Negotiating Syria’s political minefield

Last week a body named the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces emerged out of a protracted and acrimonious discourse in Doha amongst the various factions now positioning themselves to influence the course of events in post-Assad Syria.

Following what is being reported in some sections of the Western media people might be seduced into believing that the new anti-Assad coalition that emerged from the Doha discourses amounts to a Syrian government in exile. Nothing, frankly, can be further from the truth. There is still too much that we do not know about the dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

Myths about the conflict in Syria shaped in the crucible of some Western media reportage are now unravelling at breakneck speed. One such truth is that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a monolithic whole. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The FSA comprises factions of fighters who may well not hold together beyond President Assad’s ouster.

The same can be said for the new coalition. It is a contrivance that has emerged from the dissonance of an earlier political grouping, a repositioning of the factions, a microcosm of the continual evolution which the Syrian civil war has undergone.  It too runs the risk of holding together only so long as the common enemy, President Assad, remains in power.

The West understands that the removal of the Assad regime is not to be perceived as an end in itself but a means to an end. It is the post-Assad stability of Syria that is the end and it is this that is generating anxiety in the West.

There exists an entirely justifiable fear that the immediate post-Assad period could witness a wider, far more protracted upheaval, an internal power struggle that will witness the Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ turning their guns on each other and radical forces, both inside and outside Syria becoming a part of the affray. By then the regime that provided motive for common cause amongst the fighters would have ceased to exist and their own separate causes are likely to come to the fore to devastating effect. There is also the fear in the West that a post-Assad civil war could spill over into neighbouring territories with disastrous consequences.

The tough talking in Doha that preceded the emergence of the coalition amounted to a diplomatic microcosm of the fractious nature of the anti-Assad forces. All that has happened is the repositioning of the various elements within the coalition for a possible post-Assad takeover – and even then there is no guarantee that the prevailing status quo will sustain itself for any predictable period of time.

In the convoluted world of Syria’s internal politics and the simplistic interpretation which elements in the Western press often lend to the conflict there is much that remains unclear. What remains unknown up until now, for example, is exactly how the loyalties of the forces fighting inside Syria are divided and whether or not and to what extent the new coalition speaks for those forces.

France – which traditionally has been well ahead of the US and the rest of Europe in taking definitive positions on issues relating to the Arab Spring has once again surged ahead of the pack by agreeing to accord the body formal diplomatic recognition. The United States and the rest of Europe have, however, responded to the emergence of the coalition with decidedly greater caution – again, with good reason. The West has learnt from events in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where the Arab Spring has occurred that factions and vested interests can trump even the best of intentions and that supporting what is loosely described as the opposition in Syria is like riding a tiger. Recall that not too many months ago the Western media’s anti-Assad posture wholeheartedly embraced the tactic of accusing Damascus of fighting a ‘dirty war.’ These days – now that the reported atrocities of elements of the Free Syrian Army have reportedly been unearthed – we hear rather less about the excesses of Assad’s forces.

The reluctance of the West to rush to conclusions by formally recognizing the new Syrian coalition is entirely understandable. Both Washington and London have sought to acknowledge the coalition without endorsing it. The issue here is trust. While the West is keen to see the back of the Assad regime it desperately does not want to back a movement which it still does not trust. The West understands only too well that recognition of the coalition could inevitably extend to having to provide arms to fighters on the ground. It is the lack of understanding of the political imponderables that characterize the Syrian crisis and the lingering sense of distrust of either the political or military coalition opposing the Assad regime that is tying their hands. Put differently, the West is terrified of making a mistake by simply backing the wrong horse.

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