In order to make any sense of a conflict it is necessary to take the long view; snapshots at any particular time can skew one's perspective. But having said that, this week has been of particular interest for Syria watchers because of the range of issues raised, all of which further illustrate why it remains such a difficult problem to resolve.
Waning global diplomatic support for the opposition
Qatar inserted itself into the Syrian diplomatic morass again this week when it drafted a UN resolution condemning the Assad regime for its violation of human rights and killing of civilians (without mentioning opposition actions) and calling for political transition. Of the 193 General Assembly members, 107 voted for it.
On the face of it, a resounding, if non-binding, success. The problem is, a vote last August saw 133 members vote for a similar resolution, meaning that this time around, 26 additional states have publicly expressed their doubts over the Syrian opposition.
Given that the vote forced Russia, one of the co-sponsors of the putative peace talks, to vote no and highlighted growing international disquiet over the opposition, the timing of the vote was questionable to say the least. Interestingly, the voting pattern also revealed the gap between the West and the BRICS states over the question of Syria – the BRICS states either voted against or abstained from the resolution.
A growing rift between the US and the UK
In marked contrast to the unity of purpose that Tony Blair and George Bush exhibited over Iraq and Afghanistan, the gulf between London and Washington on the issue of Syria has been wide and is getting wider.
The recent meeting between the UK prime minister and the US president was friendly but ended as two friends agreeing to disagree. Cameron wants intervention in Syria to make the situation better, while Obama is of a mind that intervention will make things worse. In some quarters of the UK press, there is growing disquiet over the UK's robust stance regarding the rebels, as this cartoon shows.
The opposition is no longer winning the information war
One thing that has assisted the recent uprisings in other Arab states is the democratisation of media; anybody could be a reporter and the state could no longer monopolise information. The same held true in Syria, and the Assad regime was particularly poor in the social media space earlier in the conflict. Some pro-government footage did appear on YouTube if you looked hard enough, but Western journalists embedded with rebel groups portrayed a picture of a violent regime using heavy weapons to kill lightly armed opposition forces. Accusations of government atrocities and unverified scenes that supported the rebel narrative dominated social media.
But something has changed these past few months, and opposition elements are increasingly being portrayed in as bad a light as the regime. Be it summary executions or the now infamous rebel mutilation of a Syrian soldier's body, footage of such atrocities is doing untold damage to the opposition's cause as audiences begin to wonder if there are any 'good guys' in the conflict. This plays into the government's narrative.
People want accountability of weapons
There are reports that the opposition is demanding the provision of serious arms before it will consider attending any talks with the regime. At the same time, there is a widely held belief, particularly in London, Paris and a number of Middle Eastern capitals, that simply by arming 'the good guys', victory is attainable.
There are, of course, some significant problems with this line of thinking. First is the simple fact that unless the West provides people to account for the weapons at point of use (ie. inside Syria), you lose control over them as soon as you sign them across. Western governments won't provide people to do this work ,yet their constituents will demand accountability for the weapons they are paying for.
This piece illustrates the shallowness of the analysis regarding the weapons issues by some in the UK. The unnamed Foreign Office official cited in the article says supplying weapons to vetted groups is necessary because 'everyone except the good guys' have weapons. But later the official claims he was 'not saying that the answer to that is necessarily throwing a bunch of arms in there'.The fact that he could advocate weaponising elements of the opposition while saying that weapons were not the answer really illustrates why supplying arms to the opposition doesn't make sense.
And even if these states did provide weapons to some as yet unnamed rebel groups, there is a very strong argument that this will increase, rather than reduce, the death toll. That was the argument used by Europeans governments against the UK PM when he was all Rambo about arming the 'vetted' rebels. And this blog post with accompanying graph gives further pause for thought regarding the impact that more weapons could have on Syria.
This excellent Foreign Policy piece gives further reasons why arming rebels hasn't worked particularly well in the past for the US, and why Obama is much more cautious on the issue than Cameron.