The uprising which erupted in Syria in March last year has become the most protracted and destabilizing of all the revolutions now sweeping the Arab world. The Baath Party-led government of President Bashar al-Assad has been severely weakened by popular protest and international isolation, but the regime and its military might have remained largely intact.
With their hopes for a split in the regime fundament unfulfilled after more than a year of conflict, the opposition has little hope of defeating Assad on its own. He, in turn, seems equally unable to extinguish the protests. As the conflict grinds on, the anti-regime movement has increasingly turned to armed struggle, while sectarian sentiment is inflamed by conflict and violence.
Syria has now entered the early stages of a civil war, which looks set to intensify over the coming year. The stalemate could suddenly break – through an internal coup, major defections, foreign intervention, an assassination of Assad, etc. – but there is little understanding of what the effects would be at this stage. The most prudent option for outside decision-makers is to plan for a protracted conflict.
In this situation, the Syrian opposition has a key role to play – but it has so far failed to effectively do so, because of internal disagreements and severe structural weaknesses. The international community’s slow response to the Syrian crisis was partly dictated by the realization that Syria’s weak and divided opposition groups could not – and still in 2012 do not – provide an effective alternative to the Assad regime. In January, the Syrian dissident Hazem al-Nahar wrote, à propos his own efforts to help unify the opposition:
Now we have the very situation I feared: a Babel of contradictory and competing voices that leaves everyone, regime loyalists and opponents alike, mistrustful and dismissive of the Syrian opposition [...] The situation is just as the regime would have it: an opposition fractured and divided over issues that have no basis in reality.
This disunity is a major obstacle to any peaceful resolution of the conflict. Every conceivable path away from sectarian conflict requires a functioning opposition leadership:
- If there is a foreign intervention, or if the government suddenly collapses, civilian politicians need to stand ready to fill the vacuum.
- If the regime is to be toppled through armed struggle, a strong and legitimate opposition leadership with adequate resources to control unruly commanders, is the only thing that can prevent warlordism.
- If an internal coup should remove Bashar al-Assad, the new regime will want to coopt at least some elements of the opposition movement, if only as window-dressing for continued military rule. If the opposition is unable to push for more serious liberalization at that moment of change, the opportunity will be lost.
- And finally, even if the regime doesn’t fall, but survives in crippled form through military victory or a peace deal, it will have to negotiate a face-saving compromise to regain some measure of legitimacy. Again, the opposition cannot afford to squander the opportunity.
One could roughly divide today’s Syrian anti-regime movement into three complementary and interlinked modes of activism: political, armed, and revolutionary. This report will focus primarily on the political side of the Syrian anti-regime movement, identifying the major coalitions and component groups, ideological strands, rivalries and collaborations, and the dynamics between exiled and internal groups.
This is not to say that the armed organizations, such as the Free Syrian Army, are not of crucial importance to Syria’s future – quite the contrary. 2 Neither is the focus of this report intended to downplay the leading role of the revolutionaries, i.e. the local activist networks and non-organized demonstrators who have been the driving force of the uprising from day one.
However, the political opposition groups – by which I mean non-violent, organized dissidents seeking influence in the future Syria – deserve their share of the attention. They have played an important role in relation to the media and for the international political debate. The revolutionary narrative they’ve helped shape feeds back into the Syrian protest movement, affecting its political and tactical choices, and influences the response of international and regional actors to the events in Syria. Several states, both pro- and anti-Assad, are supporting various opposition factions, in the hope of shaping a future government and/or acquiring proxy influence over Syrian politics. The regime itself is likely to sue for peace at some point, and if negotiations begin, the composition and resources of the opposition camp will be crucial to the outcome.
While it is unlikely that any of today’s political opposition groups will control the future Syria, they are likely to play a significant role in a future transition phase or reconciliation process. Regardless of who rules Syria in the future – the current regime, breakaway elite factions, a government installed with foreign backing, or armed rebels – they will need to connect with the political opposition to legitimize their own position.