Saturday, May 12, 2012

Syria’s war enters third gear

In a bombshell revelation, both literally and figuratively, the Washington Post reported this week that weapons were reaching the Syrian opposition, and that the process was being partly coordinated by the United States. This represents a fundamentally new stage in the Syrian conflict, and in Washington’s approach to it.

The article, citing Syrian opposition activists and American and foreign officials, noted that the Syrian rebels “have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks,” and that the effort was financed by Persian Gulf nations. Among the early signs that the arms were making a difference was that opposition forces had overrun a military base in Rastan, killing 23 soldiers.

As one opposition figure put it, “Large shipments have got through. Some areas are loaded with weapons.”

Decades ago, British journalist Patrick Seale wrote a book titled “The Struggle for Syria.” The topic was how post-independence Syria had found itself pulled every which way by the regional rivalry between Egypt and Iraq—a prize sought by both. The situation today has again made of Syria a valuable prize in a proxy war, this time between Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab states as well as the United States on the one hand; but also between the United States, backed by several European powers, and Russia on the other.

These two interconnected wheels render the Syrian situation even more complex and volatile than it already is. The American calculation is that the first will ultimately overcome the second: In other words, once the Russians realize that the regime of Bashar al-Assad cannot survive militarily, Moscow will reverse course and seek some form of transition away from Assad’s rule.

That may be true, and it may not be. But the situation today is, plainly, heading toward further escalation, as the plan of Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, lies in tatters. This week, a particularly experienced Lebanese politician I happened to be visiting heard that a local security official had predicted the Assad regime would soon prevail. The politician laughed, replying, “If he thinks that, then he’s mistaken. We’re only at the start of this.”

The United States has been all over the place on Syria, and it’s difficult to explain what its intentions are. One State Department official described the American role this way: “We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing.”

That’s a particularly clever way of hinting that the Obama administration is helping determine where the weapons and assistance are going, perhaps ensuring they do not reach the wrong people. Another official said there were currently no military or intelligence personnel on the ground in Syria. But that did not mean there weren’t any in the past. In fact, some months ago there were unconfirmed reports in Beirut that the CIA had sent agents to Syria to examine ways of organizing the opposition, but that they had come away frustrated with the disorganization among Assad’s foes.

Equally interesting, the United States is also contacting Syria’s Kurds to see if they might open an eastern front, so to speak, against the Assads. While the Kurds are divided, the reality is that the Syrian crisis, not to say civil war, is reinforcing the centrifugal forces in the country. Even if Assad can hold on for a while, it is virtually impossible to imagine him again re-imposing his writ over a unified country. The Kurds will not return to the conditions that prevailed just over a year ago, and even Alawites, Christians and Druze may no longer feel secure in a united Syria after everything that has passed.

We are already beyond the stage where Bashar al-Assad can refloat his sinking ship. The dynamics are all moving against him. At some stage Russia, who, with Iran, is the regime’s principal bulwark, will have to determine whether it prefers to pursue a proxy war against Washington, Europe and the Sunni Arab states, or to take on the difficult but politically lucrative task of guiding regime change in Damascus. The Russians claim they are not wedded to Assad’s remaining in office. If so, crunch time is fast approaching.

Assad has pursued sham reforms in recent months, topped off by a nonsensical parliamentary election a few days ago. At the best of times Syrian elections were a travesty. And yet the Russians once regarded this kabuki dance as necessary for neutralizing hostility to the Syrian regime. That’s not surprising coming from Vladimir Putin. But most Syrians are not dupes. Alas, more war lies ahead.

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