Sevenmonths into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a unitedvoice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credibleand viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority andthe international community will find it difficult to effectively push formeaningful change in Damascus.
Thedivisions among the Syrian opposition groups remain daunting, despite proddingfrom abroad and some progress toward unification. The Syrian National Council(SNC), recently formed in Istanbul, Turkey, remains a work-in-progress. TheDamascus-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 militarydefectors formerly divided between the Free Officers Corps and the Free SyrianArmy have coalesced under one organizational umbrella, but according toofficials in both the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, thereare no formal communication channels yet between the two entities.
Thisfragmentation and disunity poses a formidable challenge. It makes it difficultto assess who is representing whom, the level of public support each enjoysamong Syrians, and the role each is playing in the protest movement. While itis impossible to know which side commands a majority, a critical mass ofSyrians has clearly opted for regime change. In this quest, they are layingtheir lives on the line. The challenge is whether the different leadershipcenters in the opposition could overcome their differences and coalesce under aunified organizational umbrella akin to Libya’s Transitional NationalCouncil.
Two mainpolitical umbrella organizations have recently emerged within the Syrianopposition: the Syrian National Council (SNC) chaired by Burhan Ghalioun andthe Syrian National Coordination Committee (NCC) chaired by Hussein Abdel Azim.The Syrian National Council is agroup of political parties, movements, and independents. Its principalcomponents are the Damascus Declaration Group (Syrian reformist intellectuals),the Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of the Istanbul Gathering (a group madeup mainly of Islamists and independent technocrats), youth activists,individual Kurdish activists, and Assyrians. Minority groups such as theAlawites, Christians, Shia, and Druze are poorly represented. The National Coordination Committee is aninternal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-leaning political parties andindependent political activists including 3 Kurdish political parties and youthactivists. The Syrian National Council offers a better constellation of themajor political parties and movements in the opposition, and has been theobject of most recent international attention. But neither of them can claim tobe the sole interlocutor in the name of the Syrian opposition forces.
The twogroups differ over the urgent questions of dialogue with the Syrian regime and foreignintervention. The NCC calls for dialogue conditional on thewithdrawal of the military from the streets, the cessation of the regimeattacks against protesters, and the release of all political prisoners. The SNCis opposed to a dialogue with the Assad regime except one that would addressthe modalities of the devolution of power from the Assad regime. While both theNCC and SNC are in principle opposed to foreign military intervention, the SNCmembership is not united around this principle. Some SNC members, especiallythe youth activists, have been calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone andthe protection of civilians including a NATO-led intervention akin to the onein Libya. The NCC prefers economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures inorder to ratchet up pressure on the Syrian authorities.
The youth activists who launched therevolution on March 15 and are now leading the demonstrations are the trueheroes of the revolution. They range in age from 17 to 35, hail from differentsocio-economic and professional backgrounds. These men and women have shed thefear of political engagement that has always plagued Syrian citizens under theAssad regime(s), and some have used social media to reconnect with the publicsphere. The majority of the youth activists is non-ideological in thetraditional sense of Arab political parties, and is motivated by the quest forfreedom, dignity, and economic justice. The core of the protesters comes fromthe Syrian poor and middle classes that have been marginalized politically andeconomically by the Syrian regime.
At theoutset, the activists organized themselves into small local committees todocument and publicize the uprisings. Over time, they have evolved into a webof commissions, councils, and unions formally grouped around three coalitions:the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Ghad alliance (includingthe Local Coordinating Committees or LCCS), and the Higher Council of theSyrian Revolution. While all three groups have pledged their support for theSyrian National Council, only the latter two have formal representatives. TheHigher Council of the Syrian Revolution is mainly Islamist in its orientation.Its leading activists originally hail from Homs and its suburbs as well asIdlib. Of the three coalitions, the SRCG and Ghad are the better organized,have good media outreach, and have bureaus and networks in different parts ofSyria. Activists in all three coalitions oppose the NCC’s call for dialoguewith the regime.
TheSyrian opposition also includes three Islamist groups, the largest of which isthe Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, they have been locked in a war againstthe Assad family. The most notable period of tension was between 1975-1982leading up to the Hama massacre when the Syrian regime killed close to 20,000Syrian civilians and forced the Brotherhood leadership into exile. Because theorganization’s leaders have worked outside of Syria for over 30 years, it ishard to accurately assess the current level of support within Syria. The SyrianMuslim Brotherhood leadership was initially taken back by the uprisings and hasnow become one of three major political factions inside the SNC.
The othertwo groups of Islamists are Syrian based Islamist scholars and activists andthe Salafis. The scholars and activists lie at the moderate and liberal end ofthe spectrum of Arab Islamist parties. The Salafis constitute the smallestgroup of the Islamists, and are based in Deir El-Zor, Jisr Al Shoghour, andSyrian towns bordering northern Lebanon. In the past, many of these Salafiswere given safe haven by Syrian intelligence services that relied on theirservices and networks to field suicide bombers and fighters into Iraq. Sincethe start of the Syrian uprisings, these groups have turned against theirformer masters and according to unconfirmed reports, have been involved in somesectarian revenge killings. There are also claims by that regime that thisgroup consists of former Al-Qaeda.
Militarydefectors play an unclear role in the Syrian opposition. Recently, they haveclaimed responsibility for an attack on a Syrian army convoy killing a militaryofficer and eight soldiers in central Syria. In Homs, they are defending theneighborhoods coming under attack from the Syrian military. In other cities,they establish a ring around the protesters helping to defend them againstsoldiers and pro-regime militias. Their role is difficult to ass because itseems to differ from one region to the next. It is also hard to gauge the typeand level of coordination between the protesters and the defectors on one hand,and between the different hubs where the military defectors are located on theother. It is also still unclear what weapons the defectors have at theirdisposal and whether they are able to secure military assistance fromneighboring countries.
