The Syrian Gulf War

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    The Syrian National Coalition's assumption of the regime's seat at the Arab League yesterday accomplished little practically but symbolically it represents a bodkin in Bashar al-Assad's side. He has now been officially informed that the Sunni Arab world is united against him and is preparing for a future Syria without him. By definition this isolates him further and makes him reliant solely on Iran as a regional patron, financier, arms dealer, and military subcontractor. (It won't have escaped Hezbollah's attention that the current presidency of the Arab League Council belongs to Lebanon, whose government has just collapsed because of the Syrian crisis.)

    The decision also quietly undermined one of the recently floated goals of Assad's next strategy for trying to crush the rebellion, a strategy that is wedded to the regime's slow-motion metamorphosis from a conventional military force to a network of sectarian militias. That is, to revivify the ‘resistance ideology - historically a joint Sunni-Shiite project waged at the international level against Israel and the United States - into a rallying cry for Syrian nationalism. This is what the Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun's seemingly bizarre call for Assadist holy war a few weeks ago amounted to. The Arab League's emplacement of the Coalition was a deft counterstroke.

    Yet the background to this apparent display of unity was fraught. Coalition chairman Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib had resigned just 48 hours prior to the Arab League summit because, as Fawaz Tello points out, he could not stomach being a figurehead for a Muslim Brotherhood power grab. (Tello is the man who convinced Khatib to go into politics in the first place.)

    When the Coalition was formed last November, I wrote that it was more or less a reboot of the discredited Syrian National Council (SNC), which had been both blindsided and reassured by its Qatari sponsors at the Doha conference that gave rise to the Coalition. Because SNC had utterly lost the confidence of the State Department, which wanted the opposition to become more inclusive of women and minorities, Qatar was forced go along with the Riad Seif's U.S.-underwritten Syrian National Initiative, which aimed to create a new oppositional body that could be recognized by the West. Yet Qatar made the Brotherhood a promise that the latter would still occupy a role in the emergent organization that was somewhere between primus inter pares and kingmaker. So far, that promise has been fulfilled.

    The Coalition's new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, may or may not be "more Texan than Muslim Brotherhood," as Robert Ford cutely phrased it, but the dozen or so independents who quit the organization over his ‘election' (just 48 members out of 63 voted; 35 in favor) is worrying in itself.

    The regime at this point hardly needs to depict its enemies as Islamists when a third of its enemies does that time and again by voting with their feet. In announcing the "freezing" of her membership, Vice President Suheir Atassi attributed her decision to "the failure of organizational work and the lack of professionalism." That, and no doubt the Brotherhood's recent foretaste of how it intends to treat women in post-revolutionary Egypt, was enough to give a longstanding Syrian feminist reservations about being window-dressing for ideologues. Atassi rejoined the Coalition, likely for reasons similar to those of Khatib himself. At the Arab League, these two disgruntled Coalition executives made a good show of solidarity, but there is no reason to suspect that beneath the surface, the same problems remain.

    Indeed, whatever happened prior to the summit to coax Khatib into effectively un-resigning, the figure he cut yesterday was impressive and statesmanlike. It also revealed the true intent behind his much-scrutinized offer to negotiate with the regime - his first declaration of independence from the Coalition. As liberal dissident Ammar Abdulhamid noted at the time, this was never designed to replace the military dimension of the revolution but only complement it with a knight's move of forcing Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers to reject their own oft-cited desire for dialogue. "Do you really want to talk?" was a question to which Khatib already knew the answer. His call yesterday for NATO to use its Patriot missile batteries to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Syria - not merely protect Turkey from aerial encroachments - also demonstrates that he is still prepared to embarrass United States for failing to intervene militarily in Syria. Too many ‘red lines', he had said a week ago in announcing his resignation, have already been crossed.


    For the casual observer, the Syrian opposition has been, for close to two years, an overlong Monty Python joke of self-cannibalization, petty revolutionary factionalism, and outsize egos all vying for a post-revolutionary role. There is of course truth in this assessment. However, the underlying tension that has led to such rampant dysfunction is a running geopolitical feud between opposition's two main sponsors: Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And that feud has had the most deleterious effect on the Syrian rebels' military capability. Here, both Gulf states have acted as divorcees, each trying to out-spoil their common child in exchange for professions of his absolute loyalty. The inevitable result has been an opportunistic offspring that, in its adolescence, has tried to have it both ways or ‘acted out' in frustration. Only in reaching psychological maturity do these tendencies stand a chance of being overridden.

    In yet another groundbreaking report put out by the Institute of the Study of War, analyst Elizabeth O'Bagy identifies the central dilemma for the rebels as a competition between khaleeji patron-states and the "disparate sources of funding" that have gone into the Free Syrian Army. Sycophancy, rivalry, warlord-ism, and corruption are the byproducts of this competition, byproducts that have acted as hindrances to a once-and-for-all hierarchical structure with clear command and control capability.

