Syria conflict: West prepares for post-Assad uncertainty

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A Free Syrian Army sniper in Aleppo, 21 December 2012
Image caption,
Rebels are engaged in a bloody conflict with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad

Time may be running out to come up with a credible international plan to secure Syria's chemical weapons for the day President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapses.

Although that day may still be some time off - he has defied all previous predictions of his imminent defeat - events are moving so fast on the ground that the West is scrambling to assemble plans to tackle the numerous security challenges in a post-Assad Syria.

Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the US House Committee on Intelligence, told the BBC that if a regional plan is not developed to deal with chemical weapons, then they could threaten the entire region, proliferating into Lebanon and possibly falling into the hands of groups designated as terrorist organisations.

"I do believe we have a lot more work to do to make sure that we have the Arab League, and Turkey, and our European allies in full concert, with a plan that allows those weapons systems to be secured immediately," he said.

"If not, we're going to have a very major destabilising event in the region and will be very, very troubling to the stability of governments all across the Middle East."

Western reluctance

Hang on a moment. Chemical weapons in a Middle Eastern country? Unnamed intelligence sources? Haven't we been here before with Iraq in 2003?

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Congressman Mike Rogers: "Syria has a very dangerous stockpile of chemical weapons"

We have, but with Syria today there are two fundamental differences. Mr Assad's government does not deny it has chemical weapons, it just says it will not use them on its own people.

And unlike in Iraq, where the Bush administration was itching to invade, the West has gone to enormous lengths to avoid getting dragged into a military conflict in Syria.

Bizarrely perhaps, given the understandable perception of many in the Middle East that the West is predisposed to launching military adventures in Muslim countries, the West's reluctance to get involved in the Syrian conflict is bringing its own problems.

Malik Abdeh, a Syrian journalist living in Britain, says Syrians worry most about the breakdown in law and order, but that there would be huge resistance to any western military presence on the ground.

"The West has refused to arm the opposition, and therefore people in the opposition feel that the West has no moral right to intervene once Assad is gone," he says.

The US decision to put Jabhat Al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated group within the opposition, on its list of terrorist organisations, was seen "very negatively" within the opposition, Mr Abdeh adds.

"People see that as hypocrisy, that the West are designating those who are fighting against Bashar al-Assad as terrorists at the same time as US wants the downfall of Bashar al-Assad."

So far, most of the West's visible preparations for a post-Assad Syria have been diplomatic, nurturing a fractious opposition in exile while pushing in vain for robust action at the UN.

Alastair Burt, the British Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, says the UK had "worked with a variety of different agencies to do as much preparation in advance as possible".

"There is an immediate problem simply of the physical destruction and how you rebuild; the authority of the opposition, to ensure that it has authority over all the militias who are fighting; the humanitarian aspects, making sure the place is working again and the need to establish order again very quickly."

'Crucial' army

One person who knows only too well the perils of allowing a collapse of central government in a Middle Eastern country is Tim Cross, the British Army general sent to help rebuild Iraq in 2003.

Image caption,
One priority will be addressing the physical destruction wrought by the war

He is no fan of President Assad, but he believes the West made a strategic mistake in isolating his regime too quickly.

"I don't think the West has handled this very well," he says. "We turned too strongly against Assad too early in this context, we demonised him too early, we've alienated him, pushed him into a corner, and we're now seeing the result of that."

In practice, events are moving so fast on the ground the West's preparations are struggling to keep up. Jabhat Al-Nusra, for example, will be reluctant to lay down its arms in a post-Assad Syria.

Malik Abdeh believes only a strong, central force can stop Syria disintegrating into feuding factions once the common cause of removing Assad is gone.

"The extent to which the West, and the US and Britain can influence affairs inside Syria is limited," he says. "There will be at least five years of instability in the country, even after Bashar al-Assad has gone.

"What really matters in Syria is the army," Mr Abdeh adds. "The army is crucial for Bashar al-Assad's survival but also the survival of Syria as we know it."