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Why Syria's revolution needs a Benghazi

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An image aken from a video uploaded on YouTube shows Syrian anti-government protesters waving the former Syrian flag during a demonstration in Khirbet al-Ghazaleh in Daraa province on November 18, 2011.

By Ayman Mohyeldin, NBC News Correspondent

Ayman Mohyeldin covered the Middle East for several years as a correspondent for Al Jazeera’s English language channel. He reported extensively on the revolution in Egypt earlier this year, as well as on Tunisia’s fall. He recently became an NBC News Correspondent.

ANALYSIS

This Friday marks the end of another week of political upheaval across the Arab world with the international spotlight honing in Syria.
In the past week, the often-impotent League of Arab States took a stand against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The decision by the Arab League is a positive step, albeit late.

After Assad’s failure to meet a deadline to withdraw the Syrian military off the streets and talk to his political foes, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership.

The move came after the organization assumed that Assad’s regime was genuinely engaged with it to end the Syrian uprisings through a brokered or negotiated settlement. This proved to be a false assumption. Force was the ultimate weapon of choice for the regime – reforms and negotiations were simply diplomatic covers to give the government the time to deal with the issue militarily.


The ‘Arab’ decision
Beyond the somewhat symbolic gesture of isolating Syria from the Arab world, the Arab League decision could potentially have an impact on the ground. It’s not so much that it will deter the Syrian regime from continuing its military operations against protesters as it will likely embolden the opposition.

The Arab League’s decision has effectively told the opposition, both internally and externally, that the Arab world no longer wants to do business with Assad – and new alternatives are welcomed.

This is also a call being echoed individually by Arab leaders, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah, who earlier this week was the first Arab leader to openly call for Assad to step down. "If Bashar [Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life," Abdullah told the BBC.

Neighboring and regional countries from Iran to Turkey to Qatar, as well as non-state players like Hezbollah, will now have a choice to make.  Come to the strategic defense of the embattled Assad regime and risk a similar public wrath and condemnation or work against the regime by recognizing, aiding, funding and even arming the opposition in accordance with the collective regional will.

Qatar is one country that was instrumental in arming and funding the Libyan opposition. It would not come as a surprise if Qatari funds and weapons ended up in the hands of Syrian opposition by way of Turkey or Jordan.

Internationalizing the conflict
But the Arab Leagues decision, also poses a dilemma for the international community. With no military capabilities, no standing military force or technical capabilities, the Arab League can do very little to actually stop the regime and protect civilians.

In Libya, the League essentially kicked the issue up to the international arena, first to the U.N. and then NATO, which imposed the no-fly zone and carried out subsequent airstrikes that ultimately turned the tide against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

By condemning Syria and suspending its membership, the Arab League has played pretty much all the cards it has. Yes, it can try to further isolate and sanction the regime, but member states have already begun doing that unilaterally but withdrawing ambassadors and suspending bilateral trade and investments with Damascus.

 

Unlike its mantra when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program and a possible military strike, the U.S. has maintained that, “it’s keeping its options on the table” in terms of Syria. But the U.S. and other Western powers have also made it clear that any Libyan-style NATO operations are off the table.

In remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Nov. 9, Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said: “Overall, the [Obama] administration is following a careful but deliberate and principled course. This is necessary given Syria’s complex and unique circumstances. We do not seek further militarization of this conflict. Syria is not Libya.”

This has given Assad a lifeline – he knows that his use of force will not be countered by any international use of force, no matter how bad it gets.

Assad’s options
With the international community unwilling to act militarily and the Arab League having exhausted their options, Assad can now shift his focus from the international diplomatic arena to his immediate existential threat – his own people.

He has demonstrated his willingness to use force to suppress those he has labeled as terrorists and militants. He has also rejected any notion of stepping down, seeking refuge in another Arab country or transitioning power to alternative forces.

And at this point, it’s unlikely that Assad will reach full international isolation so long as Russia, a longtime ally, and China continue to drag their feet on taking a firm stance.

Even if it were fully isolated, it does not mean the Syrian regime would crumble. Assad’s legitimacy may have eroded but his capabilities to rule can remain in place for the foreseeable future so long as he does not lose physical territory in his own country or key supply routes that can be used by the opposition to smuggle in weapons, cash and resources from neighboring countries.

In addition, Assad has been a close ally of Iran and Hezbollah and may be inclined to cash in favors for the years of support he provided both of them in the wake of their own regional political isolation and diplomatic hardships.

Free Syrian Army
Although it is in its nascent stages, the Free Syria Army – a growing group of army defectors carrying out attacks against regime elements inside Syria – could prove to be the tipping balance in this conflict. But the Free Syria Army has a long way to go before it can succeed operationally and politically.

