Tony Karon writes: “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter,” said Senator John McCain on Monday, referring to Syria’s opposition amid the carnage being wrought by the Assad regime’s efforts to quash a year-old rebellion. But McCain’s call is unlikely to be heeded by the Obama Administration or other Western governments as they prepare for Friday’s inaugural meeting in Tunis of a “Friends of Syria” forum established to coordinate an international response to the crisis. That’s because Western decision-makers are not quite sure just who the Syrian opposition would be — there is no single leadership that speaks on behalf of those fighting the regime on the ground in cities across Syria, and there are certainly signs that its ranks may include elements deemed hostile to the West. And also, because it’s far from clear just how arming rebel forces would, in fact, “stop the slaughter” and not intensify it.
The problem confronting international stakeholders as they grapple for a response to the slow-moving bloodbath is that there at least three different narratives playing out at the same time in Syria, each of them complicating the others. There’s the narrative of the brutal authoritarian regime confronted by a popular citizens’ rebellion that it has been unable to crush despite a year of slowly escalating repression — a crackdown that has wrecked the country’s economy and made it impossible for the regime to restore stability, much less regain its legitimacy. (Nobody’s expecting the constitutional referendum to be staged by the regime on Sunday to yield a credible popular mandate for Assad’s rule.)
Then there’s the narrative of sectarian warfare, in which Syria’s ethnic and confessional minorities — the ruling Alawites who dominate the regime and its security forces, but also the Christians, the Kurds, the Druze and smaller sects — shudder in the face of a predominantly Sunni rebellion in which they see a specter of sectarian retribution that prompts many of them to remain on the sidelines or support the regime for fear of the alternative.
And finally, there are the geopolitical stakes, as the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf see an opportunity to hobble their Iranian nemesis by helping their indigenous allies overthrow a Tehran-backed regime. Syria also becomes an arena for China and Russia to block the expansion of Western influence in the Middle East through toppling regimes. [Continue reading…]