What’s Known about Syria’s “Murky” Opposition

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What’s life like for Syria’s opposition fighters? Watch our November film Syria Undercover for a rare look at the uprising from inside the war-torn nation.

What began as a street uprising among united, angry Syrians has become a sprawling, scattered opposition force trying to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

But who are they? “We’ve certainly noted that there are some elements of the opposition that are not necessarily friendly to the United States,” said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, on Thursday, in a vague attempt to explain what the U.S. knows. “They do not make up the bulk of the opposition, and the opposition is not entirely unified, as you know.”

Randa Slim, a research fellow with the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program, has interviewed Syrian opposition members exiled in Istanbul and Geneva, as well as rebel fighters and operatives within the country. We spoke with her last November to get a closer look at the opposition, which after eight months of fighting had become fragmented and disorganized. At the time, she said, there were two main opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Syrian National Coordination Committee (NCC), but she told us that “neither can claim to be the sole voice of the Syrian opposition forces.”

But now, Slim said, after months of additional research, that fragmentation among the opposition has become even more complex.

“It’s a murky picture, and it’s getting murkier,” Slim said. The opposition has split between the exiled political factions working towards a post-Assad Syria, and the rebel fighters battling the Army within the country. Neither side has much communication with or control over the other.

The Politicians

Neither side is unified, either. The two main groups are the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups — including some members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — that insist that Assad has to go in order to establish a free, democratic state. The Syrian National Coordination Committee has been more willing to negotiate a political solution with the regime, although it’s also called for Assad’s ouster. Both have been opposed to foreign intervention, but some SNC members have said they’ve be open to a no-fly zone similar to the one NATO set up in Libya.

Efforts to unite these two groups under a common umbrella group have failed — neither wants to cede to the other.

Now, the Arab League is trying a new tactic. It’s asking representatives from the major political groups to try to hammer out a common political agenda on which they can all agree, in a step toward presenting a platform that could form the basis for a post-Assad transition. The goal is to finish by July 2 or 3, Slim said, noting that it will likely take much longer.

But all of this political wrangling has largely been eclipsed by military factions inside the country, which remain vague collections of armed fighters that appear to be growing in number.

“The multiplicity, the mushrooming of these military groups is really amazing,” Slim said. “It has gained momentum in the past few months.” That’s largely because of the bloody, month-long battle for Baba Amr earlier this year, which Slim said persuaded many Syrians that politics won’t work — they will have to overthrow Assad militarily if they want him out.

The Fighters

But the armed opposition — which, taken together, could number anywhere from 50,000 to as many as 100,000 — remains disconnected and disorganized. Some organize under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, but others are small groups of men — as few as 50 or as many as 1,000 — from the same village who have simply decided to fight. They have little to no communication or coordination between them.

The Free Syrian Army, for example, set up a command post in Turkey months ago. But, Slim said, it still lacks the kind of command and control it would need to issue orders and coordinate rebel factions, even those that align themselves with the FSA.

The flow of arms has complicated the picture. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly sending the rebels arms across the Turkish border. But with the fighters so fractured, it’s unclear who they’re sending them to. “It all depends on who controls the lines of supply,” Slim said. The New York Times reported yesterday that CIA agents were on the ground trying to make sure weapons went to U.S.-friendly factions.

The Weapons

Local commanders, eager to ensure that some of the weapons come their way, have reached out through family connections in the Gulf, or through village-level networks, to forge connections with smuggling groups, Slim said.

In recent weeks, Slim said, one group has sprung up to coordinate weapons deliveries to the opposition. The group calls itself the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and is closely aligned with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. “Right away, you can assume that any weapon that comes to that group will go to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Slim said.

The Foreigners

We’ve reported in the past on Al Qaeda’s apparent efforts to reach into Syria. But Slim said that her contacts suggested that most jihadis fighting in Syria now were mainly Syrian-born fighters who had fought in Iraq, had returned home and turned against Assad. But the picture still remains unclear, as does their connection to the various opposition factions now battling in the country.

The Solutions

So what now? The Syrian Army and the opposition fighters appear to have battled to a stalemate in what Slim says is now a civil war. The rebels don’t have the capacity to overthrow Assad, and it seems clear now that despite the massacres, the government won’t be able to crush the opposition outright.

The next move on the international front is a meeting in Geneva next week between the top five political players — the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France. The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, told Reuters on Thursday that he hoped it would lead to “practical mechanisms” to resolving the crisis. But there are already sticking points: Russia has insisted that Iran attend the meeting. But the U.S. maintains that Iran’s elite Quds force has been aiding Syrian forces in its crackdown, and that the country isn’t welcome to the discussion.

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