Syrian Opposition Sends Mixed Signals to U.S. and Israel

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

According to Reuters, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria — the two largest opposition coalitions in Syria — signed on the last Friday of 2011 a unity pledge that “reject[s] any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.” However, remarks delivered to the U.S. and Israeli press by a Council spokesman seem to contradict the Council’s stated support for the new joint policy.

The rejection of (Western) military intervention is a significant concession on the part of the Syrian National Council — the smaller, more diaspora-oriented of the two main coalitions — as the Council had been calling for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone (“Safe Area for Syria“). The Council’s representatives have compared the situation in Syria to that in Libya (as such, it is not surprising that the transitional government in Libya is the only foreign government to have formally recognized the Council). Those analyzing the feasibility and costs of such intervention argue that Syria’s extensive air defense system and high population densities will make a no-fly zone difficult to enforce, leading to heavy civilian casualties and, ultimately, require major troop deployments.

Despite the unity agreement, one of the Council’s spokesmen/leaders, Samir Nashar, told the Washington Times that “the majority of SNC leaders agree with international military intervention as early as possible” even though “they might not be brave enough to express it openly.” Nashar’s statements (at least those made to the Washington Times) are expressly targeted at garnering U.S. support: he told the paper that intervention would present a “historic opportunity” for the U.S. in the region, and that most Syrians would welcome a replay of NATO’s 2011 Libyan engagement. It is not clear if Nashar’s statements have been approved by the rest of the Council. The Guardian reported that as of December 31, 2011, “the membership of the group [Syrian National Council] has yet to formally adopt” the full terms of the unity agreement.

Nashar, and the Council, may be hedging their bets at this stage. Even if a Turkish or Arab League military mission (the latter would ostensibly be “permitted” by the Syrian opposition) materialized to oppose Assad, the U.S. would be involved. And unless the Syrian military decides to stand down as the Egyptian and Tunisian armed forces did last winter (thus helping force Ben Ali and Mubarak out of office), it is unlikely Assad will find himself adrift within his own inner circle. A violent end, or sufficient threat of one, would really be the only option available to the opposition to secure victory over the regime.

Nashar’s statements have also been picked up by the Israeli media. Haaretz has focused on the Council’s new Israel policy. The Guardian reports that the unity agreement between the Council and the National Coordination Body only makes vague reference to “liberating Syrian territory,” which is almost certainly a reference to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Samir Nashar is quoted as saying that while the Council’s focus would be on rebuilding Syria, “the Arab Initiative will most probably be acceptable after the regime change, and we hope it will become a reality. After Syria will get back the Golan Heights, they will accept whatever will be accepted by the Palestinian people.” Haaretz also noted Nashar’s reiteration of the Council’s promise to distance Syria from Iranian influence if Assad is removed from power. Although Nashar was reticent about the status of Hamas and recognition of Israel, he is clearly striking the right notes for liberal hawks in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

He’ll have to press harder, though. Despite Nashar’s latest comments, the U.S. and NATO have not publicly committed their forces to taking military or humanitarian action in Syria. The U.S.’s NATO ambassador said in November 2011 that “there has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria.” The Cable reports that while conservatives and neoconservatives have been critical of Obama’s position on Syria, and of the Arab League observer mission, sources close to the administration say that the president is weighing his options for taking new steps against Assad.

Paul Mutter is a Fellow at Truthout and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.