Plagued by infighting, splits and an inability to develop a strong and coherent strategy the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, formed largely of Syrians in exile has overwhelmingly failed to capture the support of the Syrian ’street’.
Instead the driving engine of the Syrian uprising is found in local communities where like-minded residents work together to organise anti-government protests.
Over months these grassroots movements have burgeoned into a system of national, regional, and local actors who together coordinate demonstrations, armed attacks, humanitarian aid and interviews for media outlets.
“According to how it is operating now, we do not believe that the Syrian National Council is able to be the leadership of the opposition,” said Hussein Sayed, a founder of the newly formed ‘Joint Action Committee’.
At a Friends of Syria meeting in April seventy countries, including Britain, recognised the SNC as a ‘legitimate representative’ of the Syrian uprising. But such has been the success of the Revolutionary Councils and Local Coordination Committees that some analysts put growing emphasis on the internal movement. Elizabeth O’Bagy from the US think-tank the Institute of War writes that ‘there is a mature and sophisticated leadership [in Syria] driving the uprising’.
The Joint Action Committee is designed to “unify the political work and the field work in Syria across all the revolutionary levels to ensure a smooth future transition,” Mr Sayed told The Daily Telegraph. Its Executive is formed of three representatives from each of the four main opposition groups in Syria. These include the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the largest grassroots coalition that, according to a study by O’Bagy, controls 70 per cent of the regional Revolutionary Councils across the country as well as the majority of the Local Coordination Committee,
In what was both a bid for legitimacy and demonstration of strength Mr Sayed declared that he and his colleagues would operate from inside Syria using their real names, a policy avoided by most activists for fear of being captured by the regime; “There is no problem now in announcing real names we are under the protection of activists.” Bolstered by recent victories of the FSA against government soldiers in some towns and villages in the northern province of Idlib, Mr Sayed said the group could operate from ‘liberated territories in Syria’.
Leaders hope that the new civilian Committee will have authority over the armed Syrian opposition movement the Free Syrian Army, activists said.
Military councils are also being formed across Syria in an effort to bring a command and control structure to disparate militia groups.
“We now have ten military councils across the country and we are working to bring our armed forces under their control,” said Louay Sakka, executive member of the US based Syrian Support Group, an organisation designed to represent and garner foreign support for the FSA.
“It is working,” said Mr Sakka, asserting that the military council in Deraa controls over 85% of armed groups, Hama it is 75%, and over half elsewhere.
In their own bid for unity Free Syrian Army leaders called on Tuesday for their “Kurdish brothers” to join rebels fighting President Basharal-Assad’s regime, while promising an end to injustices against Kurds in a future democratic Syria.
“Let us work together to transform the FSA into an alternative national military institution to the army of the ruling gang,” the group’s spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said in an online video.
Last week the Daily Telegraph revealed that members of the US state department and the President’s National Security Council is holding meetings with representatives of the armed opposition. They form part of a ‘getting to know you phase’ as the administration considers whether to back Saudi and Qatari efforts to provide heavy weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-air missiles to the armed opposition.
Concern exists that without a proper leadership structure disparate militias will only increase the likelihood of the country spiralling into bitter sectarian civil war.
A project by the SNC established in April to channel salaries FSA fighters has been hijacked and skewed by corruption and individual political interests, activists told the Daily Telegraph. Rather than passing funds through the military councils, some SNC coalition members had distributed money to ‘their own people’ creating separate militias.
“Everyone is trying to get a bigger part of the pie; trying to pay people who support their ideology,” said a Syrian activist speaking on a condition of anonymity. “This is pushing the opposition to be more fragmented, and is driving competition between armed groups”.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who are the strongest bloc in the SNC, have provided financial backing to a militia called the Civilian Protection Committee in exchange for the groups loyalty to a more conservative Muslim ideology. The group has attached what one western official in Washington termed as ‘crass’ conditions to funding, such as the demand to hold up signs that pledge allegiance to the movement during protests.
One rebel fighter from the town of Qusair in Homs province told the *Daily Telegraph *that his group was given money on conditions that they all “grew beards” as is in keeping with the Islamic religion.
There are also fears that the weapons might fall into the wrong hands.
“Some Qatari and Saudi businessmen are bypassing the military councils and pumping a big amount of dollars directly to fragmented armed opposition movements inside Syria. Some is going to radical groups,” said Mr Sakka.
“We want to make sure that funding goes to a structured armed opposition,” he added.
The Joint Action Committee is still in its nascent stage. Born from groups that already have extensive networks inside the country it’s advocates hope that it will soon secure the funding and backing of foreign states, and that it might one day become a vehicle for political transition in a post-Assad Syria.