A Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader (the Guardian says he is Mustafa al-Sheikh, identified as head of the FSA supreme military council) says:
The fighting is like hit and run, we are not aiming to get control of any city in Syria, but we want to exhaust the regime and speed up its collapse.
This is the most sensible thing I’ve heard out of the FSA, which is still vastly outgunned and outmanned by the Syrian Army. Unfortunately, English-language press coverage seems to focus almost exclusively on the question of territorial control, which not only changes rapidly but is also irrelevant to the outcome of the civil war.
The ebb and flow of control over territory creates enormous risks for civilians who can’t escape to other areas. Collaboration–even if forced or unavoidable–with one side brings retaliation by the other, even as civilians find themselves unable to obtain adequate food and water, not to mention electricity, cooking fuel and health services. We are in the midst of a major humanitarian disaster in Aleppo and other population centers in Syria.
The international response is thoroughly insufficient. Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes a major escalation:
It is time for bold action, of the kind Mr Obama took in deciding to go after Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and to intervene in Libya. In Syria this would mean putting together a coalition of countries that would commit to providing heavy weapons (and possibly air cover) to all commanders on the ground who sign the “Declaration of Values” supporting a democratic and pluralist Syria put forward by the nine commanding generals of the military council of the FSA. To receive weapons, these commanders must show they control safe zones and admit foreign journalists, civil society activists and the UN to monitor the implementing of the declaration’s principles. They must also allow citizen journalists to upload photographs of what they witness to an official website maintained by the coalition.
The problem is this: the escalation Slaughter proposes could well make things worse rather than better.
Heavy weapons are not going to reduce the intensity or likely even the duration of an increasingly sectarian war. Nor will a “declaration of values” from revolutionaries who are already carrying out summary battlefield executions. The Asad regime will treat the “safe zones” she insists upon as target-rich environments and subject them to intense shelling. The logistics of food and other supplies in these zones will burden the rebellion with responsibilities it will find hard to discharge.
What about our relationship with Qatar and Saudi Arabia suggests that we could constrain their arms supplies in the way Slaughter suggests? They are far more likely to impose their own conditions: arms only to Sunnis, preferably religious ones.
The escalation Slaughter proposes will likely also make Russia abandon the P5+1 talks with Iran. Moscow could also make life more difficult for the U.S. by squeezing the northern distribution network for supplies into Afghanistan, though that option would be far less effective now that Pakistan has reopened its roads and border crossing points.
Some stable liberated areas may well emerge–a number of Kurdish towns along Syria’s border with Turkey seem already to fall in that category. But requiring that the rebellion give up its “hit and run” tactics is not wise. As Bashar al Asad seems to have declared in his latest statement from unknown whereabouts, Syria’s fate will be determined on the battlefield. I would have wished it otherwise, not least because the military forces are likely to dominate Syria’s post-Asad transition.
But best now to leave the military tactics to military people to decide. The highly conditioned transfer of weapons Slaughter proposes is impractical, unenforceable and unwise.