Steps Towards Greater Unity in Syrian Opposition an Opportunity for U.S. Policy

Washington, D.C.In response to an announcement by rebel leaders on the formation of a joint command structure to coordinate ongoing efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad Human Rights First today urged the U.S. government to welcome and encourage steps towards greater unity among these forces. A conference is scheduled to take place on November 4 in Qatar to further advance unity and cooperation between opposition forces. The meeting will include the “Friends of Syria,” an international group of countries including the United States that convenes periodically to address the crisis in Syria. “The U.S. government should welcome this progress towards unity, inclusiveness and cooperation in the Syrian opposition,” said Human Rights First’s Sadia Hameed. “It should seize this opportunity to express its readiness, in cooperation with its allies in the Friends of Syria, to provide more support to a united Syrian opposition that is able to demonstrate capacity to exert control over military forces on the ground in Syria. In doing so foreign governments supplying weapons to the opposition must recognize that they bear as much responsibility for the prevention of atrocities as the fighters on the ground.” Currently weapons are reaching opposition forces from a variety of sources, including private religious sources that are empowering extremist groups. By being able to deal directly with a more centralized authority, supporters of the opposition in the Friends of Syria, including the United States, could take practical steps to ensure that weapons supplied to the opposition do not fall into the hands of extremists and are not used to carry out sectarian killings or other mass atrocities. The organization noted the Friends of Syria, could provide an incentive for the Syrian opposition to unify by linking the provision of military support to clear criteria, including pledges by opposition forces not to engage in war crimes, sectarian violence or other violations. This would be attractive to political leaders and fighters on the ground. By adhering to these criteria the Syrian opposition will develop the capacity to rule a united Syria, protecting the rights of all Syrians, after the eventual fall of the regime. This criteria also contributes toward due diligence requirements of foreign governments arming the opposition, who are obligated to ensure that any material support they provide will not enable atrocities in Syria or elsewhere. Such due diligence measures will be what set the Friends of Syria, apart from those countries currently arming the regime and knowingly enabling mass atrocities in Syria. A more unified opposition in a position to receive greater support would increase pressure on the Assad regime to leave. Changing the balance of power on the ground would also change the calculus of the Assad regime’s few remaining allies, like Iran and especially Russia, and would increase defections from the regime and its military. A stronger more unified opposition would speed the end to the conflict in which over 30,000 civilians have already died and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. “The Obama administration is not doing all that it could to put an end to the mass atrocities now taking place in Syria,” observed Hameed. “Agreeing to step up support for the opposition conditional on it establishing an inclusive, representative leadership structure and adhering to international legal standards in the conduct of its operations would move U.S. policy beyond its current state of damaging passivity.”


Published on October 18, 2012


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