional and international actors have been unwilling—or unable—to meaningfully intervene to stop the bloodshed or push for a just solution. Instead, they have been content to enact an array of sanctions that have crippled the Syrian economy, tripled the price of basic necessities, and helped stoke the worst humanitarian crisis Syria has experienced in decades, without meaningfully impacting the regime’s ability to arm and fund itself.

This has led to an increasing cry from certain segments of the Syrian opposition for Libya-style armed intervention from the West to oust the existing leadership and facilitate the installation of an opposition government.

This proposal has engendered a wide variety of reactions, both within the Syrian opposition itself and from policymakers abroad. The effort has been one of the key causes of the division within the opposition, powerful segments of which have eschewed international intervention of any kind.

U.S. Factions  

Though Washington has been lukewarm on the issue of direct intervention, the neoconservative camp has jumped at the opportunity for regime change in Syria. Additionally, several members of Congress—including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC)[6], and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), as well as Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC)—have called for arming the Free Syrian Army. A congressional briefing by Myrick in March featured a presentation by James F. Smith, former director of the controversial military contracting firm Blackwater, to discuss potential ways to establish a “liberated” zone in northeast Syria to allow U.S. military and intelligence agents to operate freely. In early April, McCain and Lieberman actually met with representatives of the FSA along the Turkish-Syrian border and declared in a statement, “The only way to reverse this dynamic is by helping the Syrian opposition to change the military balance of power on the ground.”[7]

Other prominent neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have also explicitly endorsed military intervention in Syria. Ann-Marie Slaughter, in an op-ed for the New York Times, explained her support for intervention as “the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilizing civil war.”[8]

Slaughter acknowledged that “Simply arming the opposition, in many ways the easiest option, would bring about exactly the scenario the world should fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines.” Instead, she has called for “no-kill zones” and humanitarian corridors to be set up under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army.

The implicit meaning of a terms like “humanitarian corridors” is belied by the extent of violence and militarization that are required to implement such measures. These can include massive bombardments to rid entire areas of government forces and their sympathizers, or the direct arming and coordination of local forces in order to carry out the cleansing themselves. Libya witnessed a combination of both tactics, a fact noted by Slaughter, who urges that similar action must be taken because “Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, and a lengthy civil war there would be much more dangerous to our interests.”

Is Syria a new Libya?

Both supporters and opponents of outside intervention have attempted to use Libya to support their positions on Syria. One thing, however, is clear: U.S. intervention in Libya did not end the violence there, and it may well have empowered individuals and groups who are little better than Gaddafi.

Since the rebel-led victory over Libyan government forces late last year, violence has continued almost unabated, with new revelations of mass graves, indefinite detentions, and torture.[9] In the weeks after the fall of the Gaddafi government, reports started rolling in of civilian massacres at the hands of the victorious rebels and the settling of scores across the country.[10] The “revolutionary” government has done little to advance the people’s democratic aspirations.[11]

Many are concerned that foreign military intervention in Syria will produce the same warped outcomes we have seen in Libya—or, considering Syria’s complex regional dynamics, something much worse. “The actors that are amassed to benefit from the fall of the Syrian regime are in the final analysis no less problematic than the Syrian regime,” warns Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University and co-founder of the popular e-zine Jadaliyya. “In sum, these actors are certainly more violent, discriminatory and anti-democratic, in reality and in terms of their collective or individual long-term vision for the region.”[12]

These inconvenient facts have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the neocon crowd, which released a letter to President Obama last December touting the Libya case as an example to follow in Syria. Signed by over 50 prominent neoconservatives and Syria hawks and organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Foreign Policy Initiative, the letter stated: “As was the case in Libya, the situation in Syria is one in which our interests and our values converge.” It recommended U.S. “leadership on sanctions,” “safe havens in Syria,” and “direct contact with various anti-regime Syrian groups …with the aim of increasing the capabilities of those groups whose political goals accord with U.S. national security interests.” Signatories included Paul Bremer, Eric Edelman, John Hannah, Bill Kristol, and Dan Senor. Many signatories had been calling for regime change in Syria long before the uprising even began.

But this kind of advocacy agenda fails to establish what is meant by “U.S. national security interests” and who in Syria would work on behalf of those interests. Washington’s history of cooperation with ostensibly friendly groups in the region (Nuri Al-Maliki and Mustafa Abdul Jalil, to name just two) doesn’t inspire much confidence in this regard. And the ongoing conflict in Libya serves as a cautionary tale about the limits of U.S. intelligence and the dangers of U.S. intervention.

“Intervention Fatigue”

As a result of these myriad difficulties and a growing sense of “intervention fatigue” among the U.S. public, policymakers in Washington are showing increasing concern about the possibility of backing the wrong players in this complex game. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey argued in February, “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point.”[13]

One answer Washington policymakers have entertained is simply to arm the opposition movement in conjunction with foreign intermediaries. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the United States would be joining an international effort—led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar—to finance and equip the Free Syrian Army.[14]

Whether or not this aid explicitly provides weapons to the rebels (the equipment is ostensibly limited to communication, coordination, and surveillance capabilities),[15] it will doubtless have the effect of further exacerbating the violence in a situation where a military victory for Syrian rebels appears increasingly unlikely.[16]

Recent offensives by the Syrian army have driven rebels out of most of the cities in which they had maintained a concentrated presence, and the recent ceasefire orchestrated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has reduced but not eliminated the violence.[17] Under the pretense of combating “terrorist acts,” the regime used the days leading up the agreed-upon ceasefire date to mop up remaining strongholds, killing hundreds in the process.[18]

On the other hand, the government does not appear capable of maintaining full control over Syrian territory, and though the rebel strongholds have been smashed, it is clear that the regime has lost the base of support it needs to continue to govern. Sooner or later, it must face this reality. But the longer the violence continues, the longer it can focus on stamping out an armed opposition that simply cannot match the military might and internal cohesion of the Syrian army.

