Meet Syria’s Opposition

Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus. The divisions ...


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Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus.

The divisions among the Syrian opposition groups remain daunting, despite prodding from abroad and some progress toward unification. The Syrian National Council (SNC), recently formed in Istanbul, Turkey, remains a work-in-progress. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC) is at odds with the SNC. The organizations disagree on two of the most urgently contested issues: dialogue with the regime and foreign intervention. Meanwhile, youth activists are divided among three national coalitions. The military defectors formerly divided between the Free Officers Corps and the Free Syrian Army have coalesced under one organizational umbrella, but according to officials in both the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, there are no formal communication channels yet between the two entities.

This fragmentation and disunity poses a formidable challenge. It makes it difficult to assess who is representing whom, the level of public support each enjoys among Syrians, and the role each is playing in the protest movement. While it is impossible to know which side commands a majority, a critical mass of Syrians has clearly opted for regime change. In this quest, they are laying their lives on the line. The challenge is whether the different leadership centers in the opposition could overcome their differences and coalesce under a unified organizational umbrella akin to Libya’s Transitional National Council. 

Two main political umbrella organizations have recently emerged within the Syrian opposition: the Syrian National Council (SNC) chaired by Burhan Ghalioun and the Syrian National Coordination Committee (NCC) chaired by Hussein Abdel Azim. The Syrian National Council is a group of political parties, movements, and independents. Its principal components are the Damascus Declaration Group (Syrian reformist intellectuals), the Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of the Istanbul Gathering (a group made up mainly of Islamists and independent technocrats), youth activists, individual Kurdish activists, and Assyrians. Minority groups such as the Alawites, Christians, Shia, and Druze are poorly represented. The National Coordination Committee is an internal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-leaning political parties and independent political activists including 3 Kurdish political parties and youth activists. The Syrian National Council offers a better constellation of the major political parties and movements in the opposition, and has been the object of most recent international attention. But neither of them can claim to be the sole interlocutor in the name of the Syrian opposition forces. 

The two groups differ over the urgent questions of dialogue with the Syrian regime and foreign intervention. The NCC calls for dialogue conditional on the withdrawal of the military from the streets, the cessation of the regime attacks against protesters, and the release of all political prisoners. The SNC is opposed to a dialogue with the Assad regime except one that would address the modalities of the devolution of power from the Assad regime. While both the NCC and SNC are in principle opposed to foreign military intervention, the SNC membership is not united around this principle. Some SNC members, especially the youth activists, have been calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians including a NATO-led intervention akin to the one in Libya. The NCC prefers economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures in order to ratchet up pressure on the Syrian authorities.

The youth activists who launched the revolution on March 15 and are now leading the demonstrations are the true heroes of the revolution. They range in age from 17 to 35, hail from different socio-economic and professional backgrounds. These men and women have shed the fear of political engagement that has always plagued Syrian citizens under the Assad regime(s), and some have used social media to reconnect with the public sphere. The majority of the youth activists is non-ideological in the traditional sense of Arab political parties, and is motivated by the quest for freedom, dignity, and economic justice. The core of the protesters comes from the Syrian poor and middle classes that have been marginalized politically and economically by the Syrian regime.

At the outset, the activists organized themselves into small local committees to document and publicize the uprisings. Over time, they have evolved into a web of commissions, councils, and unions formally grouped around three coalitions: the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Ghad alliance (including the Local Coordinating Committees or LCCS), and the Higher Council of the Syrian Revolution. While all three groups have pledged their support for the Syrian National Council, only the latter two have formal representatives. The Higher Council of the Syrian Revolution is mainly Islamist in its orientation. Its leading activists originally hail from Homs and its suburbs as well as Idlib. Of the three coalitions, the SRCG and Ghad are the better organized, have good media outreach, and have bureaus and networks in different parts of Syria. Activists in all three coalitions oppose the NCC’s call for dialogue with the regime.

The Syrian opposition also includes three Islamist groups, the largest of which is the Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, they have been locked in a war against the Assad family. The most notable period of tension was between 1975-1982 leading up to the Hama massacre when the Syrian regime killed close to 20,000 Syrian civilians and forced the Brotherhood leadership into exile. Because the organization’s leaders have worked outside of Syria for over 30 years, it is hard to accurately assess the current level of support within Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leadership was initially taken back by the uprisings and has now become one of three major political factions inside the SNC.

The other two groups of Islamists are Syrian based Islamist scholars and activists and the Salafis. The scholars and activists lie at the moderate and liberal end of the spectrum of Arab Islamist parties. The Salafis constitute the smallest group of the Islamists, and are based in Deir El-Zor, Jisr Al Shoghour, and Syrian towns bordering northern Lebanon. In the past, many of these Salafis were given safe haven by Syrian intelligence services that relied on their services and networks to field suicide bombers and fighters into Iraq. Since the start of the Syrian uprisings, these groups have turned against their former masters and according to unconfirmed reports, have been involved in some sectarian revenge killings. There are also claims by that regime that this group consists of former Al-Qaeda.

Military defectors play an unclear role in the Syrian opposition. Recently, they have claimed responsibility for an attack on a Syrian army convoy killing a military officer and eight soldiers in central Syria. In Homs, they are defending the neighborhoods coming under attack from the Syrian military. In other cities, they establish a ring around the protesters helping to defend them against soldiers and pro-regime militias. Their role is difficult to assess because it seems to differ from one region to the next. It is also hard to gauge the type and level of coordination between the protesters and the defectors on one hand, and between the different hubs where the military defectors are located on the other. It is also still unclear what weapons the defectors have at their disposal and whether they are able to secure military assistance from neighboring countries.

