The Militarization of the Syrian Uprising

By Riad Kahwaji

As the United States and its Western allies took turns in warning against military intervention in Syria for various reasons, most Syrian opposition groups kept up their push to raise funds and arms to members of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" that has been trying to defend rebellious towns and cities from a large-scale onslaught by the regular troops of the Syrian regime that claimed the lives of nearly 9,000 people and numbers are rising by the day. Even few Arab and regional countries, especially from the Gulf region, have reportedly stepped in to facilitate the supply of arms, especially anti-armor weapons, to enable the insurgents to defend themselves as well as Syrian civilians who launched a year ago a public uprising to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Arab Gulf officials are reportedly upset with Washington's efforts to block military intervention and aid to help the rebels oust the regime, which would also be a severe blow to Iran's strategy in the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have publicly called for arming the rebels. The hesitance by the international community and the veto used by Russia and China to block action by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is seen by many Arab officials and experts as moves that encouraged the Syrian regime to mount fierce military campaigns against the rebels throughout the country in an attempt to crush the revolution.

The growing impatience of the Arab Gulf leaders with the futility of actions by the West and the UNSC, and the continued unchecked brutality of the Syrian regime against its own people are factors driving several officials in the region to favor pursuing a unilateral course in Syria as the Arab Gulf States did in Bahrain last year. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States sent their joint military force known as Peninsula Shield into Bahrain to help quell a public uprising that was reportedly incited by Iran to overthrow the monarchy. Even though the United States had opposed any intervention in Bahrain and urged reaching a settlement with the rebels, the GCC sent in its troops and brought the situation under control on the streets of Manama. According to some GCC officials, if Arab Gulf leaders had listened to the U.S., Bahrain could have been under Iranian rule now. These officials believe GCC and other Arab and regional states should not succumb to Western pressure and should support military intervention in Syria the same way Iran has reportedly been supplying the Syrian regime with money, arms and men to crush the rebellion.

Many Arab officials and experts question the allegations made by U.S. officials about a growing role for Al-Qaeda in the Syrian rebellion. They say Washington, and other countries, has failed to produce any evidence supporting these allegations. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim Al-Thani was very blunt in his speech at the Arab League meeting on March 10, when he said in reference to the Syrian rebels: "These so-called armed groups are in fact (Syrian) people who are defending themselves." Few regional analysts and officials have raised questions on the reports that are being leaked to the Western media, especially in the U.S., quoting unnamed sources in the Central Intelligence Agency talking about "Al-Qaeda activities" in Syria and warning of a "disaster" if there was any military intervention in Syria, but without specifying the nature of this disaster and its causes. In short, the U.S. and Western account justifying non-military intervention policy in Syria has not been convincing to many Arab officials and analysts. Hence, momentum is growing to support unilateral regional moves to arm and equip the rebels to bring down the Assad regime from within.

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The pan-Arab media has been unanimous in identifying the Syrian rebels as being mostly defected Syrian Army soldiers and officers backed by some civilian activists who took up arms to defend themselves against what is being referred to nowadays in Arab press as "the Syrian regime's forces." Other than the Syrian media, none of the major Arab media outlets are referring to Syrian rebels as terrorists or Al-Qaeda members. They are generally being referred to either as "rebels" or "Free Syrian Army." This fact by itself should be evidence enough to the Western officials, especially in Washington of the exact sentiments on the Arab street and the likely course Arab officials - who have become more sensitive to public opinion over the past year - will likely take in aiding the Syrian uprising. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said on March 11, that the international community should arm the Syrian people to protect themselves. "It is inhumane to watch and not support the Syrians in defending themselves," he said. Iran's open support and reported involvement in aiding the Syrian regime's forces have seriously undermined Tehran's position in the Arab world, which is another opportunity Arab Gulf leaders will not likely let slip away.

Faced with these rapid developments, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which groups the majority of Syria's main opposition parties, has moved recently to organize its ranks and bring the armed factions under a unified command within the newly-declared Military Consultative Council (MCC) that is based in Paris. According to SNC sources, there are about 46 positions within MCC that will be soon filled by retired and defected Syrian Army officers. The main tasks of the MCC will be to bring together the Free Syrian Army units that are currently scattered all over the country and disconnected. "Until recently each unit that defected from the Syrian Army in a town or a village declared itself a company within the Free Syrian Army, but was not in touch with the current leader and founder of the rebel Army, Col. Riad Al-Asaad," said a SNC official who asked not to be named. The MCC will create a command and control structure and network to allow better coordination and communication between the rebel forces on the ground, the source added. More important the MCC will work on boosting confidence of the Western and Arab countries in its capability in order to be able to acquire the needed weapons and equipment to the Free Syrian Army. He pointed out that so far the rebels relied on light and medium weapons and ammunition brought from the local black markets in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with money provided by Syrian businessmen supporting the revolution. He added that in the near future the SNC will become the sole legitimate body that will raise funds and supply the rebels, which in turn will give MCC more leverage and ability to unify Free Syrian Army forces throughout the land.

Once equipped with the right anti-armor weapons and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles the Syrian rebels have enough manpower to establish their own safe zone and safe corridors in the northern and southern parts of the country. "We will need Turkey or NATO forces to only provide us with early warning and IMINT to know the whereabouts and movement of the Syrian's regime's forces," the source added. The longer the fight goes on the bloodier it gets and the bigger the fractures become within the state institutions, especially security and military ones. Such a scale and pace of events have left diplomacy a very small margin to halt the violence and broker a peaceful solution. The Arab League reached on March 10 an agreement with Russia, the main power supporting the regime in Damascus, to end the bloodshed in Syria. They agreed to back efforts led by UN peace envoy Kofi Annan to mediate a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. But most analysts doubt peace efforts would yield any results at this stage, especially with the refusal of Assad to step down under any circumstances.

So with lack of political progress and no outside military intervention to stop the killing and Syria becoming an arena for Iranian-Arab struggle (reflecting sectarian Sunni-Shiite and Sunni-Alawite struggle), Syria will inevitably slide into an all-out civil war where the numbers of 20-million Sunni rebels confronting 2-million pro-regime Alawites will bring about a certain but very bloody outcome. The main side-effect of such a likely scenario is that the majority of the victorious rebel fighters will grow more radical and pro-Islamist, which in turn will determine the shape of the post-Assad Syria. The West will likely wonder then why the Muslim Brotherhood scored more gains in the region. The over-caution and exaggerated fears by Washington and the West - and probably hidden agendas - to avoid military intervention will likely lead to a bloodbath in Syria that will give birth to an overwhelmingly extremist community in a weak but democratic state bordering Israel. We will be entering a new phase of the Middle East conflict instead of solving it.

Riad Kahwaji is the CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

(AP Photo)

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