A Fork in the Road

This dynamic may lead to one of two very different trajectories. With increasing arms, funding, and legitimacy, Syria’s armed rebels could abandon the traditional “clear-and-hold” pattern that characterized the Libyan victory, focusing instead on asymmetrical tactics like bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. Indeed, they have begun to do so already.[19] The results of such a strategy are difficult to predict, but if history is any measure, such tactics will likely not produce the kind of victory—or engender the kind of support—that the fighters will require to usher in a new Syria.

Alternatively, with sufficient international pressure from the West, Russia, China, and Syria’s neighbors, the conflict could conceivably end with a negotiated compromise that will award the regime’s opponents some—but not all—of their objectives, and hopefully put Syria on the road to democratization, legitimacy, and an end to the stifling corruption and brutality of the Assad era.

This option, however, is only possible if the various global players involved in the Syrian conflict—the United States foremost among them—abandon the hope of a swift military solution to the conflict, a solution that should be thoroughly discredited not only in reports by international agencies (like the UN Human Rights Council[20]) but also by any cursory assessment of the current state of the armed opposition.

The Syrian regime appears to be too powerful and too well supported to collapse easily. For those eagerly awaiting the dawn of a new and better Syria, this is surely a bitter pill to swallow. But there is still hope that justice can be achieved, even if it will take a longer, different road than once expected.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web.


[1] Gert van Langendonck and Sarah Lynch, “Syrian activists to rebels: Give us our revolution back,” Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2012.

[2] Al-Akhbar English, “Opposition figure criticizes SNC ties to Syrian rebels,”Al-Akhbar English, January 13, 2012,http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/opposition-figure-criticizes-snc-ties-syrian-rebels

[3] Samia Nakhoul, “Fragmented Syria opposition emboldens Assad,” Reuters, March 28, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/28/us-syria-opposition-idUSBRE82R0UT20120328

[4] Michael Wahid Hanna, “Syria at the Epicenter: New Relationships Across the Middle East Video,” Century Foundation, February 28, 2012, http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20754998

[5] Zeina Karam and Lee Keath, “Islamists seek influence in Syria uprising,” Boston Globe, March 21, 2012, http://articles.boston.com/2012-03-21/news/31221105_1_president-bashar-assad-damascus-islamist/3

[6] Alissa J. Rubin, “Two Senators Say U.S. Should Arm Syrian Rebels,” The New York Times, February 19, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/world/middleeast/mccain-and-graham-suggest-helping-syrian-rebels.html?_r=1

[7] Josh Rogin, “McCain and Lieberman meet with the Free Syria Army,” Foreign Policy“The Cable,” April 10, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/10/mccain_and_lieberman_meet_with_the_free_syria_army.

[8] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “How to Halt the Butchery in Syria,” The New York Times, February 23, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/opinion/how-to-halt-the-butchery-in-syria.html

[9] Arnold Ahlert, “The Libyan Rebels’ Massacre,” Front Page Magazine, October 26, 2011, http://frontpagemag.com/2011/10/26/the-libyan-rebels-massacre/

[10] Kim Sengupta, “Rebels Settle Scores in Libyan Capital,” The Independent, August 27, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/rebels-settle-scores-in-libyan-capital-2344671.html

[11] Glen Johnson, “Libya is a lure for migrants, where exploitation awaits,” The Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-libya-smuggling-20120408,0,6779066,full.story

[12] Bassam Haddad, “Dictatorship, military intervention and false binaries in Syria,” Al-Jazeera, January 19, 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/01/201211713546736564.html

[13] CNN Wire Staff, “U.S. military chief dubious about arming Syrian rebels,” CNN, February 19, 2012, http://articles.cnn.com/2012-02-19/us/us_syria_1_president-bashar-opposition-forces-syrian-opposition-groups

[14] Maria Abi-Habib, “Saudis Seek to Funnel Arms to Syria Rebels,” The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304177104577311572820862442.html

[15] Bradley Klapper and Christopher Torchia, “Syria conference: Gulf countries to fund rebels,” Associated Press, April 1, 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/syria-conference-gulf-countries-fund-rebels-123236191.html

[16] BBC, “Opposition says Syrian rebel fighters to get salaries,” BBC World, April1, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17578248

[17] Herald Sun, “180 killed ahead of Syrian truce deadline,” Herald Sun, April 9, 2012, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/killed-ahead-of-syrian-truce-deadline/story-e6frf7jx-1226321787954

[18] Anne Barker, “Assad goes back on Syrian ceasefire plan,” ABC News, April 9, 2012, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-04-08/syria-wants-written-guarantees-before-troop-withdrawals/3938672?section=world

[19] Los Angeles Times Staff, “Outgunned Syria rebels turn to homemade bombs,” The Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/01/world/la-fg-syria-idlib-offensive-20120401

[20] United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” United Nations Human Rights Council, Nineteenth session, Agenda item 4, February 22, 2012.

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