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The Real News From Syria

There’s a lot of noise coming out of Syria and the various international chat-fests being organized around it these days. Stern warnings from the State Department, charges and counter charges of massacres and atrocities on the ground in Syria, soothing platitudes from Kofi Anan, diplomatic warnings from Russia: most of it can be summarized as “blah, blah, blah.”

None of this has much bearing on what will happen. It is mostly posturing — the Russians are trying to look like they matter, the Turks want to look busy while minimizing their risks, the Americans want to feel good about themselves by mounting rhetorical assaults against atrocities they have no will to prevent, and so it goes. The legacy press covers this stuff because it can, and because it often buys into the establishment’s diplomatic narrative, but serious students of international affairs should not be misled: most of what is written about Syria these days is fluff and filler rather than news.

For insight into the future of Syria, try this story in the (paywall protected) Financial Times. Support for arming the rebels is growing, as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and wealthy Syrian expats and others step up funding for the military resistance to Assad.

The weapons being provided include light infantry arms and, increasingly, anti-tank weapons. Better armed rebels are credited with increasing the death toll among Assad’s soldiers as well as growing numbers of tanks destroyed.

Much of the funding comes from official channels, but it’s not clear who exactly is getting the money. While the “Free Syrian Army” is developing a more organized structure around the country, there are many groups in the chaotic resistance movements and, given the atmosphere of lawlessness and smuggling that has been a persistent feature in parts of Syria, it’s not at all clear where these weapons end up.

The FT also notes that radical and Salafist sheikhs and organizations in the Gulf are getting into the weapons delivery act. For many jihadis, the fight against Assad is first and foremost a struggle against Alawite “heretics”, and the goal is to build a radical Islamic state on the ruins of Ba’athist, secular Syria.

It’s been a classic Saudi ploy to keep the radicals quiet at home by letting them fight and support fighters abroad; this dates back at least as far as the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and has been a pattern in many conflicts since. It seems likely that in this case, when the Saudi state interest in weakening Iran and strengthening the Saudi voice in both Lebanon and Damascus coincides with the jihadi hunger for a Syrian religious war, that Saudi authorities will see radical enthusiasm for Syria as an asset.

What’s happening in Syria is a true civil war, and like most civil wars it won’t come to an end until one side loses or until both sides realize that they can’t win. What the Arabs and others are doing to arm the rebels has much more to do with this war than the choreographed posturing of diplomats and the elegant pirouettes of moral concern performed by world leaders trying to make themselves look good against a background of chaos and blood.

Will the rebels get the strength and the international backing to drive Assad from power, or will Assad finally manage to crush his opponents once and for all? Or will a stalemate gradually emerge as both sides do everything they can, but neither can quite beat the other? If the rebels do start to succeed, who will win the power struggle among the many different factions into which the regime’s enemies are divided?

Those are the real questions in Syria, and understanding the flow of money and arms to rebel groups is almost infinitely more important than following the travel schedule of Kofi Annan as we try to see what comes next.

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  • John Fahy

    Did you mean Ban Ki Moon?

  • PacRim Jim

    What is ostensibly a revolution is merely the Islamic python tightening its death-grip on the Syrian people.
    Exhale the old, you lose.
    Inhale the new, impossible.

  • subrot0

    What bothers me greatly about this situation is the fact that many nations can step up to the forefront.

    Here is a chance for the Emirates to really show what they can do with their money and status. They could be the peace broker but they have done nothing. The Saudis don’t care about this situation.

    This is also a chance for the Chinese to step up to the plate. At least they could do something symbolic but alas they are not used to the world stage.

    It is unusual to note that the Russians, English and the Americans are really not a factor in this situation. How the mighty have fallen.

  • ahem

    What’s really—really—happening in Syria, according to my sources on the scene, is that a rotten tyranny is being overthrown by an even more rotten and malevolent Islamist tyranny. Assad is bad, but, strangely, he’s the only thing standing between Islam and the Christians in Syria, who are going to be slaughtered wholesale the minute Assad is overthrown. He’s been protecting them for decades.

    Since the “opposition” to Assad is composed mostly of Islamists even more medieval and brutal than he is, there is no effective “democratic” movement against him. If the western world chooses to support Assad’s opponents under the mistaken notion that it is supporting ‘freedom’, it is in for a big, ugly surprise. I understand Obama has already sent millions of taxpayer dollars in support of the anti-Assad thugs, who are going to turn the guns we’re paying for around on us in the end.

