Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Syrian Opposition before and after the Outbreak of the 2011 Uprising

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Syrian Opposition before and after the Outbreak of the 2011 Uprising

Article excerpt


The uprising against the Asad dictatorship of 2011 was predicted by few within Syria or beyond it. President Bashar Asad himself famously gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2011, in which he dismissed the possibility that he would face a revolt against his rule of the kind that at that time had brought down Presidents bin Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt. Bashar contended that his regime's anti-Western stances and support for the Palestinians reflected the deep convictions of his people, and this would ensure his immunity.1

This prediction proved erroneous, of course. Protests in Syria began in the southern town of Dar'a in mid-March 2011, following the arrests of a number of schoolchildren. The authorities attempted to use a heavy hand against the protestors. This led to larger demonstrations and the rapid spreading of protests from the Dar'a area to Banias, Homs, Hama, and elsewhere.

The Asad regime was caught badly unawares by the outbreak of large scale protests. Having made some initial attempts to placate protestors-first the sacking of Faysal Kalthoum as governor of Dar'a, followed by the granting of nationality to Syrian Kurds long deprived of this, the scrapping of a ruling that banned teachers from wearing the niqab, and finally the rescinding of emergency laws- in mid-April 2011, the regime went into a frontal confrontation with the protestors.

This in essence is the point at which things remain six months later, with around 2,900 protestors dead.2 The regime has promised new parliamentary elections in February 2012, and has made vague additional promises of constitutional reform. Such declarations have little meaning. It is clear that the regime is seeking a "security solution" to the uprising- that is to say, its defeat by force.

The revolt, too, has thus far shown no signs of dying down. At the same time, the opposition has not yet managed to develop a single, coherent leadership with a clearly defined program for toppling the regime and replacing it. Rather, a number of competing external opposition groups exist, though efforts to unite the opposition are under way and have made some progress. This article will first briefly survey the fragmented Syrian opposition prior to the uprising. It will then look at the current main bodies of the opposition and will conclude with a tentative assessment of the state of affairs in the opposition at the present time.


The Asad regime in Syria resembles in certain ways the regimes that held power in Eastern Europe prior to 1989. One of the defining characteristics of such regimes is the attempt to exercise complete control of the public space by an extensive security apparatus and to prevent all independent political activity. The Syrian regime conformed to this model. All parties other than the ruling Ba'th (renaissance) party were banned under Asad. Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood became an offense punishable by death under Article 49 of the Syrian penal code, enacted in 1980.3 The account that follows is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it seeks to identify and describe the most significant events and forces within the pre-2011 Syrian opposition.

Following Bashar Asad's accession to power in July 2000, a brief period of apparent liberalization took place. The so-called Damascus Spring was short-lived, however, and the regime soon moved to crush the civil society forums that emerged hoping to benefit from the liberalization. In October 2005, a group of 250 major opposition figures came together to launch the "Damascus Declaration." The declaration was harshly critical of the Asad regime, but called for "gradual, peaceful" reform. The declaration was launched by pro-democracy activists Michel Kilo and Riad Seif, and it brought together Islamist activists with secular, Arab nationalist and Kurdish figures. The Damascus Declaration was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish Democratic Alliance, the Syrian Future Party, and a number of other groups. …

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