The declared objective of the administration from its decision to arm the Syrian rebels is to recalibrate the balance of power on the ground in order to facilitate a negotiated settlement. That sounds good so far as it remains on written policy and strategy papers submitted by the NSC officials.
It is clear that the balance of power was tilting towards the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah backers. It was obvious as well that this will render negotiations obsolete as Bashar Al Assad would harden his position to the extent that makes the proposed negotiations a monologue rather than a dialogue. Hence, the strategists concluded, this tilt in the balance of power on the ground should be reversed and measured in a way to get a proper deal through.
The problem here is that reality does not always behave itself to fit into such clever “strategic” calculations. Once the opposition receives the arms, these arms are defused regardless of the intensive effort to control its end users. If we have a map of the areas under the control of five or six groups of the opposition, and each area has a distinctive color (in the maps of the NSC), the “boarders” between these groups change constantly. The fighting units of different organizations change their banners and “defect” (with their arms) to other groups on almost on daily bases.
This has always been the case in similar wars. We have seen it in Yemen in the 60’s, in Afghanistan in the 80’s and in Iraq after the last war. But this is particularly true in the case of Syria now.
Defining the “colored” areas of different organizations is possible of course but only for a day or two, perhaps few weeks. As the base of the rebel forces is very fluid, it is fair to say that arming a specific “friendly” group will mean in fact arming “the rebels” (without any particular organizational limitation).
What happens usually is that Al Nusra guys apply a sort of Bolshevik tactics. They send a team of the Da’awa specialists (propagandists) to the neighboring base or unit that is not affiliated with AlQaeda. They have dinner together drink black tea togetherr as fellow fighters and in a couple of days the base declares allegiance to the black flag. Particularly if the guests start talking about the military “goodies” they can provide.
This might be an over simplification of what happens. But the smart guys in the NSC (and some of them are really smart) should just get back to their trash pins to see how many colored maps they changed lately.
When we talk about the Syrian opposition we should talk about the bases, the real fighters on the ground, the dynamics of their continuous moves and loyalties, the forces behind these shifts, their inter-relations and their real motives. We should not talk only – and sometimes at all - about the leadership. We are not talking about regular forces. Not even a shadow of that.
“Syrian Opposition in General” does not exist. Gen Idris forces is not an abstract. It is a living element. Therefore, when we say “we are giving Idris and only Idris the arms” it sounds in any realist’s ear as an illusion. The assumption of cohesive organization with understandable boarders and controlled areas does not simply apply here. If we arm one, it is like we arming all.
But this is not the only error in that strategy.
To recalibrate the balance of power on the ground (in order to get to Geneva II) does not make sense unless we have this magic button that once we press the rebels freeze in their places and stop fighting.
It is an illusion to assume that we have two parallel measuring rods, one to gauge the rebels’ progress on the ground with the arms provide, and the other to measure how close we have become to a negotiated settlement. If we have these two magic rulers one should accept the geometry of the Administration’s decision. We will understand that at a certain point on the measure of the balance of power we got to “instruct” the “opposition” (in general) to hold fire and travel to a Swiss hotel to talk. This last sentence does not make any sense.
In real life such wars do not obey neither the strategic papers of the NSC nor the magic measuring rods. Furthermore, there is nothing called “opposition in General” as I have just said. Once a group of the rebels well entrenched and rooted like Al Nusra or Ahrar Alsham hears that the others are going to the Swiss hotel, it will send immediately its propagandists to their camps with enough stuff about the selling off of the martyrs and the surrender to the killer of the people..etc. This might be an over simplification of the dynamics that will be unleashed, in the mildest of a successful offensive by the rebels using the new arms, but most certainly we do not have the brakes that can stop all and every major rebel offensive of all opposition groups when the clock of Geneva rings. A continuation of opposition operations against the regime – particularly if they feel they are achieving the progress we wanted them to achieve - will seriously threatens what is planned to happen in the conference. We do not control the Syrian opposition. We do not control even a cohesive portion of it. We may simply reverse the current situation, in which Assad achieves progress, to face a problem similar to the one that we face now, except upside down. The Iranians and Hezbollah will decide to escalate as we are deciding right now, to force us to increase our involvement and it is the Indochina spiral once more.
Simply put, there is a serious risk that the momentum achieved by the arms the US intends to send will be the very obstacle that will hinder any negotiated settlement.
What to do then? The question reminds me with the guy who smoked all his life until he got lung cancer then went to the doctor to ask what to do. It seems we are willing to advise him to stop smoking which should look in the strategic papers a very prudent advice.
The policy towards Syria should be examined (sadly) in retrospect or at least since last summer when a plan to arm the rebels was rejected by the White House. It is difficult to understand the real reason for arming the rebels now. If it is the chemical weapons (please replace that with the fall of Al Qusair), that should not have been a surprise to anyone. The strategists in Washington must have calculated that by doing nothing all that time something of this nature will happen sooner or later.
I assume that the president and his Russian counterpart agreed to put a ceiling on arming the fighting sides. That should have been the logical thing that happened in North Ireland. But can we control the supplies of the Iranians? Or that of Hezbollah? Or that of Al Anbar? Or that of the Lebanese Salafis? Or that of the Gulf fundamentalis?
Some Gulf States will continue to arm rebel groups of their liking. And their liking happens to always be a hard core Islamist group. These states do not trust the US to take a serious step to help the rebels in any meaningful way. They complain that they will be stuck with a victory for Iran and Hezbollah and with a regional strategic tilt in favor of Tehran. The US can influence their decision but only to a certain extent. But the muscles needed were not used in any effective way.
The US will be neither able nor willing to admit that the side supported by its enemies (Iran and Hezbollah) is defeating the side that receives American arms. The further we go, the higher the stakes and the bigger the political and strategic investment. It is a one way road. Deja vue.
Yet, there is one way to turn the situation around. For those who are familiar with the history of the Algerian NFL or the war against the British in South Yemen in the 60’s, the fierce inter-fighting between rebel groups was one important characteristic of these episodes. In Algeria different wings of the NFL fought each other until a unified leadership was formed. In South Yemen, the Arab Nationalists lost their bloody fight with the Marxists which later ruled that country.
In Syria, there should be one unified leadership of the opposition, that of Gen Idris. To reach that result, the forces of the SMC should be supported in order to control the North and unify the opposition forces (those which accept to be unified under the leadership of the SMC). Those who do not accept, for political or ideological reasons, should be confronted at a later stage. An explicit understanding with Russia should be reached in that regard. That should be explained by the Russians to Damascus as well. Once there is a unified force in the North, the Geneva clock could ring. I just hope that this was the content of the NSC strategy papers.