The signs are now unmistakable: both openly and behind the scenes, a major Western effort to bring the Syrian civil war to a close with the defeat of the Assad regime is now underway. This is being undertaken with intentions of ending the stalemate in the war, and of preventing the dominance within the rebel camp of extreme, jihadi elements.
The effort is taking a variety of forms.
Reports indicate the training of rebels on Jordanian soil by British, French, and U.S. special forces. These fighters are being trained in the use of anti-aircraft and anti-armor weaponry – the regime’s current domination of the skies and its ability to deploy heavy armor remain key advantages in its hands; the West, in recent weeks, has been acting to neutralize these advantages.
Simultaneously, reliable sources confirm the presence of Western special forces operators on the ground in Syria, presumably with the task of assessing the orientation and abilities of armed rebel units.
The U.S. has been pressuring the Syrian opposition to create a unified political and military leadership, a task which has proved elusive throughout the two-year-old rebellion. The U.S. wants to ensure a clear chain of command and control, so it knows whom it is supporting and can enforce accountability.
The election of the Texas-based Ghassan Hitto at the head of a new provisional government intended to administer the roughly 50% of Syria now controlled by the rebels is a product of this effort. Hitto, a thirty-year resident of the United States, is a former activist at the Council on American-Islamic Relations and has clear connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas supporters.
The establishment of the Supreme Military Council under Brigadier-General Selim Edriss back in November was an earlier indication.
This week, Britain and France openly committed to providing arms for the Syrian rebels, though tacit Western support for a major arms supply effort to the armed rebellion has been clear for some time. At the beginning of the year, the Saudis purchased a large amount of advanced infantry weaponry from Croatia. The weaponry included RPG-22s, M-60 recoilless rifles, and M-79 rocket launchers. The U.S. was aware of the purchase and appears to have helped coordinate the distribution.
This ordnance was transported to Jordan, and was intended to reach rebels in the south of Syria. This, again, was clearly a decision influenced by the politics of the Syrian rebellion. The heartland of the armed rebellion is northern and central Syria; most importantly, Homs and Aleppo. It is there that the jihadi and Islamist fighters have flourished, generously supplied across the border under Turkish, Gulf, and Muslim Brotherhood auspices. This new provision of advanced weaponry to the south was intended both to break the stalemate in the war and to provide achievements for rebels deemed non-jihadi and acceptable to the West.
All this adds up to an unannounced change of direction by the West, which wants to bring the war in Syria to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
Will it work? Almost certainly not.
The obstacles to the success of this effort are formidable. To recap, its goals are: 1) the defeat of Assad, and; 2) the prevention of Islamist/jihadi predominance among the rebels.
Lets take each of these in turn.
At the present time, Assad’s forces do not appear anywhere near to collapse. He has benefited over the last two years from the tireless efforts of his own international backers — Russia and Iran (with the secondary efforts of Iranian region allies and clients, most importantly the government of Iraq and the Lebanese Hizballah). There are no indications that these backers are considering withdrawing support.