The Syrian Peace Summit an Inevitable Failure?
On Jan. 12, the New York Times released an editorial ahead of a much-anticipated Syrian peace summit on the 22nd, in which the Times voiced its approval of a tentative proposal by the State Department to resume “nonlethal military aid” to the Syrian opposition. Suspended last month when a repository of munitions intended for the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) was instead seized by the radical Islamic Front, this aid, the Times explains, would simultaneously reinforce the FSA in its ongoing war with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Armed Forces, and reassure Saudi Arabia (which backs the opposition) of the U.S.’s continued support amidst the Obama administration’s aggressive courting of Iran, a bitter rival of the Saudis.
But the situation isn’t so simple. Though a resumption of aid to the Syrian opposition might be advantageous for U.S.-Saudi relations, Saudi Arabia is but one of many actors in a civil war that has grown more complex with time. In short, the State Department’s proposal will not make a lasting peace in the region any more plausible. With a real, albeit unlikely, shot at brokering a ceasefire come Jan. 22, the U.S., now more than ever, cannot afford to pettifog and take sides.
How and why has the situation in Syria become so complex? Was not a pervasive discontent with Assad’s Ba’athist regime the root cause of the present unrest, and if so, why Washington’s reluctance to support the Syrian opposition, which was/is certain to harbor legitimate grievances against Assad?
Well, if truth be told, the conflict in Syria did begin innocently enough. The civil uprising in Syria, which, as part of the Arab Spring, lasted for as many as five months from March to July 2011, was a response to the Assad regime’s corrupt and undemocratic practices, its human rights offenses, and a perception that the economy was flagging (unemployment was up about seven percentage points in 2011 from 8.3% to nearly 15%). Despite (or perhaps because of) Assad’s brutal response to the nonviolent uprising, it seemed that, with enraged protesters making headway in half a dozen of Syria’s largest cities, and with members of Assad’s government and armed forces absconding to the rebellion, Assad’s days in power were numbered.
Alas, it was not meant to be, for beginning in August 2011 the Syrian unrest took a turn for the worse, when a group of defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces announced the formation of the FSA, mentioned above, and Assad, in response, stood firm against all expectations. Following the FSA’s establishment, the conflict escalated even further until a year later the International Red Cross declared Syria to be in a state of civil war.
Still, however, this escalation hardly explains the complexity of the situation or why the U.S. is hesitant to side with the Syrian opposition, even if only to provide non-lethal aid. Let me be frank. The U.S. is troubled by the thought of interfering in Syria for two reasons: (1) the considerable influx of foreign fighters, mostly Islamic fundamentalists (jihadis), into the Syrian opposition, and (2) the growing perception amongst ordinary Syrians, no doubt provoked by the jihadis themselves, that the West, specifically the U.S., is somehow to blame for all the bloodshed.
Since the uprising’s inception, Islamic fundamentalists have become alarmingly influential in the region. A quick search on the Internet reveals that at least half a dozen jihadi groups, including the Islamic Front, the al-Nusra Front (part of the al Qaeda network), the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Army of Mujahideen, now wage war alongside and, in some cases, against the FSA; jihadis are even known to fight amongst themselves, as is the case between the ISIS and ISIL, and if there is anything that remotely unites them, it is that they oppose Assad to a man.
That Washington regards these Islamic fundamentalists with deep suspicion is easily understood, for they are the same people who would commit acts of terror against the West, and whose pan-Islamic designs run counter to the U.S.’s aspirations of an egalitarian Middle East.
This begs the question: why must the U.S. subsidize and train the same people who it fears are terrorists in the making? The answer is, it mustn’t. If the White House has reason to believe that the Syrian opposition’s radical elements are the new Mujahideen, and the opposition’s fundamentalist leaders all Osama bin Ladens in the making, then it should immediately discard the idea of siding with the Syrian opposition. Which leads back to the crux of my argument.
The U.S. must side with no one. Not with the Syrian opposition. And certainly not with Assad who, trusting in his image as a secular leader opposed to the extremes of Islamic society, probably believes that, were he to hold out as President until the Syrian opposition’s growing radicalization became much too obvious even for the U.S. to turn a blind eye to, the U.S. would be more amenable to a settlement involving his continued stewardship of a reformed and reconstituted Syria. Rather, the U.S. must give voice to all parties no matter their belief systems, and hope that, with all contrasting opinions tabled, a comprise can thus be reached.
At tomorrow’s peace summit, the U.S. will favor a transitional government that excludes Assad. It will, however, fail to achieve anything of tangible worth, perhaps because it will have sided with the Syrian opposition, or because Iran, a major ally of Assad’s, will have been absent from the proceedings––Iran, being for Assad what any of a handful of other countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.S.) are for the Syrian opposition, has every right to attend. I pray, for Syria and its people’s sake, that tomorrow’s inevitable failure will not deter a second round of talks, one in which all parties, including Iran, are present.
But I have gotten ahead of myself. Tomorrow’s summit has still to happen, and should cooler heads prevail, a lasting peace may yet be engineered. One can always hope.
Copyright © 2014 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.