Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.


Lack of Assad alternatives hangs over Syria war

12 September 2013, 15:34

Beirut - The crisis over chemical weapons in Syria has underlined a central dilemma for the West as it tries to deal with the country's civil war - the lack of attractive alternatives to President Bashar Assad.

The political opposition, largely operating from exile with little credibility on the ground, has been hobbled by infighting. Inside Syria, rebels are also divided. Fighters linked to the al-Qaeda terror network have become increasingly dominant, even as the US and its allies try to strengthen rebels seen as moderates with better training and military equipment.

Rebels and Islamic radicals fighting alongside them have already come to blows in some cases, and their divisions could turn into outright battles without the common enemy of Assad.

"Should Assad one day fall from power, it is extremely unlikely that moderates and hard-liners would come to a long-term agreement because of completely diverging interests," said Charles Lister at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

President Barack Obama said early on in the 2½-year-old conflict that Assad lost the right to lead because of the brutal oppression of the uprising against his rule, most chillingly displayed in what Washington contends was a 21 August chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas that killed hundreds of civilians.

But it's not clear who would replace Assad if he were driven from power, either as a result of US punitive strikes for the suspected poison gas attacks or in eventual political transition talks with the Western-backed opposition.

‘Chaos and banditry’

The end of Assad family rule, which has held Syria's rival ethnic and religious groups together with often brutal force since 1970, could lead to further anarchy and break up the country into enclaves ruled by heavily armed warlords.

"The most likely scenario is the Iraq scenario, complete chaos and banditry," said Syria expert Joshua Landis from the University of Oklahoma, referring to years of sectarian violence in Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein in a military invasion a decade ago.

"The idea that somehow you destroy Assad and there will be another central Syrian state is entirely wishful thinking," he said.

US officials have said airstrikes they are considering are not aimed at toppling Assad, but to punish his government for the alleged chemical attack. Still, critics in the US fear such strikes would drag the Americans deeper into the conflict - and now Obama is considering a Russian plan to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles as a possible alternative to military strikes.

The Obama administration has said its greater aim is to weaken Assad enough militarily so he'll negotiate a transition deal with the political opposition.

So far, its main avenue for doing so has been to use the CIA to quietly train rebels in Jordan. Under a new proposal being discussed within the administration, the program would be greatly expanded by bringing in US military trainers, US officials told The Associated Press last week, though they underlined that no decision has been made.

Since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, fighting has killed more than 100 000 Syrians and uprooted nearly 6 million, or more than a quarter of the population.

Neither the regime nor the rebels has been able to deliver a decisive blow. Rebels control large areas of countryside in the north, east and south, while the regime is holding most urban centres, particularly in the densely populated west.

Rebel categories

Armed rebels roughly fall into three categories.

Jihadis, including hundreds of foreign fighters, number up to 10 000, according to Lister - though he cautioned that any estimates of numbers on the anti-Assad side are rough estimates at best. Many jihadis have links to al-Qaeda, and they follow a strong anti-Western ideology calling for global "holy war".

Islamic militants, or Salafis, who are more concerned with Syria than a transnational jihadi ideology, can muster 20 000 to 35 000 fighters, Lister estimated.

Finally, several tens of thousands of fighters are loosely grouped under the Free Syrian Army, which gets weapons from Gulf countries and political backing from the West, Lister said. However, it's difficult to say how many are truly loyal to FSA chief of staff General Salim Idris.

Local rebel commanders have considerable autonomy. They often decide on the spot whether to co-operate with others in battle, creating ad hoc alliances between FSA groups, jihadis and Salafis.

But there have also been turf battles among rebels, even assassinations, as well as splits within blocs. For example, fighters from Chechnya recently announced that they are waging holy war on their own terms and will no longer take orders from the two dominant jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied to al-Qaeda.

Jihadis dominate parts of the north and the east, particularly the eastern city of Raqqa, where they have set up rudimentary local governments and, according to some, a rule of terror.

US interests

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime group monitoring the fighting, said jihadists have summarily executed prisoners and have arrested hundreds of civilians, including anti-Assad activists, for allegedly violating Islamic laws in areas under their control.

Some argue that the status quo of a largely deadlocked war serves US interests because America's enemies can be found on both sides - Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah aligned with the Assad regime, and jihadis among the rebels.

If America's enemies are fighting each other, it "is not the problem, it's a solution," said Edward Luttwak of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank. The rebels should be helped if Assad seems to be winning, and not helped if they start to win, he said.

In making his case last week for military strikes, US Secretary of State John Kerry played down the jihadi threat and argued that a rapid post-Assad transition could help restore what he described as Syria's secular character.

Kerry told a Senate committee that the size of Jabhat al-Nusra is "lower than former expectations," without giving figures. He said the Syrian political opposition is showing signs it is adhering to a "democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria."

However, Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Observatory, warned that the US is underestimating the influence of the jihadists.

At the same time, initial Western hopes of a palace coup have failed to materialise.

The absence of mass defections at the top level suggests the war has only helped consolidate the regime, and no apparent successor to Assad has emerged who would also be palatable to the opposition as an interim leader.

Assad's rule rests on a coalition of religious and ethnic minorities, including his Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, who fear there would be no life for them in Syria if the rebels, most of them Sunni Muslims, take over.

"The Alawites do really feel that this is their only hope, if they cling to Assad," Landis said.

- AP


Read News24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Read more from our Users

Nigeria @ 56: Words to my green f...

A leader’s job is not to dictate, but rather to be respected, admired and be a trustee, of the land we love, with so much potential, a land which should be freer than free. Its still a long way to fufilling our destiny! Read more...

Submitted by
Isaac Asabor263
Recession: An opportunity for Nig...

The recession should be seen as an opportunity for the country’s promotion as long as we all collectively conduct ourselves in a patriotic manner, writes Isaac Asabor.  Read more...

Submitted by
Black and White

We want to imitate the whites in everything because we are ignorant of our inherent originality and content. We spend all our Naira to acquire his inventions because we so oblivious of our natural endowments that we allow him have it for free. Read more...

Submitted by
Nate Nat
Adamawa State University Mubi: A ...

ADSU integrity forum has accused the Sunday Joshua Wugira, a lawyer, of adopting unorthodox tactics by abusing his privilege by attacking the integrity of ADSU Vice Chancellor Dr. Moses Zira Zaruwa, writes a News24 reader. Read more...

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
My Country Nigeria (Part One)

Poetry by Abdulsalam Jubril.

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
Recession, dearth in leadership a...

Every leader has the opportunity to become great and making himself immortal in the lives and hearts of people for generations to come. Will Mr. President seize this opportunity?, questions Abdulsalam Jubril. Read more...