For all practical purposes, President Barack Obama has now recognized the Syrian opposition group as the government of Syria. Specifically, he called them the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.” The European Union did the same a few days earlier. While this move has little immediate, practical effect, it is enormously interesting for understanding this issue. And it is also yet another signal that the civil war in Syria is moving into the endgame.
First, the implications include the following:
– Thank goodness this only happened after the U.S. government switched its allegiance from the Syrian National Council (SNC). That group, basically created by U.S. initiative (implemented by the Islamist Turkish government), was about 100 percent controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The new group which Obama recognized, the Syrian Opposition Council, is “only” about 40 percent controlled by the Brotherhood. That means there is at least hope of a non-Islamist regime in Syria. (See below, and see the note at the end of the article for an example of how U.S. policy gave behind-the-scenes support to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.)
– Let’s take a moment to remember: despite all the talk about the problems of backing dictatorships, the Obama administration did back the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship. It then easily changed sides to back the opposition.
In Egypt too, Obama switched sides to support the opposition.
There are two lessons here. First, you can support a dictatorship and then back the opposition if a big challenge happens to take place. Second, what’s most important for U.S. interests is not whether the Americans want to befriend an opposition but whether the opposition, once in power, wants to befriend the Americans.
If they are Islamists, abandon hope of that happening.
– Ironically, of course, the group recognized as being the true representatives of the Syrian people was largely created due to U.S. and Western patronage and power. While the new Council did arise from discussions among Syrians, of course, this decision shows that just as in the nineteenth century, the West — Obama progressives as much as Victorian-era imperialists — still tries to control who gets into power in Third World countries. Power politics is still the name of the game; the question is whether that game is well-played.
In the American presidential campaign, Mitt Romney made the little-noted assertion that the United States should put the emphasis on ensuring that moderates win in Syria. That notion is totally alien to the Obama administration.
– The Syrian Opposition Council does not really represent Syrians, not only because those within the country haven’t voted, but also because this is an external organization with little or no influence inside the country. It also doesn’t have the guns. What it will have is control over Western economic aid in the future, but this Council cannot be expected to be the basis for a post-civil war government.
– In sharp contrast to Libya, we know a lot about the Syrian opposition groups and their leading personalities. The problem, however, is determining the relative military strength of each group. No doubt the CIA has a project to analyze the situation in every province and city. I wish we could see their data, but since we can’t, we have to try to figure out the balance of forces.
This situation is made even more complex because so many groups exist and ideology is cut across by the existence of five different ethnic-religious sectors: Sunni Arab Muslims (about 60 percent), Christians and Alawites (about 12-14 percent each), Kurds and Druze.
Will Alawites end up being cut out entirely from holding real power because that group formed the basis for the Assad regime? Probably.
Will Christians end up being cut out almost entirely from holding real power because that group backed the Assad regime due to fear of the Islamists, who now will probably try to cut them out? Probably.
Will there be massacres of Alawites and Christians by a victorious opposition, accompanied by tens or even hundreds of thousands of cross-border refugees? Very possibly, yes.