Jan 14

Syria: Choosing a Side

The Syrian Revolution has been making headlines since 2011, growing increasingly complex and unstable as the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies wage war against a variety of rebel groups, including some linked to terrorist organizations.  Wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. administration has offered selective support to rebels free from the influence of extremists while working toward a diplomatic solution with the Assad government.  However, with international peace talks finally under way, this policy of technical neutrality has changed.

Congress recently made American aid to Syrian rebels official.  Although this means relatively little on the ground considering that the United States has been providing the rebels some form of aid, beginning with monetary support and growing to shipments of small arms, for many months now.  However, it is a decision with significant diplomatic meaning, one that has already upset Assad and his compatriots.

Much as Congress had not technically acknowledged U.S. aid to Syrian freedom fighters before this week, the Assad regime has avoided recognizing its opponents as rebels.  Although Syria is clearly in the midst of a revolution, its leaders maintain that their opponents are terrorists, fighting against the will of the nation rather than for it.  The recognition of and commitment to continued assistance for the rebels is, therefore, about much more than providing weapons.  Congress has, in essence, recognized the legitimacy of the rebels.

Although Russia has been openly supporting the Assad regime, providing money, weapons, and political assistance, the Syrian government views this as an entirely different arrangement.  From their perspective, it is an allegiance between two governments like any other.  By aligning the United States with Syrian rebels, Congress took official action that symbolically elevates the rebellion, showing that it carries the same status as an official government.  This broadens the divide between the United States, which is working to establish a transitional government that would bring an end to Assad’s rule, and the Syrian leadership that refuses to acknowledge that it is truly at war.

Despite the potential for diplomatic backlash, this is a step that the United States needed to take and timed extremely well.  First and foremost, it makes the American position on Syria inescapably clear.  As delegates for the Syrian government attending the current peace talks remain unwilling to budge, the U.S. has responded by digging into its position as well.  Congress has demonstrated that the establishment of a transitional government (which is supposed to be the entire purpose of the talks) is not up for debate.

The act could potentially lead Syria to reconsider its current position on aid as well.  Assad is fighting a war of attrition against his own people; unable to escape from blockaded cities, many innocent civilians are now suffering from malnutrition and related ailments.  Nevertheless, Assad’s representatives have repeatedly denied the United Nations’ request that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach the suffering.  The American decision is a way around the government’s obstinance; if it will deny its people basic necessities, the U.S. will provide that and then some.

Hopefully, the Syrian government will attempt to bargain, finally allowing humanitarian aid missions in exchange for a limit on military assistance to the opposition.  But even if they reject the chance to act diplomatically, aid will still be delivered to the rebels.  The U.S. stance falls short of backing Syrian leaders into a corner, but it will get the job done either politically or practically.

Furthermore, political backlash may not be the worst outcome.  Assad’s delegates have refused to compromise or even discuss the most pressing issues on the table at the peace conference.  Their counterparts representing the revolutionaries, however, have demonstrated much more professional and diplomatic behavior.  It is an ironic and slightly unexpected situation, but it has lent credibility to the rebellion.  Should the representatives from the Syrian government become outraged or begin making accusations, shifting the talks further from the topic of a transitional government, it will only further hurt their case.

The situation in Syria and the conference currently in session are highly intricate in terms of politics, with a large number of stakeholders contributing to their progress.  It is impossible to accurately speculate about the impact of any decision, but from almost any angle it is largely certain that official recognition of U.S. aid to the rebellion will only serve to strengthen the American position.

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