Western Support for Syrian Rebels: A Viable Alternative?

04/08/2013 11:12 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Since the nationwide uprising against President Bashar Assad started in March 2011, some 70,000 Syrians have been killed, 3.6 million people internally displaced (IDPs), and the number of refugees fleeing over the border into neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon has surpassed one million. The humanitarian situation according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is "spiraling out of control" -- few can dispute his concerns and unless a political solution can be found, these already terrible statistics will be the tip of the humanitarian disaster iceberg.

An immediate, unified and proportional response by the International Community (IC) has surpassed criticality and with diplomacy avenues channeled through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failing to reach a consensus on any meaningful and formal resolution, the outlook is looking bleak. In February 2012 Russia and China blocked an UNSC draft resolution, and in March 2012 the UNSC could only endorse the "non-binding peace plan" proposed by the then UN envoy -- Kofi Annan, mounting pressure on the IC to come up with a credible and effective solution. The most recent UN-appointed envoy to Syria -- Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi -- struggles with similar headwinds making any immediate UN breakthrough unlikely. But as Syria's situation grows more desperate, and the death toll and humanitarian tragedy worsens, is indirect support to the forces opposing Assad really a sensible alternative to prevarication by the IC?

If you take a brief glimpse at recent history, IC activity taken to secure near-term gains (usually the toppling of a political figurehead or regime), almost always diametrically opposes subsequent long-term objectives (a nation's post conflict security structure). Moreover, the impending security vacuum that accompanies the disposition of regimes will unfortunately make the current situation in Syria look favorable.

Take Iraq. Despite the justification for Western intervention being predicated on false pretenses -- weapons of mass destruction -- many still believe the decision to invade and occupy to be reasonable given Saddam's human rights violations. Responsible for killing up to five thousand Kurds through the use of chemical weapons in 1988, and in the region of 30,000-60, 000 marsh Arabs in the South of Iraq in 1991, he was a feared dictator with a penchant for regional instability. And what of Iraq today? According to the Iraq Body Count, nearly 123,000 documented civilian deaths from violence have been recorded. If you add the deaths of combatants of all nationalities (39,900) and civilian data from Iraqi War Logs (11,500), the total number killed through violence since 2003 yields 174,000. Iraqis who fled their country to Syria to escape the sectarian violence post 2003 are now being forced back as Syria's situation escalates -- the number of Iraqi IDPs now totals some 2.8 million. Saddam was a ruthless and barbaric dictator, but 174,000 violent deaths and 2.8 million IDPs does not seem like an acceptable alternative.

And what of Western occupation in Afghanistan? Nearly three thousand lives were taken during the terrorist events of 9/11. Subsequent retribution was swift and backed by the IC -- the U.S. targeting and destroying al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan suspected of being used to train the attackers. Since 2001, conservative estimates place the number of civilian Afghans killed through violence at just under 15,000. If the deaths of Afghan Security Forces, foreign combatants, aid workers, journalists and insurgents are also taken into consideration -- the total number of deaths is estimated to be near 47,000.

The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since 9/11 increases by the day and currently amounts to 2175, over two-thirds of the number of U.S. citizens that lost their lives during the attacks. 2012 saw the first reduction on annual Afghan civilian deaths in 5 years but the rates remain "alarmingly high" according to the UN Secretary-General's Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan. Evidence of increasing fatality rates due to conflict between the al-Qaeda linked Sunni insurgency and Shiite militia forces, since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2009, does not bode well for the Afghan population beyond 2014, when most Coalition forces will have left the country.

Next door in Pakistan, the number of civilians killed due to Western objectives across the Afghan/Pakistan border since 2001 is assessed to be approaching fifty thousand. Whilst 5.7 million refugees have repatriated back to Afghanistan since 2001, there are still 2.7 million Afghans continuing to live in exile and some 425,000 IDPs as of mid-2012. Pakistan hosts over 1.6 million registered Afghans, "the largest and most protracted refugee population in the world" according to UNHCR, and as of late 2012 there were some 725,000 IDPs.

