THE BLOG
11/29/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Syria Up for Grabs

As the Syrian uprising enters into its twentieth month the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad has begun to show signs of fracture against the weight of an increasingly organized armed opposition. Responding to Western demands and efforts from leading Islamic Sunni powers (Qatar and Saudi Arabia), the disenfranchised organizations of the Syrian opposition have formed a new coalition -- The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces -- to provide a realistic alternative to the prevailing regime and end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Coinciding with this move, officers of the Free Syrian Army have established a commission to develop the foundations for a future Syrian army and coordinate their activities with the leaders of the political opposition. These moves aim to show that the Syrian opposition has an organized and potentially accountable chain of command, alleviate concerns surrounding the influence of Islamic extremist elements, and entice the provision of direct military assistance from their international backers who support the ouster of the Assad regime.

In response, on Tuesday November 28, France became the first Western nation to recognize the newly established National Coalition as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People" and "the provisional government of the future democratic Syria." French President Francois Hollande has further called for acceleration in the pace of arming the Rebels presently embattled in a protracted struggle against the Assad regime. Although there are many factors which will influence the decision of Western powers to provide arms to Syrian rebels and the French are restricted by the 2011 European Union arms embargo placed on Syria, they are taking a position leading the charge in both Europe and the international community for leveling the playing field between the armed opposition and the Syrian regime. While the United States remains cautious in their direct military support of the opposition, fearful of the regimes chemical and biological arsenal and the possibility of weapons falling into the wrong hands, powers such as China and Russia, although engaging in limited dialogue with opposition leaders, have maintained their vehemently non-interventionist positions, opposing any direct or for that matter, indirect support of the Syrian opposition.

However, the struggle for Syria is only in its infancy. The National Coalition and Assad regime are but two of the players involved, and the decision to supply opposition forces with military weaponry extends far beyond a simple balance of power between rebel and regime forces. As Syria is being torn apart from within, external powers are either struggling to maintain the pre-uprising status quo, or laying in wait to pick up the pieces and rearrange them to their strategic advantage.

Both Russia and China, who have blocked U.S., U.K., and French attempts in the United Nations Security Council to intervene in Syria, have significant vested interests in maintenance of the Assad regime. Russia has contracts with the Syrian military valuing over $3 billion, a contract for a $370 million gas pipeline, and is in the early stages of negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal for the construction of a petrochemical complex and an oil refinery. Since the beginning of the uprising Russia has ignored the Western imposed arms embargo, supplying 60 tons of munitions and selling 36 fighter jets to the Assad regime. For its part, China fundamentally adheres to a doctrine of non-interventionism and is strategically interested in maintaining the present balance of power in the Middle East. While less heavily invested in the Syrian military and infrastructure than Russia, Chinese companies lost an estimated $20 billion as a result of the power transition in Libya, and the establishment of a pro-western regime in Syria would further limit China's present and future influence in the region. Finally, Syria is a pawn in the inter-Islamic struggle between the Shi'ah power of Iran, and the Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been leading Arab overtures for the removal of Assad from power, and aim to establish a barrier to prevent the continued encroachment of Iranian influence throughout region.

With the National Coalition in place, and the election of identifiable personalities for its leadership, the United States, United Kingdom, and France may soon have an infrastructure through which they can assert their influence over the situation in Syria. However, looking back upon history we may find it slightly ironic that France is leading the charge to arm the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebel forces. Was it not France who during the Mandate period (1923-1943) followed a general policy of disproportionately empowering minorities in Syria and for that matter Lebanon as well, with both countries now having experienced bouts of civil war? Was it not France who implemented a policy which led to the establishment of a Syrian military whose leadership was composed primarily of Alawites and other ethnic minorities who would latter assert themselves through a military coup to establish the Assad dynasty (1970). Thus, is it not France who bears at least part of the ultimate responsibility for an estranged Shi'ite sect (the Alawites) representing only 12 percent of the Syrian population ruling over a predominantly Sunni Muslim country with an iron fist?

Now over four decades later, France has thrown itself into the mix of nations fighting for a stake in the new Syria. Once again, attempting to involve itself in Syria's transition into statehood, however this time on the opposite side of the coin, supporting an opposition movement comprised primarily of the countries Sunni majority. An opposition movement in which a recent poll suggests one-third of its constituents support the Muslim Brotherhood. One could suggest that France's unadulterated zealousness to arm the Syrian opposition may consciously or unconsciously be motivated by a sense of responsibility for the present state of affairs in Syria, and an attempt to rectify past mistakes in the region. However, it is more likely that previous French involvement only reinforces the same strategic logic which has set Syria as the stage for a power struggle between competing coalitions on the UN Security Council, and as the battleground for a proxy war between regional religious adversaries.

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