x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

West dithers as Syrian rebels lack moderate leadership

These are the questions that will have to be resolved before America and its allies can develop a strategy to replace the discredited one of over-promise and under-delivery.

For years, it has been common for American policy analysts to roll their eyes and ask, does Europe, Russia or any other power have a strategy? Now, two years after the start of the Syrian civil war, the eye rolling goes toward the United States. Does America have a strategy in Syria? The charitable answer is: not much of one. Instead, it has a muddle.

After the blood began to flow, American, European and other officials predicted that Bashar Al Assad would be gone in months. Instead, as the former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, pointed out yesterday: "Bashar is now winning."

The West's slump from activism to shoulder shrug over the past year has been astonishing. In August last year, President Barack Obama said the regime's use or movement of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would change his "calculus". This was seen as a clear warning of military intervention.

After it emerged that chemical weapons had indeed been used, the administration tried to backtrack, and finally, after accepting the facts, has decided to provide some weaponry to the rebels, but only small arms that cannot change the balance of power. And even this token measure barely scraped through Congress.

Meanwhile America's top soldier, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has set out in detail why the military is reluctant to pursue a number of military options that would be ineffectual or require the deployment of large numbers of troops with no clear chance of success.

It is common for senior officers to be more reluctant than politicians to go to war, particularly when their armies have been sent abroad almost non-stop since the end of the Cold War in 1989. But Gen Dempsey went further. He came within a whisker of admitting the unsayable: from the point of view of America's interests, the stability of the Assad regime is better than the uncertainty of a rebel victory.

Perhaps the general should get a medal for the clarity of his statement, in a letter to the hawkish Senator John McCain: "Should the [Assad] regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control." There we have the military truth, stripped of blather about humanitarian intervention and the need to remove a dictator.

In his determination to protect the Assad regime, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has had a clear goal which he has pursued with conviction, in alliance with Iran. The western camp has so far run on wishful thinking.

Reality intruded when it became clear that outside attempts to magic into existence a Washington-friendly rebel leadership had failed. The external leadership has no credibility inside the country, leaving the rebel groups on the ground to battle for supremacy, with Islamist groups in the ascendant.

A peace conference - the so-called Geneva II - which was supposed to be held this month after a big push by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, looks as if it will not be held until next year, if at all.

With no military option and no diplomatic path, the outside world must brace for some distressing news. Nearly two million people have fled Syria over the past two years, and without a realistic prospect of them returning to their homes, the danger is that they will become semi-permanent exiles. If the people who are displaced inside Syria are included, at least a quarter of Syrians have lost their homes.

On the battlefield, the rebels are expected to retreat from their last strongholds in the city of Homs within weeks, giving the regime forces a propaganda victory. More significantly, it will mark a big advance in the regime's drive to control a corridor from Damascus through the centre of the country to the coast, through the heartland of the Alawite sect from which the Assad clan is drawn.

Control of this corridor, together with the help of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia in Lebanon, will serve to seal off rebel supply routes from Lebanon into Syria. This will provide a platform for the regime to launch a campaign to retake the rest of the country. Or if that task is beyond the capacity of the regime, it could mark the beginning of a long stalemate during which the regime can pursue a programme of sectarian cleansing to ensure control of key roads and population centres.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister who is in touch with all sides of the conflict, told The Independent newspaper that only all-out war would remove the Assad regime. In the absence of that, the foreign powers which had only recently talked of guiding the rebels to victory "will go for anything to calm the situation" .

Mr Al Assad is not home and dry. The sectarian and regional impulses that he stoked to create militias to fight alongside his army have produced the effect he wanted. But in creating this sectarian monster, he has lost any claim to be president for all Syrians at the head of a national army. Ultimately, this may weaken him.

The western powers, having failed to put together a winning rebel team, may have to wait until a national rebel leadership appears on the ground.

The Syrian Islamic Front, spearheaded by the Ahrar Al Sham (the Free Men of the Levant), appears to be one the biggest and most successful rebel groups. Its leader, Hassan Aboud Al Hamawi, has shed his anonymity to emerge in Cairo as a spokesman for the Islamist current of the rebels. Is he a man the Americans could collaborate with? Or will he and his group be a flash in the pan like the previously headline-grabbing Al Nusra Front, now engaged in internecine battles with the Iraq-based Al Qaeda franchise?

These are the questions that will have to be resolved before America and its allies can develop a strategy to replace the discredited one - much used in Iraq and Afghanistan - of over-promise and under-delivery.



On Twitter: @aphilps