As I wrote about in today’s news section, the so-called “Friends of Syria” conference of almost 70 nations in Tunisia is calling for (1) a cease fire and (2) a subsequent UN “peacekeeping” force to have unrestricted access to Syria. While I have no illusions about how much peace – they said it would be a “non-military operation” – such a force would actually be keeping, I tend to think today’s plan is more talk and posturing than anything else.
First of all, the statements explicitly said any UN force would come after a ceasefire and would require the Assad government’s permission before entering. Neither of those things seem likely to happen. As Nir Rosen told Al Jazeera today, “The regime knows that Russia, Iran and Iraq will back it to the end.” This whole conference seems much more about the perception that Assad is isolated, must step down, and so forth, rather than an actual prelude to international invasion.
But Clinton and other Western officials did make a lot of insinuations about covertly aiding the Syrian opposition and even supplying them with weapons. And that is exactly where we were at prior to this conference.
More from Nir Rosen, who has been inside Syria talking with the opposition as well as Assad officials:
Contrary to conspiracy theories, until now the Obama administration has not made the policy decision to aid the opposition on the ground, as far as I know, let alone provide it with weapons. US and European officials who would like to intervene in Syria complain that there is no “silver bullet” or easy option for them. They don’t even know who to support inside Syria. The exiled opposition, such as the Syrian National Council, are too busy fighting among themselves and too disconnected from events on the ground, so the outside powers do not even have a convenient local collaborator or proxy to deal with. They also complain that the SNC has completely failed to reach out to minorities, especially Alawites. They agree that opponents of the regime will have to pry Alawite community from the administration. The Alawite pillar must be removed, they say. The United States, like the United Kingdom, reportedly has envoys among the Syrian opposition. It is only a question of time, in my opinion, before the SNC is officially recognised by them as the main interlocutor, but they are pressuring the SNC to get its act together first.
There is pressure from fervent interventionist to already hitch the wagon to the star of the SNC. But, as Daniel Larison writes:
In what sense can the SNC be the country’s “rightful” leaders? If they fully represented the opposition inside Syria, they might provide necessary provisional leadership, but they are at best a temporary umbrella organization whose claim to legitimacy is based solely in its hostility to the current government. Some of the opposition inside Syria doesn’t see the SNC as representing them, and the council itself is badly divided.
Aside from the unfit SNC, actually choosing who to send arms to would be an exercise in futility. Sending in arms so carelessly would almost certainly end up in disaster. Such a move wouldn’t be enough to actually tip the balance in favor of the opposition and it would probably escalate the bloodshed by causing the regime to double down and the opposition to become more reckless. And as we saw with Libya, militarizing the situation simply ends in more American support for extreme and unaccountable militias.
Also complicating the issue, and mentioned in the Rosen piece, is Assad’s possession of chemical weapons. The more destabilized things get, the greater threat those weapons become, either in the hands of the Assad regime or the opposition. Josh Rogin reports that “the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria’s neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria’s WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem.” This indicates as much concern about Assad as about the opposition, who the U.S. so benevolently roots for.
Malou Innocent has a worthwhile piece arguing against intervention.