Throwing Windmills at the Wyndham

While the Syrian opposition brawls in an Istanbul hotel, the battlefield fighting is increasingly within the rebel camp.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Late on the night of March 6, a few dozen leading members of Syria's political and military opposition gathered in a hotel room in Istanbul's Wyndham Hotel, not far from the airport. They were there to talk: to work out their issues and to heal the rifts currently tearing apart their group and hurting their cause. Within 30 minutes, however, the friendly meeting had degenerated into a brawl.

Leaders who had come to chat ended up yelling curses and throwing punches. Ahmed Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed opposition's political wing was punched three times in the face. The dustup began with insulting language and "light clashes," according to Omar Abu Leila, an opposition spokesperson at the meeting, but escalated quickly after someone -- he said it was a member of the Free Syrian Army's leadership body, but he couldn't see who exactly -- yelled, "there are a couple of people here whose heads need cracking."

The meeting ended, Abu Leila said, with people being pulled apart and Jarba cursing both sides. "Jarba was trying to bring an end to the clashes, but he still got whacked," he said.

The Wyndham Hotel brawl was the ugly culmination of months of squabbling at the highest levels of Syria's Western-backed opposition group. Meanwhile, the opposition was also taking a beating on the battlefield: The Western-backed rebel forces, hobbled by infighting with the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), have suffered a series of setbacks against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Regime forces, with the help of Hezbollah, recently consolidated their hold on territory along Syria's border with Lebanon, seizing the strategically important town of Yabroud. Meanwhile, rebel-held territory around Damascus has been transformed from strongholds used to launch attacks on the capital to pockets of territory under siege -- forcing a number of rebel groups, desperate for food and medical assistance, to accept ceasefire agreements with the regime.

"We're all asking the SMC [Supreme Military Council] to pull together," said a State Department official, speaking on background due to the sensitivity of the issue. "We all regret this shakeup."

The conflict pits Jarba against Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader Gen. Salim Idriss, leaving Syria's moderate opposition leadership effectively split into two rival camps. Idriss was fired at the behest of Jarba and the so-called Council of 30, the top leadership body of the SMC, in a vote at a Feb. 16 meeting in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. In a video announcement, Jarba said Idriss had been voted out due to "difficulties faced by the Syrian revolution."  Idriss was replaced by little known Gen. Abdelilah al-Bashir, the head of FSA operations in Quneitra province.

But Idriss has not gone quietly, calling the vote illegitimate in a Skype interview from Istanbul. "A 30-member council is not authorized to fire me," he said. A few dozen commanders on the ground in Syria have also refused to recognize the vote, he said, proudly reading their names off a handwritten list -- proof, he says, that he is still the true leader of the FSA. The most prominent of the men sticking by Idriss's side are Fateh Hassoun and Bashar al-Zouabi -- the FSA commanders from the regions of Homs and Deraa, respectively -- who both command sizeable forces as well respect within their ranks.

Whatever the reason why he was fired, Idriss is taking it personally. "I don't understand why Jarba hates me," he said.

Jarba and the SMC leadership are framing the personnel shuffle as part of a larger strategic restructuring aimed at reviving the increasingly ineffective fighting force. The plan is said to include a shift away from Syria's north, where infighting with Islamists has sapped rebel strength, toward the country's southern front. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. intelligence cooperation, has reportedly increased its supply of weapons to these southern-based rebels, by funneling the arms across the Jordanian border.

But some analysts suspect larger regional power dynamics are at play -- namely, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf countries both support the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but they have competed intensely for influence across the Middle East, including in Syria, where each group backs different political players. Tensions sharpened recently when Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization -- Qatar has long maintained close relations to the venerable Islamist group, serving as the patron of many of its regional affiliates and hosting many of its leaders in Doha. Jarba is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, while some opposition members accuse Idriss of moving closer to Qatar.

While there's no hard evidence that the Gulf countries were pulling the strings when Idriss was voted out, it is clear that the rebels are being affected by shifts among their foreign patrons.

