Syria Intervention Is Unlikely Until the Opposition Unifies

If the rebels want outside help, they'll have to learn from Libya.

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Members of the Free Syrian Army are seen deployed in al-Bayada, Homs / Reuters

Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., on Wednesday pressed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to strike President Bashar al-Assad's ground forces and provide the Syrian opposition with weapons to overthrow the longtime leader.

If you're wondering exactly who these rebels are, you're not alone. For a little-noticed but compelling case as to why the U.S. won't intervene in Syria as it did in Libya, look no further than the evolution of their respective rebel movements. To gain international support for their uprising against the late Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan rebels did things the Washington way, crisscrossing the globe and presenting written plans for democratic transition. As long as the Syrian opposition remains fragmented without a cohesive message, American lawmakers and officials are likely to remain skeptical of getting involved.

Just days into the Libyan uprising, Qaddafi suffered a serious blow as his envoys to the United Nations, the United States, the Arab League, Australia, and others resigned en masse from their posts or publicly denounced the strongman. Officials defecting from within Qaddafi's government teamed up with longtime opponents of the regime to form an interim government in the eastern city of Benghazi. Declaring itself the only legitimate body representing the Libyan people, the council quickly acted as the political face of the uprising. Rebel leaders embarked on a charm offensive to Western and Arab capitals, pleading for diplomatic recognition, access to billions of dollars in Qaddafi-linked assets, and a supply of weapons and ammunition. Eventually, they got their wish.

As the Libyan rebels on the ground waged a bloody military fight, these and other high-level defections were clear signs to the international community that Qaddafi's stronghold was collapsing--and the opposition coalescing. This is not the case in Syria. There have been virtually no high-level defections from Assad's government, the opposition has little political experience, and its fractious composition worries the West with its competing visions of a future Syria without Assad.

Highlighting Washington's lasting uncertainties roughly a year after the Syrian uprising intensified last March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited the discrepancies between the Libyan rebel council and Syria's less-polished opposition.

The opposition in Libya "had a face, both the people who were doing the outreach diplomatically and the fighters," Clinton told a House panel last week. "We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions. Here, you know, when [Ayman al-] Zawahiri of al-Qaida comes out and supports the Syrian opposition, you've got to ask yourself: 'If we arm, who are we arming?'  Clinton's worries were echoed on Tuesday by the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. James Mattis, who said al-Qaida elements could be present within the Syrian opposition, as evidenced by "rather spectacular" attacks with improvised explosive devices.

Panetta affirmed their worries about the lack of cohesion among the armed Syrian rebels. "With regard to Syria, for us to act unilaterally would be a mistake,"  Panetta told a Senate panel on Wednesday. "It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition. There has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted." With the possibility of civil war, he added, direct outside intervention could inflame the volatile conditions on the ground.  

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., has called for the most potent armed opposition force, the loosely organized Free Syrian Army largely composed of military defectors, to subsume itself under the political leadership of the Syrian National Council. That political opposition network, Kerry said, also needs to define a clearer plan for a democratic transition. 

Neither task will be simple. "The opposition ... is divided," U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently testified. "And I think it's probably a reach to think they're going to unify anytime soon into one single organization. I don't think that's going to happen." The fractious opposition--with Islamist and secular elements touting competing visions for a future society--has not even united around a solid transition plan, Ford said. "They don't all have to unite into one single party, but they do need to share a vision and they do need to share an agreement on the way forward."

The Syrian opposition is at a disadvantage without a political cheerleading squad in Washington. Defected Libyan ambassador Ali Aujali was able to combat Qaddafi's own claims that the revolt was sparked by a shadowy cabal of al-Qaida operatives by conveying the rebels' message at influential forums like the Center for American Progress. To defuse concerns about the composition of the Libyan opposition, Aujali's aides passed out glossy packets with biographies of its key figures.

Presented by

Sara Sorcher a staff reporter (national security and foreign policy) for National Journal.

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