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Syria: If not Bashar, then whom?

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9 March 2012 12:26

For all the talk of replacing the Ba'thist regime, there is only so much that can be done to force a change of leadership when that very regime has ensured that no opposition of any consequence has been allowed to develop.

The result has been plain: a rather amorphous, lightly-armed opposition that is more a series of local militias with a binding hatred of the government but little else to unify it. There appears to be little, if any central control of opposition military operations and, as we saw in Homs, this allows the Syrian military to fix the rebels and then defeat them in detail.

The criticisms of what currently passes for the alternative government are numerous: too long out of Syria, too far from the fight, too full of Islamists and too exclusive of minorities; too fractured and too interested in internal politicking rather than developing policies. You name it and there is a criticism of it. Press releases issued by an opposition headquartered in Paris while rebel fighters lose their lives in Homs and elsewhere only serves to heighten the sense that the SNC is out of touch.

The Syrian National Council's (SNC) announcement that it had formed a military council was questioned within a few hours by the hitherto leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Assad. Such unseemly squabbling at around the same time as Syrian forces were taking control of Homs,  forcing FSA members to withdraw, has done little to engender confidence in the SNC.

But the Obama Administration has few, if any, alternatives, and there are reports that Washington is looking to assist the SNC to develop into something more useful than it now is. 

The West in general and the US in particular are right to tread carefully. Washington's experience in being taken for a ride in Iraq by carpetbaggers such as Ahmed Chalabi should have taught them that a thorough political due-diligence check is better than hoping that you have backed the right horse because they tell you what you want to hear. Hence the appropriate reluctance to confer on any group the title of 'legitimate representatives of the Syrian people', given the political and legal ramifications of such recognition.

The need to first of all establish a united opposition is well understood and there are indications that Washington is trying to make a silk purse out of the SNC sow's ear. 

At the same time, the US has ruled out unilateral military action or military support to the FSA. It is also right to do this. Those advocating air strikes against the Syrian military have said nothing about what such strikes are supposed to achieve, their legality, the response of the UN, China and Russia, or the second-order effects.

Nor has anyone stated publicly that the reluctance to arm the FSA with more advanced weaponry is because nobody is confident that the FSA has any central control, that the motives of FSA elements stop simply at overthrowing the Assad regime, that such weapons may not end up being used in revenge killings of 'Alawites or other regime supporters, or find their way across the porous borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere. 

In short, while governments such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia may be willing to assume away such problems (if they even think or care about them), the US and other governments do look at the downstream impact of short-term actions.

It is likely that the West and regional countries have made efforts to encourage a more reform-minded senior regime official to defect or overthrow Assad. But while the regime still has powerful friends like Iran and Russia, they can fight their way out of it. Defections such as that of the Syrian deputy oil minister and allegedly of several brigadiers, claimed by the FSA yesterday, could be an indication of fissures appearing in the regime. Alternatively, these could be minor functionaries whose departure is of no real consequence. Without knowing the identities or positions of the brigadiers, or of the influence or power of the deputy oil minister, it is impossible to apportion significance to these actions.

The problem for the West and those Arab states aligned against Syria is the lack of a realistic political alternative to the Ba'thists, or of militarily appealing options. As much as the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council sound like impressive organisations, the reality is that they have a long way to go before anybody will believe they can deliver what the West wants.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.

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