After four days of marathon negotiations, the different Syrian opposition groups have finally agreed to form a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A moderate Islamic cleric, Maath al-Khatib, has been elected president of the coalition. This is a minor achievement for Qatar and the United States, which, along with many others, have been pushing the fragmented Syrian opposition to get its acts together. One wonders, however, if this is a tad too late.
When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year, the international community anticipated an awesome Arab version of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s. The turn of events, however, proved to be a disappointing regression from good to ugly: The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while relatively peaceful, took longer than usual, with the military and, eventually, the Islamist hi-jacking the gains of the revolution. The protests in Libya, on the other hand, resulted in a bloody civil war that almost left the country in tatters. Syria, so far, has been the ugliest episode: Almost two years after the initial pro-democracy protests, the country is still in a protracted civil war, at times threatening to explode into a wider, regional conflict.
There’s one important difference between Libya and Syria. The erstwhile autocratic regime in Tripoli had generally been isolated, which made it easy to mobilize international support for an American-led multilateral intervention in support of the Libyan uprising. In contrast, Syria sits at an important geopolitical crossroads, and how things end in Damascus would affect the interests of major regional powers like, among others, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.
President Assad’s regime is a reliable ally of the Iranian theocracy. Despite his Arab nationalism, the Syrian dictator’s father had sided with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Damascus has been helping the Iranians smuggle arms to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In return, the ayatollahs in Tehran are lending their all-out support to the embattled Assad regime, thereby fueling the Syrian armed forces, which the dictator has unleashed on his own people. Undoubtedly, the ayatollahs see the Syrian uprising as a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli-American axis.
Turkey’s interest, on the other hand, is to preserve Syrian stability. Syria’s unraveling could complicate Ankara’s main source of insecurity, the Kurdish insurrection in the Turkish south. Ankara fears that a power vacuum in Damascus could lead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in the Syrian north, which could in turn coalesce with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq. This could embolden the Iraqi Kurdistan to secede from the currently very weak Iraqi state, absorb the Syrian Kurds, and eventually form a Greater Kurdistan, which would of course be an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.
Taking his “zero-problems” (with Turkey’s neighbors) policy to heart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pursued friendly ties with President Assad in the last few years. It was Ankara’s overtures that revived President Assad’s international legitimacy, which had been greatly diminished by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. When massive pro-democracy protests broke out last year, Ankara initially supported President Assad, but eventually changed course when his regime embarked on a bloody crackdown. Prime Minister Erdogan has since realized that supporting the Syrian dictator would cost Turkey the political capital that he has been patiently cultivating in the Middle East. Turkey is now among those supporting the Syrian opposition, although it’s apparently bent on managing the pace of the civil war.
As for Russia, it maintains its only overseas military base in Syria, and would naturally have the incentive to oppose, or water down, any anti-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council. This makes any multilateral intervention difficult, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly ruled out imposing a similar aerial embargo that it had imposed on Libya last year, unless the United Nations endorses it.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition had been hopelessly fragmented. The Turkey-based Syrian National Council tried to pose as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the international community, but its leaders have been living in exile for years and are arguably out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. As a result, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist groups has stepped in to fill the vacuum in the Syrian opposition, raising alarm bells among many observers.
Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group composed of Syrian extremists and mujaheddins from all over the Muslim world, has been leading the charges against President Assad’s forces, according to reports by the Washington Post. The core of this group is said to be President Assad’s own Frankenstein: Syria has cultivated an Islamist terrorist network that Damascus unleashed on American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and the anti-Syria political opposition in Lebanon; and now, these same Sunni terrorists are going after the Assad regime, which, for them, represents Shiite heresy.
Allegedly supported by leading Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Al Nusra has reportedly recruited an impressive corps of multinational fighters. The last time mujaheddins of different nationalities have been seen fighting together was during the American-supported Islamist resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And as the secular Free Syrian Army suffers from declining ammunition due to lack of Western support, many opposition fighters have desperately turned to Al Nusra, giving the jihadists a significant amount of popular support.
It’s in this context that the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey have pressured Syrian opposition groups to get their acts together. And now that they finally have, the ball has returned to these Western powers’ court; they must now act decisively. The prospect of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist regime taking over Damascus and its massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons has infinitely raised the stakes.