Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition
Middle East Report N°146
17 Oct 2013
Often derided for its infighting or dismissed as irrelevant, Syria’s political opposition reflects the contradictions, misunderstandings and conflicting geopolitical interests upon which it was founded. That its main political bodies have failed to overcome their inherent weaknesses and play a proactive role is regrettable. But so too is the opposition’s Western and Arab allies’ striking failure to address the ways in which their own mixed signals, independent agendas and poor coordination have undermined the structures they ostensibly seek to empower. Any viable resolution of the war will require emergence of a credibly representative opposition; for all its shortcomings, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the Coalition) currently is alone in potentially meeting that test. To do so, however, it will need to dramatically bolster its presence on the ground; opposition backers will have to streamline their assistance; and all must develop a strategy to deal with the growing jihadi phenomenon.
The roots of the political opposition’s difficulties lie, first and foremost, in the oppressive domestic environment from which it emerged. The result has been a hodgepodge of exiles, intellectuals and secular dissidents bereft of a genuine political constituency, as well as Muslim Brothers geographically detached from their natural base. Little wonder that, as the uprising began, this diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience and the means to assess their respective popular weight.
In providing a stamp of legitimacy to exile-based umbrella groups – first, in October 2011, to the Syrian National Council; later, in November 2012, to the Coalition – on-the-ground activists were not endorsing a specific political leadership. Rather, they saw the political opposition as the uprising’s diplomatic expression, a body whose job essentially was to mobilise international support. This understanding rested on an implicit wager: that as regime violence intensified, the West would follow the Libya precedent and, through military action, contribute to President Bashar Assad’s demise.
The problem is that this outlook was at sharp odds with that of relevant Western governments, Washington’s in particular. For the Obama administration, such direct military intervention never appears truly to have been in the cards. Instead, it saw the priority as getting the opposition to unite and present a more broadly appealing vision of the post-Assad future. In contrast, the opposition saw value in those tasks – made all the more difficult given its diversity and distance from the ground – only insofar as they were accompanied by substantially more Western support. Washington waited for the opposition to improve itself; the opposition waited for Washington to empower it. Both shared the goal of a Syria without Assad, but neither developed a strategy to achieve the goal that took account of the other’s constraints, triggering a cycle of frustration and mistrust that discredited the political opposition and Western governments alike in the eyes of the uprising’s rank and file.
Perhaps even more damaging to the opposition has been lack of coordination among its regional backers, ramifications of which are felt on the political and military fronts. Politically, competition between its most important supporters, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has fuelled divisive intra-Coalition dynamics. This has proved to be a huge distraction. At critical points, it has effectively ground Coalition activity to a halt.
Militarily, Qatari-Saudi competition is but one aspect of the region’s broader failure to cooperate. This has helped create propitious conditions for more extremist groups to thrive. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), led by Salim Idris, is represented in the Coalition and has been endorsed – on paper at least – by the opposition’s main foreign backers as the lone channel for military support. But it enjoys scant leverage on the ground, debilitated not only by lack of meaningful Western backing but also by widespread perception that it cannot control which rebel faction gets what. Rather, those decisions appear to be made in Doha and Riyadh. Too, armed militant groups in need of weapons and money have alternative options: loot from capturing regime arms depots; occasionally lucrative assets deriving from control of oil facilities and border crossings; and plentiful private funding, chiefly from the Gulf.
It gets worse. On 24 September 2013, several powerful rebel factions issued a statement explicitly rejecting the Coalition’s legitimacy. This came on the heels of months of rising popular frustration with the Coalition, fuelled in part by perception that it has disproportionately focused on internal wrangling, but also by the sense that it has failed in its principal mission, mobilising decisive foreign support.
What can be done? Creation of an alternative political grouping is always tempting but unlikely to yield markedly different results. The Coalition never had significant influence over militant groups, and there is little reason to believe any other opposition body could overcome the geopolitical obstacles it has faced. Rather, the focus should be on realistic changes that take account of present circumstances: Gulf states that will persist in helping the armed opposition; rebel factions that will continue to fight; and a U.S. administration that is increasingly invested in the “Geneva II” political process. In particular:
Beirut/Damascus/Brussels, 17 October 2013
- the opposition’s foreign state backers ought to drastically improve their coor-dination, especially on the military front;
- this should be accompanied by efforts to limit alternative channels of material and logistical support; notably, Gulf states need to rein in private funding, and Turkey needs to do more to disrupt the influx of foreign fighters and fundraisers across its southern border;
- to enhance its presence on the ground, the Coalition should seek a direct role in providing basic services in rebel-controlled areas, including food, schooling and law enforcement. This requires cooperation of mainstream rebel groups that the opposition’s main foreign backers should work to secure;
- the Coalition and its backers need to develop an effective strategy to deal with the urgent threat posed by jihadi groups. Besides progress in the above three realms, this necessitates enhancing civil society initiatives and activist networks; and
- its qualms regarding the Geneva II process notwithstanding, the Coalition ought to come up with a realistic strategy toward what remains the best hope for ending the war. This should entail, for example, reaching internal consensus on workable negotiation parameters.