Thedefectors are organized under the banner of the Free Syrian army (FSA), whichis more a collection of small disparate groups than an army. The FSA leadership,headed by colonel Riad Al Assad, is headquartered inside Turkey along theSyrian border. The FSA is sectarian in character as nearly all the defectorsare Sunni, while Alawites remain supportive of the Assad regime. In aninterview with Al Jazeera TV, Burhan Ghalioun stated that the number ofmilitary defectors is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, however thesenumbers are unconfirmed. According to activists working inside Syria,defections happen on a daily basis. An FSA officer told me that the rate andpace of defections has recently accelerated to the point that it is becomingdifficult for the FSA leadership to keep track of them. Yet, these defectionsoccur on a small-scale involving few officers and soldiers at a time. Therehave been two recorded incidents of battalion-level defections in Dera’a bothof which were quickly crushed by the Syrian security services.
Most of the Syrian opposition agrees ona few basic principles: toppling the Assad regime, maintaining the nationalunity of Syria, and remaining committed to the peaceful nature of the Syrianrevolution. But there are sharp disagreements over dialogue with the regime,foreign intervention, and the militarization of the opposition.
The NCCis the only entity that still calls for a conditional dialogue with the regime.They argue that dialogue remains the least costly route to a politicaltransition. All other components of the Syrian opposition including the SNCreject dialogue with the Assad regime arguing that any dialogue will be used byto divide the opposition and break down its resolve.
There arediffering perspectives on the issue of foreign intervention inside theopposition ranks. One group consisting mostly of the NCC is opposed to any formof foreign intervention that would involve military measures includingimposition of a no-fly zone, because it could wreak havoc in Syria as was thecase in Iraq and Libya. Another perspective championed by the youth activistsand the FSA calls for foreign intervention to protect civilians, establishmentof a no-fly zone and the set up of a demilitarized buffer zone. The no-fly zonecould escalate the rate of defections in the military ranks. The buffer zonecould create a safe haven for military defectors and their families.
The SNCmembership is divided among three groups in respect to their positions onmilitary intervention. One group is opposed to any form of militaryintervention and argues that protests and other forms of civil disobedienceshould remain the only means to topple the regime. A second group is formilitary intervention irrespective of who leads the effort with some preferringa NATO-led effort. A third group argues that military intervention should beconsidered as part of a broader strategy including a host of legal, economic,and humanitarian measures and that the military intervention should not beNATO-led but fashioned more along the lines of the international coalitionrecently established in Libya under Qatar’s leadership.
The greatmajority of the opposition including the SNC, the NCC, and the leadership ofthe youth activists argue for maintaining the non-violent character of theprotest movement. They assert that militarization of the opposition would playinto the hands of the regime that has been trying its best to cast theuprisings in a Sunni armed insurgency light. This position puts them at oddswith the Free Syrian Army. The SNC is still unsure how it should deal with theFree Syrian Army. Some SNC members say the council must be careful not tosupport the FSA since it should not side with the defectors against the largebulk 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 FSAcould represent the military wing of the Syrian opposition. To-date, there havebeen no official contacts between the SNC and the FSA despite the latter’s callfor the SNC to send a delegation to Turkey for negotiations.
Despitethe majority’s best efforts to maintain the peaceful character of the protestmovement, developments on the ground might over time push toward themilitarization of the opposition. There is accumulating evidence that there isongoing weaponization of segments of the Syrian population. Activists insideSyria explain this development as citizens acquiring weapons for self-defensepurposes. As one activist from Homs told me, “we will not allow anotherHama (massacre) to take place.” To-date, there are no signs of an armedinsurgency a la Iraq. This is partlydue to the fact there has not yet been an overt push by regional powers such asTurkey and Saudi Arabia to arm the Syrian opposition including the Free SyrianArmy. An FSA officer denied the report that Turkey has been arming them, but inhis words are merely “helping with our protection and meeting our basicneeds”.
As theSaudi-Iranian confrontation intensifies, this situation might change. LikeIraq, Syria could become another proxy for the Saudi-Iranian competition. Inhis recent interview with Russian TV, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad accusedneighboring countries of funneling weapons and funds into Syria. He furtheradded that specifying the countries responsible for these activities wouldrequire additional investigation. Pro-Assad Lebanese allies told me that Qatarand Saudi Arabia were the main funders. There is no independent evidence tosubstantiate such claims.
Absent aninternational intervention to force Assad out as was the case in Libya, therewill be increasing calls from the activists for weaponisation of the Syrianopposition and in particular, the Free Syrian Army to lead a military campaignto 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. Beingthe host of the FSA leadership, Turkey is best positioned to provide thenecessary logistical, operational support, and training for the FSA.
Syrianstate media reported yesterday that the government had reached an agreementwith an Arab League ministerial committee tasked with the job of finding a wayto end the bloodshed in Syria and to launch a dialogue between the Syrianregime and the opposition. Some SNC members have voiced their concern that theSyrian president is using the Arab League mediation effort to buy time tocontinue his military campaign to crush the protest movement. Whatever the case, there islittle reason to believe that the vexing problems facing the Syrian oppositionwill resolve themselves soon — and the core questions of dialogue,intervention, and violence will need to be faced.
Randa Slim is an adjunctresearch fellow at the National Security Studies Program at the NewAmerica Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. You can followher commentary on Middle East affairs @rmslim.