This article was first published by Reuters on December 12, 2012
Assertions and opinions in this publication are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy
The United States has officially recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has also designated al Qaeda in Iraq-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which often leads the fighting effort in Syria, as a terrorist organization, thus making it illegal for anyone to buy it even a cup of tea. This double-barreled political action, after months of hesitation, is intended to convey the message that Washington supports the relative moderates of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly but wants to exclude from its ranks Sunni extremists.
The trouble is both moves come late in the game. At this point, U.S. influence may not be sufficient to accomplish the objectives.
A lot depends on the Syrians themselves. Most Syrians do not want to see sectarian slaughter following the current civil war. The question is whether they will be willing and able to restrain the Sunni extremists in their midst. It will take courage and commitment for today’s revolutionaries to speak up and protect Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia who are suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Mass atrocity in the aftermath of political upheaval is more the rule than the exception. There is little sign that the international community will be able to mount a serious protection effort.
Jabhat al-Nusra would not hold the leading position it does today except for its relative effectiveness both on the battlefield and in providing services to liberated areas. The moderate Syrian opposition needs to get better at both if it is to compete effectively for mass support. It is trying. It has welcomed the Kurdish National Council into the Coalition and formed a new, more unified military command that excludes Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a meeting this week in Istanbul of the Civil Administration Councils from liberated areas in Syria. They need funds. A lot depends on their ability to provide food and shelter, pick up the garbage, open the schools, restore law and order. And it all has to be done in a fair and transparent way that avoids rumors of corruption and nepotism.
Much also depends on what Washington does to follow through. Once it recognizes as legitimate a government other than the one presided over by Bashar al-Assad, Washington can respond to that government’s requests for assistance. Humanitarian assistance is a no-brainer, but it will take patience and fortitude to get at least some of it delivered through the Coalition’s still primitive governing mechanisms. Political help is also desperately needed: the civil administration councils as well as the Coalition itself will need to construct a governing apparatus that is seen as both legitimate and competent, no easy task while bombs are falling around you.
The question of military assistance is still an open one. There are reports of military training in Jordan for Syrians preparing to try to secure Assad’s chemical weapons and to shoot down regime aircraft. An internationally enforced no-fly zone would be a major step, one that would tilt the battlefield in the revolutionary direction. Yet the Obama administration, anxious to avoid getting too deeply involved and not wanting to provoke the Assad-friendly Russians, is still hesitating.
On the economic front, Syria is in desperate condition. It is more akin to Egypt, which likewise has limited oil and gas, than Libya, a wealthy country with less than one-third of Syria’s population. Economic policy and Syria’s limited natural resources reside with whoever controls Damascus, so the liberated areas in other parts of the country will be doubly impoverished. The liberated areas need major and quick infusions of international funding.
Social conditions are appalling. More than 500,000 people are refugees, mostly in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. While the regime has been cooperating more with international relief efforts in recent weeks, there are likely several million people displaced internally, which makes for an enormous burden in providing food, shelter, sanitation and health care, even at the most basic level.
It is a good thing that Washington is recognizing both the virtues of the Coalition it helped to construct and the vices of Jabhat al-Nusra. But this is the beginning, not the end.
The question of military assistance is still an open one.