While the Syrian rebels’ fragmentation may be a valuable short-term tactic, it spells destabilization in the long run.
As the Syrian conflict accelerates into a cacophony of violence, I felt it appropriate to use my inaugural editor’s column to discuss the issue. I was particularly struck by Elizabeth O’Bagy’s recent article that circumvented conventional wisdom and hailed the Syrian opposition for it decentralized disorganization. I found the basic tenets of her argument—that the fragmented Syrian National Army and its loosely associated political structure make it a more adaptable and difficult-to-defeat adversary for its “hydra” like characteristics—to be compelling and an accurate portrayal of the events as they appear on the ground. Yet, as I continued reading I felt that there was a prevalent short sightedness that has so often plagued American foreign policy in the Middle East—a tendency to proscribe a stop-gap solution or hastily drawn analysis without proper reflection on regional implications, historical factors, and long term effects.
While the leaderless opposition and relative autonomy of the various rebel groups ensures the revolution’s survivability, it also raises grave concerns about the likelihood of any smooth political transition in the event of Bashar al Assad’s removal from power. O’Bagy neglects to address this critical point in her analysis. As IAR’s own contributors have suggested, Syria has long served as a petri dish of regional posturing and as a platform for regional powers to wield influence.
A fragmented opposition suddenly empowered would likely serve as a further opportunity for such foreign meddling to take place. Iran and Hezbollah, denied their traditional route for arms transport, would fervently seek new proxies and political allies to maintain their collaboration. Russia and China are also prime candidates to attempt to exert influence and support a willing or desperate rebel group in order to preserve their own respective defense and commercial interests.
Add to this tinderbox the potential for ethnic and sectarian clashes and one can envisage a rapid destabilization. Religious minorities have presumably clung to the decaying regime for its promise to protect their interests and, in the case of Syria’s Christians and Alawites, for fear of political reprisals that could turn increasingly violent. These anxieties have likely been exacerbated by the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Libya and Iraq also present applicable foils to the Syrian situation. A much more unified Libyan opposition has shown a disturbing susceptibility to violent clashes between rival rebel groups as well as armed interferences with the electoral process. But Iraq seems to be a more appropriate comparison for its relatively similar religious demography. Iraq has struggled to construct anything resembling a competent government and is plagued by religious and sectarian violence that constantly raises the specter of devolving into civil war. Syria shares many of these underlying sources of tension and catalysts for civil strife and a politically divided opposition seems likely to exploit these in a power vacuum.
Of course, there is always the chance that Syria’s decentralized opposition structure will be the foundation for a pluralistic political system in which various rebel groups coalesce into political parties as O’Bagy suggests, but it’s certainly not a bet I would be willing to make. My impression is that decades of political repression, when combined with the chaotic and invigorating experience of an armed revolution and deep sectarian divisions, is a recipe for a destabilizing transition.
This situation is precisely what makes Western intervention or support such a complex matter. Great power politics aside, any aid in the form of munitions would carry with it the possibility of that support being used in an ensuing power struggle that could elevate to a more regional conflict with broader ranging consequences.
This view is very much encapsulated in the “wait and see” approach taken by the United States. Eager to stymie the crisis for humanitarian reasons, the administration has offered logistical support and public condemnation of the regime’s deplorable actions, but has been reluctant to become more actively involved. Given the underlying sources for instability, this approach has its merits. The U.S. should continue its humanitarian engagement and passive support, but must exercise caution before escalating its role. Assad’s days appear numbered, but his fall is when the true battle for Syria will begin.
Bradford Simmons is editor-in-chief of IAR's web publication and a Master's candidate at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
Photo courtesy of FreedomHouse2 via Flickr.