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A War of Words on Syria

A War of Words on Syria

Rebel soldier of the Free Syrian Army, Aleppo. (Image Credit: AP)

The language of war could swell volumes with what would at once be the most depressing and coldly technical glossaries of chaos ever scribed.  The intersection of political calculation and unrelenting violence is formed by an endless stream of words.  Open-air condemnations and closed-door strategizing.  Shouts and whispers, threats and rumors.  Uncapped fury and profound grief.  Escalation, resignation, negotiation, consolation.  The chatter of diplomacy can so often be dominated by trying to make as few commitments in as many words as can be strung together.  For the Syrian opposition, the most dangerous word among all of these may be one that is as loaded as it is vacuous: “maybe.”

As words go, maybe is neither particularly aggressive nor plainly amiable.  It merely straddles a line between denial and affirmation.  Placed in the context of Syria’s rebellion, however, and its ambiguity emerges as increasingly perilous because maybe remains the placeholder of choice for a recurring question: Will the West supply arms to the Assad opposition?

That answer isn’t always, or for that matter usually, expressed as a maybe.  It’s a kind of Cinderella term here – an inoffensive, underrated word that gets dressed up in other, fancier words to get trotted out in passionate speeches as if arriving for the ball.  But when midnight strikes, and everyone with a potential say-so is still up late crunching numbers on military options and sorting through who’s who amid increasingly fractured groups of potential rebel allies, all that fancy gets stripped back down to the ever-humble maybe.

Recent weeks have been unkind to the opposition’s momentum. A long-pursued meeting between the Syrian National Coalition and the U.N. Security Council last week was overrun by news of painful losses in significant strongholds.  The worst of which was the erosion of its prized position in Homs, outside Aleppo. For rebel forces, the image of National Coalition leader Ahmad Assi Jarba striding through the threshold of the U.N. to stand before an international microphone countered by those of the government-captured Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, deeply symbolic for its early role in anti-Assad rallies, is an unwelcome dichotomy of moods to encase the status of their efforts.  Just yesterday, rebel forces threw missiles at state troops closing in on the city, hitting a massive weapons depot. Forty were killed and more than one-hundred and sixty injured.

A War of Words on Syria

Syrian National Coalition leaders meet with UN Security Council, 26 July 2013

The Security Council meeting convened at the urging of the U.K. — an unsurprising influence given how vocal Prime Minister David Cameron has been on Syria’s humanitarian situation. Alongside France, the U.K. successfully campaigned for the reversal of an EU ban on arms assistance to selected rebel groups.  At the time, Cameron wanted all options on the table, dropping hints along the way that small arms might get a place setting and friends were found worthy of a seat at the gathering.  But in the days before Jarba sat before his elite audience, Mr. Cameron back-pedaled.  Arms supply lacked in favor with military chiefs and the British parliament, suggestions that Russia might reconsider its ties with Assad fell away as Syrian Army gains mounted, and the landscape of opposition allies shifted as extremist wings tagged themselves to moderate groups.

The combination of these complex developments pushed Cameron into a corner and then out in front of a BBC crew.  He conceded that there remained too much extremism to offer arms but responded to an aside made about where weapons might fall by saying it was “no good complaining about the rebels if we’re not going to try to help those who want a free, democratic, pluralistic Syria.”  He rattled off Britain’s Syria resume and pressed for  resolution via the Geneva II talks and for yet more political action.  No guarantees were ever made about firepower assistance, but so much had been taken on by Number 10 in opening that door that a refusal to walk through it dealt a devastating blow to western-backed Syrian allies who saw Britain as its firmest advocate.

Commentary following the interview questioned whether the prime minister’s turn of phrase was truly just the most diplomatic of no’s or one that left room for re-engagement down the line if clearer opportunities presented themselves — a Cinderella-ed maybe.

The U.S. has thus far taken a much more guarded course through the maybe space.  The subject of arms supply was largely avoided in the months following Syria’s upheaval as Washington looked better poised to keep the conversation tethered to a support approach involving food and protective gear.  Domestic appetites for new intervention in this neighborhood are sour against the backdrop of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.  Plans to offer arms with little or no actionable assurances for whose hands they might pass through would have been political poison if introduced around televised hearings on the Benghazi embassy attack.

Reports of chemical weapons use against opposition forces and civilians changed the administration’s tune last month.  A “red line”, now crossed, was met with Obama’s approval of a military aid package to Syria’s Supreme Military Council, a primary opposition group.  Just what shape that package might take is still debated.  The Senate Armed Services Committee instructed the Pentagon to outline potential courses of intervention, but testimony offered by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey cast concern over how useful these options would be when weighed against their considerable cost.  Gen. Dempsey carried little optimism for the likelihood of Assad’s ousting over the next year.

Whatever the plan, its rollout will neither be rushed nor unconstrained.

A War of Words on Syria

Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, Homs (Image Credit: Reuters)

France and Germany find their vocabulary equally choked off by maybe.  A meeting in Paris between Jarba and President François Hollande produced no promises for arms.  Once compelled to ensure Europe reserved the possibility of arms support, France wants time to weigh its options against the composition of its opposition partners and its liability in the movement of its weapons.  For their part, the Germans refuse military assistance until the opposition can weed out extremists and distance themselves from potential terrorists.

Stalemate.  Both on the ground and for the Western governments being looked to for help.  A word uniquely positioned as a breeding ground for maybes.  Maybe arms are coming, maybe they aren’t.  In the meantime, a flagging opposition waits for an answer either way.  Push on in hopes of reinforcement, or decide how and if to move forward in their definitive absence.

I dare not cast stones, for they can be lobbed right back.  This post, in its own way, is exploitive of the maybe.  It nestles on the same line.  My characterization of diplomatic language isn’t intended as glorification or indictment.  It’s in many ways just the nature of the beast.  Where an engaged electorate exists there is a rightful pressure put upon leaders to choose their words very carefully in matters costing lives and considerable fortune.  The wrong answer is to pretend like it’s easy to readily short-list options and assume positive outcomes.  This is also neither a rallying cry for intervention nor a call to walk away.  It does nothing more than present a discussion on the potential impact of the maybe space on a people battered by conflict.  A people displaced by the millions and watching a death toll climb up and beyond a hundred thousand.

And for that part, all the words are sad ones and there are no maybes.



Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.