Thursday, May 30, 2013

Where have all the good guys gone? How the West lost Syria

Events have not been kind to the Syrian rebels of late. Bashar al-Asad’s* victories in Damascus and its environs and suspected use of chemical weapons were the first blows. The arms shipment from Russia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah declaring outright military assistance to the regime, and the continued refusal of the West to provide meaningful aid have almost certainly spelled an end to the rebels’ hopes of military victory. Even the lifting of an E.U. embargo on arms to Syria does not mean that the arms will be forthcoming any time soon. The looming question remains: even if we wanted to support the rebellion with arms, who exactly would we give them to?

Sen. John McCain pays a surprise visit to Syrian rebels this week. Too bad for them he didn't bring any guns.

Certainly not Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that has emerged as a power player on the rebel side. Despite their odious ideology, the Nusra Front has proved a great asset to the rebels, assisting greatly in the battle for Aleppo. Any rebel victory would mean that the group would have a say in Syria’s future, and if their positions thus far give any indication, most Syrians – who have traditionally been one of the most secular societies in the Middle East – would not like it. Aside from Jabhat Al-Nusra, a proliferation of other extremist Islamist groups have taken control of towns throughout Syria, as indicated in this Crisis Group report. They, too, have had enough military successes now that the Islamist share in a new government would be quite large.

What about the Syrian opposition’s leader, Gen. Salim Idris? Could we funnel the weapons through him? This, too, proves a challenging proposition. The West would have no way of knowing who the weapons were going to, especially given the shifting loyalties of rebel fighters on the ground to one faction or another. As the bloody conflict drags on, more and more fighters are being radicalized or simply want to join the strongest side, and that has been the Islamist groups. As discussed above, these groups are also intrinsically linked to the rest of the Free Syrian Army. If the West were to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army, it would have to accept that these groups are part and parcel of that movement, and that one day we could regret our decision to arm anti-American militias. Think Afghanistan, but in the dead center of the Middle East, right across the border from Iraq.

If Western leaders find it too risky to provide arms, the only two options left are to intervene with our own militaries, or let the Syrians fight it out and continue attempts to reach a negotiated settlement. The first option is not on the table. In fact, it’s so far off the table it’s down the street hiding in the neighbor’s house hoping to never be brought to the table. The second seems to be the most likely policy pursued by the West, said or unsaid. The rebels have already said they will boycott upcoming peace talks in Geneva, although Asad has committed to attending. It appears that they either still have hope of Western assistance, or the violence has been to such a degree that reaching an agreement with a man who slaughtered thousands of his own people is to onerous to imagine. It is an understandable sentiment, but at the same time a negotiated settlement might be the best option left for the opposition. It would guarantee them a place in a new government, and perhaps even offer the option of an exit by Asad. Otherwise, there is no telling how many more lives will be lost, how many more people will be displaced, and how much of a ruin Syria will be when the dust and blood settle.

The aftermath of a recent government massacre in Bayda. 

The sick irony of Lebanon interfering in Syria’s conflict less than a decade after the Syrian government pulled out of its own thirty-year-long occupation of Lebanon should be lost on no one. Syria is becoming Lebanon circa 1975-1990. This is a good and bad thing: despite a protracted civil conflict that dragged out for decades and spilled over into its neighbors, Lebanon’s civil war did not cause the region to implode. Yet the degree of spillover is might higher in the Syrian conflict. Lebanon’s civil war generated a million refugees in 15 years. Syria reached that number in two. Its potential to ignite a region that has already experienced so many upheavals in the last decade is much greater than that of Lebanon.

As I write this article, I hate the words I have to say. I loathe Bashar al-Asad. Any human being that is capable of the crimes he has committed deserves to be in a very, very small cell for the rest of his days. I wanted the rebels to win militarily from the outset of the conflict. If the West had acted a year ago, six months ago even, that could still be an option. But the hard truth is, there are no more good guys in this conflict. The rebel side has committed atrocities of its own and has increasingly been taken over by radicals and extremists. The “good guys” lost this civil war a long, long time ago. It’s not an answer than anyone wants, but the West and especially the United States chose it. We chose it by not acting. We chose it by not helping. Now we have to live with it; that, and the blood of nearly a hundred thousand Syrian people on our already very unclean hands. Unfortunately, the only outcome of this civil war appears to be the maintenance in power of a dictator, a proliferation of extremism, and millions of Syrians whose lives have unalterably changed for the worse. Faced with these facts, I can’t help but ask, what was it all for?

*Since I’ve been getting a lot of comments on this spelling, I believe I owe the readers an explanation. In Arabic, Assad indicates an actual doubling of the “s” sound, marked by a symbol known as a “shadda.” There is no “shadda” on Asad’s name, meaning that it is pronounced without the doubling of the “s.” Therefore, the proper transliteration is “Asad” with one “s.” BOOM four years of Arabic! Now you can go forth with that knowledge and feel superior about it.

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