On 7th March, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, testifying before a Senate committee, declared that “it is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition – there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed, or contacted”. He was right.

The Western media have been caught up in a rush of enthusiasm for they have dubbed the Arab Spring, this wave of revolts against ruling régimes from Morocco in the west to Yemen and the Arab peninsula. They see Syria as part of this wave. In Arabic, the term is “Arab Revolutions”, which is altogether more value-neutral.

There have been countless op-eds and impassioned speeches from politicians calling for us Europeans to support the Syrian uprising. On the face of it, the natural stance for Europe would be to support anyone who seeks to topple a dictatorial régime.

But recent history has shown that the principle of action from outside in support of self-determination is bedevilled by pitfalls.

For a start, anyone seeking to intervene must have an endgame in mind. At the moment, no one does. Not the US, not Qatar, not the European powers, not Turkey, not even Russia, which is opposed to intervention.

Secondly, Syria is not Libya. The latter is demographically weak, and sparsely populated. Its geography – a narrow coastal strip containing most of the cities and an immense desert hinterland – isolates it from the major urban centres in the Arab world. Its tribal divisions are largely domestic. Barring the Berbers, rival Libyan tribes fight it out, seek popular support and recruit within the country’s borders. Finally, Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Syria, on the other hand, is a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic state. It shares land borders with five powder-keg countries. It is like Lebanon, only more volatile.

It was in the West’s strategic interest to see Gaddafi removed from power. But Assad?

Thirdly, there is something which Western opinion leaders are loathe to discuss. Democracy sits uneasily in multi-ethnic states. In a nutshell, bringing democracy to Syria may bring about its fragmentation along ethnic lines.

The relative success of Turkey as a Muslim democracy owes much to the ethnic cleansing that took place after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Anatolia was this turned into a Turks-only zone, and the state of Turkey was born.

 The Syrian opposition

The armed Syrian opposition is identifiable, organized, and capable, even if it is not unified.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA), nominally headquartered in Turkey, thus functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.

  •  Three of Syria’s most effective militias maintain direct ties to the Free Syrian Army.  They include The Khalid bin Walid Brigade near Homs; the Harmoush Battalion in the northern Jebel al-Zawiya mountains; and the Omari Battalion in the southern Hawran plain.
  •  Other large and capable rebel groups do not maintain such a close relationship with the FSA headquarters in Turkey, but nevertheless refer to themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army.  

Despite the regime’s assault on Homs in February 2012, the insurgency remains capable. The rebels who withdrew from the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs at the beginning of March 2012 have demonstrated the tactical wherewithal to retreat in order to preserve combat power.

The Assad regime escalated attacks against the rebels after they defended Zabadani against the Army’s offensive.   The affront was probably significant in itself, and the Assad regime could not allow the rebels to hold terrain against the Army.  But Zabadani is also vitally important to the regime and to Iran because the city serves as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force logistical hub for supplying Lebanese Hezbollah.  

 The Assad regime is likely to continue its strategy of disproportionate force in an attempt to end the uprising as quickly as possible. Indiscriminate artillery fire allows the regime to raise cost of dissent while preserving its increasingly stretched manoeuvre force.

The rebels’ resiliency will make the Assad regime’s endurance difficult, but the external support to his regime makes predictions of his imminent fall premature.  The Syrian regime has not yet demonstrated the capacity to conduct enough large, simultaneous, or successive operations in multiple urban areas to suppress the insurgency.   But it is possible that the technical and material support that Iran and Russia are providing will enable the regime to increase its span of control and its ability to fight insurgents in multiple locales without culminating.

The rebels will have to rely on external lines of supply to replenish their arms and ammunition if they are to continue eroding the regime’s control. 

The emergence of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cells working against the regime poses risks to the United States and a challenge to those calling for material support of the armed opposition.

As the militias continue to face overwhelming regime firepower the likelihood of their radicalization may increase.  Moreover, the indigenous rebels may turn to al-Qaeda for high-end weaponry and spectacular tactics as the regime’s escalation leaves the rebels with no proportionate response, as occurred in Iraq in 2005-2006.  Developing relations with armed opposition leaders and recognizing specific rebel organizations may help to deter this dangerous trend.

 It is imperative that the United States distinguish between the expatriate political opposition and the armed opposition against the Assad regime on the ground in Syria. A repeat of the Ahmed Chalabi affair would be too embarrassing.

The vital role of Turkey

Turkey is playing a cautious game in Syria. The recent downing of a Turkish air force plane (on a reconnaissance training mission, according to Turkish authorities), dramatic as it may seem, did not change Turkey’s stance. A Nato meeting was urgently called  following the incident, but it did not result in a declaration by the Nato Council. After all, such accidents have happened in the past. What is more, it will not result in Nato adopting a position either way. This is not Nato’s conflict. Again, Syria is not Libya. 

It is not at all certain whether the American objective in Syria is to hasten the fall of the Assad regime. While it would certainly wish to gain influence over the state and the armed forces that emerge in the wake, if Assad is toppled, the game might not be worth the candle.

This is even truer for the Europeans, whose foreign policy objectives are harder to define in any case.  The US and Europe both know that must develop relations with the critical elements of Syria’s armed opposition. But the question is which. And what relations. Should Europe act as a mediator, perhaps to save Assad by arranging a brokered peace which includes democratic reforms? Or should it arm and support the opposition? At this juncture, direct intervention, Libyan-style , is out of the question.

Whichever way this pans out, the US and Europe must formulate and achieve shared objectives, and be prepared to manage the consequences of a change of régime or of a protracted conflict.