x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

America's 'shift' towards Syria's rebels is a dangerous illusion

The much-discussed US policy of arming the rebels of the Free Syrian Army will only prolong the agony of the country

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

It's often said that the longer a conflict lasts, the more complicated and difficult it is to find a solution to the conflict. Such a scenario applies completely to the Syrian revolution.

In the past few days, western media outlets have devoted much space to coverage of the supposedly major policy shift the United States has taken with the announcement that the US government will begin directly supporting Syrian rebels with non-lethal aid and training.

This "shift" would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. This change in position will do nothing to accomplish the original goal for which the Friends of Syria group was formed: hasten the end of the Syria conflict. Rather, it will only serve to maintain the horrible, bloody stalemate already established across the country.

The Syrian revolution was born in the province of Deraa, where calls for the fall of the regime first began. Then the revolution spread to all of Syria's cities and provinces. Now the Syrian revolution is entering its third year, and still with no response from the Assad regime to any of the demands of the Syrian people - other than bullets, of course.

Bashar Al Assad lives isolated in his own world. Over the past two years, he has become more ruthless and violent. He has now resorted to using all types of heavy weapons and fighter jets to indiscriminately murder his own people.

On top of all this, the situation has left Syria perched on a volcano of hatred and revenge, despite the fact that the Syrian revolution initially succeeded in creating a sense of unity among the Syrian people. Unfortunately, Syria today is on the brink of civil war, largely due to the crimes against humanity committed by Assad's militias. The Assad regime has continually fostered sectarianism among the people and in their provinces in order to break the unity of the Syrian people and thus, supposedly, guarantee the continuation of the regime, which, it is now clear, is impossible.

Yet the essential issue is that the capabilities of the Assad militias remain much more advanced than those of the Free Syrian Army.

The Assad regime receives billions of dollars worth of support in training and weapons from Iran and Russia. As it stands, the FSA cannot defeat such an army, but neither can it begin any form of meaningful dialogue with the Assad regime.The only option remaining is to support the Free Syrian Army via targeted airstrikes conducted by a coalition from the international community, or by creating a no-fly zone that will prevent the Assad regime from using its air force. This would tip the balance of power in favour of the Syrian rebels.

But the implementation of these procedures requires both legal and international political support. However, for more than a year the UN Security Council has proven itself incapable of adopting a resolution regarding Syria, even to condemn the atrocities caused by the Syrian regime. Thus it became essential to consider other options for protecting the Syrian people, such as building an international coalition that could conduct an intervention outside the framework of the Security Council.

As a result, the idea of establishing the so-called "Friends of Syria" was born. Such an idea inspired the Syrian opposition from the beginning of the revolution. I suggested this initiative in my meetings with US and European officials during my time in the Syrian National Council (SNC).

But, at the time, the US argued that establishing such an alliance might scare Russia, which allegedly said that the West wanted to repeat the Libyan experience, and that therefore we shouldn't add more excuses for Russia to use its veto in the Security Council. The Assad regime continued its brutal war against its people, and the Security Council remained divided. In December 2011, the Council met to discuss further action to prevent aggression by the Syrian government. Members of the SNC and I had meetings with the permanent representatives of the Security Council from the US, France, the UK, and Russia.

During these meetings the threat of a Russian veto was omnipresent. We kept asking the following: what were the alternatives? Was it possible that the international community would abandon the Syrians to fight alone? That was when I suggested an international coalition through the establishment of Friends of Syria to provide some alternative to the inevitable failure of the adoption of a resolution by the Security Council because of the Russian veto.

My idea was to represent the Syrian opposition on an official level through the Syrian National Council, unlike the Libya Contact Group, which had no presence on the Libyan Transitional Council. This idea enhanced the legitimacy of the opposition and kept Assad in total isolation. In fact, the idea was liked by most western nations and the Friends of Syria group was declared quickly by the French president.

Subsequent conferences have not gone well. The first Friends of Syria conference was held in Tunisia in February 2012, with foreign ministers and diplomats from more than 56 countries in attendance. The main focus was on the critical need for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, after its distribution was blocked by the Assad regime. But, due to the absence of a clear agenda for this specific conference, hopes didn't meet expectations.

The goal of the second conference, held in Istanbul, was to induce a shift in the Syrian crisis by the imposition of safe zones. If a decision had been made by the Friends of Syria group, then that would have motivated the international community against Assad and encouraged the Turkish government to apply and protect safe zones along the Turkish-Syrian border inside Syrian territory.

This was asked for by the rebels from the beginning and became a priority for the protection of the Free Syrian Army and for encouraging more defections from the Syrian Armed Forces.

But none of these plans were achieved due to the lack of international will and, most importantly, because of the static US position of providing only humanitarian assistance and enforcing economic sanctions. After subsequent conferences were held in France and Morocco without adopting any meaningful decisions, and with the complete absence of operational mechanisms to turn talk into action, the international community completely lost credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people.

The most recent conference in Rome served to underline this feeling. Last week's Friends of Syria meeting, at least for Syrians, reinforced the belief that these conferences are nothing but opportunities to make speeches and engage in meek geopolitical posturing.

Moaz Al Khatib and the rest of the organised opposition should have followed through on their threat to boycott the Rome meeting.

Secretary of State John Kerry used the meeting only as a platform to show his domestic audience that the United States was "doing something" about Syria. Tragically, that something is a weak, ineffectual and belated response to the two years of mass murder forced on Syrian society.

The US$60 million (Dh220m) that the US promised in non-lethal aid is not enough to make a significant difference. The rebels have said they need weapons to be able to fight Assad's militias - this promised aid is not sufficient. And although correspondents have talked-up this announcement as if it represents a significant shift in US policy, in reality that is not the case. It will not lead to the defeat of Assad's cruel regime. It will only prolong the agony of the Syrian people.

The Friends of Syria group has proven itself to be a failure. The Syrian opposition should not attend another such meeting until the international community proves to the Syrian people that it is ready to take steps that will result in a real change on the ground. Syrians don't need more statements of support, sympathy or tears.

 

Radwan Ziadeh is executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington DC

Twitter: @radwanziadeh