- By Randa SlimRanda Slim is director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.
There is a near-consensus among those grappling with the crisis in Syria on the urgency of unifying the Syrian opposition. But 11 months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition remains divided and fragmented. Such disunity complicates military and non-military strategies alike, makes arming the Syrian opposition a daunting proposition, and strengthens the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Amidst growing calls in the U.S. Congress for arming the Syrian opposition, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out that "I would challenge anyone to identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." There is no more urgent task for the international community today than working to help Syrians overcome their internal divisions.
There are a number of major groupings within the Syrian opposition, with new trends still emerging. The Syrian National Council (SNC) remains the best constellation of the different political currents making up the opposition. But to this point, it has failed at pulling the various factions in the opposition under its umbrella. The SNC has been unable to exert control over the armed factions that operate under the rubric of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and is by many accounts losing credibility and influence on the ground as the conflict grows more militarized. The much trumpeted coordination between the FSA and the SNC remains an aspiration rather than a fait accompli. The SNC is internally fragmented, with various components mistrusting each other, and has struggled to formulate a coherent strategy.
The other political opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), has not fared much better. Many of the youth activists, the true heroes of the Syrian revolution, consider its leaders as people who have worked for regime change for years but failed. They particularly resent the NCC’s insistence on advocating for dialogue with the regime, even if that dialogue is conditional on the regime abandoning its "security option" by withdrawing all of its military personnel and hardware from the streets, and releasing all political prisoners. After the thousands killed by the regime forces, and the indiscriminate shelling of restive cities like Homs and Hama, the Syrian street has moved beyond dialogue with Assad.
The Free Syrian Army has emerged on the Syrian street as the latest hope for an opposition leadership. But it remains more a collection of small disparate groups than an army. It lacks a command and control structure. The FSA does not have regular access to military supplies. The defectors either take their weapons with them when they defect, purchase them on the black market, or buy them from corrupt military officers or from officers who are sympathetic to their cause but chose not to defect. The FSA has also suffered from its own internal divisions. Recently, General Mustapha Sheikh, an officer who defected from the Syrian Army, formed a new organization the "Higher Military Council" claiming to lead armed defectors inside Syria. There are increasing reports of independent, local armed groups now taking the lead in defending the protesters and fighting the regime forces. These groups are neither beholden to the FSA nor to the SNC.
All of these groups have failed in reaching out to minority groups including Christians, Alawites, and Kurds and the business community.
Despite that not all Alawites have benefited from the Assad rule, Bashar al Assad has succeeded in convincing the great majority that their physical survival is tied to his political survival. Two fears motivate their behavior: fear of marginalization and fear of retribution in a post-Assad Syria. The absence of leading Alawite dissidents in the SNC executive leadership helps reinforce the first fear. That the FSA is majority Sunni, with some of its brigades named after historical Islamic figures well known for fighting Imam Ali and his descendants, revered figures among Shiites and Alawites, does not assure Alawites that the FSA will be able or willing to protect them against retributions if Assad is ousted.
The Syrian Kurds are fragmented politically with many distrusting the SNC as much as Assad. In October 2011, 10 Syrian Kurdish political parties banded together and formed the Kurdish Syrian National Council (KSNC) declaring their commitment "to finding a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue" and emphasizing that they are part of the Syrian revolution. So far, they have not joined the SNC ranks. Their misgivings about the SNC are varied ranging from the SNC increasing dependence on Turkey to their mistrust in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically opposed to their demand for federalism.
As for the business community, the disunity in the opposition ranks reinforces the regime narrative — Apres moi, le deluge. Syria’s traditional merchants struck a devil’s bargain in the 1970s with the late Hafez al Assad trading their political freedoms and role for the stability his regime provided. While it is clear to them that Bashar al Assad is no longer in a position to deliver security and stability, a disjointed opposition does not strike them as able to do so either. Their motivation now lies more in their fear of the devil they don’t know more than than their support for Assad’s leadership role.
Given this state of disarray in the opposition ranks and their failure to date to get their act together on their own, it is time to consider outside assistance to unite the Syrian opposition movement. The "Friends of Syria" group set to convene Friday in Tunis provides the best platform to launch an Arab-led mediation initiative aimed at creating a new coalition of the different Syrian opposition groups as a pre-condition to recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to provide them with material and financial assistance.
An A3+1 group consisting of Tunisia, Qatar, and Iraq assisted by Turkey working in conjunction with the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, should be asked by the participants in the "Friends of Syria" to work with the different groups in the Syrian opposition to bring them under one organizational umbrella and agree on a joint political and action platform. Tunisia, as the convener of the "Friends of Syria" meeting, brings to this mediation team the revolutionary credentials and the credibility of an unbiased mediator that is accepted by the opposition groups. While Qatar and Iraq are at opposite ends of the intra-Arab debate on the need for an international role in the Syrian crisis, each has already attempted a mediation effort to bring the Syrian crisis to a negotiated settlement and has its own connections with different Syrian opposition groups. The Iraqi leadership, in particular its Shiite and Kurdish components, are best positioned to reach out to leadership figures in the Alawite and Kurdish minorities and make the case for the need for a united opposition to the Syrian regime. This would also provide an opportunity for the Iraqi government to play a leading role in the Arab bloc. Being the host of the Syrian National Council and of the Free Syrian Army leadership and considering its long-standing relations with the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey adds to the mix its own understanding of the dynamics inside these groups and leverage over their respective leadership.
This coalition-building process should not be left to the SNC. Instead it should create a framework where all significant Syrian opposition groups have an equal weight in the decision-making process. This effort would aim at putting in place a larger opposition council, "a network of networks," composed of the SNC, the FSA, the NCC, the grass-roots activists leadership councils including the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), independent activists like Aref Dalila and Michel Kilo, Kurdish political parties that have embraced regime change including the KSNC, and leading business figures who are sympathetic to the opposition cause. Only a united opposition movement that provides a credible alternative to the Assad regime will hasten its demise.
Randa Slim is an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.