Feb 2, 2013

The Syrian Opposition

A Fragmented Set of Would-be Leaders

As the revolution morphed from peaceful protests into civil war, it was hard to identify a strong, credible alternative to President Bashar al Assad. That’s been a major obstacle to ending the fight, through any negotiated or enforced transition to a democratic Syria.

More than 20 months into Syria’s uprising a unified opposition coalition has begun to emerge. A National Coalition of opposition leaders took shape at a November meeting in Doha and took Cairo as its base. This latest grouping of Assad opponents has gained recognition from key European countries and regional powers, in hopes they can capably manage an end to the fight and a political transition.

Why did it take so long for a strong opposition to coalesce? The voices opposed to Assad have fractures and frictions among themselves – political and military groups with conflicting values and visions for a future Syria.

The holdup was also a function of Syria’s peculiar politics. Over more than four decades of Assad family rule, political life in Syria has been severely restricted. Opponents of the regime were regularly harassed, jailed, killed or forced into exile. Over time, that weakened the few political parties that dared to challenge the Assad regime.
Revolution from the Ground Up

After the people in Daraa took to the streets in March 2011 they quickly formed grassroots committees to guide the demonstrations and handle the humanitarian needs of the injured and displaced. The process was replicated across the country, creating a diverse network of local groups leading the opposition against President Bashar Al Assad.

That left the revolution without a clear or coordinated representative as protests continued to bubble up from the ground. They were Syrians raising their voices, many of them for the first time, and they operated without a single leader or central command.
No Influential Leader Means Power to the Armed Militants

As of now, no single group represents the Syrian revolution with enough influence on the ground to negotiate and enforce a ceasefire. Western countries hope the Syrian National Coalition can amass enough clout to set up an effective transitional government, but for now what exist is a panorama of players, each with some influence over the situation.

The opposition itself is divided into political groups and military forces, each with a different set of demands and a unique vision for what should happen next. In theory, they’ll need to work together in order to forge a future free Syria.

But as the war drags on analysts say that it’s the brigades fighting the Assad regime who gain greater influence. Among those brigades, it’s extremist militant groups like Jabhat al Nusra who’ve emerged as the most powerful – they have better weapons, wealth, and organizational infrastructure than more moderate Muslim fighters. That’s why analysts fear Syria’s war is radicalizing the country; jihadi groups represent a minority view in Syria, but they’re gaining more power through the fight.

The Free Syrian Army

As with the political opposition, the armed rebels in Syria suffer from a lack of organization and wide schisms in their ranks. The armed opposition is widely called the Free Syrian Army, but many argue that’s a misleading term – that they’d be more accurately called the ‘Free Syrian Armies.’ To date, they’ve functioned as multiple militias, organized independently by city and neighborhood, operating without a clear command structure. The leaders of the FSA, operating in exile from Turkey, have limited control over the diverse set of fighting forces. In the words of one report on Syria’s Armed Opposition, the FSA ‘functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.’

Forging unity is key to the FSA’s progress. Efforts to bring together the various fighting factions have intensified in recent months, especially in northern Syria, where Assad’s forces have lost ground. Foreign backers of the rebel forces, specifically the U.S. and Western countries, are hesitant to supply weapons like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles before a clear command and control structure is in place. The presence of Islamist militant groups in the fight also complicates the question, as Western powers worry that rebel weapons will end up in Al Qaeda’s hands.

There are three types of fighters who’ve been part of the armed opposition:

