Posted by on June 27, 2013 in Blog

By Yisser Bittar
Government Relations and Advocacy Assistant at the Syrian American Council

On June 14, Jeffrey Wright wrote on the AAI blog that it is a mistake for President Obama to provide defensive arms to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition. Wright asserted that the move would further militarize the Syria conflict, would place the US in the regional "Sunni camp," and represented a "capitulation to advocates of intervention in Washington." As a Syrian American who has been working for over a year in DC to raise support for the Syrian Revolution, including military support to pro-democracy rebels, I would like to take this opportunity to respond.

The Syrian Revolution began as a peaceful revolution that, as it still does despite the militarization, had at its core a demand for democracy encompassing all sects and ethnicities of Syria. It also has had the support of Syrian Americans of various religious and political identities, many of whom maintain close ties to friends and family in Syria and who have followed their lead since the very beginning. When over a million Syrians were marching in the streets and the peaceful removal of Bashar el-Assad seemed possible, Syrian Americans held hundreds of rallies, fundraisers, and even "flash mobs" across the country to show solidarity and raise awareness.

Several Syrian American organizations later adopted the demand for military support of the opposition by establishing a no-fly zone to reduce the violence, safe zones and humanitarian corridors to enable delivery of aid and rebuilding, or providing strategic defensive arms to rebel fighters who pledge to abide by democratic principles. Again, this was in response to calls from the ground. After months of merciless crackdowns by Assad that made clear his determination to crush the protests, the Free Syrian Army stepped up operations to defend protesters, make strategic advances, and overthrow Assad.  As early as October 2011, when the Free Syrian Army had only loose affiliations and scattered attacks to its name, thousands of protesters across Syria marched in support of a no-fly zone. These pro-democracy protesters in Deraa, Homs, Idlib, Damascus and Qamishli were the original advocates for intervention in Syria, not politicians from either party in Washington.

Yet calls for military aid from Syrians and Syrian Americans did not result in such action. While the world watched, Assad escalated his crackdown on the opposition unabated – from live ammunition, to artillery, to airstrikes, Scud missiles and yes, chemical weapons. This crackdown has led to a humanitarian crisis that is sadly approaching comparison with the tragedy in Darfur. With over 90,000 people killed and over 5 million displaced, the Assad regime's ongoing crackdown ranks among the worst atrocities in modern Arab history.

In spite of the destruction, I am inspired by the ability of Syrians to persevere in their struggle for a democracy that recognizes all its citizens. When I visited the village of Kafranbel this March, the regime appeared to be actively stoking sectarian tensions, by bombarding mainly-Sunni Kafranbel from the neighboring Shiite village of Fo'a. Residents of Kafranbel responded to these efforts by arranging a truce with residents of Fo'a, and Kafranfel protesters still firmly rejected the sectarian narrative, chanting "We want a civil state" and "We are one people." 

In January, I also had a chance to meet with one of the leading Sunni imams in Homs, who described extensive efforts by religious leaders to ensure a pluralistic post-Assad Syria. Syrian religious leaders are developing programs to deter revenge attacks, promote transitional justice, and build support for the rule of law. They continued their efforts even as Hezbollah, with Assad's blessing, was increasing its presence outside Homs--an increase that, we now know, recently contributed to the fall of Qusair and  now threatens to cause much more instability and destruction.

The best way to avoid sectarian war in Syria is to empower the Syrian people, who are forming civilian structures to resist sectarian impulses despite the best efforts of the Assad regime. While one might think that providing arms to any party in Syria would hurt civilian governance, the course of the Syrian Revolution suggests otherwise. In July 2012, the Free Syrian Army took control of most of Aleppo Province, repelling regime advances with rocket-propelled grenades. They promptly transferred much of their power to the Aleppo Revolutionary Transitional Council, which recently administered elections, the closest that a Syrian provincial government has come to democracy since 1963.

If we wish to see such democratic structures develop elsewhere in Syria and set the stage for a true national participatory democracy, expanded military support to the Free Syrian Army is necessary. The Free Syrian Army grew out of a popular protest movement; its senior leaders have all signed a Proclamation of Principles supporting democracy and minority rights; and it has established democratic structures in areas it controls. President Obama's recent decision to provide light arms to the Free Syrian Army is therefore quite welcome among Syrian Americans. This decision, if implemented strategically and decisively, will create the balance on the ground that is necessary to compel the Assad regime to enter into earnest transitional negotiations.  Coming twenty months after Syria's pro-democracy movement first asked for military aid, we can only hope it is not too little, too late, to accomplish these goals.


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