Q&A: A Closer Look at Syria’s Fragmented Opposition

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The disparate opposition groups that have materialized during the eight months of Syria’s uprising have been criticized as fragmented, disorganized and lacking a clear vision for the country.

Evidence of growing schisms within the movement — which yesterday included members of one opposition group pelting the members of another with eggs and tomatoes outside of the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters — have only raised doubts that the opposition is a viable force to lead Syria if the regime falls.

We turned to Dr. Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, to learn more about the make-up of the Syrian opposition and what it will take for them to turn into a more credible force.

What are some of distinctions between the two biggest umbrella opposition forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Syrian National Coordination Committee (NCC)?

“The true heroes of the Syrian uprisings are the youth activists who launched the protest movement last March and who are now leading the demonstrations.

Of the two organizations, the SNC is a better constellation of the major political parties and movements in the opposition. Yet, neither can claim to be the sole voice of the Syrian opposition forces.

The principal lines of dispute between the two groups center on issues of dialogue with the regime and foreign military intervention. The NCC calls for a dialogue with the regime conditional on the withdrawal of the military from the streets, the cessation of attacks against the protesters and the release of all political prisoners. The SNC is opposed to any dialogue with the Assad regime except one addressing the devolution of power from Assad to the opposition.

While both the NCC and the SNC are, in principle, opposed to foreign military intervention, the SNC membership is not united on this subject. Many 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, on the other hand, prefers economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures including the sending of Arab and international human rights monitors to Syria to document and deter the regime’s violent actions.

How representative are the SNC and the NCC of Syria’s makeup, and how do they compare with how organized or united the Libyan opposition has been?

The SNC is a gathering of different political parties, movements and independents. Its principal components are the Damascus Declaration Group (a group of Syrian reformist intellectuals), the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of the Istanbul Gathering (a group made up mainly of Islamists and independent technocrats), coalitions of youth activists, independents, Kurdish political parties and Assyrians. It is currently organized as a 230-member general assembly and a 29-member general secretariat headed by a 7-member executive committee. Other minority groups, including Alawites, Christians, Shia and Druze, are poorly represented. The SNC bylaws and membership roster are in the process of being finalized.

Within the SNC, a critical component consists of the youth activist groups. The true heroes of the Syrian uprisings are the youth activists who launched the protest movement last March and who are now leading the demonstrations. They range in age from 17 to 35 years and hail from different socioeconomic and professional backgrounds. The majority of these young people are non-ideological in the traditional sense of Arab political parties, and are motivated by the quest for freedom, dignity, economic justice and a better life. They are men and women who, thanks to the internet and social media, have reconnected with the public sphere and shed the fear of political engagement that has plagued Syrian citizens under the Assad regime(s).

At the outset, they organized themselves into small local committees (at most 15-20 people) to document and publicize the uprisings. Over time, they have evolved into a web of commissions, councils and unions formally grouped around three national coalitions: the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), Al Ghad (including the Local Coordinating Committees or LCCs) and the Higher Council of the Syrian Revolution. Two of the leading activists associated with the movement are women: Suheir Al Atassi of the SRCG and Razan Zeitouneh of the LCCs.

The NCC is an internal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-leaning political parties and independent political activists, including 3 Kurdish political parties, and youth activists. It is currently organized as a 300-member general assembly and an 80-member general secretariat chaired by a 25-member executive council, 6 seats of which are occupied by youth activists.

Of the two opposition umbrella organizations, the SNC comes the closest to Libya’s National Transitional Council. Still it has a way to go in broadening its support base, reaching out to other opposition groups and constituencies and becoming more inclusive of the different religious and ethnic communities making up the rich mosaic of Syrian society.

What does the SNC need to do in order become a more credible representative of the Syrian people?

For all practical purposes, the SNC is the nucleus of what could potentially be the main representative of Syria’s opposition groups. It faces four main challenges. First, it needs to get its house in order in terms of its organizational infrastructure, outlining a detailed transition plan and articulating a clear vision about the new social contract for how they want Syrians to live together and the type of economic system they want to see established. The lighter the footprint the international community has in this process, the more credible the outcome will be to the majority of Syrians.

Second, it needs to engage in a dialogue with other opposition groups, including the NCC, about ways to overcome the differences between them and establish coordination mechanisms between the two organizations in order to unite their efforts for the common purpose which they share and that is toppling the Assad regime.

Third, the SNC must reach out to the Syrian people. While a critical mass of Syrians has clearly opted for regime change, large segments of the Syrian population remain fearful of change. Some think that regime change will bring instability and chaos. Others are not clear about the alternative to Assad.