    O'Bagy gives a useful history of abortive attempts at creating just that - attempts which then run aground because Riyadh and Doha can't get along. Beginning in September 2012, for instance, the Joint Command for the Revolution's Military Council was announced as a Saudi-Qatari venture seeking to capitalize on rebel advances, particularly in Idlib and Aleppo. Qatar controlled the regional Military Councils, which ran supplies to local brigades, while Saudi Arabia controlled the Coordination Office, which handled communications and logistics. Fearing they were being outmaneuvered in terms of influence, the Saudis amplified the role of the Coordination Office, appointing loyalists in areas where they felt the Qataris reigned. Rebels fed up with such external meddling then created rival Military Councils consisting of elected, rather than appointed, leaders. Some provinces therefore had two bodies claiming to perform the same task at the same time. Internal fights broke out and rival leaders were sometimes exiled.

    In another well-caught anecdote, O'Bagy mentions that on the sidelines of last November's Syrian National Initiative conference in Doha, the Qatari government convened a separate conclave of all Military Council heads, Joint Command brigades, and independent rebel commanders. Money was handed out just for attending, and weapons were duly promised. The Saudis could not abide by this unilateral power play and so made their own offer to rebel leaders not to attend the Doha conference. A few obliged. So just as the conference was underway there came the announcement of yet another rebel umbrella formation from within Syria: the so-called Five Fronts Command, which was announced on YouTube by Higher Revolutionary Council spokesman Louay Moqdad, a close associate of Lebanese businessman and Future Movement member Okab Saqr, who has coordinated gun-runs on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Mustapha al-Sheikh, the former head of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, endorsed the Five Fronts Command. Al-Arabiya and Asharq al-Awsat covered it; Al-Jazeera ignored it.

    Clever rebels played their own part in this opera buffa. As O'Bagy writes, "in order to receive funds from both sponsors, rebel organizations nominally split, sending one commander to Doha with the other staying in Syria. Although united under the same leadership structures, commanders claimed to be associated with different rebel groups and often professed affiliation to rival units." This is worth keeping in mind the next time you see an unnamed diplomat or Middle East expert quoted in the press blaming the ‘disarray' of the Syrian opposition on the opposition itself. Fortunately, that disarray is being more earnestly counteracted at the ground level.

    The Supreme Military Command (SMC) is newish martial structure designed to serve as a kind of Defense Ministry for the Coalition. It incorporates figures and units from the Joint Command and Five Fronts Command, yet so far it has shown more of an inclination toward pragmatism and nation-wide coordination. It was the SMC that received and distributed those Croatian heavy weapons beginning in December-January (even though some of this materiel has wound up in the hands of extremists, the bulk of it has gone to more responsible actors). It was the SMC that brought a swift end to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade's disastrous abduction of 21 U.N. peacekeepers last month, an episode which, bad enough as a human rights violation, threatened to see rebel credibility evaporate overnight. And it is the SMC to which John Kerry intends to send soon-to-expire halal food parcels and other "non-lethal aid."

    True, the SMC includes members of the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamist Front, both of which contain unpleasant Salafist-jihadist brigades. But at this late stage in the insurgency, the SMC has no other choice but to work with such elements if it doesn't wish to be subsumed by them. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is excluded from its ranks owing to its U.S. blacklisting as a terrorist organization.

    Somehow unremarked in all the collapsing scenery last week was how SMC's intriguing response to the Hitto election demonstrates that some Gulf clients have learned the hard way that in order to be effective, they must keep a healthy distance from their paymasters. SMC head General Salim Idriss is close to Qatari financiers as well as to Coalition Secretary-General Mustafa Sabbagh, who is Brotherhood-linked and responsible for Hitto's premiership. But then why did Idriss initially refuse to recognize Hitto as interim prime minister? On the surface, this rejection was doubly strange given Idriss's serial complaints about the need for a transitional government in liberated Syria to shoulder the burden of civil responsibilities, such as restoring electricity and distributing bread, which overtaxed rebels are now satisfying.

    The answer is that while the SMC may take money and guns from foreign interests, it is not necessarily ideologically beholden to them. O'Bagy rightly notes that the "negative view of the SNC and the Muslim Brotherhood has meant that the majority of SMC members prefer to keep their power structures and resource channels removed from the coalition. Thus, although officially operating within SOC's framework, rebel commanders are quick to point out that the Supreme Military Command functions on its own authority and as an independent body."

    Such deliberate ambiguity creates an opportunity for the United States, should it seize it, to take over from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the chief liaison and arms-dealer of the SMC. The goal should be to bolster the moderate and secular forces at the expense of radical ones. This will of course mean unintended consequences whereby arms fall into the wrong hands. But they have long been falling into such hands anyway, principally because the Obama administration's wariness has given way to the recklessness of outsourcing the pursuit of American interests to non-democracies that don't remotely have those interests at heart. This has been its own unintended consequence, one badly in need of correction.

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