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December 17, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Paul  Smyth

The West May Regret Taking Sides In Syria

Paul Smyth: A popular revolt seeking political freedoms has become a civil war in which democratic objectives are increasingly sidelined. If Assad falls before an effective alternative government is available, a power vacuum may exist in which Islamist groups seek to rule the country. For women, liberals and minorities, life after Assad may not bring progress.

Grounded on a small Alawite minority, the Assad Regime suffers an intrinsic weakness it has repeatedly exacerbated through its own actions.  In the early days of the current crisis it reacted disproportionately to peaceful protests and later, as conflict ensued, its indiscriminate employment of military power and the use of barbaric shabiha militias offended much of the countryʼs large Sunni majority.  Despite itʼs need for wider support the Regime has consistently alienated those beyond itʼs narrow base. 

Of course, not all of the Shia Muslims (Alawites or Druze) and Christians in Syria supported or support Assad, but as rebel groups driven by Sunni (Salafi) Islamist fervour exert a growing influence in Syria, these minorities feel increasingly endangered by the prospect of Assadʼs demise.  Similarly, moderate Sunnis who sought liberal reforms may fear the revolution is being hijacked by religious extremists.  A popular revolt seeking political freedoms has become a civil war in which democratic objectives are increasingly sidelined.  For women, liberals and religious minorities, life after Assad may not bring progress, but regression. 

As the crisis has morphed from a pursuit of democracy into a competition for Syriaʼs future, sectarian identities, loyalties, beliefs, goals and motivations have become more important.  Critically, this means that overthrowing Assad is no longer an end of itself but a means to an end.  While the current conflict is between the Regime and rebel groups, it is cultivating a growing antipathy among segments of the population that will outlive Assadʼs rule and create a problem for the UK and other foreign governments.

Illogically, some Western states did not adopt a neutral stance on the Syrian crisis but swiftly sided with the opposition movement.  Whilst they should understandably support foreign democratic aspirations and movements they could have done so without overtly taking sides.  Advocacy does not demand alignment yet very early in the crisis senior Western politicians called for Assadʼs removal and effectively threatened him with legal repercussions, neither of which promoted Regime restraint or the peace Syrians desperately needed. 

When international NGOs work in states suffering civil war they zealously guard their impartiality.  That Western governments did not replicate that attitude in Syria suggests their primary aim was not to achieve peace but to facilitate regime change.  By calling very early in the crisis for Assadʼs departure when there was no obvious successor to his rule was manifest myopia.  What might follow the Assad dynasty is perhaps clearer now but it raises more concerns than assurances. 

The growing international recognition of the new Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people is an understandable attempt in foreign capitals to produce a political body that can provide alternative rule in Damascus, act as a conduit for overseas support and bring rebel fighters under civilian control.  However, welcome progress beyond the previous mistake of prematurely endorsing the emigre-rich Syrian National Council does not guarantee those roles will be met. 

For instance, endorsement by London, Paris and Washington brings international credibility but it is not a magic wand that simply removes the plethora of issues on which the National Council will have to agree if it is to govern Syria.  After decades of dictatorship Syria lacks the political legacy, democratic experience, parliamentary culture and liberal discourse needed to resolve those issues.  This is a new political chapter for the Syrian people and it would be naive to expect rapid progress toward effective governance.

The dwindling territory under Regime control, repeated rebel victories and the reported firing of SCUD missiles may indicate that Assadʼs demise will happen sooner rather than later.  If so, alarm bells should be ringing in Western capitals as Assadʼs departure would create a vacuum the National Coalition is not ready or able to fill.  In that case, rebel fighters who feel responsible for Assadʼs defeat would likely claim the right to influence what happens next in Syria. 

As some of the most effective rebel units are Islamist groups with jihadist aims there is obvious potential for a post-Assad power struggle.  Their success on the battlefield, willingness to employ suicide tactics and use of foreign recruits with experience of other conflicts means they could readily contend with the larger, more moderate, but heterogeneous Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

Having sided so clearly with the National Coalition, Western nations would be obliged to support it in any post-Assad fight for control of the Syrian state, and especially for the custody of any unsecured Weapons of Mass Destruction.  That support might willingly involve providing the FSA with weapons, training and operational advice, but if extremists gained the upper hand in a civil war the pressure to deploy Western military assets to Syria to support the Coalition would naturally build.  Failure to do so would really constitute the ʻabandonmentʼ Western states have unreasonably been accused of hitherto.

Western governments may find themselves ʻboxed inʼ having aligned themselves too closely with the National Coalition to allow it to fail, and having to consider military intervention that would be highly unwelcome among their domestic populations.  This political dilemma would be entirely self-inflicted.  A less partisan approach that placed much greater emphasis on achieving peace and put concerted pressure on Gulf states to not arm the rebels would have impeded the spread of violence in Syria, slowed the exodus of refugees to neighbouring states, provided greater opportunity for negotiation and more time for an alternative political body to prepare for government.  Unfortunately, that approach lost out to a fixation with removing Assad from power.    

In conclusion, the collapse of the Assad regime will leave sectarian scars on Syria.  If moderate actors quickly take the reigns in Damascus the chances of a peaceful aftermath to the current civil war are improved.  However, if Assad falls before an effective alternative government is available, a power vacuum may exist in which conflict continues and Islamist groups seek to rule the country.  In such a scenario Western states would be obliged to actively support their pro-democracy ally and if extremists gained the upper hand then the spectre of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan would again loom large.

Paul Smyth has 30 years' association with the defense arena, as a military officer and later as a Head of Program at the Royal United Services Institute. He is currently the owner of R3I Consulting.

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