“There is a serious risk of Syria eventually descending into a protracted, low-intensity armed struggle.”

Fourth, the SNC must establish formal communication channels with the group of military defectors now grouped under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The SNC has yet to figure out how it would deal with the FSA. Some members believe that the SNC must be careful not to support the FSA since it would be wrong to side with the defectors against the large bulk of Syrian soldiers. Others argue that the FSA could become the military wing of the opposition. FSA leaders are now arguing that they do not represent the military side of the Syrian opposition. Instead, the FSA represents the nucleus of the new Syrian army.

The great majority of the opposition including the SNC, the NCC and the leaders of the youth activists advocate for maintaining the nonviolent character of the protest movement. They argue that militarization of the opposition would play into the hands of the Syrian regime that has been trying its best to cast the uprisings as a Sunni armed insurgency.

How widespread are armed opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and what actions to they carry out?

Despite their best efforts, developments on the ground are pushing the activists toward militarization. There is accumulating evidence that segments of the Syrian population are arming themselves. Activists inside Syria explain this as a need for citizens to acquire weapons to defend themselves. Still this development of people arming themselves remains on a limited scale. To date, there are no signs of an armed insurgency a la Iraq.

The role played by the FSA is somewhat unclear. To date, the FSA is not so much an army as a collection of small and disparate groups of defectors. According to the SNC leaders, their number ranges between 10,000 and 15,000. Recently, the FSA has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Syrian army convoy in central Syria in which they killed a military officer and eight soldiers.

In restive cities like Homs, they defend the neighborhoods 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. According to FSA officers, 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. Still, these defections occur only on a small-scale involving a few officers and soldiers at a time.

If an officer or a soldier is to defect, he must first make sure that his family is in a safe place, protected from the Syrian authorities. Second, he must find a hiding place for himself, preferably in areas sympathetic to the rebels or he must cross into Turkey where the FSA headquarters are currently located. Third, he needs to ensure that fellow defectors would welcome him and not consider him a double agent. The latter is of particular concern regarding potential Alawite defectors, which partly explains the sectarian character of the FSA. The great majority of the defectors are Sunni.

We don’t know a lot about the FSA. We don’t know their exact numbers. Their role seems to differ from one region to the next. It is still hard to gauge the type and level of coordination between the FSA leadership located in Turkey and the different units of defectors dispersed in different parts of Syria. It is still unclear what weapons the defectors have at their disposal and whether they are able to secure military assistance from neighboring countries.

The Syrian regime claims that there are armed opposition groups consisting of former Al Qaeda. There are Salafi groups based in Deir El-Zour, Jisr Al Sughour and Syrian towns bordering northern Lebanon. In the past, these Salafi groups were given safe haven by Syrian intelligence services that relied on their membership 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.

What’s the likelihood that this armed opposition will bring the country to civil war? 

There is a serious risk of Syria eventually descending into a protracted, low-intensity armed struggle. Currently, the two sides in the Syrian conflict are locked in a stalemate: The regime’s brutality is unable to quash the uprisings, and the nonviolent protest movement has so far been unable to topple the regime.

Bashar al-Assad believes that time is on his side. To date, there are no serious cracks in the military and security organizations, especially at the senior level. Despite a few Alawite voices calling for the overthrow of the regime, the great majority of his co-religionists remains supportive of Bashar al-Assad. Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two major cities, have not joined the protest movement en masse as we have seen in other major hubs like Homs and Hama. The majority of Syria’s merchant class remains on the fence, watching how this fight will unfold

On the other side, the protest movement is not waning. Despite the military power at its disposal, the Syrian regime has been unable to stop it. Protests are now happening on a daily basis in different parts of the country. Though it still has a way to go, the Syrian opposition is starting to get organized. While a majority of Syrian remains fearful of change, reality is sinking in that the regime will not be able to withstand the crisis as it has done in the past.

Both sides in this conflict see the struggle in existential terms. The ruling Assad family has already shown its unwillingness to compromise. Despite its stated pledge to abide by the terms of the Arab League proposal, it has persisted with its military attacks against the protesters. For the protesters, too many lives have been lost to give up the struggle now. They are no longer afraid of the regime’s brutality. The FSA is creating a fait accompli on the ground which will be hard to ignore or bypass. Absent an international intervention to force Assad out, there will be increasing calls for the weaponization of the Syrian opposition, thus increasing the prospect of an armed struggle.

Dig Deeper: Read our interview with SNC member Ausama Monajed, who talks more about how the council was formed and how Damascus’ business elite is helping.

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