The humanitarian statistics associated with the two largest Western interventions in the last decade, no matter how well intended, cannot be ignored. Even the hailed "model intervention" story of Libya is unearthing some truly terrible fatality figures. The Huffington Post and International Business Times report that the number of dead and seriously wounded (as a consequence of the Western backed civil war) could top between 80,000 to 100,000 -- over a third fatalities. Amnesty International has produced compelling evidence of massacres, mass abduction, detention beatings, killings and torture by anti-Libyan militia -- backed by the British, French and U.S.

So will a post-Assad Syria be any different? Sadly not: The indicators and warnings are more ominous than with previous attempts at nation rebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan. Western and Arab indirect support to anti-Syrian government forces is reaching new levels. Moreover, stories of humanitarian atrocities by rebel forces are becoming a daily fixture as the Syrian crisis evolves. The rebels, regardless of ideology or objective, remain mostly unaccountable to IC-backed legislation, such as the Geneva or Genocide conventions, or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The nature of rebel force structures and their political allegiances are complex, with the relationship between the factions becoming increasingly divided in recent months.

The Free-Syrian Army (FSA) whilst backed with funding, communications and "other services" from the U.S., as well as arms and training from Turkey and the powerful Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, lacks unity and is hemorrhaging credibility. As well as an absence of any real firepower, the FSA have alienated themselves from Aleppo's residents by raiding grain stores situated around the city and stealing the grain to sell for themselves. Power struggles between defecting senior Syrian Army generals and lower ranked Syrian officers that have been fighting with the rebels for longer, also continue to reduce the FSA's cohesive effectiveness as a fighting force.

Jabhat al-Nusra -- the al-Qaeda-linked radical jihadist group, considered to be a more potent and lethal force than the FSA and blacklisted by the U.S. as terrorists, is uncompromising in their objective of Syria becoming an Islamic state based on Sharia Law. Unlike the FSA, al-Nusra has won the hearts and minds of Aleppo's population (for now) by retaking the grain stores from the pro-democracy rebel groups and forming a system for re-distributing the bread in rebel-held areas.

Rumblings of a new and bitter conflict between the FSA and al-Nusra beyond Assad are becoming ever present. Interviews with rebels in the North reveal suggestions of an "Iraq-style awakening" -- where in 2006 Sunni communities in the Fallujah and Ramadi heartlands turned on al-Qaeda groups trying to impose Sharia law through the use of force. The initial cohesive arrangement between Aleppo's FSA and al-Nusra has now become one of "barely disguised distrust" with one FSA Commander saying "we'll fight them (al-Nusra) on day two after Assad falls."

The nature of a political solution beyond Assad is also deeply divided. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was created in November 2012 in a hope to succeed the Syrian National Council and become the sole representative for the country. Just four months later, the chosen leader - -Mr. Khatib -- has offered his resignation citing that "foreign powers were placing too many conditions on aid to opposition and armed rebel groups, and were trying to manipulate events for their own interests."

Finally, in a post-Assad landscape, void of effective police and security forces to uphold the rule of law, enabling the outreach of governance by a recognized Damascus-based governing entity will require significant investment and time from the West.

Ten years on -- after many fatalities, intense training, mentoring and at a projected cost of one trillion dollars to the U.S., the outlook for Afghanistan still remains uncertain. Stiglitz, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, also estimates the ultimate U.S. cost of the Iraq war to be over three trillion dollars. With no appetite by the West to repeat such commitments in Syria -- the current strategy must be accompanied by a commitment of all rebel entities, including al-Nusra, to be ruled by a single governing body, if years of sectarian violence, killing and anarchy are to be avoided.

Observing the devastation that is spiraling out of control in Syria and the paralysis that has gripped the UNSC is truly awful. But the consequences of regime disposal come at a significant cost to life and regional stability. As Colin Powell famously stated "you break it, you own it." Owning Syria appears not to be an option the West wants to entertain and so the the question remains -- given recent history -- is backing the rebels and forcing regime change a viable alternative?