Amid the Syrian conflagration and the increasing warfare between the regime and its opponents, a breakthrough of some sort seems improbable given the political and military stalemate that is the status quo. Throughout the protracted conflict, the Assad regime has largely benefited from the opposition’s divide and constant feud. Following the failure of the widely discredited Syrian National Council (SNC), and international calls for the unity of the different opposition factions, a new entity was established: National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
The Coalition was able to garner the support and recognition of key regional and Western countries. While it received the full endorsement of France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, other countries and political entities such as the European Union and the United States have endorsed the group in a more general fashion.
Washington’s support is crucial to the Syrian opposition on various levels. The latter could certainly use the political, diplomatic, and moral support, but more importantly, they are in dire need of arms — such as the much-needed anti-aircraft missiles — as well as military and intelligence backing to be able to stand up to Assad’s arsenal. This raises the following question: Why hasn’t Washington utterly recognized the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition yet?
Who Are We Dealing With?
Syria’s armed rebellion is made up of different and uncoordinated factions and militias which lack a unified command or a civilian political structure to which to report. The United States seems quite reluctant to extend support — let alone arms — to unfamiliar groups that may or may not comprise anti-American factions, and who might one day use these arms against U.S. interests in Syria or elsewhere. Furthermore, and without credible civilian oversight over military operations, those weapons could well end up in the wrong hands. Before ensuring an orderly and organized process of delivering arms, ammunition, and warfare equipment, Washington is unlikely to extend military assistance to potential hostile protagonists who are fighting the regime for their own reasons and could constitute a latent threat to U.S. interests and strategic presence in the Middle East.
History bodes ill with events illustrating how political and military instability could eventually translate into chaos, bear unintended consequences, and lead to uncontrollable casualties. Washington does not want to go through yet another Afghanistan-like experience where it has to fight off Jihadist forces determined to combat the United States, its allies, and its interests. The Benghazi attack and the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens are the latest reminders of this bitter reality.
The Conflict’s Regional Context
The Syrian regime was able to ensure and maintain relative stability in the region surrounding it, including the Golan Heights and the border region with Israel. Any new regime will not likely be able — at least not in the short term — to establish internal stability, let alone secure its borders.
Consequently, a feeble and unstable regime (or order) in Damascus could impact the precarious stability in the region. Jordan is already shaken and the regime there worries from the political agenda of its own Islamists. Turkey draws its policy through the prism of the Kurdish issue and the aspirations of its own Kurds, who might become emboldened by their brethren in Syria. Iraq already suffers from continuous violence on its territory, insurgencies, and Islamist fundamentalism fueled by sectarian strife; therefore any development in neighboring Syria will undoubtedly affect its divided neighbor. Lastly, it is very hard to imagine Lebanon weathering the spillover of the Syrian crisis, already impacting the politically-torn country on the political, security, and humanitarian levels.
For all these reasons and more, Washington finds itself facing difficult choices and has few options to work with. While it finds no other choice but to support the Syrian opposition and the hopes of the embattled Syrian people, it wants to make sure whoever succeeds the Ba’athist regime will be able to guarantee a degree of stability both internally and along Syria’s borders — that includes preserving the tacit truce between Syria and Israel.
Once these assurances have been provided, they will ease Washington’s concerns and pave the way for more cooperation on different levels, including the military front.
The War on Terror
It is no secret that there has been cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies throughout many years and on several issues. Syrians have shared intelligence with the United States regarding terrorists operating in European and Middle Eastern countries, and since September 11, the names of several Syrians have appeared in the hunt for al-Qaeda in Europe and the Middle East.
While many Jihadists and radicalized Islamists are taking part in the war against Assad’s regime, Washington wants to know from the political opposition how it plans to go about marginalizing or, if possible, integrating the (Syrian) components of the militant rebellion in a new post-Assad regime.
Additionally, the United States wishes to uphold cooperation with the security apparatus in the new Syria on intelligence issues and matters of national security, something that is strategically vital for Washington in the volatile region that is the Middle East. Accordingly, the Americans believe that talking these issues over with the Syrian opposition is foremost among other concerns that should be settled before proceeding to more concrete and tangible forms of support.
Keeping the Dialogue Channels Open
The above illustrates the specific and direct reasons of why the United States still seems reluctant in giving its full support and recognition to the Syrian opposition. In addition to all that, Washington’s balanced and educated policy enables it to foster dialogue between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition, especially when it becomes clearer by the day that a negotiated solution might be the only way out, amid the military deadlock and the obstinacy of the belligerents.
As opposed to France, Qatar, and countries that burnt their bridges by fully recognizing the opposition and utterly breaking with the regime and its sponsors, the United States — through its careful Syria policy — managed to keep the negotiation channels open with Russia (and China), and as a result can still help broker a political agreement between the two combating parties, and subsequently assert its role as an indispensable player on the international arena. The Libya war — in which the United States initially took a back seat to Europe’s leading role, but was then called upon to exert its much-needed political and military prowess — is reminiscent of this fact.