Arm the rebels - and let them bring an end to Syria's regime

Intervention in Syria must be limited to training, intelligence and arming the anti-regime fighters. A rebel-led victory is more likely to lead to a stable outcome.

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On Wednesday, the popular revolt in Syria will enter its 18th month. Nearly 20,000 people have been killed (most of them civilian casualties and peaceful protesters), tens of thousands of families displaced and dozens of cities shelled. There is no end in sight.

Before the uprising, Syrians had lived with the thought that the 1982 Hama massacre - which involved the most horrific war crimes imaginable - only happened because the world had not been watching. But the latest carnage, committed by the same regime, has changed that perception: not only is the world watching, it is coldly ignoring the victims. History will condemn the international community for failing to stop the barbaric massacres by both Assads, father and son.

Yet, as the bloodshed continues, the question remains of what could be done to end it. The situation is becoming increasingly more complex, yet has reached a point where the conclusion - the end of the regime - is clear: the Free Syrian Army is becoming stronger, the regime is weakening rapidly (with its military reduced to acting essentially as death squads), and the fighting will continue until the regime falls.

What is needed is to speed up that process by providing maximum assistance to the rebels. More diplomacy, symbolised by Kofi Annan's failed mission, will only lead to an increasingly bloody stalemate. But outright military intervention would steer the crisis towards deeply unpredictable outcomes.

The world, particularly the US and its allies, must focus on two courses of action to help to bring about a favourable outcome.

First, intervention must be limited to training, intelligence and arming the anti-regime fighters. A rebel-led victory is more likely to lead to a stable outcome.

The call for foreign forces in Syria has recently been made by some US officials as well as journalists. The National's columnist Faisal Al Yafai made the case for intervention yesterday, albeit speaking narrowly about foreign special forces.

"Before Arab countries, Turkey or the United States put combat planes in the air," he wrote, "what is needed are more boots on the ground." In stages, Al Yafai argued, that might be followed by a no-fly zone.

Such an approach has to be considered carefully. Extremist forces in the opposition, as well as the Baathist regime, would use the presence of foreign troops as a rationale for their violence. A Libya-style intervention is not feasible, and indeed is undesirable despite members of the Syrian National Council calling on Sunday for a no-fly zone.

A more robust approach is in order, however. During her visit to Turkey on Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and Ankara had decided to set up a contact group for "intensive planning", involving Syrian rebels and both countries' military and intelligence services.

While this is a major step, it falls short of providing needed assistance beyond "non-lethal aid". It is time the world moved past the fear that weapons will fall into the "wrong hands" - an exaggerated risk - and focus on the real wrong hands that are massacring people.

There is no evidence that fighters on the ground will take the war to other countries. People were forced to pick up arms against the regime after a year of peaceful protests, and most of them will lay them down again after the regime falls.

The Free Syrian Army is steadily being organised into larger units, and plans are underway to unify fighters in regional battalions, as has already happened in Aleppo. Fighters have shown, time and again, that they respond to criticism and respect human rights.

Unless they have weapons that can bring down regime jets and destroy tanks, the speedy fall of the regime depends on very uncertain defections from within its top ranks.

The second area that foreign assistance must focus on is to help to overhaul the Syrian National Council. The council, now one year old, has survived because it was the only political vehicle to rally international support. It has now almost lost all relevance; Syrians have given up on a foreign military solution and look towards the Free Syrian Army as the only solution.

Additionally, the defections of technocrats in recent months have offered alternatives to rally opposition against the regime. The opposition's fate is no longer tied to the council as it once was.

Radical reform is urgently needed to match the pace of events on the ground and enable an orderly transition. A viable, legitimate political alternative to the Assads will hasten the regime's disintegration and help to avert subsequent chaos.

Stability is tied to legitimacy. Given the current structure of the council, a political crisis is looming.

The world has let Syrians down, not so much by failing to act, but by acting in a sideshow that distracted from real solutions. Excuses range from international disagreement and the opposition's disunity to fear of the regime's supposedly formidable air defences.

Regional countries, particularly Turkey and the Gulf states, have show they are willing to arm the Free Syrian Army and help it to tip the balance. But great powers - with their limping diplomacy and shaky ceasefires - thwarted these efforts. It is time to move decisively to put an end to Baathist massacres.

On Twitter: @hhassan140

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