Complete with its own Facebook page, the FSA says it has tens of thousands of soldiers all across the country “capable of targeting the regime in its most strategic locations,” as it demonstrated with their high-profile attack on the Air Force Intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus earlier this week. 

For now, the leader of the FSA, Col. Riad al Asaad, is operating along the Syria-Turkey border (which has significant ramifications on Turkey’s role inside Syria). In a phone interview posted on the Facebook page, Asaad said the FSA is drawing its financial and military support from within the ranks of the regime’s military and the people of Syria, an indication that members of the regime’s security apparatus are defecting in large numbers.

While this may be the case, these forces have yet to prove they can act as a military deterrent to the regime. More important, for the FSA to succeed, it must capture and secure a base of operations within the country that can become the “liberated” capital of the opposition, similar to the way Libyan rebels held Benghazi, that nation’s second-largest city. This city would then allow a political and military opposition council to form and operate directly against the regime within the country. When the Libyan opposition managed to “liberate” Benghazi and make it a safe haven from which it could operate, the countdown on the Gadhafi regime began.

To do so, the FSA must also secure a border with a neighboring country that can serve as a conduit for supplies, medical assistance and safe travel.

But for now the Syrian opposition, both politically and militarily, are not functioning as a single cohesive unit with a base of operation and coordinated messaging. This can improve with time, especially with the help of countries such as Turkey, which is clearly allowing the FSA to operate from within its own borders.

Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images

Syrians living in Turkey chant slogans as they wave Turkish and Syrian flags protesting against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers during a demonstration in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, on Nov. 18.

Turkey’s backyard
Throughout the Arab Awakening, Turkey has been involved in almost every revolution. For the most part, it has been involved politically in calling on previous leaders to step down – often times ahead of other Arab or European leaders. Sometimes its positions faltered early, as was the case in Libya. But now the Arab revolutions have reached Turkey’s doorstep and there is no ambiguity about its role.

On one hand, it has been among the most critical of the Assad regime. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had invested a lot of political and diplomatic effort in working with Syria – increasing trade, attempting to negotiate a final peace deal with Israel and bolstering bilateral Turkish-Syrian relations.

But once the uprisings began, the Syrian regime shunned Turkish mediation efforts – at times brazenly in the public eye. At one point, Syrian tanks reportedly entered Turkish territory in July as thousands were fleeing the fighting.

Turkey in return has made its position clear with its actions: It has given safe refuge to thousands of Syrian refugees; it has allowed the leadership of the FSA to reside in Turkey along its border with Syria; and Turkey has reportedly intercepted arms shipments making their way into Syria.

As a NATO member and a powerful regional player, Turkey may attempt to assume more of the strategic role in facilitating assistance to the Syrian opposition if the FSA can manage to secure a base of operations and safe routes to Turkey from within Syria.

Civil war?
With the stage set, regionally and domestically, there is one inevitability: The conflict in Syria is certain to escalate.

Unlike other Arab revolutions, each with it own challenges and strategic significance, Syria takes it to a whole new level.

Like every other Arab leader who has fled, or has been deposed or has been killed by his own people, Assad has warned that after him there will be chaos and that the region would be engulfed in violence.

Because of its strategic location – Syria is a country that borders Israel and is a close ally of Iran, has porous borders with Iraq and Lebanon and has an internal ethnic composition rife with disparities and historical differences – many are worried about the effects of the fall of the Assad regime on the region. That has paralyzed the international community. The lessons of Iraq are still fresh in everyone’s mind and few dare to deconstruct a regime if it means opening a Pandora’s box inside Syria.

Even Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week that the attacks by the FSA could mark the beginning of “real civil war” in Syria.

But those who believe Syria is on the verge of civil war fail to recognize what these Arab revolutions are about. It’s precisely for this reason, I dislike the term, the Arab Spring.

I disagree with the term primarily because spring is a season with a beginning and an end and it that ultimately passes. But what is happening across the Arab world is much more of an “Arab Awakening” -- and awakenings can be painful and groggy, even on a good morning.

More important, the people who are protesting on the streets in Syria and who have been for the past eight months did so not to impose an ideology but to get rid of one – an ideology of oppression.

It’s for this reason I don’t believe the uprising in Syria is on the verge of a civil war. Nor was the Libya conflict a civil war. In revolutions, those fighting to change the regimes and those fighting to preserve regimes are not fighting ideological wars competing for the hearts and minds of citizens.

Those fighting for change are fighting for a cause – freedom. Those fighting to save the regimes are struggling to maintain power and those that are doing the fighting on their behalf are mostly doing it out of fear – not out of loyalty.

I think a real civil war, as we have seen around the world time and time, is when competing forces are fighting to advance ideologies and consolidate power. I don’t believe that is what the people in the Arab world who are facing down tanks, guns and bullets are fighting for today.

But then again, this is Friday and Fridays always mark the beginning of a new week of opportunity across the Arab world.