Opposition in Syria Gains U.S. Support even as UN Hostages Taken

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Middle East In Focus

News that an armed faction of the Syrian opposition captured (and subsequently released) 21 members of a UN observer force has thrust the Syrian crisis back into the international spotlight. The taking of the hostages in Golan near the Israeli border has been roundly condemned by the international community and has raised concerns about the opposition’s ability to control its various factions. Meanwhile, the United States and the Arab League have signaled important changes regarding their involvement in the conflict, although few are prepared to hope for a major breakthrough in the short term. Many, however, continue to express concern about Iran’s ongoing involvement in the Syria and the danger Iran poses in a post-Assad Syria.

Immediately following the news of the hostage-taking of the Filipino UN observers, who had been  part of a force tasked with monitoring of the border between Syria and Israel, international observers and regional commentators expressed their disapproval of such actions and warned that such behavior undermines the Syrian opposition’s claims of being a responsible player. The Khaleej Times editorial, for example, was quite clear in its condemnation: “The hostage-taking of UN observers by Syrian rebels was a highly ill-advised attempt. Taking the Blue Helmets as human shields and then going on to demand Damascus vacate the area is irrational…. The Syrian National Alliance and the coalition of rebel forces should distance themselves from the outfit and reassure the world community that such acts of insanity won’t be repeated.”

Lebanon’s main newspaper The Daily Star expressed in its editorial particular concern about the apparent lack of organization within the rebel camp: “The group, which calls itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades and claims to be a part of the Free Syrian Army, was apparently so disorganized that it had to issue two different statements to explain why it took the Filipino soldiers as hostages….The only thing gained by this affair is more time for the regime, which is using the incident to reinforce its claims that the rebels are merely a bunch of bandits, or Islamist terrorists. The opposition needs all the friends it can get, and alienating the UN and the international community represents a big step backward.”

Aside from the hostage crisis, the most talked about development regarding the Syrian crisis is the U.S. government’s shift regarding assisting the Syrian rebels with non-lethal materiel. For the editorial staff of Qatar daily The Peninsula, the U.S. move, together with declaration following the Arab League’s meeting, signal a possible end of the stalemate in Syria: “After the Gulf visit, Kerry has come closer to the idea of arming the opposition and, with some persuasion, the U.S. can be made to change its stance….The Arab League meeting in Cairo, which closely followed Kerry’s visit to the region, was also immensely helpful…. Very soon, weapons are likely to flow into Syria. Rebels need to seize the latest opportunity and focus on ousting Bashar Al Assad. Western and Arab support depend on their forging unity and convincing them that they can rule a post-Assad Syria.”

But opposition spokesman and scholar Radwan Ziadeh is not convinced the shift is that profound, and cautions one must not be too carried away about its significance: “This change in position will do nothing to accomplish the original goal for which the Friends of Syria group was formed: hasten the end of the Syria conflict. Rather, it will only serve to maintain the horrible, bloody stalemate already established across the country….The Friends of Syria group has proven itself to be a failure. The Syrian opposition should not attend another such meeting until the international community proves to the Syrian people that it is ready to take steps that will result in a real change on the ground. Syrians don’t need more statements of support, sympathy or tears.”

Furthermore, some have expressed skepticism about the U.S. government’s motives for this recent change of heart. As the Saudi Gazette editorial puts it: “By deciding to let member nations, should they choose, arm Syrian rebels fighting Al-Assad, and inviting the opposition to take the League seat formerly occupied by Damascus, the Arab League has abandoned any neutral stand in favor of throwing its weight behind the opposition…. Other than agreeing on the issue of the jihadists, disputes between Russia and the U.S. remain significant regarding Al-Assad’s fate, the future of the regime and opposition, the Iranian role, and the price Russia is demanding for ending its support of the Syrian regime. As a result, Syria has become a bargaining chip in bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia and a battlefield for a proxy war.”

The Americans and the Gulf countries are not the only actors trying to change the trajectory of the region.  Iran has had a long and abiding interest in what goes on in Syria and as such it has tried hard to impose its will and vision. As Asharq Alawsat’s Tariz Alhomayed argues, the Iranian regime is “mobilizing now through the Shiite pincer—Hezbollah and Maliki’s forces—to impose a fait accompli on Syrian territory for the post-Assad regime, regional powers, and the international community. Iran wants to impose this before it has to face its own internal dues, and the difficult days that will follow Assad’s downfall…. Iran is doing all this—placing Syria between its Shiite pincers—to say that there will be no Syria without Assad or without Iranian influence….These are the features of the Iranian plan for post-Assad Syria, and this is what the Syrians must be aware of.”

But, for Al Hayat’s Walid Choucair, Iran’s post-Assad strategy goes beyond the Hezbollah/Iraq nexus and focuses on creating a perennially unstable situation on the ground: “Iran has footholds that give it a key say in decisions via governments that lack central decision-making, and whose sectarian composition is restricted to certain groups, as in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In parallel, there is a military force that matches that of the state, and imposes its narrow agenda on it, while the state’s military and security organizations have various loyalties…. Iran’s direct presence on the ground in Syria, the presence of Hezbollah fighters in many regions, and the training of a popular army loyal to the regime, under Tehran’s supervision, will only lead to the establishment of a similar situation, in light of the impending collapse of the central state in Syria.”

Despite the talk about the impending end of the Assad regime, Syrian authorities continue to call upon the national and religious loyalties of the Syrians. The latest pro-Assad figure to take the spotlight was Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, who, according to the Syrian News Agency (SANA) “stressed that Syria is today threatened by the most advanced countries and by some of the regional countries as it constitutes a brilliant example of the civilized nation….Hassoun called upon the army to shoulder its responsibility in protecting the homeland and its history and future, urging the Syrians to join the ranks of the army to defend Syria in the face of the global conspiracy hatched against it.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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