But how much coherence is fair to require as a precondition for further help? A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War points out that "insurgencies are inherently decentralized" and argues that Syria's armed opposition "has shown a propensity for organization at the local level." The report concludes that "delaying policy decisions before the opposition has coalesced around a viable alternative government is tantamount to insisting that the revolution succeed fully before it receives practical or military assistance."
The Friends of Syria, an organization of over 60 nations seeking to resolve the conflict there, is meeting this weekend in Istanbul, and should work actively both to help the civilian opposition hang together and to bind the militias inside Syria to the SNC -- rather than waiting for these forces to gel. (Giving the rebels satellite phones is, of course, one way to do just that.) And then what? White House officials have not wanted to say what they would do once the opposition begins to present a united front -- perhaps in part because they don't know. But reports that the rebels are literally running out of bullets argue that if outsiders don't act fast, there will be no insurgency to support -- at which point, Assad will be able to crush his opponents with impunity.
One person I spoke to who does have a plan is a former government official with extensive experience in Syria. The opposition, he argues, needs not just weapons but "a comprehensive military and civilian battle plan" to defeat Assad. He envisions a multilateral effort in which the United States would provide not just communications technology but real-time military intelligence to help the rebels respond to government troop movements. Gulf states would provide the bulk of the weapons and funds; the Jordanians might provide special forces to work closely with the militia; Turkey would provide the staging ground itself as well as other forms of aid; and diplomats would give strategic guidance to the SNC.
Such an effort would look less like the bombing campaign in Libya and more like, well, the CIA-sponsored campaign to arm and train the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. This is, of course, not a terribly encouraging analogy, since yesterday's anti-Soviet warriors became today's anti-American Taliban. We need no better reminder of the unintended consequences of supporting foreign insurgencies. But he did not shy away from the comparison. "We need to do what we did under Reagan," he said, "which is to actively support these insurgencies." But, he adds, we need to know who we are working with, to set out clear standards of behavior and to condition our help on maintaining those standards -- as we did not do in Afghanistan. And we need to be careful that the international effort doesn't exacerbate the problem: The Saudis, for example, are likely to bring an overtly sectarian agenda to Syria. The effort would be better off with a bigger role for the Turks, and a smaller one for the Saudis.
The neo-mujahideen strategy has plenty of problems -- beyond the possibility of a Frankenstein insurgency. It will take months to organize, and Assad will keep targeting civilians in the meanwhile. Assad's security forces may respond to a more robust military opposition by further ramping up the killing machine. And providing a safe haven along the northern border with Turkey offers very little comfort to either civilians or rebels in western cities like Hama or Homs, which border on Lebanon, or southern ones like Deraa, which is close to Jordan. And neither of those countries is prepared to host the insurgency.
But there are no good solutions; only less bad ones. And Assad's evident willingness to kill his opponents, and his opponents' willingness to keep fighting, or even protesting, despite the likelihood of being killed, compels outsiders to urgently devise and implement a least-bad solution rather than wait for the opposition to demonstrate that it deserves support. I'm open to a better suggestion. Does anyone have one?