Justin Vela

End of the year blog…responding to a little criticism in 2012…”strategic” US thinking in Syria?

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In a December 20 blog for The Middle East Channel, Bay Area academic Stephen Zunes cites one of my articles as an example of criticism aimed at United States policy towards armed aspects of the Syrian opposition.

US policy, essentially, has been to not directly provide arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and to spend millions of dollars on humanitarian aid and “non-lethal” support, i.e. communications equipment and training for moderate opposition activists. The job of providing arms to the rebels was left to allies in the Gulf, who are not known for choosing the most US-friendly compatriots to support. The message from US diplomats was very much Syria is complicated, we don’t know how to deal with it and don’t want to focus on it. My article portrays the alternative ways the US is supporting the Syrian opposition and the distance with the rebels, who are currently at the forefront of the uprising against the regime and are likely to be the kingmakers in the scramble for power when it falls.

Zunes disagrees with the criticisms of US policy. “In sum, opposition to U.S. support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or pacifism,” he writes.

It’s the end of the year 

Last night, I was thinking about a subject for an end of the year blog. In 2012, I was a very bad blogger and wanted to make a positive step for next year. Zunes provided me with some material to get bloggy about. Thank you, professor. And thanks for reading. Not unsurprisingly, Zunes is among a number of people who criticized this article, Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns. Even some landlords in Cihangir, the Istanbul neighborhood where the US-funded Office For Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) is based, wanted to skewer me.

Zunes is most disturbed by what he seems to perceive as an attack on non-violent methods being used to overthrow repressive regimes and cites many examples of where they have succeeded.

“In some other countries, such as Iran under the Shah and Mali under General Toure, many hundreds of nonviolent protesters were gunned down, but rather than cower the opposition into submission, they returned in even larger numbers and eventually forced these dictators to step down,” he writes.

There are many countries around the world where people can still deploy these very valuable peaceful strategies. However, it is a bit late in Syria. The regime is responsible for pushing the opposition to violence. It is incredibly arrogant  for Zunes to imply  Syrians should have kept opposing the regime and dying without defending themselves. The peaceful protesters were incredibly brave, but as more Syrians joined the revolt it is important to consider how aware these individuals were that the regime is very comfortable with inflicting violence. The masses in Syria are not all the liberal activists who might most advocate for non-violence. Many of those activists have been killed by the regime or are now working against it from outside Syria.

Syrians are being slaughtered while the world watches on YouTube and does little to stop the flow of blood. There is no going back to peaceful resistance. Theorizing on how different the uprising could have been if the opposition did not resort to violence is very academic, but not very representative of the current picture in Syria.

Questions with no answers 

US policy-makers were aware enough that allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar were providing some weaponry to Syrian rebels via Turkey that it made sure, through at least talks with Ankara if not also Riyadh and Doha, that only light arms and ammunition reached them. The mentality apparently was: imagine what would happen if anti-aircraft missiles or other heavy weaponry fall into the hands of our enemies. In this case, the enemies were Syrian rebels that had possible links to al-Qaeda and Kurdish militants. The US also did not want a flood of weapons to intensify the war too much and have it possibly spill over substantially into neighboring countries.

So the Syrian rebels did not get anti-aircraft missiles. While they were able to force regime troops from certain parts of the country, especially the rural north and east, they were still vulnerable to attacks from jets, helicopters, and, of course, shelling. Last August in Aleppo province, a Syrian activist described attempts to establish civilian structures to govern the areas where the ground was free of regime forces. Their attempts to meet and establish such groups were impeded by fear of attack from the air, as I described in al-Monitor.

The constant bombings, such as the one in Azaz, pushed back the opposition’s ability to concentrate on civil institutions such as courts. As the semi-freedom seen in Aleppo province proves, the Syrian opposition has already managed great gains, largely unaided. Yet the bombings and shelling continue to hinder them.

There are now reports that the rebels have received some anti-aircraft missiles, perhaps from Qatar, and civil structures are slowly forming. But if the US is willing to tolerate some light weapons being sent by allies to the Syrian rebels and Washington wanted to learn who the rebels were, promote moderate groups, and establish civilian structures, why did they not allow the rebels the ability to defend themselves from air attacks sooner? With the rebels making steady gains, an intervention involving foreign troops is not needed to unseat Assad. But did the US really have its priorities right in its approach to the Syrian conflict? Did it miss an opportunity to win hearts and minds in a very strategically important junction in the Middle East by not playing a more direct and overt role with a broader segment of the opposition? What will be the consequences of the US becoming more involved late and trying to dictate the path of the uprising, including who should be the political and military leaders, on its own terms?

He called it

In February 2012, a Western diplomat described to me what he believed would happen with the conflict in Syria, based off diplomatic and intelligence reports and his own knowledge of the region. He wasn’t telling me anything he wasn’t also sending back home. The opposition will win, he said. If people want weapons they will get them. The opposition will slowly take pockets of the countryside from the regime and advance on cities. The opposition is largely Islamist in one way or another. At that point, he did not see large-scale foreign intervention happening any time soon. The fall of the Assad regime was only a matter of time and the diplomat was angry Western governments were not doing more to aid the opposition. He did not predict what will happen after the regime falls.

With the US presidential election over, more Western contractors in Turkey establishing networks to transport materials into Syria, and increased contact between Paris, London, Washington, and representatives of the rebels, it appears that there will be more engagement in 2013. The US is already intervening in Syria to a certain degree politically. The question is how far will the US and its allies go in supporting the rebels against Assad? Will an atmosphere be created where extremist groups will be successfully marginalized? Can that happen without more moderate groups receiving better support? And, also, how much longer will Syria’s bloody war continue? Assad leaving Damascus is unlikely to mean the end of fighting. The longer the war continues the greater a security risk it presents to the US and its allies, the more people will die, and the harder it will be to rebuild Syria’s civil society.

“With so much at stake, however, it is critical to not allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing horror or a romanticized attachment to armed revolution serve as a substitute for strategic thinking in our support for and solidarity with the Syrian struggle for freedom,” Zunes writes.

How “strategic” has US policy really been? The US policy of focusing on one element of the opposition (which now may be changing) while leaving most of the rest to allies with their own objectives and other regional actors has not been very conductive to its long-term security concerns or establishing a new relationship with the Middle East. Of course, the uprising in Syria was always extremely complex and there were likely few ways for disaster to have been averted. In the new year, perhaps all we can hope for is increased engagement from all sides and remembering that theory and ideology is useless without closely looking at human nature and specific circumstances.

Syrian rebels in Aleppo's Salaheddine District in August 2012.

Syrian rebels in Aleppo’s Salaheddine District in August 2012.


Written by Justin Vela

December 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm

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