Still more on Free Syria

Dylan Clement, a Syria Program Assistant at the International Republican Institute, asked some good questions in responses to my pieces advocated Free Syria on protected areas inside the country. Here are his questions and my answers:

Q: Through its usage of chemical weapons, the regime has proven its willingness to break international norms and in particular defy the United States. With that in mind, how would the regime react when faced with the possibility an alternative Syrian government taking hold in these de facto no fly zones?

A: The regime would certainly test the will of those who say they will protect them. We would need to be prepared to respond with proportional force against whatever applied the test. The problem will be that the artillery, mortars or aircraft concerned may disappear, or be parked next to mosques or schools. Then we need to be prepare to widen the circle of targets. This might well lead to escalation that we would have to be prepared to match.

The elimination of the bulk of the regime’s chemical weapons is perhaps a better indicator of its response to threat than its continued use of chlorine.

Q: I’m not sure the opposition structures that exist, ie the SOC/SIG, are competent and cohesive enough to provide actual governance alternatives in these free areas inside the country…

A: I don’t think the SOC/SIG would in the first instance be responsible. It would have to be local councils. Their connections to the SOC/SIG are tenuous at best. It is their connections to local liberated communities that are important.

Q: What if [Jabhat al] Nusra takes refuge in these areas as well? Given the level of cooperation between Nusra and ‘moderate’ rebel groups up to this point (and the lack of precedent for civilian opposition leaders in denouncing al Qaeda), a situation may arise whereby the US is providing air cover for Nusra’s attacks against the regime. That would be awkward.

A: This is a serious question, as a successful protected area would necessarily attract Nusra or other extremists. The Syrian forces responsible for protection on the ground would have to take care of that issue. My understanding is that the US-trained forces are prepared to oppose Nusra and the Islamic State, and their logistic and financial train presumably provides the US with leverage to insist.

But we have to be careful. Treating all Islamists as enemies would only make things worse, and there is necessarily an area of ambiguity: is the guy with the beard who disapproves of women appearing in public Nusra, Islamic State or just a devout Muslim with conservative social views? There will be no way to avoid issues of that sort as things unfold in Syria.

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