"There are [battlefield rebel] coalitions forming and splitting, and that tends to show that there is something happening with the funding," said Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website. "It's not like these people suddenly became friends or started to hate each other. It has something to do with who's paying them to do what and where they can get their resources."

Idriss's fall may also have been spurred by his disappointing performance as a commander. The general's detractors all point to a single egregious incident in early December of last year, when members of a rival Islamist rebel alliance, the Islamic Front (IF), seized control of SMC warehouses filled with military equipment supplied by Western and Gulf countries. Instead of lashing out against the IF, Idriss tried to play the incident off as a misunderstanding, saying the Islamists had stepped in to help protect the warehouses, not loot them. Despite his protests, members of the Syrian opposition coalition saw the incident as a public embarrassment. "It was shameful," said Kenan Bwadekji, a spokesperson for Assad Mustafa, Jarba's Minister of Defense. "His men ran away from the Islamic Front, Idriss didn't put up any defense."

The United States, alarmed by the theft, temporarily suspended all non-lethal aid to the SMC -- a major blow to Idriss.

"Idriss was not a leader," said Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma. "[He] was a bureaucrat with a lot to recommend him in the very beginning. He could speak English and he sat at a desk and he said yes."

Landis said Idriss eventually became more of a clearinghouse, deriving his power and authority from his role as a distributor of foreign aid rather than his military victories, "I don't think anyone thought he could continue to control authority down the line," Landis said. 

So far, there hasn't been any movement on Syria's southern front, let alone a military victory. Bashir, the man elected to succeed Idriss and lead the push, is staying under the radar, not accepting interview requests and making no public statements. In his only comment following his appointment, he revealed to the New York Times that he didn't even know he was in the running to command the SMC until a friend called to congratulate him on his selection.

Coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh downplayed the rift, claiming that the divisions were just growing pains. "The minute we restructure the SMC and bring together actors and forces on the ground, everybody's going to fall in line," he said. "Are there disagreements? Yes, but everybody is interested in a full restructuring taking place."

In his interview with Foreign Policy, Idriss said he agreed, and claims he was in the midst of reshaping the SMC when he was fired. He also claims he would be happy to collaborate with Bashir, the man elected to replace him. "He's very well respected," he said. "I can work with him. I've worked with him before."

But for his part, Jarba is sticking to his guns. The Syrian opposition leader said in a statement released on March 6 that while Idriss is welcome to take an advisory role in the council, he can no longer lead the SMC. "General Selim Idriss will present his resignation from the presidency of SMC, and he will be appointed as the advisor of President Jarba for military affairs," the statement read.

Meanwhile, outside powers looking to support Syria's moderate rebels can only wait to see where the dust settles. But even as both Assad and Islamist groups appear to be gaining strength, the opposition forces that the United States hoped could lead Syria to a brighter future appear more focused on squabbling amongst each other.



A War of Escalation

More sanctions are coming, and more pain will be imposed on Moscow. But does the West have the stomach for the battle?

The Moscow stock exchange seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief this week -- or perhaps shrug its shoulders -- upon hearing the news on Monday about the U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian officials. In fact, it recovered slightly after the sharp fall last week; the ruble, still in a much-weakened position, has regained a bit of ground against both the dollar and the euro, too. Obviously, investors had been expecting much harsher sanctions, and were momentarily relieved. The Russian individuals targeted in the Western sanctions have been mostly dismissive; some, like Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, even sarcastic. Only one of them is even known to own property in Europe, and it is in Switzerland, a non-E.U. country.

Many in Russia, however -- especially the business community -- fear that the sanctions imposed so far are only the first step in the escalation ladder. Like in the days of the first Cold War, there will be other rungs to climb in a crisis. Only this time, this escalation will be mostly political and economic, not nuclear -- a vital distinction. But with no compromise on Crimea or Ukraine in sight, and more competition likely, the escalation that has just started will probably continue for some time. And what we're left with as the "new normal" will be Moscow's semi-isolation from the West -- a degree of exile which Russia has never experienced since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin remains defiant, but he is not laughing. 

