Recognition, Resentment and Resilience in Syria

My op-ed originally published on Syria Deeply on December 17th on recent US moves, the reaction on the ground and why the world just can’t dictate outcomes to Syrians.

“The international community has been in a slumber, silent and late (to react) as it saw the Syrian people bleeding and their children killed for the past 20 months.” Mouaz al-Khatib, National Coalition.

The noose is tightening around Bashar Al Assad’s neck after 643 days of revolution and the Free Syrian Army is solidifying its gains across the north and bringing the battle to Assad’s doorstep. As the international community scrambles to catch-up to events on the ground, Syrians who support the revolution have a clear, new message for the world: help is needed but you can’t dictate the terms.

FSA Checkpoint
FSA checkpoint near Bab Al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey. Credit: sarabiany.com

On the eve of the Marrakech “Friends of the Syrian People” conference last week, President Obama recognized the newly formed National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (NC) as the “representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.” The announcement, cautious and deliberate, stopped short of fully committing overdue legal, financial and military support needed for a transitional government in this final stage of the revolution. Still, it was seen across the world as if the Americans are finally stepping to the forefront after being absent for the past 21 months.

It remains to be seen whether the Marrakech conference will lead to tangible outcomes. Previous “Friends of Syria” gatherings only produced promises of support without accountability to deliver on them. The atmosphere seems different this time. Previously, Assad had firm control over much of the country, but now, the revolution is winning.

Of course the revolution hasn’t succeeded yet, and the NC desperately needs results to prove they can secure: aid for the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced; anti-aircraft weapons to accelerate the demise of the regime; and funding to become a central source of distribution to the decentralized civil and militarized resistance, the precursor to becoming a credible transitional government in control of the ground. The U.S. and its allies have used the excuse of a ‘fragmented opposition’ to justify inaction to date, however, with the development of the NC and formation of a unified rebel military command, the ball is firmly in the international community’s court to deliver on promises.

Washington seems to be making its move on Syria. Over the past week, we’ve seen strange overt media reports of covert U.S. support for the ‘rebels’. The administration has designated ‘bad’ rebels as terrorists while still publicly ignoring the needs of the ‘good’ ones. And while Obama’s announcement was the least recognition he could’ve given, it did make an impact. Even Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov, Assad’s staunch ally, surprisingly said on Thursday that the regime “and government of Syria is losing more and more control, and more and more territory.” This doesn’t mean the Russians are abandoning Assad just yet, but the statement provides a rare view into what the Kremlin is really thinking.

Who is the Terrorist?The events of the past week are also reinforcing widespread fears, from many factions both inside and outside Syria, that the U.S. is attempting to swoop in to dictate outcomes on the ground. These fears, of course, are not unwarranted. After 21 months of diplomatic delusions, the lack of tangible financial and military aid to the FSA, inconsistently distributed Qatari and Saudi funding, and the constant emphasis on non-involvement and on non-lethal support, have delayed the inevitable endgame, costing thousands of Syrian lives.

This inaction has created much confusion and resentment about the U.S. role in Syria. And now that the U.S. designated Jabhat A-Nusra (JAN) as a terrorist organization, which was widely denounced by rebel fighters on the ground and NC head Al-Khatib who called on the U.S. to reconsider its decision, the message from the revolution is telling: the small JAN has been a better asset against Assad to date than the Americans.

The question now is whether the U.S. would use the JAN as yet another excuse to justify further inaction?

On Dec. 7, 2012, Syrians took to the streets for Friday protests dubbed “No to a peace keeping mission in Syria.” This example of collective expression was a reaction to the failed “diplomacy” efforts of the past (such as vetoed resolutions in the Security Council and Annan’s failed six-point plan), which were viewed as attempts to buy time for Assad to suppress the revolution. Protesters across Syria were loud and clear: the world’s futile focus on political solutions that don’t put an end to the Assad regime. If anyone wants to help they can send what is needed – anti-aircraft weapons and humanitarian aid so Syrians can finish the job.

Peace will PrevailThe U.S. has played its cards very late and in doing so underestimated the growing fury among many Syrians. The Obama administration failed to realize what the struggle has come to mean to Syrians, how the screams of thousands of martyrs haunt those who know their loved ones could’ve been saved, if only they had received even basic external support.

Syrians have known for a long time that they would have to finish their revolution alone. As Al-Khatib put it so vividly: “There are promises of military help but, God willing, the Syrian people will uproot this regime even using their bare knuckles.”

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