By Bilal Y. Saab – The situation in Syria is rapidly deteriorating and sectarian violence has reached alarming levels. Al-Qaeda’s likely involvement in Syria is another factor that has occupied the minds of U.S. policymakers and affected their planning. Many have rightly predicted that escalation and descent into total, Iraq-style chaos was inevitable. The Syrian people are still on their own in this war against the killing machine of Syrian president Bashar Assad. But the rebels are starting to get some help from neighboring countries in the form of money, training, and weapons, as evidenced by their recent effective attacks against government forces. Will the flow of arms complicate things futher in Syria? Is it too late to save Syria?
To get a better sense of events in Syria, I sat down today with Andrew Tabler, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute, and asked him a few questions about developments and likely prospects in Syria. Mr. Tabler is the author of In The Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Acccount of Washington’s Battle with Assad’s Syria (Lawrence Hill Books: 2011) and former editor and co-founder of the magazine Syria Today. Mr. Tabler has conducted extensive field research in Syria over the past few years and has offered expert advice to executive and legislative bodies in the U.S. government on Syria policy.
1- Is the Syrian conflict reaching a turning point with the upswing in violence and the suicide bombings?
Yes, “third party” actors, including at least one jihadist extremist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, are taking advantage of the battle between the Assad regime and the opposition. These groups are not the Syrian opposition, although they share the same short-term goal of hurting the Assad regime in return for its brutal suppression of protestors and the opposition as a whole. Interestingly, however, it appears the video supposedly showing Jabhat al-Nusra claiming the massive twin blasts on May 9 was a forgery. The group has denied the video’s authenticity as well. This indicates the regime may be instigating a program to discredit the opposition.
2- Is Syria turning into an international security problem, not just a domestic and regional one?
The regime’s non-compliance with the Annan Plan, and the international community’s inaction when Assad ignored its April deadlines for a cease fire and withdrawal of military units from population centers indicate that what was once a civil and armed insurrection is morphing into a civil and armed insurgency. Given the sectarian makeup of Syria, and what is strategically at stake in that country, that conflict is likely to draw in regional powers with scores to settle. That storm, so to speak, in the heart of the Middle East and in a country with one of the region’s largest chemical and biological weapons programs, is currently one of the most prominent Western and regional security issues current under discussion. So far, no easy answers from any side.
3- Now that the Syrian rebels are starting to receive more modern weaponry allegedly from neighboring countries, do you think this new development will have an immediate impact on the balance of power on the ground?
It depends on the nature of the weapons. The Syrian armed opposition wants anti-tank and other modern weapons. Recent Free Syrian Army activity against Syrian forces in Rastan and elsewhere indicate the opposition is at least getting enough RPGs to continue to damage Syrian armor. It is unclear if they are getting what they are asking for, but the seizure of a ship bound for Tripoli, Lebanon from Libya that contained arms and ammunition shows that the opposition and its regional supporters are not relying on the United Nations or the international community to save them. Over time, more sophisticated weapons, plus the regime’s slow economic degradation and fatigue of military and security units, could tip the balance in favor of the opposition. But that would take some time.
4- What do you make of the proposition that al-Qaeda is involved in Syria? Do you think the rebels are aware of the risks of potentially cooperating with al-Qaeda? Have the lessons of Iraq been learned in Syria?
They are aware that these groups are in Syria, and they know to keep their distance. But is every Syrian whose loved ones were killed or tortured or both going to take the high road and keep away from extremist groups? No. The longer this conflict goes on, and the longer the United States takes a hands-off approach to the opposition “within Syria” the more those who do not share American long-term goals will take advantage of the situation.
5- Where do we go from here in terms of U.S. policy?
Given the regime’s degree of non-compliance with the Annan plan, a Plan B developed by the “core group” of the Friends of the Syrian People alliance could push Assad to “step aside” sooner rather than later. This involves backing the domestic opposition and preparing for some kind of military “kick” that is likely to be necessary to accelerate Assad’s departure, or bare minimum, get the Alawites and other minorities around the regime to kick him out. Research and preparations for Plan B are well underway, but it remains unclear what course of action the Administration will choose.