In the political sphere, Russia faces the prospect of exclusion from the Western-dominated clubs it joined or has long sought to join. The process of Russia's accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the global economic elite, has been suspended. The G8 will probably rest in peace, while the full-blown G7 will be revived. Ironically, Putin, the decider-in-chief on all issues related to Crimea and Ukraine, has not been barred from traveling in the United States or Europe. But Western leaders' summits with the Russian president will now become rare and frosty events.

The Russian-German inter-governmental consultations scheduled for April are likely to be canceled. France has already postponed the "2+2" foreign and defense ministers' meeting scheduled for later this month in Moscow. Even if Russia is not excluded from the Council of Europe, it will face strong and permanent criticism there, which might make Moscow consider whether its membership is worth the dues it pays. There is no way to kick Russia out of the U.N. Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but exchanges in both bodies will become more polemical than productive.

Since one of the aims of Western sanctions is to drive wedges between Putin and his political associates and bureaucratic supporters, the list of persons barred from entering the United States and the EU is likely to be expanded. Already, the EU has stopped discussing visa liberalization with Moscow, which would have allowed Russian officials to travel in Europe without a visa, and would have made it easier for students and business people to make such trips. More is in store.

Those Russians who have bought property in places such as Spain may find it more difficult to come and visit their second homes. Wealthy Muscovites who have established a base for themselves and their families in London may suddenly see their position as less secure if the British government decides to put pressure on them. Eventually, the heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, both close to Putin, as well as the Kremlin oligarchs, may be added to the unwanted aliens list. Of course, this will not stop their companies' business operations in the West immediately, but it will come very close to serious economic sanctions.

The biggest issue in the ratcheting up of Western sanctions, however, is not how much they will hurt Russia, but how much they will hurt Western investors, companies, and workers. The blowback will be real and there will be some pain, but, eventually, probably not bad enough to prevent U.S. and EU leaders from imposing harsher financial and economic measures. The "Belarusian" model of sanctioning individuals close to the country's leadership will thus be followed by the "Iranian" model of cutting important banking, technological, industrial, and energy ties. From that level, there will be only one rung to Russia's full economic isolation in the West. That can't happen until the EU finds a way, however costly, to compensate for a significant reduction of energy imports from Russia. This may come in the form of U.S. liquid natural gas supplies, a resumption of Iranian deliveries, or domestically produced shale gas. With the commensurate slump in EU exports to Russia, trade will drop to a fraction of the $400-plus billion per year it is today.      

There is no question that Western sanctions will be damaging to Russia and its people. Not being able to travel to Europe on vacation is one thing; not being able to buy the right kind of medicine is another. Of course, a country like Russia is self-sufficient to a significant degree, and it will not be completely isolated in the wider world. Faced with a "Great Wall of Europe" in the West, Russia will need to turn more to China, which will never join Western sanctions. But there will only be so much that the Russians can get from the Chinese. Beijing may provide Russia with some cash that will be difficult to generate in Western money markets, but it cannot replace Western technology and commercial investment. 

Thus, Russia will be forced to breach the West's sanctions in all conceivable ways. Moscow will seek to circumvent Western sanctions by going through third parties, and using all possible loopholes, as Iran has been doing for a long time. Putin can bluster about direct confrontation, but the reality is that he respond to the West's measures asymmetrically, e.g. by moving against the West's supposed "fifth column" within Russia. 

The central question, however, is what Western sanctions against Russia can ultimately achieve.

As both Belarus and Iran suggest, even the toughest sanctions will not be enough to provoke a regime change from the inside. The Europeans will be loath to apply additional sanctions, but they are likely to face pressure to do so from the United States, and will eventually follow the leader. NATO, finally, will rediscover its one and only true mission. But these actions will only serve to whip up Russian nationalism and defiance of the West. The Russian elite will not rebel, but they will be cleansed and disciplined as Putin sees fit. A few will leave, but most will stay. But in so doing, it will only strengthen Putin's rule.

Standing up to Western pressure will become the main feature of a newborn Russian patriotism and the central element of national consolidation. This pressure will make Moscow use all of its available resources, but it will also expose all the flaws of its social, economic, and political systems. Then, as they say, if the patient does not die, it will become stronger. The stakes cannot be higher.