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Assad and the Road to al Qaeda

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On July 29, 2013, the New York Times reported that Ahmad al-Jarba, the new leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Syria's predominant exiled opposition group, was 'prepared to attend a peace conference in Geneva with representatives of Bashar al-Assad of Syria without preconditions.' Two days later, the NYT updated Mr Jarba's preconditions reporting that 'talks could only begin when the military situation in Syria was positive for rebel forces.'

Measuring the 'military situation' of rebel forces is complex at best, and a metric that sets unrealistic goals for an advancement of a political solution. Moreover, it would be a calamity to not fully consider the consequences of arming fragmented rebel forces and indirectly promoting al Qaeda objectives, amongst the backdrop of a gaping security vacuum that would exist should Assad and his regime be toppled. We must question the validity of providing huge caches of weapons to rebel groups that are fighting on volatile sectarian and ideological levels -- and the ramifications that such actions will have on the already appalling humanitarian problem in the region.

As large a pill as it may be for the West to swallow, re-energizing diplomacy channels with the Syrian President with a mindset that looks forward and not backward (akin to treaty of Westphalia's Principle in 1648) should be considered on an equal footing to fueling Syrian rebel groups with vast amounts of dangerous weaponry. Striking political consensus on the international stage has so far proved unfruitful but persuasion through diplomacy has to have an equal place along side coercion through force.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has admittedly failed to reach any form of consensus on the ever-deteriorating conflict and humanitarian situation in Syria due to Russia and China's use of veto over sanctions against Assad. As the battles over key strongholds around Syria reveal more and more about the composition and ideologies of al Qaeda linked anti-government rebel forces, Putin and Xi Jinping's political postures could well have some positive intended or unintended consequences that we should be mindful of.

Whilst many a commentator would cite defense related contracts as Russia's Machiavellian reasoning, China and Russia's official opposition to the resolution was predicated on a view that it would pave the way for a Western-led regime change. Not an unfair notion given that is effectively the train of events that led to the downfall of Libya's long-time leader - Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In attempting to ameliorate the situation in Syria, we must look to Iraq, which offers crucial clues on what might or might not be a feasible solution. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 (which incidentally I was part of) provides a crucial lesson on accountability to heads of state in the Western Hemisphere.

The UNSC maybe regarded by many as ineffective but it still provides the highest mechanism of international accountability through legitimacy and legislation. Transparency is not a forgone conclusion as the Chilcot enquiry (Britain's role in the Iraq War) is proving. I would argue, however, that the investigation into Tony Blair's rational for taking Britain to war would not have gathered such momentum without the UN's guiding principles (or Articles as they are formally known) on what constitutes legitimacy and legality in the eyes of the International Community. As a consequence of Iraq, the direct use of force by the West in Syria is therefore extremely remote without a unanimous agreement by the Permanent 5 members of the UNSC.

Therefore, the deposition of Assad and his regime is now being pursued by political figures such as Senator John McCain and the Britain Foreign Secretary, William Hague, through unorthodox support to anti-government forces. Looking to Iraq again, one of the key lessons from the invasion was the grave lack of a post-conflict plan. Security infrastructure in particular is decimated when regime and dictator change occurs, wiping out police and army institutions and leaving a vacuum of law and order. Who would provide these functions in the absence of Assad's regime?

Experience in Afghanistan has shown us that it takes well over a decade and huge International commitments of personnel and resource to rebuild an Army and Police Force. Even after eleven years I would contest the effectiveness of the Afghan National Army and Police forces to assume a truly dominating role in fighting the Taliban insurgency.

There is no compelling proof to suggest that the outcome in Syria would be any different. Sectarian and ideological violence is deepening compounded by very different motives of rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al Qaeda (AQ) affiliated al-Nusra Front. Opposing Assad's government forces is where commonality in values abruptly stops. Al-Nusra's ideology drives Syria towards an Islamic caliphate - far from the Western sovereign based ideals, and even within AQ circles, there is feuding and infighting between the Iraqi branch of AQ and al-Nusra.

AQ remains the nemesis of Western international security so it seems paradoxical to remove a dictator who is actively contributing to the attrition of the West's own enemy. Is a security vacuum in a country the size of Syria really beneficial to Western aspirations in defeating AQ and promoting stability in the region?

You also might be disappointed if your expectations were aligned to a theory that connects any improvement of the dire humanitarian situation in Syria to the removal of Assad. 174,000 violent deaths and 2.8 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq since Saddam's removal from power in 2003 would suggest otherwise.

Calling for the deposition of Assad and his regime may appear like the right course of action to pursue but in doing so, the West may just be walking open-eyed into 'check mate' with AQ and it affiliates.