  • Arik

    I don’t know what the problem is here. This is the strategy that the West should have used in the very beginning of the GWOT. Knock over Iraq, enflame the Shi’a-Sunni split, arm both sides and let Jihadists on both sides will each other. Drain both Sunni and Shi’a regimes of their resources and threaten each side that the Americans will help the opposite side unless you liquidate your own terrorists. It’s really quite that simple.

  • Kenny

    All the more reason for the U.S. to stay out of this Arab mess.

  • mac

    Syria has been a corrupt, festering hole for at least forty years. It’s another one of those countries that could have used another thirty years of colonial rule. I don’t give a damn about Syrians killing each other. Indeed, the more of it they do the happier I–and most of Syria’s neighbors–will be.

    The U.S. needs to stay far away from this one formally. Informally, we should be saying, “Hey, Assad! See that Free Syrian Army over there? Let’s you and them fight!”

  • Michael Reinhard

    This post raises an interesting question: is there an overlooked danger to not intervening? We always seem to frame our debates about intervention as a choice between our intervening and no one intervening, but it is probably just as often true that if we don’t intervene someone else will, someone that will pay far less attention to human rights and our concerns than we would. The groups that would emerge in this struggle with the help of the Saudis and other non-state actors in the Middle-East are likely going to be far less friendly to our interests and our conception of the well-being of the Syrian people than would the groups that would come out on top with our help and support.

  • betsybounds

    No, it actually is Kofi Annan. I read yesterday about a plan he’s got for Syria, something they’re all calling the “Annan Plan.” Whaddaya know, they all mourn that it’s not working. I think it’s actually a jobs plan for retired UN Secretaries General, and it’s working just fine.

  • Paul H

    This would be a good time for Eric Holder to expand “Fast and Furious” to Syria. He has the gun running part down pat.

  • ahem

    “This post raises an interesting question: is there an overlooked danger to not intervening?”

    At one point, before Obama helped to overthrow the regimes that were holding the whole mess together—before there was one virtually unbroken Islamic fabric of radical Islam from the Mediterranean to the Black sea—there might have been a danger in not intervening: beat them overseas instead of waiting to fight them here at home. Now, there’s not.

  • Nekulturny

    Or the Russians, English and the Americans are really not sure what is the downside of more dead Syrians. Boo freaking hoo. Make sure they have enough ammo to kill each other off and start making popcorn.

  • Stephen

    Seems like another case where one hopes that both sides lose or, functionally equivalent to this, that neither side wins. State may be promoting this strategy – by intention, or not.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Dear Prof. Mead:

    Readers can legitimately and legally read articles on if they can find them on Google. The easiest way to allow your readers to do that is to give them the entire title of the article and the byline e.g. Very Important Article by Fin Time.

    We would appreciate this opportunity.

  • Steve

    The current losing side in this civil war, the Arab Sunni, are anti-American, anti-Israeli and antisemitic. Imagine if, heaven forbid, the Sunni of Syria had the Jews of Israel at their mercy. You would not be speaking of 10,000 dead Jews after one year; you would be speaking of the second holocaust. They are not deserving of our aid or our sympathy for that matter. Those who wish intervention have already caused enough damage to this country. Please stop.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The second item for this morning is the enormously clueless article from the fountain of international cluelessness:

    “Assad’s Response to Syria Unrest Leaves His Own Sect Divided” by Neil MacFarquhar in The New York Times on June 10, 2012 at page A1.

    The article is a search for Alawites who want to join hands with Sunnis to sing Kumbaya. The vast majority of Alawites know what is what far better than any NYTimes writer or reader.

    No matter who wins the Syrian Civil war, or even if it ends in a draw, there will be massacres and ethnic cleansing. Only a partition of Syria into cantons separated by patrols of international peacekeepers can prevent genocide, and I don’t think that any of the parties who count are thinking of such a settlement.

  • Hummus

    @ Walter Sobchak:
    When has partition *ever* resulted in a better situation? Almost every time it is attempted, it results a festering of tensions and eventually a war. Korea, India, Vietnam, Palestine, Yugoslavia, the list goes on. About the only time I can think of where war didn’t result was Germany, and that was only because it was too important to the major players in the Cold War,

  • Meremortal

    Obama coddles Shia (Iran, Al Sadr, Assad, Hezbollah) and goes after Sunni (Taliban, Bin Laden, Iraqi Saddamist Sunni, Sunni strongholds in NW Pakistan, Gaddafi).

    Obama can’t intervene to save Assad openly, so he waits and hopes Assad can hang on. Obama will throw Assad under the bus but won’t use the military against him.

  • Naz

    In reply to; mac says:
    June 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    How would you like it if we all started saying: I don’t give a [fig] about Americans killing each other? I urge you to have a constructive debate, or get out.

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