The Syrian opposition coalition favored by the U.S. and its allies is in no position to fill a political vacuum that could be created if an anticipated U.S.-led military strike hastens the downfall of President Bashar Assad.
There are also questions about the opposition’s ability to keep terrorist groups, some with ties to al Qaeda, from taking advantage of the chaos that would follow the defeat of Mr. Assad’s regime after nearly 2½ years of a civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
The U.S. is considering punitive airstrikes against Mr. Assad’s regime after accusing it of killing civilians with chemical weapons. But the White House says it has no intention of toppling Mr. Assad.
Opposition officials and activists argue that any action that leaves Mr. Assad in power would be pointless and even invite stronger retaliation from the regime.
Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes the opposition as “a bunch of disparate groups.”
The Syrian opposition is splintered politically and militarily. Several factions came together in the Qatari capital Doha in November to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. The coalition replaced the Syrian National Council, which was widely viewed as ineffective. Its military wing is the Free Syrian Army, comprised mostly of Syrian army defectors.
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The opposition coalition “does not control events on the ground to any significant degree, so there is no [cohesive opposition] to keep [Islamist groups] from occupying space, and we see that on the ground all the time,” said Mr. Shapiro.
The Obama administration and other Western governments recognize the opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“The opposition remains disorganized,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.
“If Assad fell, it is not clear what would fill the vacuum. It would probably be a mix of everything [since] no single group is strong enough. So fighting would continue, with radicals on all sides gaining strength.”
The Obama administration is weighing options for a punitive military strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. That attack left between 300 and 1,300 dead.
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Syrian opposition officials and activists oppose a military response that leaves the Assad regime intact.
That “would not be a good outcome from our point of view,” said Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian opposition coalition’s special representative to the United States.
“If the regime is able to continue, we should expect even more retaliation from them. We have seen this regime stops at nothing, … and this should be in the minds of those who are contemplating [military] action.”
The Syrian battlefield has been muddied by the presence of several Islamist groups on both sides in the civil war, which erupted in March of 2011.
Thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters have joined Mr. Assad.
The rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization, is allied with al Qaeda in Iraq. That alliance is considered one of the more effective rebel groups.
The militants fighting alongside the rebels don’t recognize the authority of the Syrian opposition coalition or Gen. Salim Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army — the coalition’s military wing.
The opposition controls territory mostly in the northern and eastern parts of Syria, and some pockets in the west.
The strength of the Free Syrian Army is not clear. There are also no reliable statistics on the number of militants in the rebels’ ranks.
Despite making gains on the ground, the rebels have been powerless against Mr. Assad’s air force.
“Any Western military operation must focus on destroying the regime’s air force,” Kamal al-Labwani, a member of the Syrian opposition coalition’s defense and security committee, said in a phone interview from Istanbul, Turkey.
A U.S.-led operation would likely be brief, involving cruise missiles and B-2 bombers striking military targets but not chemical weapons facilities, according to multiple sources.
Analysts say a limited strike is unlikely to tip the battle in favor of the rebels.
“If the U.S. decides to use a target set that would significantly degrade the government’s military capability, then it would very much be a game-changer,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “However, the assessment I have been getting is that this will be a punitive attack that is meant to send a message to the regime, and it will not significantly change the regime’s balance of power.”
Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, agreed.
“I would advocate a longer and more intensive air campaign than that which I think we are about to witness,” said Mr. Pavel, a former senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff under President Obama and former President George W. Bush.
The Syrian opposition is counting on an operation that brings about a change of leadership in Damascus.
“We would like this to lead to a process of democratic transition and not be confined just to punitive action regarding the chemical weapons,” said Mr. Ghadbian.
“This should be an opportunity for the international community — especially the Friends of Syria who are committed to democratic change in Syria — to make sure that this is the course [on which] we are going and the departure of Bashar Assad from the scene would open that door in a very meaningful way.”
Friends of Syria is a group that includes the U.S., Arab and European nations, as well as international organizations, that has been working with the opposition coalition.
At a meeting Monday with the core group of the Friends of Syria in Istanbul, opposition representatives were asked whether they were prepared for all consequences of a Western military operation in Syria.
Mr. Ghadbian said his coalition is doing its best.
Help from friends
“We might need some help from our friends and allies,” he said, adding that a substantial amount of this help should come in the form of weapons.
If the United States arms the rebels, it “would definitely narrow the ability of the extremists,” Mr. Ghadbian said.
“We want to work with our friends to make sure there is no power vacuum and the extremists will not take advantage of this,” he said.
In June, the Obama administration, after concluding that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, authorized arming the rebels. But the rebels have so far not recieved any U.S. weapons, according to opposition sources.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is expected to release a declassified document within days that includes intercepts of communications between Syrian military personnel discussing the Aug. 21 chemical attack and satellite images showing activity at the regime’s chemical weapons sites around the time of the attack.
The Assad regime has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, which includes sarin gas, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX. Syrian opposition officials, activists and Western analysts say there is no evidence to suggest that the rebels have chemical weapons or the ability to use them.