The defectors are organized under the banner of the Free Syrian army (FSA), which is more a collection of small disparate groups than an army. The FSA leadership, headed by colonel Riad Al Assad, is headquartered inside Turkey along the Syrian border. The FSA is sectarian in character as nearly all the defectors are Sunni, while Alawites remain supportive of the Assad regime. In an interview with Al Jazeera TV, Burhan Ghalioun stated that the number of military defectors is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, however these numbers are unconfirmed. According to activists working inside Syria, defections happen on a daily basis. An FSA officer told me that the rate and pace of defections has recently accelerated to the point that it is becoming difficult for the FSA leadership to keep track of them. Yet, these defections occur on a small-scale involving few officers and soldiers at a time. There have been two recorded incidents of battalion-level defections in Dera’a both of which were quickly crushed by the Syrian security services.

Most of the Syrian opposition agrees on a few basic principles: toppling the Assad regime, maintaining the national unity of Syria, and remaining committed to the peaceful nature of the Syrian revolution. But there are sharp disagreements over dialogue with the regime, foreign intervention, and the militarization of the opposition.  

The NCC is the only entity that still calls for a conditional dialogue with the regime. They argue that dialogue remains the least costly route to a political transition. All other components of the Syrian opposition including the SNC reject dialogue with the Assad regime arguing that any dialogue will be used by to divide the opposition and break down its resolve.

There are differing perspectives on the issue of foreign intervention inside the opposition ranks. One group consisting mostly of the NCC is opposed to any form of foreign intervention that would involve military measures including imposition of a no-fly zone, because it could wreak havoc in Syria as was the case in Iraq and Libya. Another perspective championed by the youth activists and the FSA calls for foreign intervention to protect civilians, establishment of a no-fly zone and the set up of a demilitarized buffer zone. The no-fly zone could escalate the rate of defections in the military ranks. The buffer zone could create a safe haven for military defectors and their families.

The SNC membership is divided among three groups in respect to their positions on military intervention. One group is opposed to any form of military intervention and argues that protests and other forms of civil disobedience should remain the only means to topple the regime. A second group is for military intervention irrespective of who leads the effort with some preferring a NATO-led effort. A third group argues that military intervention should be considered as part of a broader strategy including a host of legal, economic, and humanitarian measures and that the military intervention should not be NATO-led but fashioned more along the lines of the international coalition recently established in Libya under Qatar’s leadership.  

The great majority of the opposition including the SNC, the NCC, and the leadership of the youth activists argue for maintaining the non-violent character of the protest movement. They assert that militarization of the opposition would play into the hands of the regime that has been trying its best to cast the uprisings in a Sunni armed insurgency light. This position puts them at odds with the Free Syrian Army. The SNC is still unsure how it should deal with the Free Syrian Army. Some SNC members say the council must be careful not to support the FSA since it should not side with the defectors against the large bulk of Syrian soldiers. As one SNC member put it, "the others [soldiers] in the army are our sons too." Another SNC member argued that the FSA could represent the military wing of the Syrian opposition. To-date, there have been no official contacts between the SNC and the FSA despite the latter’s call for the SNC to send a delegation to Turkey for negotiations.

Despite the majority’s best efforts to maintain the peaceful character of the protest movement, developments on the ground might over time push toward the militarization of the opposition. There is accumulating evidence that there is ongoing weaponization of segments of the Syrian population. Activists inside Syria explain this development as citizens acquiring weapons for self-defense purposes. As one activist from Homs told me, "we will not allow another Hama (massacre) to take place." To-date, there are no signs of an armed insurgency a la Iraq. This is partly due to the fact there has not yet been an overt push by regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm the Syrian opposition including the Free Syrian Army. An FSA officer denied the report that Turkey has been arming them, but in his words are merely "helping with our protection and meeting our basic needs".

As the Saudi-Iranian confrontation intensifies, this situation might change. Like Iraq, Syria could become another proxy for the Saudi-Iranian competition. In his recent interview with Russian TV, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad accused neighboring countries of funneling weapons and funds into Syria. He further added that specifying the countries responsible for these activities would require additional investigation. Pro-Assad Lebanese allies told me that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were the main funders. There is no independent evidence to substantiate such claims.

Absent an international intervention to force Assad out as was the case in Libya, there will be increasing calls from the activists for weaponisation of the Syrian opposition and in particular, the Free Syrian Army to lead a military campaign to topple the Assad regime. The FSA would need funding, weapons, and training. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are poised to be the main funders of this effort. Being the host of the FSA leadership, Turkey is best positioned to provide the necessary logistical, operational support, and training for the FSA.

Syrian state media reported yesterday that the government had reached an agreement with an Arab League ministerial committee tasked with the job of finding a way to end the bloodshed in Syria and to launch a dialogue between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Some SNC members have voiced their concern that the Syrian president is using the Arab League mediation effort to buy time to continue his military campaign to crush the protest movement.   Whatever the case, there is little reason to believe that the vexing problems facing the Syrian opposition will resolve themselves soon — and the core questions of dialogue, intervention, and violence will need to be faced.

Randa Slim is an adjunct research fellow at the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. You can follow her commentary on Middle East affairs @rmslim.

Randa 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.

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