With Islamists now in firm control of Syria rebellion, civil war might last years

The Islamist consolidation of power over Syria’s rebel movement in recent weeks is another indication that foreign policy strategists are correct when they warn that the Syrian conflict is likely to grind on for years before either side is prepared for serious peace negotiations.

Despite the staggering death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis, experts say, the conflict isn’t yet “ripe” – a term professional mediators use for the point when warring parties recognize that they’re each suffering from a stalemate and are ready to find a mutually acceptable settlement. That phase is a long way off in Syria, analysts say, and the collapse of the moderate rebel command underlines why next month’s peace summit in Geneva is considered an exercise in futility.

Holding the conference at this juncture presents a difficult choice for the United States, which is struggling to find Syrian opposition partners who can form a credible, representative delegation to sit across the table from the more sure-footed, fully supported representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The biggest challenge now is how to have a rebel voice in the room, when the Western-backed Supreme Military Council is in tatters and its Islamist rivals reject the Geneva process outright.

In other words, the only rebels who’d show up are those with little or no influence on the battlefield. And the entire exercise is anathema to the fighters who do hold enough sway to implement any agreement under the so-called Geneva communique, a document that calls for talks to a mutually agreeable transitional government that would assume full executive power.

“There has to be a question mark of whether Geneva 2 will go ahead because, while it’s embarrassing to have the regime show up and your side doesn’t, it’s even more embarrassing to have a conference that’s just a farce,” said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who monitors Syria for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research center.

Helping to craft an acceptable guest list was always a tough project for the United States; the conference has been delayed repeatedly in large part because of the opposition’s disarray. The problem became starker over the weekend, however, when Islamist forces descended on a town along the Turkish border and seized the headquarters and warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council, which is led by U.S. point man Gen. Salim Idriss.

Initial accounts, repeated by U.S. officials, said that members of the Islamic Front, a Saudi-backed consortium of six Islamist groups, overran the facilities where U.S.-provided nonlethal supplies were kept. The Obama administration, which has long worried that its aid would fall into the hands of Islamist radicals, was alarmed enough to suspend the $260 million rebel aid program. Great Britain followed suit by freezing its own shipments.

The move signaled to close observers of the conflict that the Obama administration finally had recognized how very little clout its Syrian allies had against the ascendant Islamists despite Supreme Military Council claims to represent tens of thousands of fighters. Analysts weren’t buying the State Department’s insistence that the aid suspension was no indication that the U.S. was easing off its support for Idriss and his men.

Frederic C. Hof, a former administration special adviser on Syria who’s now with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, wrote in a blog post that breathing new life in the Supreme Military Council “would be an operational challenge of the first order,” even if the administration decided it was necessary for regional stability.

On Thursday, the political arm of the U.S.-backed opposition, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, tried to put a bright face on the Islamist fighters’ capture of the headquarters, saying they really had come at Idriss’ request to fight off an attack by the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But that account was greeted with skepticism. In any case, Joshi said, it doesn’t change the fact that the moderate rebel command doesn’t have the manpower or fighting prowess to challenge the Islamists’ authority.

“Once you have Islamists in charge of your checkpoints, in charge of your bases, and with the keys to your warehouses, that’s not something you get back easily,” Joshi said.

None of this portends a productive Geneva conference, should the meeting take place as scheduled Jan. 22. Even before the aid suspension, veteran foreign policy strategists playing out possible peace scenarios earlier this week found only dead ends when they tried to map out paths to a negotiated resolution to the nearly 3-year-old conflict.

An organizer of the exercise, Kristin Lord, executive vice president of the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace, which sponsored the exercise, said that participants saw two potential arcs for Syria: an eventual power-sharing body without Assad but with his regime largely intact, or further fragmentation and even partition of the country if current conditions persist.

With virtually no control over either the fighting or the opposition politics, Lord said, the best move for the Obama administration was to focus on helping neighboring countries secure their borders from the jihadist influx and introduce educational and other programs for the 2.3 million refugees that have fled Syria in hopes that one day they’ll return and rebuild their ravaged nation.

“Everyone did recognize that in all likelihood it was going to take a long time to resolve the conflict,” Lord said. “There’s no magic bullet that could solve it tomorrow.”

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