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

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.

Records massacres
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.

The Syrian National Coalition is represented on the battlefield by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by Gen Salim Idris. The SMC, represented on the battle field by the Free Syrian Army, unites many of the original elements of the uprising – one-time defected soldiers as well as activists that picked up guns to fight Assad.

Coalition figures in Turkey say they are in contact with Idris only “every few weeks”. Much of the opposition’s difficulties surround the essential fact that none can control or unify the thousand-strong rebel groups on the ground.

The national coalition has, too, been tainted in the eyes of some by the millions of dollars Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided it, leading to the accusation by the Syrian government and others that it has acted as a pawn for one side in a broader war between Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi and Qatar) opponents.

Interaction between competing opposition organs is muddled at best. Some individuals are members of more than one organisation. Other leaders have ventured out on lone projects to, for example, reform the judiciary or establish detailed economic plans for the “day after”.

Al-Qaeda-linked groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are simultaneously absorbing fighters from secular brigades and at least temporarily shifting social norms in the northern Syrian towns and neighbourhoods they control. However, uprooting the effects of four decades of secular-leaning governance will take more than a few months of exposure to these conservative, archaic and violent fundamentalist groups.

Clearly, if President Bashar al-Assad was toppled today, Syrians would struggle to identify a robust authority to take up the reigns. The LCCs have contacts and numbers in every town and village in the country, but lack political guile and influence. Go-it-alone figures such as Moaz al-Khateeb cannot or will not do politics, popular as they may be with the masses.

A smooth transition if or when the Assad regime is ousted from Damascus seems an unlikely prospect. The various and varying goals surrounding what kind of country Syria should become are too broad. Radical Islamist fighters can largely be discounted as a political force, though that’s not to say they may continue to figure as a force for violence in a post-Assad state.

The one thing that could, however, bring Syrians together is the violence and death they have collectively suffered over the past 30 months. Few civilians today say the regime or Islamist fighters represent their interests. All want peace, whichever side they support.

But getting to that point seems a far-off notion even as US prospects for a military strike on Syrian government targets grow closer.

US military plans
Conversations with opposition figures in Istanbul in recent days give rise to the impression that the national coalition is very much on the outside looking in with regards to US military plans.

“We have asked the Americans to be careful of civilian areas,” said a coalition member. The sense among many opposition figures is that punitive military opposition to the Assad government lies in American hands, and American hands alone.

Moreover, opposition leaders have failed to convince rebel commanders to submit to their political authority. The national coalition seems to spend more time issuing press releases than on presenting itself as a genuine political force capable of governing a country wracked by conflict.

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