In the past few months the Syrian rebels have gone from manning checkpoints in the Damascus suburbs to being routed from Homs and Idlib. Horrific videos have been smuggled out of Syria that rival what I saw when I was fighting in the Libyan civil war. Journalists are reporting that FSA rebels are pleading for arms and ammunition.
Syria is headed down the path of a protracted, disastrous civil war that could last for another year or more. This revolution has been mismanaged from its inception and if drastic measures aren't taken to change course it will be a disaster for Syria, the Arab Spring, and the cause of freedom worldwide.
The Libyan Approach vs. The Syrian Approach: Lessons Learned
The Libyan and Syrian uprisings started within a month of each other, yet a year later Libya is planning its first elections while Syria remains firmly in the grip of Bashar al-Assad. Libya should serve as a case study of how to conduct a successful Arab Spring revolution. What has happened in Syria is precisely what future revolutionaries should avoid.
Lesson 1: Organize Early
The Libyan revolution began on February 17, 2011. Ten days later, the National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed and declared itself the representative of the Libyan people. The NTC gained the allegiance of most rebel militias and they agreed to fall under the command of a military council, creating a unified political and military opposition to Gaddafi that could both lobby the international community for aid and intervention and receive arms and ammunition from abroad.
The Syrian revolution began on March 15, 2011, but it took more than five months before the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed on August 23, 2011. By then it was too late -- the rebel movement was fractured and disparate, and to this day the SNC hasn't been able to consolidate all the factions under its banner.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was created on July 29, 2011, three weeks before the SNC. This virtually ensured that the FSA would be a rival to the latecomer SNC. The FSA has been unable to control all of the militias that have been fighting Assad for months; they won't surrender their power and influence to a central command created long after they had already begun fighting.
Lesson 2: Get Local
The Libyan NTC was dominated by former Gaddafi regime officials who had defected, as well as influential leaders from eastern Libya. They had both the confidence and the respect of the people they represented.
The Syrian SNC is led mostly by exiles. They do not have the respect or confidence of many Syrians and lack the support of the FSA and other rebels on the ground. The SNC bears a chilling resemblance to the exile-dominated Iraqi National Congress (INC) that the United States relied upon leading up to the Iraq War. After Saddam Hussein was removed from power it became clear that the INC was incapable of governing Iraq because the exiles lacked influence inside Iraq. The SNC's inability to convince the international community they have a viable plan for post-Assad Syria only increases concerns that Syria will be the next Iraq and not the next Libya.
Lesson 3: Choose a Strategy
From the very start of the Libyan civil war the NTC declared its strategy of militarily overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi and installing the NTC as the government of Libya.
The SNC pursued a strategy of non-violent protest for nearly a year while the FSA fought the regime; Syrian revolutionaries couldn't even agree on a strategy of war or peace. The SNC finally accepted the reality on the ground and formed a Military Bureau on March 1, 2012 to exert some control over the military aspect of the revolution but it is unclear how much the FSA will cooperate.
Lesson 4: Secure International Support
The NTC was able to rapidly gain recognition from the international community through its early inception, clear strategy, and political and military control of the revolution. Less than a month after its creation a U.N. resolution had been passed, NATO was bombing Gaddafi's forces, and weapons were on the way to the rebels.
The SNC was formed more than five months after the Syrian uprising began, has failed to achieve unity among opposition groups, lacks a cohesive strategy, and has little control over anything. The Syrian rebels have a shortage of arms and ammunition largely because the international community doesn't even know who to send the weapons to, and if they are sent, there is great concern whose hands they might fall into.
Lesson 5: Capture and Hold Territory
At the start of the Libyan civil war the east of the country rebelled immediately, giving the NTC a safe haven from which to operate. They could coordinate, train, and equip rebel forces while also receiving supplies from the outside.
There is no safe haven in Syria because the FSA has been unable to hold territory. They are forced to flee when Assad's army attacks and their base of operations is in Turkey, not Syria. There is currently one Syria and it is Assad's Syria, which makes equipping and supplying the rebels far more difficult both logistically and diplomatically.
Cleaning Up the Mess
The mismanagement of the Syrian revolution is tragic, especially when Libya was available as an example to follow. Syria is far more complicated than Libya because of sectarian divisions, but if an American Christian like myself can fight in the same Libyan rebel army as Abdel Hakim Belhaj, surely Syrians can put aside their differences long enough to overthrow Assad.
The international community wants to help. Bashar al-Assad's removal would advance a myriad of Western strategic goals including isolating Iran and weakening Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
Much of the blame for a lack of international support must rest with the Syrian revolutionaries themselves. While the blood of the Syrian civil war is on the hands of Bashar al-Assad, the opposition must bear some responsibility for how much blood has been shed so far. For every freedom fighter that is captured, killed, or wounded on the battlefield because of a lack of leadership, weapons, or ammunition, he and his family can legitimately point a finger at the political and military leadership for not standing behind the men on the front lines.
The fighters must be supported. There is no time to hold talks and negotiations between the SNC, FSA and various factions in an attempt to unify them.
There is another way forward that will prove far more effective.
The Gulf countries must send enough arms to the SNC to fully equip the rebel forces. When the SNC Military Bureau controls the weapons supply, the FSA and various factions will have to accept a unified, central command and obey orders. Any units that don't play by the SNC's rules will be cut off from supplies. This will bring the opposition groups into line very quickly.
The Gulf countries have recognized the need to incentivize cooperation by providing the SNC with funds to pay the rebels, but salaries aren't enough. I never accepted my military pay from the NTC and I'm not the only one. All I needed was ammunition to keep going in Libya and I have no doubt many Syrian rebels feel the same way. The rebels need weapons and they'll follow orders from the SNC if that's what it takes to get them.
Whoever controls the arms and ammunition will control the revolution, and this is a revolution desperately in need of control.