At an 11-nation meeting in Turkey this weekend, there was one thing the United States, European and Arab states could agree on: that with more than 70,000 killed and millions of people displaced, the Syria crisis, as Secretary of State John Kerry says, is “horrific.”
“The stakes in Syria couldn’t be more clear,” Kerry said. “Chemical weapons, the slaughter of people by ballistic missiles and other weapons of huge country; the potential of a country – a great country, with beautiful people – [is] being torn apart.”
Western governments are still investigating claims of chemical weapons use, but the Syrian opposition arrived at the meeting seeking interventions to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. They also want a no-fly zone, and a lot more weapons.
But many among the opposition’s backers are wary of shipping arms to the fractious Syrian rebels, for fear that they’ll end up in the hands of Islamist units like the al-Nusra front, that recently announced an alliance with al-Qaida.
The nightmare scenario of a sectarian bloodbath led by al-Qaida linked radicals was seized on by President Bashar Assad, who told state television last week that history shows that backing extremists for short-term gain often backfires.
“They financed al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and paid for that later,” Assad said, adding a threat sometimes heard in jihadist videos. “Now they support al-Qaida in Syria, and they will pay in Europe and the heart of the United States.”
The Syrian opposition says it condemns “all forms of extremism,” and opposition coalition head Moaz Khatib pledged that all Syrian minorities would be protected in a post-Assad Syria. He called on Assad’s allies to stop propping up what he called a murderous regime.
We want Iran to stop its activities, said Khatib, and he called on Hezbollah to withdraw all of its fighters from the field.
In the end, the opposition didn’t get the weapons or intervention it wants, and the west seems no closer to deciding the thorny question of whether to send arms.
Analyst Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the dilemma is real, but delaying is also a kind of decision, because arms from the Persian Gulf have already strengthened the al-Nusra front and other Islamist units, increasing the prospects that they will have an important role in a post-Assad Syria.
“This is a really big debate … how do you influence a rapidly deteriorating situation if you don’t deal with the reality of the fact that those who are taking the shots against Assad will be calling them when he’s gone?” Tabler says.
The “friends of Syria,” including the Arab states now sending weapons, agreed to funnel all future military aid through the Free Syrian Army, which has tried to distance itself from the al-Nusra front. Kerry also warned that “other types” of aid would be considered if cease-fire efforts remain stalled.
But for the moment, as Syria spirals toward what U.N. officials call a “humanitarian catastrophe,” both the Syrian opposition and the international community remain divided on key issues, effectively leaving a bloody military stalemate to grind on.