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The Missed Opportunity in Syria

The donors to Syria’s rebels are divided. The result is chaos on the ground, which looks to extend well into the period after Assad eventually falls:

Despite a recent push to unify the disparate armed opposition groups under a single command, rebels are struggling to form stable alliances even at a local level, a problem opposition sources say is exacerbated by the array of different donors competing for influence in Syria.

According to another rebel who has been fighting in Aleppo, some people have already started to stockpile ammunition for “after the revolution”. His comment underlines fears that a post-Assad Syria could be blighted by armed militias.

The divisions between the rebels reflect a basic strategic difference of interests among those who back the rebellion. The Gulf Arabs, both the governments and wealthy individuals and groups helping to fund what they see as a jihad against Shiite heretics allied to Christians and Druze, want Sunni Islamists to win.

The Americans and their allies in Europe want Assad to go, both because the regime has made itself so odious and because it seems to be one of the few developments that might persuade the mullahs in Iran to compromise on the nuclear issue.

Both the Gulf Arabs and the West want Assad and the Iranians out. But there the zone of agreement ends.

If the U.S. and its European allies had been focused on the main event in Syria rather than distracted by Libya, a focused effort to give acceptable forces an overwhelming superiority within the resistance could very well have brought Assad down before now and headed off the possibility of a prolonged struggle with radicals. We’ll never know if that strategy would have worked.

Now however it seems very late for the democratic powers to make a move and it appears that the truly bad guys have enough momentum and weapons to put Syrians through hell when and if Assad goes. Essentially, Western paralysis and preoccupation has allowed the bad guys to get a head start in the race to shape Syria’s future.

VM hopes we are wrong, but the outlook for post Assad Syria isn’t getting any better, and the west seems to have frittered away what could have been a very strong hand in a strategically vital country.

It’s richly ironic that Obama should have repeated—on a much smaller but ultimately perhaps very consequential scale—the blunders he criticized so effectively in the Bush administration: he let himself get distracted by an unnecessary war (Libya) and lost his ability to develop an effective strategy for the problem that really mattered (Syria).

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