A torn poster of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen at the entrance of a factory in Ouwayjah village in Aleppo

The United States has officially recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has also designated al-Qaida in Iraq-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which often leads the fighting effort in Syria, as a terrorist organization, thus making it illegal for anyone to buy it even a cup of tea. This double-barreled political action, after months of hesitation, is intended to convey the message that Washington supports the relative moderates of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly but wants to exclude from its ranks Sunni extremists.

The trouble is both moves come late in the game. At this point, U.S. influence may not be sufficient to accomplish the objectives.

insight mei INSIGHT: Washington’s Next Steps On SyriaA lot depends on the Syrians themselves. Most Syrians do not want to see sectarian slaughter following the current civil war. The question is whether they will be willing and able to restrain the Sunni extremists in their midst. It will take courage and commitment for today’s revolutionaries to speak up and protect Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia who are suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Mass atrocity in the aftermath of political upheaval is more the rule than the exception. There is little sign that the international community will be able to mount a serious protection effort.

Jabhat al-Nusra would not hold the leading position it does today except for its relative effectiveness both on the battlefield and in providing services to liberated areas. The moderate Syrian opposition needs to get better at both if it is to compete effectively for mass support. It is trying. It has welcomed the Kurdish National Council into the Coalition and formed a new, more unified military command that excludes Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a meeting last week in Istanbul of the Civil Administration Councils from liberated areas in Syria. They need funds. A lot depends on their ability to provide food and shelter, pick up the garbage, open the schools, restore law and order. And it all has to be done in a fair and transparent way that avoids rumors of corruption and nepotism.

“The question of military assistance is still an open one.” – Daniel Serwer

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position as he points his weapon in Aleppo's Khan al-Wazeer district December 16, 2012. (Reuters)

Much also depends on what Washington does to follow through. Once it recognizes as legitimate a government other than the one presided over by Bashar al-Assad, Washington can respond to that government’s requests for assistance. Humanitarian assistance is a no-brainer, but it will take patience and fortitude to get at least some of it delivered through the Coalition’s still primitive governing mechanisms. Political help is also desperately needed: the civil administration councils as well as the Coalition itself will need to construct a governing apparatus that is seen as both legitimate and competent, no easy task while bombs are falling around you.

The question of military assistance is still an open one. There are reports of military training in Jordan for Syrians preparing to try to secure Assad’s chemical weapons and to shoot down regime aircraft. An internationally enforced no-fly zone would be a major step, one that would tilt the battlefield in the revolutionary direction. Yet the Obama administration, anxious to avoid getting too deeply involved and not wanting to provoke the Assad-friendly Russians, is still hesitating.

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Syrian refugees from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain wait to receive food in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 21, 2012. (Reuters)

On the economic front, Syria is in desperate condition. It is more akin to Egypt, which likewise has limited oil and gas, than Libya, a wealthy country with less than one-third of Syria’s population. Economic policy and Syria’s limited natural resources reside with whoever controls Damascus, so the liberated areas in other parts of the country will be doubly impoverished. The liberated areas need major and quick infusions of international funding.

Social conditions are appalling. More than 500,000 people are refugees, mostly in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. While the regime has been cooperating more with international relief efforts in recent weeks, there are likely several million people displaced internally, which makes for an enormous burden in providing food, shelter, sanitation and health care, even at the most basic level.

It is a good thing that Washington is recognizing both the virtues of the Coalition it helped to construct and the vices of Jabhat al-Nusra. But this is the beginning, not the end.

This post was originally published by Reuters.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.
 INSIGHT: Washington’s Next Steps On Syria

Daniel Serwer

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at peacefare.net and tweets at @DanielSerwer

  • JKF2

    Very interesting and timely views/opinions. The sit in Syria needs close monitoring, to ensure that if Hezbollah continues to increase its intervention, in support of the Assad regime, counter-actions are taken to provide further support to the opposition, the now recognized representatives of the Syrian people/ Gvmt of Syria. Hezbollah getting their hands on Chem/Bio weapons would be a major catastrophic disaster for all the ME.