James P. Farwell Headshot
Rafal Rohozinski Headshot

The Hard Realities of Syria

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Politics is often thought of as a game of chess where pieces can be moved around to execute winning strategies. Applying that logic to the Syrian conflict is dangerous and misleading. Intervening in complex emergencies is at best a perilous exercise. Providing weapons often leads to unintended and unexpected consequences.

The emerging picture is unsettling. But policy-makers need to deal with the realities, not just their hopes. Here is what it shows.

Providing heavy (anti-tank, anti-missile) weapons could backfire. Syria is awash in small arms. The debate centers on whether to provide heavy weapons. Two considerations drive analysis. Can we distinguish between the so-called moderates and violent extremists, so that arms can be placed in the hands of the former?

The answer is yes. One can distinguish between the groups and despite a lot of mixing among rebel fighters, target who receives weapons. That might argue for providing them with heavy weapons. That may be positive news. Here's the problem. There is no assurance those parties won't transfer the arms to extremists. The reality is that the rebels engage in arms trading. It's entirely plausible to conclude that anti-tank or anti-missile weapons could be traded to extremist elements. The ability to control that trade is limited. Bottom line: think very carefully before providing heavy weapons to the Syria combatants. The beneficiaries may prove different than planned.

The Free Syria Army is not a cohesive fighting force. FSA is led by and consists more of secular Syrians who might plausibly agree in a post-civil war era to a reconciliation that includes all ethnic groups and avoids a continuing civil war. Media reports often leave the impression that the rebellion pits two sides against one another. Actually, most of the rebels form part of local coordinating committees and operate in their own area. Leaders like Brig. Gen. Salim Idris are trying to establish a military command that can control and maneuver FSA forces. He hasn't yet succeeded. The more extremist elements, like the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra, are better organized, disciplined, and more experienced fighters. The challenge it faces, and which FSA forces can exploit, is that Syrians are mostly not responsive to extremist ideology. But the situation on the ground is chaotic and who might prevail in the end remains unsettled.

A settlement is the most viable way to end the civil war. Bashar al Assad's forces have taken a beating. The infusion of Hezbollah forces is helping them. Rebel forces are also taking a beating. As tragic civilian deaths mount up, no apparent end in sight has appeared. Those predicting the rapid collapse of the regime a year ago were too hopeful. This is not surprising. It's not just Assad's future that's at stake. His entire fellow Alawite population is at risk. Don't expect the Alawites to give up.

Historian Nathan Philbrick once posed the relevant question: how is a population confronted with catastrophe that threatens their survival supposed to respond? He was writing about the American Indians, whose survival was threatened by the decimation of buffalo herds they depended upon for food and sustenance and the genocidal attitudes of Generals like William Tecumseh Sherman, who advised his brother that the Indians "all have to be killed, or maintained as a species of paupers." The Alawites find themselves in a comparable position. Alawites have repressed Syria's majority Sunni population for decades. The prospect of an extremist Sunni clique seizing power in Syria raises justifiable concerns about retribution.

Too much blood has been shed. Every group is going to continue fighting unless a settlement that recognizes and protects their interests realistically is reached. The Kurds have tried to avoid being dragged into the conflict, but unless a settlement is reached, look for them to try and establish their own State -- a development that would alarm Turkey and perhaps further de-stabilize the region. Those who wonder what Syria's future will look like absent a settlement need look back no further than to Lebanon, circa 1980.

Russia may help bring about a settlement, but only if Vladimir Putin decides that's the only way to protect Russian interests. Russian security, not humanitarian concerns, motivate Putin. The Russian naval facility at Tartus matters less as a home for its naval vessels than for its role as a principal signals intelligence facility for the Mediterranean. Putin has no intention of losing that base. Expect him to act forcefully to protect it.

Syria's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical weapons and rocketry, should be the main concern. The grave threat posed by this arsenal is well covered by media. The key point is that keeping these weapons from falling into the hands of violent actors or terrorists is what should most concern international community. It needs to focus attention and resources on containing this problem.

Syria's conflict poses no easy solutions. But finding one starts with viewing what is going on there realistically. Those who believe outside parties can anoint Syrian proxies to do their bidding in bringing one about should be careful to heed the lessons of history. Syria's future should not become Lebanon's past.

James P. Farwell is a national security expert who has advised the U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND. He is the author of Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown U. Press, 2012) and The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011). Rafal Rohozinski is CEO of the SecDev Group, a leader in advanced analytics operating at the intersection of cyberspace, political change, conflict, and armed violence. He spent 17 years working in an operational capacity in 37 countries, including conflict zones in the CIS, the Middle East, and Africa and previously directed the Advanced Network Research Group at the University of Cambridge. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. or Canadian governments, departments, agencies, or military.