A Syrian opposition coalition formed only a month ago has been recognized by over 100 Western and Arab countries as a government-in-waiting and the sole representative of Syrians.
But what that coalition really seeks is Western military help – anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and guns to turn recent battleground victories into a turning point that will bring an end to a 20-month conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that has killed 40,000 Syrians.
“The dominant thinking among opposition groups is that the only way they can turn the tactical gains in to a strategic breakthrough is to have advanced weapons that neutralize Assad’s air force and tanks,” said Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.
The formal recognition of the Syrian National Coalition happened at a meeting of representative of 130 countries gathered in the Moroccan city of Marrakech Wednesday amid reports that the Assad regime had fired Scud missiles at targets inside Syria. Canada has so far witheld recognition of the coalition.
As western countries set out to empower the new Syrian coalition, they view direct military assistance to rebels as a step too far, clinging instead to the hope of a negotiated political settlement that would see Mr. Assad stepping down. The military assistance option remains on the table. But there are concerns that by arming rebel groups, advanced western military weapons could fall in to the hands of jihadist groups and plunge the country in to chaos and bloodshed long after Mr. Assad is gone.
The hope of the U.S. and its European allies is that the Syrian National Coalition can succeed where other attempts to organize opposition groups inside Syria have faltered because of infighting and disorganization.
Western countries want to see the National Coalition eventually oversee military operations against the Assad regime and possibly become a conduit for aid to moderate armed groups, explains Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The problem with that is that it is clear the most effective fighting group are the jihadi groups – particularly this Nusra Front that the U.S. has just declared a terrorist organization,” said Ms. Ottaway.
“And the [rebel] groups inside the country that are trying to fight are cooperating with the jihadi groups – they are cooperating with whoever is most effective,” she said, adding that it is “mission impossible” for western countries to try and isolate jihadi groups when weapons are already flowing to these fighters from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“I think a lot of money will continue going to the jihadi groups that the U.S. is trying to isolate,” said Ms. Ottaway.
The U.S. is currently providing humanitarian and non-lethal military assistance to Syrian opposition groups and its recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people has been brought on by recent jihadist gains inside Syria, argues Professor Gerges.
“What you’ve been seeing really in the last few weeks is that the goal is to empower the Syrian National Coalition to provide it with more muscle to counterbalance the rise of radical armed groups - particularly militant Islamist groups,” said Mr. Gerges.
“There is a race against time because [the U.S. and its European allies] are not convinced yet that the Syrian National Coalition basically calls the shots on the ground inside Syria,” added Mr. Gerges.
The Obama administration continues to hope for negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis.
“There is a real fear of an Iraqi-type scenario – where the military totally collapses and the civil society total collapses - leaving the state in shambles essentially,” said Ms. Ottaway. The U.S. sees a political settlement as a way to avoid such a crisis.
“My perception is that the Assad regime has really gone beyond the point of no return – that it is not going to enter negotiations,” said Ms. Ottaway, adding that it was unlikely that armed militant groups who had made gains in recent weeks would negotiate to help preserve some remnants of the Assad military.
With Western and Arab nations rallying behind the coalition, the Assad regime may not be the only focus. Russia is a key ally of Syria and has shunned international efforts to push Mr. Assad from power.
“I think what the U.S. and the western powers are trying to do is convince Russia that the game is up, that the Assad ship is sinking, and that there is an alternative to the Syrian government,” said Mr. Gerges.
“The goal is to really to bring about a dramatic and political breakthrough,” he added.