Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently accused Russia of providing military helicopters to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. This has clear implications for the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict. Clinton took a calculated risk in the hopes that it could encourage Russia to join the international community in condemning Assad’s regime. Whether this will occur remains to be seen; the effects that Clinton’s actions may have on the ground in Syria are less predictable. Whatever Russia’s response, it is certain to affect the sectarianism within Syrian protesters.
Syria’s revolution is unique among others in the Arab Spring in that it has been dogged by a great deal of internal sectarianism. From the first unorganized group of protesters, many small groups have emerged. After a year of protests, however, there is no clear leading organization among the opposition. Even the Syrian National Council (SNC) represents only 70% of the opposition. Some protesters are deeply religious Islamists, while others support economic liberalization. Not only is the opposition profoundly divided within Syria, but there is also significant mistrust between nationals and expatriates with the SNC. Members of the SNC are concerned with creating a government ready to take over if Assad falls, but non-affiliated members of the opposition see the SNC as wasting time jockeying for positions. Rima Fleihan, an activist and former member of the SNC, says of the SNC, “They fight more than they work.” As time continues, the uprising runs the risk of losing effectiveness and legitimacy because of this type of in-fighting.
In addition to internal causes of sectarianism, the divided response from the international community does little to unite the protesters. Disagreement between Iran and Russia on one side and the U.S. and the E.U. on the other is not simply about what to do in Syria. On the contrary, the conflict merely serves as one of many catalysts for decades-old discord to erupt between these super powers. Continued friction within the international community only prolongs the opportunity for the protest movement to become increasingly disorganized.
It is unlikely that Russia will easily give up its perceived power to the Western international community, especially since Syria contains its only military base in the Middle East. But it is in the revolution’s interests for Clinton’s accusation to be true in the hopes that Russia will become more amenable to cooperation against Assad.
Accusations from the West that Russia is seeking to destabilize Syria have yet to be proven. If Clinton’s accusation is an exaggeration and, as a Defense Department official recently suggested, the helicopters from Russia are simply a repair shipment, then Russia will have little incentive to cooperate with the U.S. Clinton’s potentially false accusation would simply serve to encourage Russia to continue to destabilize Syria.