Summary of the master class “Syria: Is International Intervention Inevitable?” at the 2012 Annual Members’ Conference.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, RNA, former Head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria
Moderated by Dr. Michele Dunne, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council

The session with Major General Robert Mood began with a discussion of Syria as it existed prior to the conflict’s outbreak in March 2011. In the years leading up to the civil war, Syrians lived in a secular society where they enjoyed excellent health care and education services, relative gender equality, and exceptional personal security. Given these luxuries—absent in many other Middle Eastern countries—a considerable number of Syrians were willing to bear the restrictions on personal freedom imposed by Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime. 

The session continued with a discussion of the dynamics of Syria’s ongoing civil war, focusing first on the widespread perception that the Syrian opposition lacks a much needed sense of unity. The rebels do have considerable organization at local levels, but lack the sort of operational design and clear chain of command that we understand as crucial in achieving national objectives. In addition to—and, in part, as a result of—this lack of unity, the rebels are hampered by the fact that they have yet to gain control of a large swath of territory comparable to Libya’s Benghazi, one that would enable them to establish and maintain links with external supporters. 

While concerns about the opposition’s lack of unity are warranted, worries about the potentially destabilizing influence of external powers and jihadist groups may be overblown. The actual presence of such groups on the ground is relatively limited, and sophisticated arms among the opposition are not nearly as widespread as one would expect given the reports of free flowing weapons from states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the rebels are adamant in their determination to maintain the secular, Syrian character of their revolution while rejecting the influence of extremists and outsiders. 

The opposition’s shortcomings will continue to prove an issue even should the rebels emerge victorious from the conflict. Owing to the heavy-handed police state maintained by Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez before him, Syria is utterly devoid of coherent, mature opposition leadership. This could result in a collapse of state institutions more severe than what we have seen in Iraq, such that we may have to wait a generation before today’s local opposition figures have grown into the sort of mature national leadership needed to bring Syria forward. 

While this leadership vacuum presents a serious challenge, there are some existing structures that may help provide order in a post-Assad Syria. For one, the country contains tribal areas that have thus far stood aloof from the conflict, and these may prove useful in providing some semblance of organization in parts of Syria. Meanwhile, there are also individuals from within the Assad-era elite that the opposition will likely accept as partners in establishing a new Syria, and this, too, may help to reestablish some sort of order. 

Moving forward, it is essential that channels of communication remain open between the opposition and the regime, as dialogue will be critical to the success of any transitional process. The United Nations thus continues to position itself—through the preservation of a small political liaison office—so as to facilitate this sort of communication. The discussion ended on a cautiously optimistic note regarding the new United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who boasts extensive experience and a willingness to deliver bold, direct messages in difficult situations.