TSG IntelBrief: The Fight for Syria's Future
The Fight for Syria’s Future
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Recent rebel losses do not necessarily mean long-term gains for the Assad regime; the future for Syria continues to look grim
• International concern increasingly focuses on the threat that foreign fighters in extremist groups may turn to terrorism at home
• Lack of attractive policy options that might tip the balance in favor of the rebels should not distract from other contributions that the international community could make
• The growing number of Syrian children with no access to education will have a major impact on the future of the country.
There is a general feeling both inside and outside Syria that the war is not going well for the rebel cause. This is true, but it is not going very well for the regime either, and more importantly, it is not going well for the future of Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi took over from Kofi Annan as the UN/Arab league representative for Syria in 2012, with little expectation of success and, despite his best efforts, his pessimism has proven well-founded. His resignation on May 13 reflects his belief, shared by almost everyone, that the prospect of agreement between the Assad regime and the rebels has never been less likely. The Geneva process is dead.
FSA’s Disarray and Morale Erosion
The rebel cause is in disarray. The politicians outside do not speak with one voice and in any case command little respect from the fighters inside the country. If the fighters refer to them as lobbyists, it is because they reckon that they spend most of their time in hotel lobbies, arguing with each other, and not working on behalf of the rebels. The fighters inside Syria that most need effective lobbying, whether for weapons or other support, are the members of the Free Syrian Army. In late April the “Voices of Syria” Project published a survey of fighters who had left the FSA and found the majority had done so because the FSA itself was disorganised and losing ground. Some of these fighters were leaving Syria, some going home, but others were gravitating towards more extremist groups.
The steady erosion of the FSA, explained by its lack of success and organisation, is in sharp contrast to the continued growth of extremist groups, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, and Ahrar al Sham, all of which were founded by people who were at the time members or supporters of al-Qaeda. Although there are plenty of reports of these groups fighting each other, and they have far fewer fighters than some FSA and similar rebel units, the extremists are beginning to determine the perception that outsiders have of the course of the war and its possible outcome. The major concern of the US and its allies, as well as of Assad’s international supporters, is that an inconclusive war will leave terrorist groups free to establish training camps in ungoverned areas of Syria from which they will be able to launch attacks elsewhere.
This fear may be exaggerated as the progression from volunteer fighter against the Syrian regime to terrorist plotter against the West is not an obvious or automatic one, but the danger certainly exists. And it is this fear, together with the difficulty of finding a part of the opposition that is both safe to back and worth backing that has made the policy choices of Western nations so difficult. Some vetted units of trained fighters are now receiving better weapons with which to fight tanks, but to turn the tide of the war, the rebels will need to challenge the regime’s domination of the air. However, as long as there is a possibility that surface to air missiles given to the rebels might end up in the hands of extremist groups, the risk of supplying such missiles lies too far outside the comfort zone. The Western allies find it much easier to say what they don’t like than what they do.
Status Quo or Alternative Scenarios?
This is not a happy place for the rebels or their external supporters to be in. Policy makers in the West are now beginning to see Bashar al-Assad’s survival as not just inevitable, but also desirable, given the alternative scenarios that might emerge. But if the West gives up and starts to negotiate with Assad to get as good a deal as possible, there are several downsides. First, this might increase the terrorist threat to the West, particularly as one area of agreement with the regime would likely be to mount a joint effort against the extremists. Second, it would be an expression of Western reluctance to exert power that, however understandable, would embolden both State and non-State actors elsewhere, from North Korea to Boko Haram, to believe that they could act badly with impunity. And third, it would solve none of the issues that have made the Middle East and North Africa such a volatile and unstable area.
Whatever happens, the Syrian regime can never return to the status quo ante. Even if the fighting ends, the bitter legacy will last for many years. The social cohesion of the country has been broken, just like its physical and economic infrastructure. Assad’s dependence on Iran, Russia, and Hizballah will restrict his ability to rebuild the country as a unifying leader, even if he saw himself filling that role. With close to half the population displaced from their homes or otherwise in need of humanitarian assistance, Syria will take years to recover, even with the full support of the international community. Victory will be hollow.
The Arab Awakening has had mixed results, and it is not just in Syria that it has led to violence and social divisions that are unlikely to die down for many years. But one positive thing that it has done is to create a new phenomenon in the region: the power of public opinion. No regime will ever again be able to ignore public opinion as so many did in the past. The advent of social media has made that impossible.
Syria’s Future and the Plight of Syrian Children
Rather than wonder which rebel group to support and what arms to provide, the international community could focus on the generation of Syrians both inside and outside the country that has no access to education. UNICEF estimates that 2.8 million Syrian children are no longer in school and over 1 million are refugees. It is these children who will determine the future of the country.
The fear that extremist groups could spread terrorism from Syria is understandable. Since 2001, the international community has put extraordinary effort and money into defeating terrorism and it would need only a committed few to undo much of what has been achieved. But terrorists are much less likely to find a secure base in places where they find themselves surrounded by people who can think for themselves and decide independently where their advantage lies.
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