Who is to blame for Syria’s quagmire?

With pressure on Bashar Assad increasing, what viable alternative does the rebel leadership offer?

David Cameron’s startling announcement this week that he would allow Bashar al-Assad safe passage out of Syria will rile justice organs, but it illustrates just how stymied the international community has been in its reaction to events on the ground, where the death rate has surpassed even that of Iraq at its bloodiest moments.

Britain has also announced it is to deal directly with rebel military leaders in what appears to be a shakeup of its Syria strategy. Closer to the action, a Turkish official has said Ankara will hold discussions with NATO allies, including the United States, about the possibility of deploying surface-to-air Patriot missiles along the Syrian border.

With Barack Obama re-elected, many feel a more direct international approach to the conflict in Syria is at hand. But for those among the international community seeking to oust Assad, a fundamental question remains: just who is there to partner up with?

Until now, they have found no serious interlocker. The latest initiative to bind together the Syrian political opponents of the Assad regime, in which the US, Britain and others have invested considerable time, effort and hope, appears to have gone up in smoke.

However ill-conceived or evasive the West’s reaction to the conflict has been, Syria’s political opposition—the pretenders to Bashar’s throne—have been utterly hopeless. Its leadership cannot decide on what they stand for, never mind what they want to happen in Syria. Some cry out for direct foreign intervention; others vehemently oppose such a move, for fear of having their movement tainted by ‘Western imperialists’. Based almost entirely overseas, they have little or no control over the rebels on the ground. At times, some opposition leaders have behaved like disgruntled children when the democratic process has been applied to themselves.

Syrians inside the country, both opponents and supporters of the regime, recognise the opposition’s shortcomings. A secondary concern for those who oppose Assad is the substituting of a terroristic regime for one entirely unable to govern. The ‘silent majority’—Syrians who back neither side—see no one emerging to lead the country forward on a stable course. No one trusts these rulers-in-waiting and it is this absence of trust that presents one of the main reasons the Assad regime has persisted for twenty months and is likely to do so for quite some time.

With each passing day Bashar al-Assad’s prediction that Syria would turn into ‘tens of Afghanistans’ should foreign interests become involved rings truer than ever, and judging by his remarks in a recent interview with Russian television, he is clearly betting against a Western military intervention taking place to oust his regime.

Syrians also recognise the potential for discord between opposition leaders and rebels in the post-Assad period. Leading rebel commanders—those risking their lives every day to overthrow the Assad regime—will want a significant slice of the political prize following the eventual demise of the regime. How the traditional political opposition, itself riven by divisions, reacts to the likely demands of the rebel leadership for power and privilege is another challenge.

In spite of television pictures depicting an entire population up in arms, many Syrians want no hand in the revolt. Many millions of others continue to cling to the Assad regime. The country’s fragile religious and ethnic dynamics have been shredded to pieces, most recently in Damascus where the Alawite-populated Mezzah 86 district has been targeted by rebels. Pro-government militias, too, sense they are facing an existential threat, as do the country’s Alawites, constituting 12 per cent of the population.

Few believe the Assad regime can survive long term, at least in its current form, but what happens thereafter will throw up problems unseen elsewhere in the region that will take decades, generations even, to sort out.

There are a number of important questions facing those hoping to rule the new Syria: Will the Baath system remain? Will Alawites in senior government positions stay in Damascus and keep their jobs, or will they flee to the mountains? Who will lead a new Syria—rebel fighters or the men arguing in Doha? The fact that these questions are, apparently, yet to be discussed among opposition circles bodes ill for the country. For Syrians of all stripes, now or after Assad, there is little to look forward to.

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