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Rebel Public Relations and Military Intervention in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Erica Chenoweth highlighted an interesting McClatchy story reporting that CIA officials warned Hezbollah, through Lebanese government intermediaries, of an immanent al Qaeda attack on political targets in southern Lebanon. Reportedly American intelligence was able to listen in on encrypted calls detailing the planned attacks — “America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” a Lebanese intelligence official remarks — and tip off Hezbollah, allowing the Iranian-backed group to arrest the conspirators. Perhaps ironically, al Qaeda’s reported motivation for the planned attack was Hezbollah and its Iranian patron’s support of the Assad government in Syria, who both the United States and al Qaeda wish to see ousted.

Even more thought-provoking is a pair of quotes from a Lebanese laborer and Hezbollah commander:

“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”

The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’

First, it’s entirely possible that the commander’s opinion doesn’t represent Hezbollah or the Assad regime’s strategic thinking and is simply spin. It is reasonable to suspect that publicly benefiting from the CIA’s superior intelligence in their own backyard is deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah — in a potentially deft bit of ass-covering the commander is earlier quoted claiming that Hezbollah had previous knowledge of the attack — giving it an incentive to save face by claiming that the CIA’s links to Syrian rebels is even more embarrassing. Similarly, individual Hezbollah members likely view the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the harshest terms possible, an ideological bias that potentially leads them to unreasonably underestimate the opposition’s ability to gain international support.

But this does raise an interesting puzzle: Does the Assad government and its allies truly believe that American support for the Syrian opposition will necessarily decline as international perceptions of the rebels dim?

Importantly, it is extremely difficult for even specialists to try and divine what informs the Assad regime’s thinking, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to do so. Additionally, even if the Assad regime does believe that the rebels will eventually alienate potential international backers, it is difficult to say that this would induce it to behave any differently than it would otherwise. The belief that serious international aid to the rebels is not forthcoming could make the regime even less likely to consider a negotiated solution to end the conflict, but the regime also has a strong incentive to outlast the rebellion anyway, so it is unreasonable to suspect that this belief would have any practical affect on its behavior.

That said, there are reasons to find this theory credible. The strongest is that we have already observed it in action. The opposition has been unable to prevent news of gruesome atrocities and violent political fragmentation from reaching Western media, as recent high-profile coverage of a rebel commander accused of ritual cannibalism shows. As Fred Kaplan wrote in a Friday column, Britain is already backing away from its previous push to supply the rebels with arms, citing “the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime.” Similarly, support among the American public for intervening in the conflict has fallen over time, an aversion at least partially due to opposition infighting and the popular conception that the opposition is dominated by radicals.

As the bloody conflict in Syria drags on, the rebels’ reputation is likely to grow more internationally tarnished. This is unsurprising, on multiple levels. Most obviously, the rebels entered the conflict with a largely ‘clean slate’ and a longer war simply gives them more time to commit high-profile atrocities, which anti-Assad foreign fighters and opportunists appear prone to committing. Secondly, as the war continues it has grown more ideological, increasingly morphing into a general sectarian conflict. Irrespective of ideology, as the war’s horrors continue combatants on both sides can be expected to grow more radical, a radicalization process on clear display in a BBC interview with the rebel commander accused of eating a regime soldier’s heart:

“In the beginning, when we captured an Alawite fighter, we would feed him, make him feel comfortable. We used to tell him we were brothers. But then they started raping our women, slaughtering children with knives.”

Of course, this same logic applies to the regime, whose artillery, armor, and airpower allow it to threaten greater atrocities than the opposition. But importantly, international public opinion is less important to the regime than the rebels. The regime entered the war as an international pariah, and its Russian and Chinese support in the UNSC appears to only be risked by much graver atrocities than it has so far perpetrated. Similarly, the conflict’s status quo favors the regime, especially in diplomatically: the Assad government already receives more practical support from its international allies than the opposition. The rebels, however, appear unlikely to favorably shift the conflict’s balance unless they are able to gain further international support. As instances of rebel atrocities unavoidably grow, they become another barrier to a prospective international military intervention on their side.

This logic is particularly important because, despite its fragmentation, the anti-Assad opposition is to some degree viewed as a unified body by its prospective international patrons. Despite Iran and Hezbollah’s increasing entry into the conflict America has no core national interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration has framed its interest in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. While the American public may not care about foreign policy, the administration is not likely to pursue a military intervention into the conflict with public opinion firmly against it, and atrocities committed by some rebels affect public perception of them all. Lionel Beehner recently wrote that ‘more violence means less support for intervention,’ but this can be more precisely stated as more evenly-distributed violence means less support for intervention, because violence — and accompanying atrocities — suggests that both sides “are just as bad” in the public consciousness. Whether this is true or not, this perception is a barrier to elected leaders looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

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