Noah Bonsey, Senior Analyst with the International Crisis group based in Beirut, discusses the recent developments in the Syrian civil war, including the impact of the chemical weapons deal, the implications of increased violence in Lebanon, and the upcoming Geneva II talks scheduled for January 22nd in Switzerland.
What are the implications of the recent suspension of U.S. non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition?
The political ramifications will probably be greater than the military implications because the U.S. and UK were not providing much to begin with. For the political ramifications, it is another blow to the Supreme Military Council led by Salim Idris, who has really had a tough few months since the U.S. decision to pursue the chemical weapons deal with Russia and the regime rather than mount a military strike. The SMC has banked on increased western assistance and that bet has not paid off. The fallout of the rebel disappointment surrounding the American decision not to strike was an additional blow to the credibility of the SMC. This is the latest in a string of setbacks, as the SMC’s lack of influence on the ground and ability to protect its own facilities has been exposed while coalitions such as the Islamic Front and its components have seen their power increase and have cut off ties with the SMC.
Has this form of non-lethal assistance been effective or is this suspension of aid mainly a political stance?
It is more political. Every little bit helps, but it has been very little. In the context of the Syrian civil war – nonlethal aid does not buy much. What the U.S. is finding now is that because it has chosen not to provide much to opposition groups on the ground, Washington has little leverage over those who are most influential on the ground. This has become especially obvious as the U.S. struggles to figure out what to do with the Islamic Front and seeks to engage with it politically. From an American perspective, whether you agree or disagree with the decision not to provide more than nonlethal aid, everyone can agree that the nonlethal aid doesn’t give the U.S. much leverage.
How realistic is the OPCW’s timeline for the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria? How has the chemical weapons deal impacted the war on the ground?
Certainly it was a very ambitious schedule that the OPCW set and I think most people assumed that there would be logistical setbacks along the way. The chemical deal was a notable development, but its actual impact on the primary dynamics of the war has been minimal. Certainly we have not seen further use of chemical weapons since the deal, which is important—but chemical weapons only accounted for about 1 percent of the deaths in this conflict. At the same time, the deal removed the credible threat of U.S. military intervention, and as a result the regime has been emboldened and in some ways more aggressive on the ground since the deal. It sees itself as rehabilitated on the diplomatic scene and it believes that this is the beginning of a partnership with western governments that will expand due to the western desire to take on jihadi groups. The main impact of this has been a boost of confidence to the regime. Thus we can expect a diminished willingness to compromise–not that the regime was particularly willing to compromise to begin with. However this is important to note in the context of the upcoming Geneva 2 talks.
What is the likely outcome of the January 22 Geneva 2 talks in Montreux, Switzerland? Will these talks differ than previous meetings?
Expectations are low for what this meeting can accomplish in the near term. The obstacles are clear. Not only is the opposition quite divided and in disarray both politically and militarily, but the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council are more exposed than ever in terms of lacking credibility and leverage on the ground. The U.S. has signaled willingness to engage the Islamic Front in the diplomatic process, but so far those feelers have been rebuffed. That is certainly something to watch. On the other side the Assad regime and Iran do not have much of a reason to compromise. The political opposition has struggled to decide whether to attend talks or not, but its umbrella body, the National Coalition, at least accepts the premise of Geneva 2: the June 2012 Geneva communiqué calling for the creation of a transitional governing authority with full executive power, agreed to by both parties. The regime has agreed to attend talks but rejects the goal of a mutually agreed-upon transitional body, as does Iran.
Do you believe the Obama Administration is beginning to see an endgame in Syria that would leave Assad in power?
I think that it is becoming clear to the U.S. and the opposition’s allies in general, that their leverage to push Assad out of power is extremely limited at this stage. Again, it is hard to see why the regime or the Iranians would be willing to give in, so long as they believe they are winning. That said, if you look at the statement that came out of the London 11 meeting from the group of the Friends of Syria – They reiterated their position that Assad would have no future ruling Syria. There was also an emphasis on the fact that Assad is seen as a source of extremism within Syria rather than a solution to it. The regime is really aggressively marketing itself as “the partner in counterterrorism” and a “potential partner with the west in counterterrorism”. So long as Washington does not buy that, I think that it is unlikely they will accept Assad remaining in power in the long run. As the regime sees its position on the ground as strengthened, it is forcing its opponents to at least acknowledge that Assad is likely to be a player through the transition process. I think this is the limit to which western governments will be willing to acknowledge Assad’s role in a solution.
Noah Bonsey is a Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group. He has contributed to Crisis Group’s coverage of Syria since May of 2012, and joined the organization full-time in April of 2013. Prior to his current position, Noah worked for three years as an Arabic social media analyst for a private consulting firm, managing a team of analysts focusing on regional political and militant affairs. Noah lived in Damascus in 2006 and 2008-2009, was based in Qatar in 2010, and speaks Modern Standard and Syrian colloquial Arabic. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a Master’s in Arabic from the University of Maryland.