The logic of Western policy towards Syria is twisted: instead of ending the conflict, Western policy is prolonging it, and – in doing so – strengthens the extremists within the Syrian opposition. Those who want to avoid a ‘second Iraq’ should act now and support the rebels with weapons and financial aid.
During his landmark speech two weeks ago, Syria’s president Bashar Assad conceded for the first time that his government had lost control over parts of the country. In December, the American CIA and NATO’s General Secretary, Rasmussen had predicted his imminent fall. Even the Russian government, Assad’s principal supporter, appeared to distance itself from the Syrian regime.
None of this applies to the situation today. Despite great efforts, the rebels have not succeeded in capturing Damascus or Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities. An end to the conflict, which – so far – has claimed 60.000 lives according to the United Nations, is not in sight.
Moreover, the West’s position remains unclear. Although President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and other Western heads of government have repeatedly called for Assad’s resignation, they haven’t done much to make it reality. In September last year, the U.S. government deployed a few dozen CIA agents while Germany contributes to a NATO mission aimed at protecting Turkey. But direct political, financial and military aid remains a taboo.
Though understandable, the West’s hesitant stance is short-sighted and counterproductive. For the Americans, the principal fear is that their weapons will end up in the hands of extremists associated with Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the State Department just added Al Nusra, the biggest jihadist rebel group, to its list of foreign terrorist organisations.
In Germany’s case, the concern about supporting jihadist groups is compounded by the country’s traditional pacifist instinct according to which involvement in external conflicts – especially military ones – is always wrong. From this perspective, supporting one of the belligerents in a conflict only makes things worse: what follows are more conflicts, more violence, more deaths.
In reality, the opposite is the case. Assad has long been the recipient of external support: Russia provides him with weapons and political cover while Iran is sending instructors and Special Forces. The Jihadists also have foreign sponsors: The tiny (but very wealthy) Gulf state Qatar and Saudi-Arabia have helped turn Al Nusra into the best funded and best equipped of all the rebel groups.
The only ones who get little outside support are the moderate and secular forces within the Free Syrian Army, who are frequently criticised by the West for their internal quarrels and lack of professionalism but are given very little advice or assistance.
What does this mean? While the Free Syrian Army is being marginalised, the Jihadists are winning power and influence. The transition towards a new (and democratic) government is becoming more complicated, while the conflict gets ever more protracted and bloody. If and when the Assad regime will come down, nobody will owe countries like Germany and America a favour.
In a nutshell: The logic of Western policy is twisted. For fear of weapons and financial aid getting into the wrong hands, the Syrian opposition is being left to their own devices, strengthening the very extremists whose rise the West wants to prevent. Rather than being shortened, the conflict is prolonged, with the result that the new Syria may be neither peaceful nor democratic but serve as a sanctuary for future generations of terrorists.
Nobody wants a ‘second Iraq’. But a prolonged civil war similar to the one in Iraq is now the most likely scenario unless the West changes its policy. The moderate forces within the Syrian opposition do not need Western troops, but they want financial and military aid. The call for an end to Assad’s regime must be followed by deeds.
Originally appeared in Cicero Online in German. Translated by Hannah Ellermann