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Fragmented international response will prolong Syria's conflict

By Ayham Kamel

It may be tempting to view the plethora of recent gatherings -- the Arab League summit, the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Cooperation Forum, and the Friends of Syria conference -- as evidence that the global community is getting more serious about addressing the violence in Syria. But the summits really just exposed the rifts among the relevant players that will prevent a viable and coordinated response. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in turn, will profit from the lack of coherence; he will only nominally entertain Kofi Annan's peace plan as he maintains his grip on power, and the bloodshed will worsen.

International powers remain hesitant regarding any form of direct intervention. They considered initiatives calling for buffer or humanitarian zones, but ultimately no country seems prepared to act. Key powers appear to be pursuing their distinct policies, with only a hint of coordination.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide extensive support -- including arms -- to the Syrian opposition, but are unlikely to supply the heavy arms that would lead to an immediate change in the balance of power. Heavy arms are more difficult to smuggle and training rebels would be much more challenging than during the Libyan conflict. Moreover, the escalation could provoke an un-calculated response from Assad's military. While their interests differ, the two powers see Assad's survival as a threat to their influence. Riyadh's purpose is to limit Iran's regional influence. Meanwhile, Doha has invested significant diplomatic and political capital in the struggle against Assad and any failure to deliver would represent a tangible setback to its prestige. Behind the armament policy is also a deep concern that if Assad regains control, Damascus and Tehran would aim to destabilize the al Saud and al Thani ruling families' grip on power.

Arming the rebels, who have had trouble obtaining ammunition sine the regime began its extensive military campaign in early February, will provide much needed psychological support and will help weaken Assad's forces. While the resolve of Syria's opposition will not abate, arms from the Gulf will neither arrive overnight nor will they immediately change the balance of military power, which is still heavily tilted in the regime's favor. An equally important element of the Gulf strategy is providing monetary incentives to officers in the Syrian army to incite defections. But Assad has built multiple safeguards to prevent defections, a tactic he inherited from his father.

The U.S. is willing to overlook, perhaps even support, GCC efforts to weaken Assad. But Washington is definitely not interested in playing an active role. It is concerned about Saudi Arabia's and Lebanon's support of Salafist rebels and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's call for jihad in Syria. While Sunni monarchies in the Gulf benefit from rising sectarianism in Syria, the U.S. interest in long-term regional stability could be compromised if the Sunni-Shia confrontations spread to Iraq and other countries. U.S. officials believe that a political settlement will be needed to prevent prolonged instability. Verbal support for the Annan process is a reflection of the desire to keep negotiations open, but U.S. officials are convinced that under current conditions the Annan plan will only enable Assad to retain power.

Assad will probably not implement key elements of the Annan peace plan, which calls for a halt of hostilities from all sides, and a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition. The regime views cooperation with the UN envoy as a way to secure the successes achieved by its military strategy and to gain some breathing space. While Annan is a shrewd diplomat, there are few reasons to think that success is in reach. Syria's opposition will probably not negotiate with Assad or agree to a settlement that keeps him in power. Meanwhile, there are no indications that the Lion of Damascus has reached a point where he would accept his own ouster.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.

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