Thursday, May 30, 2013

The slow suicide of Syria’s opposition

We are near the stage where the Syrian opposition, thanks to an effective campaign by the Syrian regime and its allies, but also a pervasive lack of unity or direction, may lose much of the support it needs to defeat President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Nor has the opposition grasped the deepening anxiety in neighboring countries who fear being destabilized by the conflict in Syria. A car-bomb explosion in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli recently and the rocket attack against the Shiyah neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs have only reinforced this fear (even if no one has claimed responsibility for the suspicious Shiyah attack).

The killing of three Lebanese soldiers near Arsal Monday was no less worrisome. Whoever committed all these crimes must have known they would increase hostility to the cause of the Syrian rebels, whose determination to fight Assad until he leaves office guarantees tenser times ahead. If it was the Syrian opposition or its sympathizers, their reading of events was faulty; if it was the Syrian regime or its allies, then they cleverly manipulated rising popular misgivings.

Even the reaction of the Free Syrian Army to the Shiyah attack was a disaster. Initially, an FSA officer, Ammar al-Wawi, described the incident as a warning to Hezbollah. Soon thereafter, another FSA spokesman, Fahd al-Masri, rebuked Wawi and denied any FSA involvement. Wawi later changed his version, accusing Hezbollah of firing the rockets itself. And on Tuesday, the FSA threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah unless Lebanese President Michel Sleiman withdrew Hezbollah from Syria, as if Sleiman had any say in the matter.

The cacophony is even louder when it comes to preparing for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for June. Last Thursday the opposition National Coalition began meetings in Istanbul to expand its membership and include Michel Kilo, a prominent opposition figure. Kilo proposed a list of 22 candidates, of whom only five were accepted. “The real, real, real problem is in the coalition,” a disgusted Kilo told the Al-Arabiya Arab satellite television station.

Meanwhile, the opposition has yet to decide whether it will be present in Geneva. A refusal to attend risks alienating the opposition’s supporters in the West. If it accepts, Geneva could prove to be its undoing, given the likely internal discord over what is agreed. Worse, there are no guarantees the National Coalition has much influence inside Syria, and Geneva may only highlight this if the groups on the ground reject political arrangements reached at the conference.

The Syrian opposition has failed to appreciate the shifting political context in which it is functioning, while the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have. For instance there has been no planning for Geneva and the very real risks that the conference holds for the opposition, whether it participates or not.

Russia and the United States are going to Geneva with very different agendas, none of which favors Assad’s adversaries. For the Obama administration, Geneva provides an opportunity to begin a political process permitting America to evade a larger role in Syria. President Barack Obama had feared being pushed into such a role after reports came out that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, crossing Obama’s red lines for American intervention. The president sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow and the accord over a conference bought Obama time to stay clear of Syria.

In other words, the Obama administration is going to Geneva largely to avoid Syria. Already, the administration has postponed discussion of arming the Syrian rebels, stating it does not want to undermine Geneva. If a political process is agreed there, the Americans will have a further excuse not to send weapons. The European states have also agreed not to supply weapons before August, to give Geneva a chance.

Russia, with a far clearer sense of what it wants in Syria, has another aim in Geneva: to consolidate Assad rule and put in motion a negotiating process that, at least temporarily, curbs the violence and divides the opposition. By helping Assad mount a successful offensive in the area around Qusair and reverse rebel gains near Damascus, the Russians have reinforced the Syrian president’s position, making it highly improbable that Geneva will seriously broach the matter of Assad’s departure from power. The Russians surely sense that Obama’s eagerness to be rid of the Syrian headache will push the U.S. to endorse a solution that avoids determining Assad’s fate.

The Syrian opposition cannot be blamed for the shameful American performance in Syria, but it can be blamed for failing to consider possible post-Geneva outcomes. Nor has it adequately addressed the very real doubts that have emerged over the participation in the Syrian uprising of the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. The fact is that there are profound doubts that the opposition can fill the vacuum in Syria if Assad goes, which can only favor jihadist groups.

No one in the West, particularly the U.S., much cares that it was Western indecision over Syria that created an opening for the militant Islamists. As they see the opposition in disarray, one thing they do not want is a new Afghanistan in the Levant, which will destabilize Syria’s neighbors. And the neighbors are beginning to agree. Recall that associating the opposition with Al-Qaeda has long been the line of the Assad regime, which then made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syria’s opposition must regroup quickly, or else all will be lost. The tens of thousands of Syrians who have died at the hands of a barbaric leadership deserve better. But the chances are they will not get better.

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