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.
Assad’s army has suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Rebels now control much of Deraa province in the south. Further north, the rebels captured Raqaa, a provincial city of 250,000 inhabitants. This success was surely aided by the new, superior weaponry. However, neither of these gains affect the main contours of the war. Still under Assad control: the key areas of Damascus and its environs; the mainly Alawi western coastal area; the highway between them; the cities of Homs and Hama and about half of the city of Aleppo; and other urban areas dotted around the country.
Regarding the issue of Islamist dominance of the rebellion: controlling the distribution of arms among the myriad networks of which the Syrian rebellion consists is probably impossible. Syria-watchers have already unearthed photographic and video evidence showing weapons of the type introduced into Syria by the Croatia deal in the hands of jihadi and Salafi-Islamist fighters in various parts of the country. These include some of the most extreme elements, such as Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi force prominent in the Aleppo area.
The presence of RPG-22s and M-60 recoilless guns has also been recorded in Idleb province and in the Homs area, both centers of jihadi and Islamist activity in the west and northwest of Syria.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to differentiate between the supposedly secular “Free Syrian Army” and the other groups is futile. The Free Syrian Army is at best a very loose conglomeration of disparate elements. These consist almost exclusively of Sunni Islamist fighters of various hues, at least where fighting — as opposed to looting — is to be done.
Drawing a firm line between this loose collection of rebel brigades and other rebel gatherings such as the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front will not work. These groups are not at war with each other. They cooperate in the fighting against Assad. And it is already clear that weapons will find their way into the hands of those willing to use them in Syria regardless of U.S. and allied wishes.
There is also little reason to believe that the men doing the fighting on the ground will see themselves beholden to something calling itself the “provisional government.” The rebels have already begun to put in place a variety of their own Islamic organs of governance in the areas the regime has left. And of course, the head of the so-called “provisional government” is himself a man with connections to Islamist organizations.
In short, the level of increased involvement which the U.S. and its allies appear to prefer is highly unlikely to produce either the defeat of Assad or the emergence of a coherent, Western-aligned insurgency.
It represents the reinforcing of the illusions that currently govern Western policy on the Middle East.