reflections

The Syrian Opposition's Endless Struggle Against Time

5 MINS READApr 25, 2012 | 01:15 GMT
(Stratfor)

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that the violence in Syria remains at unacceptable levels despite the presence of U.N. observers. Pointing out that there were only a handful of observers in place now, he is calling for Syria to admit up to 300 U.N. observers.

The issue is whether Annan seriously expects the presence of observers to reduce the violence. The task of observers is to inform the international community of unacceptable actions of those they have under observation. The problem in this case is that the international community is fully aware of the violence and might even have an exaggerated sense of the violence, given that the sources of information on government violence are usually supporters of the opposition. The issue in Syria is not that the world is unaware of the violence, but that it is not able or willing to take steps to end it. 

Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime has shown that it is willing to do whatever it needs to do to defeat the opposition. It has retained the support of the military that has maintained an operational level sufficient to suppress the opposition. The opposition, in turn, has remained divided and poorly organized and is certainly not in a position to defeat the Syrian military. As long as the military remains intact and supports Assad, the indigenous opposition cannot overthrow the regime. There was an expectation at the beginning that the military could not maintain its operational tempo in the face of growing opposition. That assumption has proven false.

The only possibility for the regime to fall is for outside forces to organize, arm and train the opposition. There have been indications that this is going on to some extent, but the ability to field a force strong enough to challenge Syria's armor and artillery is minimal, and the amount of support needed to make this even vaguely conceivable is simply not there. Similarly, the Syrian regime could be defeated by massive outside intervention, but there is no country with both sufficient military force and a desire to conduct an intervention that would defeat the Syrian army and replace the regime with the opposition. 

It should be noted that Syria is not without its supporters, particularly Iran and Russia. From Iran's point of view, the survival of the Assad regime has opened the door to increase Tehran's influence to the West and put pressure on Saudi Arabia. For Russia, anything that challenges the United States and, in the event of military intervention, also splits the Europeans, reduces potential pressure on Russia and is beneficial. Neither country wants the Assad regime to fall.

An intervention might begin as a humanitarian exercise, but it would likely culminate in a brutal battle between the Syrian military that has much to lose and no room to retreat, and a foreign force averse to casualties and unprepared to bring overwhelming force to bear. Without a quick victory, public opinion in the United States and Europe — hardly in favor of intervention — would shift to hostility at the inevitable brutality. It is possible that the Syrian military would quickly collapse, but that is a gamble based on hope. There is no indication that it would not resist. 

The observer issue reinforces the impotence of the United Nations and what Kofi Annan called the "international community" to force a cease-fire or a capitulation by the regime. The opposition seems committed to continuing its low level violence in the hope that there will be outside intervention or that Assad's military will finally crack. Neither is particularly likely.

As long as these hopes remain plausible, the opposition shows every sign of continuing the resistance. As long as there is resistance, the Assad regime seems committed to continuing the repression and has the will and capability of doing so. The only logical conclusion is that the fighting will continue until the opposition becomes convinced that there will be no outside intervention sufficient to make a difference, or they accept that the Syrian military will not collapse. 

The United States and most of Europe cannot tolerate the collapse of the opposition. First, it would reveal impotence in the face of Syrian actions. Second, it would leave in place a pro-Iranian regime dependent on Tehran for support. After a year, it is becoming doubtful that this will end with a collapse of the Syrian army. Outside supporters of the opposition will provide enough support to allow the opposition to hope that help is coming, but none will come. Therefore, they will continue to resist.

The operating assumption about Syria has been that time is on the side of the rebels, and that Assad will grow weaker the longer this goes on. Stratfor has long doubted the certainty of that assumption. In our view, we must face the fact of a stalemate that really depends on a frail hope of outside intervention on behalf of the uprising. There is a limit to how long that remains credible. Therefore, it is increasingly unclear that time is truly on the side of the rebels.

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