'Friends of Syria' recognition: Does it matter? Q & A

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On Wednesday, a large bloc of countries who call themselves "Friends of Syria" officially recognized the Syrian opposition coalition led by Mouaz al-Khatib.

The National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution was created last month, after the international community called for a more representative and organized coalition to stand in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. It was formally recognized Wednesday by the 114 countries which are part of the Friends of Syria group.

How does this change the Syrian opposition's international position and diplomatic power?

For some answers, GlobalPost talked to Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Abrams also served as deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

What does this recognition realistically mean for the Syrian opposition? Does it change things diplomatically, especially with Russia and China?

It changes things diplomatically for them everywhere, in that you have so many countries now getting on board. I don’t think China’s all that important in this context.

Russia is, because of its relationship with [President] Assad, but I don’t think the critical question is whether the Russians will officially recognize this group. They’re not going to do that because that would mean that they are breaking with Assad and they’re not ready to do that today. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t have secret talks or contacts with the group, which I think is quite possible.

Overall, I think this is a huge victory for the Syrian opposition.

Does this recognition hint that the international community is willing to take take action toward deposing Assad? How far are they willing to go to help the rebels and the opposition?

It’s very unclear. It doesn’t mean, for example, that the United States is now going to give the rebels arms. It is probably an encouragement to the British and the French who were talking in the last week or so of the possibility of arms deliveries. Having dozens and dozens of countries now officially recognize this group is likely to make it less controversial in Paris and London to do something more.

The problem is that there’s a war on, and unless it actually translates to money, guns and humanitarian goods for the opposition, they will very quickly come to view it as just talk.

If the US isn’t willing to arm the rebels yet, how close are the “Friends of Syria” or other allies of the opposition to arming the rebels or pursuing military intervention?

I think things changed. Here we are in December, so let’s compare to three months ago, six months ago. The difference is that the rebels seem to be very well armed today. Partly because they’re capturing more Syrian army materiel as they overrun army bases, depots or warehouses. You don’t really hear anymore about them lacking firepower. The second reason they have more is, I think, they’re getting it … not from the US, but from Arab countries. Particularly Qatar seems to be involved in this, perhaps Turkey.

The tide of battle has shifted, as the opposition has gotten more money and guns. From every news report [Wednesday], they seem to be winning. That’s not to say that we’re on the verge of the government collapsing this week, but I can’t remember the last story that carried some kind of victory for the army where they had driven the opposition out and the opposition was in shambles. On the contrary, the opposition seems to be slowly but steadily gaining.

The United States has missed the boat to some degree. Six months ago, twelve months ago, had we been willing to supply weapons secretly to the opposition, we could have gained a great deal of influence. I don’t think we can do that now, in December, because they’re well armed now.

Is there a connection between the United States simultaneously recognizing the Syrian opposition, while blacklisting the rebel group al-Nusra? What is the message from the US on that?

Two things, I think. One, it’s trying to answer the criticism that the opposition is permeated by jihadi groups. With the big criticism in Washington and elsewhere in the West, the administration is trying to say, “We’re aware of who’s who. And we’re fighting to keep the influences of the jihadi groups down.” I think it’s partly domestic politics, in the US.

I think the other part of it is looking ahead, for the day that Assad is gone, for a post-war Syria. I think the administration is putting down a marker now with the opposition. "Later on, if you want help from the West, you need to know that we draw distinctions between the groups and not everybody should be part of the coalition."

Are there any timelines or predictions in the diplomatic community for what is going to happen to Assad’s regime at this point?

No, I think many people have been wrong in guessing how long it would take for the regime to fall, and they’ve become more cautious. So I haven’t heard people say it’s going to take three months, six months, eight months. The gains do appear to be pretty steady.

One key issue here is what happens to Assad. The Russians don’t seem to have given up on Assad, at least publicly. Maybe privately they acknowledge that his departure is part of the picture, but then that raises the question of where does he go. What makes the question harder to answer is the International Criminal Court. There are very few countries. I think that’s a question that people are going to be discussing, at least in private, especially in Marrakech [where the Friends of Syria conference was held].

It would seem to me his departure has got to come at the start of any transition, not as part of it or at the end of it. Not with 40,000 or 50,000 people dead.

From his point of view, you need a place that will take you, a place that will keep you safe. Venezuela, for example, strikes me as a very bad choice. With [President Hugo] Chavez, you don’t know what the political situation there is going to be in the next year. I’d think he’d be a lot safer in places like Iran or Russia, if he got permission to live there.

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