Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Syrian Political Opposition: What Went Wrong?

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Syrian Political Opposition: What Went Wrong?

Article excerpt

Evolution of the Opposition

In 2011, when civilian unrest broke out against the decades-long Assad rule in Syria, I penned an article for Insight Turkey in which I attempted to make sense of the opposition movement that was in the making in Syria. The opposition, then mostly confined within the scope of the political arena and manifesting itself via peaceful street demonstrations, was an unharmonious body sharing little more than a distaste for Assad rule. The opposition was anything but a unified body; its diverse members were still trying to figure out what they were in for. It was a liquid formation which was shaped mostly by external factors, especially by Assad's brutal dealing with the protests. In other words, Assad's brutal handling of the peaceful protests played a key role in transforming both the protests and the opposition. Still clueless about how to force Assad either to reform or to leave, the opposition wandered around trying to unify its ranks and join together to find a viable roadmap. Their key dilemma then was, "how to deal with a violent crackdown by state actors through peaceful means and without foreign help." The group within the opposition that was suspicious about Assad's will and capability to reform, I continued, "may come to a point where they resort to armed struggle, actively seek foreign help, or both."

Needless to say, the continuation of brutal crackdowns by the regime, facilitated by the early arrival of Iranian anti-riot forces, morphed the peaceful protests into a quest for survival, which would eventually devolve into armed struggle and a search for foreign help. The opposition therefore started to operate in two distinct yet intertwined spheres: military and political. The political opposition, starting from the Antalya Conference for Change in Syria in April 2011, brought together myriad groups with varying ideological, religious and ethnic confessions, and formed the political structures which would represent anti-Assad Syrians in the international arena. The Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces have been seeking legitimacy and conversing with the international community to find a political solution for the Syrian quagmire, so far with no tangible results.

Meanwhile, defectors from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), including high-level officers, established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the flagship of the moderate armed opposition since July 2011. Independent units formed by locals with varying political and ideological stances have also entered the picture. Some of them brought finances, others personnel, and some others experience in fighting. The Free Syrian Army has enjoyed relative legitimacy among the international community and consequently was awarded military aid, starting with non-lethal weapons and ending up with low--to mid-level arms. The FSA, however, has never been equipped with game-changing weapons which could tip the balance in the opposition's favor on the ground. The regime, on the other hand, has maintained its military edge over the opposition thanks to an incessant influx of weapons, and later personnel, from Russia and Iran. The military opposition has been as divided as the political opposition, and similar problems to those plaguing the political opposition have also crippled the military opposition in Syria. With the arrival of Jihadi-Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the formation of moderate Jihadi battalions such as Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawheed, the military dynamics on the ground have become even more complicated, and disagreements and even clashes have occurred among different pro-opposition military groups.

Disunity, power struggles, and lack of direction have characterized the opposition, and half-hearted international backers with conflicting agendas have deepened the divides within the opposition, directly or indirectly empowering the Assad regime. …

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