Army Defectors Thousands of soldiers in the Syrian army have changed sides during the conflict, to fight against the regime. Former officers who defected from Syria’s Army form the nucleus of the Free Syrian Army, which is nominally led by Riad Al Assad, a former colonel in the Syrian Air Force. Many analysts say that these defected soldiers are more secular than the Islamist militias that have been proliferating around the country, but it’s important to note that military service in compulsory for men and conscripts reflect the conservative Islamic attitude of most Syrians. Civilian Fighters Former conscripts who have completed their service – young men who had never before used a weapon – have joined armed groups by the thousands in every village, town and city in Syria. Many of these militias have adopted Islamist rhetoric and symbols, both as a reflection of their rebel identity and to attract funding from wealthy Muslims in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Armed Islamist GroupsAs the death toll has mounted in Syria and the revolution morphed into a two-sided military fight, Islamist fighting forces have gained in prominence. They included Syrian and foreign fighters, some with links to Al Qaeda, who saw the conflict in Syria as part of a greater jihad – a holy war that would return Islam to its historic glory. Their ideology, which includes a future Syria under heavy religious rule, has scared off some foreign support of the Syrian revolution and created tensions among the rebels (most of whom take a more moderate Muslim view). It has also led to a backlash among Syrians who support calls for political change, but fear that violent chaos or jihadi groups would reign over Syria if the Assad regime falls. Some of the more visible groups are the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades and Al Nusra Front, which claimed responsibility for a spate of suicide attacks in Aleppo and Damascus.

National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution

After a week of long and sometimes contentious meetings in Doha, Syrian opponents of the Assad regime agreed on Nov. 11, 2012, to form a new entity that would oversee the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, or National Coalition, includes representatives from local opposition groups in Syria, the Kurdish National Council, and individuals who have a long history opposing the regime. The Syrian National Council, which was dismissed as ineffective by the Obama administration, was able to win roughly one-third of the coalition’s seats.

Moaz Al-Khatib, a moderate Sunni preacher from Damascus was elected president of the coalition and two longtime dissidents Riad Seif and Souheir Atassi were named vice presidents. The coalition quickly won recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people from France, the U.K., Spain, Italy, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries, which allowed the nascent group to place ambassadors there, a move that diminishes the Assad regime’s status as a sovereign entity.

The coalition formed a few committees in late November that would push ahead on the military, diplomatic and humanitarian needs of the revolution, and agreed on broad outlines for a government in exile that could be led by Riyad Hijab, Syria’s former Prime Minister who defected in August. Members of the government will be selected from outside the coalition and are expected to be named at am international summit for the “Friends of Syria” in Morocco on Dec. 12, 2012.

The Syrian National Council (SNC)

As the most prominent political opposition calling for the end of the Assad regime, the Syrian National Council is brings together the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, U.S. and European-based academics, and dissidents from Christian, Kurdish, and other minority backgrounds. The SNC has been the voice for the Syrian revolution in foreign capitals and at the U.N., though at times, internal spats and high-level resignations have tarnished its appeal. The SNC claims to have members working inside Syria, but its impact has been minimal and the group was never able to rally support and garner legitimacy on the ground.

Also, as the protests in Syria morphed into civil war, armed opposition groups gained in prominence and the SNC proved to have less control over events as they unfolded. But the group expanded its ranks at the Doha meeting in November and then shocked observers by electing George Sabra, a Christian teacher and former communist, as its leader in a move that could soften criticism of the group as a front from the Muslim Brotherhood. Major figures in the SNC include Abdulbaset Sieda, Burhan Ghalioun, Samir Nashar and Mohammed Farouk Tayfour.

The National Coordination Body for the Forces of Democratic Change (NCB)

Sometimes known as the “Internal Opposition” by its supporters, or the “Regime’s Opposition” by its opponents, the National Coordination Body brings together roughly a dozen moderate political groups inside Syria who have long pushed for democratic reform. The NCB has called for the end of the Assad regime but rejects Western intervention, putting it at odds with the SNC and others who seek help in establishing no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. The NCB wants a transition toward a democratic Syria, under the principles of ‘no violence, no sectarianism, no intervention.’

Over the course of the revolution the NCB has maintained operations in Syria and held conferences in Damascus, which gave way to criticism that they were tainted by government influence. The fact that they are based in the country gives them greater legitimacy in Syria, where there is a general suspicion of dissident groups abroad. But it also leaves them more vulnerable to the heavy hand of state interference, since they can be more easily infiltrated or co-opted by the regime. Major figures include Hassan Abdelazim, Aref Dalila and Haytham Manaa.

NC-Aligned Groups: The LCCS, SRGC and SCSR

The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), the Syrian Revolutionary General Commission (SRGC) and the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR) are part of the National Coalition and have independent operations in cities and villages in Syria. Members of these groups tend to have the deepest local connections, especially in besieged areas such as Homs and Daraa.

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