Obama: America now recognizes Syria's opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syria people

This is being sold as a morale booster for Syria’s rebels as they press in to Damascus, but it’s really O’s way of justifying deeper U.S. intervention going forward as the country falls to pieces. See, it’s okay to get involved because there are now pro-western moderate Syrian leaders running the show n’ stuff:

“We’ve made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime,” Obama said…

“Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities,” Obama said of the young coalition. “To make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, [and] that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women’s rights and minority rights.”…

“Not everybody who’s participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with,” Obama told Walters. “There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements.”

He’s referring at the end there to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian jihadi group whom the State Department designated as a terrorist outfit earlier today. That move was a precursor to tonight’s announcement recognizing the Syrian Opposition Council; O needed to preempt the inevitable questions about whether we’re getting in bed with terrorists here by creating some sort of lame narrative in which we’re friends with the “good” rebels while ardently opposed to the “bad.” Fun fact about the SOC: It’s less than a month old, and was obviously cobbled together by western nations and its Arab allies precisely in order to put a face of moderation on the Syrian rebellion. Politically, that makes it much easier for the U.S. and Europe to ramp up aid to the less savory characters battling Assad’s troops in the field. In fact, the Independent reported just last night that plans are in the works to provide air and naval power to the rebels as they make their final push to the capital (and beyond) to try to finish Assad off. That’s what this is really about. The west is now convinced that the rebels’ battlefield momentum is irreversible, which means it’s time to make friends with them and to do what we can to make the terrible end to the war as quick and decisive as possible. The longer the battle for Damascus drags on, the more desperate Assad and his troops are likely to get, which potentially means chemical warfare and lord knows what else. If the U.S. and Europe act now, maybe they’ll earn some goodwill and a bit of leverage with whatever nightmarish regime succeeds Assad. That won’t keep the Islamists out of power but maybe it’ll convince them to hand over some of the remnants of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

A few obvious questions. One: Are we sure the rebels are on the brink of bringing down Assad? They may dislodge him from power over most of the country, but not all of it. CSM:

The most likely option, however, and one that appears already to be under way, is for the regime and the core of the army and security forces to retreat to the Alawite-populated mountains on the Mediterranean coast. Diplomatic sources say that there are unconfirmed reports that the regime is planning to register all Sunnis who live in the coastal cities of Tartous, Banias, and Latakia which could potentially form part of an Alawite-dominated enclave. The coastal cities are predominantly Sunni-populated while the mountain hinterland is mainly Alawite…

A rump regime well-entrenched into the mountain villages defended by the Alawite core of the army and security services equipped with armor, artillery, air power and possibly even chemical and biological weapons could buy the Assads some breathing space during a likely period of chaos caused by a sudden leadership vacuum in Damascus. But it is questionable whether it would provide a long-term solution for the Assad clan’s survival.

Are the SOC and its western benefactors going to oversee a brutal Sunni assault on the Alawite mountain strongholds in order to finish off Assad and his supporters? What’s the game plan to stop the inevitable ethnic cleansing that’ll follow once it begins? That brings us to question two: What evidence is there that the rebels in the field who are doing the fighting will respect the authority of the SOC? The whole point of the Benghazi attack is that the “moderate,” pro-western Libyan government has no control over the militias that helped oust Qaddafi. Looks like we’re headed for the same clusterfark here, but on a grander, much more dangerous scale. Jihadist fighters have already said explicitly that they won’t recognize the SOC, in fact; meanwhile, the new military council elected by rebel groups is dominated by Salafists and members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Are they likely to take orders from a pro-western leadership council that counts as one of its vice presidents a secular feminist? Realistically, there’s no way the SOC is going to hold things together. And the White House knows it:

Inside the Obama administration, Syria is now likened by some to a second Somalia — only at the heart of the Middle East, and with the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. One official recently described a near-term future in which the current, two-sided civil war breaks down into a free-for-all in which Sunni forces fight Kurds and each other as well as the Alawi remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s army; where the al-Qaeda branch known as Jabhat al-Nusra gains control over substantial parts of the country; and where the danger of chemical weapons use comes not just from the regime but from any other force that overruns a chemical weapons depot…

The U.S. view of how its strategy will work depends on an extraordinary cascade of unlikely events. First, the [SOC] will gain control over most of the rebel forces. Then Russia or dissident Alawites will force Assad aside. Then there will be negotiations leading to agreement on a transitional government.

A slightly more likely scenario is that the West will get lucky and Assad’s regime will soon collapse in Damascus. In the resulting vacuum, the [SOC] will gain recognition from the outside world, and most of the rebel forces and Syria will follow the shaky path of Libya, with a weak government coexisting with a panoply of militias — some of them allied to al-Qaeda. The difference is that any spillover of terrorists and weapons will affect not Mali, but Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

That’s Jackson Diehl, writing a few days ago and wondering why the U.S. didn’t respond to the overwhelming likelihood of an unholy battle of all against all in Syria by at least arming the more secular elements among the rebels. That’s what tonight’s announcement is basically about, though, no? The SOC isn’t being groomed as some sort of serious successor to power in Syria, it’s a political fig leaf that lets the west intervene in the fighting — ostensibly on behalf of some sort of liberal democratic government-in-waiting. Tonight’s news is just O’s way of signaling to Americans that, while we’re getting more involved over there, we’re certainly not going to make nice with any dirty terrorists. Don’t you feel relieved?