Syria is faced with a political and military stalemate. With the major cities still in the hands of the regime, a supposedly united coalition emerged from Doha looking more like a “Frankenstein” than a viable alternative to the Assad regime.
Amr Al-Azm, Associate Professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University, argued in a recent discussion that without control of any major city, without the weaponry, with minorities still on the sidelines unsure whom to trust—evidence of which is the recent eruption of rebel-Kurdish violence—and with the regime still holding on to a supply of heavy weaponry and fresh equipment in reserve, there needs to be a significant “game changer.” The involvement of the international community could tip the balance.
The international community has been unwilling to get embroiled, except for Russia. However, viewing Russia’s arms sales or influence in the region as a key contributor to any outcome in the region is seriously misconceived. As a result of either deep (mis)understanding or convenient demagogy, the strategic implications of Russia siding with Assad are overemphasized. Ekaterina Stepanova, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Unit at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), claims this arms-deal argument is growing old and has limited, if any, impact on the turnout of events. She sees Russia’s decision to side with Assad as an instinctive one; based more on “substantive identity” reasons, instinctive rather than pragmatic positioning considering the political similarities. Both ruling regimes share the political and economic dominance of a narrow caste – one that operates without populist or party-based support.
While Russia would have faced some financial losses from weapon sales, these were minor in comparison to the international backlash it risked and that greeted it when events turned violent in Syria. Russian embassies were attacked, and in the UN even some of Russia’s allies turned their backs on it considering the human rights abuses. In the Middle East, Russia is a declining power less able to dictate the way things turnout. To assume that Russia’s arms deals will have an impact is securitized hyperbole. Russia’s leverage is in real terms closer to naught. Either way, the Assad regime hasn’t even used its full military force according to Al-Azm; we have yet to see the heaviest equipment; with or without further Russian deals.
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But considering the possibility that, with a precise injection of weaponry, a major city fall to the opposition – perhaps Aleppo explains Al-Azm – the regime woulc certainly panic. But how does the opposition topple the regime without bringing down the whole state? The fragility and uncertainty of the political status of the opposition makes this a real prospect. The potential for the “Somaliazation”, to quote Stepanova, of Syria without the existence of a viable form of provisional government to take its place, is very high.
The coalition must exert greater control over the distribution of weapons and money. Therefore, surely more concerning than Russian arms deals is the Qatari and Saudi funding (and in my view earnest criticism of which is seriously lacking in Western media) which are being sourced through their own channels, entirely sidestepping the coalition and flowing into the hands of various vested interests; local groups and Salafists. The presence of extremist armed groups is increasing. It severely undermines the political unity and strength of the opposition, and reduces the chance of a less bloody transition.
The solution needs to be political according to the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. It is not enough just to control weapons; “the proliferation of weapons (is a tactic, but) not a strategy,” he argues. The presence now of shoulder-mounted RPG’s is not going to deter those fighting for Assad enough to stop them. The coalition has to generate minority support, consensus is needed among its leaders as well as mediation and ties formed with a popular base if they are to stave off the proxy hawks, and even begin to imagine a transition.
International hesitancy is therefore not unfounded. The human cost of this conflict cannot be underestimated, and humanitarian assistance is urgent and absolutely needed; but we need to identify who the key players are, what they stand for, and the nuances of the conflict before we blunder in.