After over a year of protests, very little has changed in Syria, with Bashar al-Assad firmly in control of the country. Syrian insurgents who have taken up arms have been beaten back by the army, most notably in Homs, and thousands have died over the last year, with the body count only going higher.
At this point, we have reached the edge of what peaceful protest can do. If there is to be a changing of the guard in Syria, it will most likely be more violent and require the funneling of arms to the rebel factions.
In order to understand why military aid is likely critical to any attempted toppling of the Assad regime, one must first understand why the rebels have had no success so far. The answer is rather simple: the Syrian military has all the weapons, and they have proven more than willing to use them. This is not a rag-tag group, nor a bunch of mercenaries like those hired by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Syrian military’s equipment may be a bit outdated by Western standards, but the army is well-trained and run mostly by Alawites, the same sect as Assad. Alawites are a distinct minority in Syria, yet control most government functions, and many, perhaps correctly, fear retribution if the regime is transplanted. Unlike Egypt, where the military was respected and considered distinct from Mubarak’s regime, the Syrian military is considered a branch of Assad’s autocratic rule and would likely face the same type of harsh punishments Assad would receive.
Facing a peaceful protest that threatened their status, it is no surprise that the regime attempted to crush them. When the opposition began to take up arms in response, it also played into the hands of Assad, providing him an excuse to bring down an iron fist that even his hesitant supporters would back. As of this moment, Assad has no intention of negotiating with the opposition. With his regime firmly in control, a reeling opposition force, and perhaps implicit support from members of the UN Security Council, there is no reason why he would feel compelled to do so.
Syria has also become part of a much larger game of realpolitik in the Middle East. Assad is Iran’s only reliable ally in the region, and as such the Iranians have taken steps to help the distressed regime, including the sending of weapons and “advisors.” Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has taken up the cause of the opposition. Israel and the U.S. see a chance to remove a considerable threat to Israeli security, while Turkey would be happy to be rid of a bad neighbor and flex its muscle in a region it wishes to have more influence in.
There has been plenty of talk about whether the U.S. and other Western countries should become directly involved in this rebellion, but this is not the only option. Supplying arms to opposition fighters clandestinely will likely begin soon, if it has not begun already. Saudi Arabia has come out in support of such a position, and Turkey, a long-time advocate of the opposition, could potentially be in the middle of this as well. The U.S., which helps arm both nations, would likely be aware of and may even provide weapons as well, either directly or through a third party.
Arming the opposition is by no means a guarantor of their victory, but it would at least allow them to try and counter Syrian military maneuvers more effectively. The Pandora’s Box of violence has already been opened on both sides and cannot be put away. As such, those who wish to see Assad removed most likely must accept that his regime’s collapse would probably resemble the toppling of Gaddafi and look less like the toppling of Mubarak or Ben Ali. At this point, it is becoming clearer that the only way Assad may leave power is at gunpoint. If this opposition is to succeed, that gun will probably come from the West or its allies.
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