Absence of unified command among Syrian resistance exposes fault lines
Few civilians today say the regime or Islamist fighters represent their interests
Free Syrian Army fighters eating together in Aleppo yesterday. Photograph: Hamid Khatib/Reuters
When protests erupted across Syria in March 2011, the country’s long-abused opposition was presented with a chance 40 years in the making.
A popular revolt against the violent excesses of successive Assad regimes meant people could begin to think of supporting an alternative political dispensation, that democratic elections might just take place, and that the elderly men that shuffled from their smoke-filled Damascus apartments to cafes every day would finally have a say.
These grand old men of the traditional Syrian opposition were well known for standing up for human rights in Syria, and for spending time in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, for doing so.
The military and security forces of Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, had different ideas. In the early days of the revolt it ran a convincing and successful nationwide propaganda campaign that drove many Syrians unaffected by the violence – particularly those living in central Damascus and Aleppo – to question the actions of peaceful protesters.
And for the established opposition figures, the localised and organic nature of the rural protest movement saw them quickly sidelined.
On the ground, teams of activists began to collate information of protests and chart examples of government heavy-handedness, using the cameras in hand-held mobile phones. These networks, known as local co-ordinating committees (LCCs), were the world’s eyes and ears. And they reported their findings to a small group of senior Syrian human rights trackers.
Another small-scale but essential initiative to emerge was the Syrian Violations Documentation Centre, which records specific massacres – an important role in a war not easily covered by independent journalists and researchers.
Forced into exile in the 1980s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had, and continues to have, important figures inside the largest opposition grouping – the Syrian National Coalition – but more importantly, has an established history inside the country. Many of its members have based themselves in rebel-controlled northern Syria where they have introduced social programmes and taken control of mosque pulpits.
Meanwhile, exiled opposition figures in Washington, Paris, Cairo and Beirut took to Arab television news networks to protest and shout about the regime’s violence and have remained there ever since.
Syria’s constellation of opposition groups are frequently pilloried for their inability – some say unwillingness – to present themselves as a united entity. They have failed to illustrate a programme to guide the country to democratic rule. The Syrian National Coalition – largest of the lot – has been criticised for yielding to its supposed masters, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US.
Supply of weapons
The Gulf monarchs have channelled millions of dollars to the national coalition to assist with logistics and the establishment of an interim government in exile. These countries also control the supply of weapons and cash to rebel fighters through Turkey. If Syrian rebel commanders are appealing for guns and ammunition it is because the Gulf governments want it that way.
Responding to criticism, Syria’s opposition leaders cite the fact that representing the country’s varied ethnic and religious mix has been difficult. Kurdish leaders care first and foremost about taking the word “Arabic” out of Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. Islamists have argued with secular figures over whether non-Muslims can become president of a future Syrian state; agreeing on a new constitution remains a sticking point.
But none has displayed much desire to address the issue that ought to trouble them most: gaining the trust and acceptance of the war-weary people of Syria.