180 miles from disaster

Yesterday’s Friends of Syria meeting occurred in Amman, just 180 miles from the battle for Qusayr, a Syrian town located just off the road from Damascus through Homs to Alawite-populated areas of the west.  If the opposition can hold Qusayr and Homs, it will split Damascus from the west.  If it can’t, Bashar al Asad will have what he needs to maintain a regime axis that splits the liberated areas of the south from the liberated areas of the north.  Either way, the outcome is likely to be a disaster for someone.

The Qusayr fighting involves Lebanese Hizbollah fighting with the Syrian army against mostly Sunni rebels, including Jabhat al Nusra.  It naturally has echoes inside Lebanon, where Alawites and Sunnis have clashed in Tripoli.  There is a real risk of spillover.  While some in Washington may wonder why we should worry about Hizbollah and Sunni extremists associated with Jabhat al Nusra kill each other, it is important to widen the aperture a bit:  state structures in Levant are at risk.  Were they to collapse, the chaos could be widespread.  Syria never has been comfortable with Lebanon as a separate state and established diplomatic relations with it only in the last few years.

It is hard to be optimistic about the preparations for next month’s Syria peace conference.  Apart from the parlous military situation in Qusayr, Moscow is insisting not only that Iran be present but that the Syrian opposition come to the table without preconditions (in particular that Bashar al Asad step aside before any political transition). Then and only then is Moscow willing to set a date for the conference.

Iran’s presence is certainly necessary if the conference is going to produce anything like a political solution.  The Russians are not wrong about that.  Its fighters, and Hizbollah fighters it supports, are very much engaged in Syria.  As for Moscow’s pre-condition that there not be pre-conditions, I suppose George Sabra–the current, interim head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition–will figure out a way to fudge that, perhaps by noting the Coalition’s acceptance of the formula already accepted last year at the Geneva conference:  a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers “formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

More problematic is the Russian transfer of major new weapons systems to Syria and its deployment of warships off the coast.  Russian thinktankers claim

non-intervention is now a basic Russian principle…

but that is neither true nor new.  Russia is certainly intervening in the Syria conflict on the side of the regime it considers the legitimate sovereign.  And it intervened on behalf of rebel forces in Georgia, when that suited its preferences.  Russian policy might better be stated as preventing Western intervention in areas it regards as within its sphere of influence.  We would no doubt return the favor if they were to muck in the Gulf.

The most sensible comment yesterday comes from Salim Idris, titular head of the Free Syrian Army.  He is quoted as saying in a letter to Secretary Kerry:

For the negotiations to be of any substance, we must reach a strategic military balance, without which the regime will feel empowered to dictate … while fully sustained logistically and militarily by Russia and Iran…Such untenable situation requires that the Unites States, as the leader of the free world, provide the Free Syrian Army forces under the Supreme Military Council with the requisite advanced weapons to sustain defensive military capabilities in the face of the Assad forces.

He is said to be seeking anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.  He is correct that a mutually hurting stalemate, which the opposition has not so far been able to reach, is needed before the Syrian regime will negotiate seriously.  If Bashar thinks he can do better by continuing the fighting, he will.

Secretary Kerry has limited himself so far to feints:  he said yesterday Friends of Syria would consider arming the opposition and supported an effort to lift the European Union arms embargo.  He is a man used to the niceties of the US Senate, where sparring is a verbal activity.  The Russians, Iranians and Syrians certainly understand what he is threatening, but they doubt he is willing to do it or that his doing it will be effective in the time frame available.

President Obama is fond of saying he doesn’t bluff.  It is time for him to play a stronger hand, one way or another.

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