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Opposition Groups - Recent Developments

Civil society in Syria was very weak, suffering from years of systematic repression by the government and its security services. The government closely controls which fledgling organizations are granted licenses to organize. Only organizations that toe the party line are allowed any sort of political role or voice. Others who aspire to such a role are refused licenses. The government more routinely licenses organizations that stick to anodyne activities divorced from anything distinctly political. Because of the level of suppression and surveillance, there was tremendous suspicion and paranoia among civil society activists about the independence of others in the movement. Activists fear being reported by colleagues to the security services, which can threaten imprisonment or closure of their organizations. These internalized fears also keep civil society weak and fractured.

Among civil society activists and NGO's, there were profound ideological cleavages, for example between Islamists and secularists. Much of the driving force behind the modern development of civil society in Syria has come from the left, with many former communists and a range of other leftists -- nearly all of them very secular -- channeling their energies away from a direct focus on politics and towards building civil society. The most glaring weakness in civil society on the left side of the equation is the lack of any significant grass roots support. It is this recognition that drove many of the most perceptive leftists to guardedly embrace a re-tooled, moderate Muslim Brotherhood, over the past few years.

To counterbalance these secular groups (and to counter the influence of Islamic fundamentalists, both the traditional Muslim Brothers and the upstart Wahabi/Salafists), the Alawite-dominated regime provided funding and encouragement for moderate Islamic institutions, many of them civil society organizations. These Sunni organizations include Salah Kuftaro's Abu Noor Institute (founded by his deceased father, the former Grand Mufti of Syria) and MP Mohammed Habash's Islamic Studies Center.

Leaders of these organizations tend to be one-man-bands, whose powerful egos dominate weak organizations, and they do not "play well with others." An institutional culture that emphasizes leadership and initiative only at the top of an organization, rather than network-building and delegation, also contributes to this weakness. In addition, there is often an astonishing lack of networking or even familiarity among civil society leaders.

Since March 2011, what began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned into an armed rebellion. As street protests swelled after March 2011, international concern and condemnation have grown. The Arab League, of which Syria has been a core member, decried the regime’s actions against the Syrian people. The League successively suspended Syria’s membership, called for political and security reforms and negotiations with the opposition, and carried out a monitoring mission to assess the regime’s response.

The opposition was composed of several divergent groups with the same goal but different approaches. The so-called Local Coordination Committees of Syria are groupings of loosely affiliated activists who organize protests on the ground; the Syrian National Council was the main political opposition group outside Syria; and the Free Syrian Army was a group of defectors and other civilians who have taken up arms. While this may sound cohesive and hierarchal, analysts say much of the opposition was not. And they do not discount the possibility that outside terrorists are taking advantage of the unrest, as the government claims.

Free Syrian ArmyMuch of the opposition within Syria was fragmented, struggling simply to survive against the onslaught of the Syrian army. The Free Syrian Army was formed in July 2011, several months into popular unrest against Assad’s authoritarian rule, in Syrian regions bordering Turkey. The majority of conscripts in the Syrian Army are Sunnis who do not necessarily trust the ruling elite, who make up much of the security apparatus.

Those abroad have for the most part coalesced under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council [SNC], The Syrian National Council was formed on 02 October 2011, when Syria's major opposition groups have created a national council aimed at unifying their efforts to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition figure Bourhan Ghalioun announced formation of the Syrian National Council at the end of a meeting of Syrian dissidents in the Turkish city of Istanbul. He said the council unites opposition groups inside and outside Syria in pursuing what it calls the aspirations of the Syrian people for the "peaceful" overthrow of the Assad government. Ghalioun said the council rejects foreign interference in Syria. But, he appealed for international protection of Syrian civilians from what he said was a government "war" against them.

The Syrian National Council emerged as a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, for the Syrian people. The newly-formed Syrian National Council comprises a general assembly, a general secretariat and an executive committee whose members will chair the council on a rotating basis. A broad range of Syrian opposition groups have joined the council. Its members include representatives of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, secular groups, Kurdish factions, the pro-democracy Damascus Declaration group based in the Syrian capital, and the Local Coordination Committees, which have led Syrian street protests.

On 23 November 2011 the Syrian opposition National Council declared that it fully supported the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force fighting President Bashar al-Assad, which was made up of his military defectors. “The Syrian National Council was proud of Syrian soldiers and officers who refused to fulfill orders by the regime to kill their compatriots demanding freedom, those who joined their people and the revolution,” a Council statement reads. The Syrian National Council recognized that Syria’s minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future, and that they need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom that provides opportunity and respect and dignity on the basis of the consent rather than on the whims of a dictator. On 06 December 2011 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Syrian National Council and encouraged its members to counter the Syrian government’s efforts to divide the country along ethnic and religious lines.

Agreement between the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change [NCB] and the Syrian National Council [SNC], to be submitted to the Secretariat of the Arab League as a joint political document for the Congress of the Syrian opposition that was expected to take place under the umbrella of the Arab League in January 2012, which said in part "Following talks lasting for more than a month involving the leadership of the NCB and the SNC, the parties agreed on the following: 1 – Rejection of any foreign military intervention that affects the sovereignty and independence of the country. The Arab intervention was not considered to be foreign...."

In February 2012 several prominent SNC members appeared to split from the group over military support for the rebel Free Syrian Army. The leader of what was dubbed the Syrian Patriotic Group, long-time human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh, said he did not abandon the SNC, but that the time has come for military action. He argues any healthy opposition has a multitude of voices. “The opposition is not one body, one union. But we have one view for the future, so this is very important," said al-Maleh. "Inside the Syrian National Council, there is also some different ideas. In my opinion, Burhan Ghalioun doesn't want to take the hard step to support the [rebel] army by weapons. He doesn't want to play this side, maybe he is afraid. I don't know what his idea is." Days later, despite an announcement by Ghalioun that he had formed a military council to work with the rebel army, the SNC leader's intentions remained unclear.

On 24 February 2012 the Friends of Syria, which included representatives of the Syrian National Council, Secretary Clinton, and leaders from more than 60 other countries, came together in Tunis – the home of the first Arab Spring uprising – to forge a way forward on Syria, including a call for the Assad regime to end the violence; withdraw its forces from cities and towns; and ensure unhindered access for Arab League monitors. The Friends also praised the work of the Syrian National Council to form a broad and inclusive body and lay the groundwork for a political transition.

On February 24, 2012, appearing on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, Senator Jim Webb, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, continued to call for clarity about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the involvement of outside countries and groups such as al-Qaeda. “We need to examine who they are before we start putting guns in,” said Senator Webb when asked about arming the Syrian opposition. “How much of it is domestic? How much of it are regional players trying take advantage of the situation? And how much of it are actually organizations like al-Qaeda attempting to escalate it?"

On 01 March 2012, the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it was setting up a "military bureau" to organize and unify the armed resistance. The Syrian National Council says its decision to form a military council and unify the opposition will help get weapons from outside sources. The U.S. says all options on the table in Syria, but has not commented on whether to arm the opposition. With rebels having retreated and Syrian army forces having moved into the opposition stronghold of Baba Amr, there are calls in the international community for limited military intervention against President Bashar al-Assad's government. Danielle Pletka, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agrees. “Something that would not get us heavily involved, yes. But I think that we ought to look first at the option of arming the Free Syrian army as our first line of offense against Assad,” she said. Saudi Arabia was believed to be the main supplier of weapons to the opposition. But Syria watchers believe more are on the way.

On 02 March 2012 the European Union declared the Syrian National Council as a “legitimate representative of Syrians.” At their summit in Brussels, the EU heads of state and government also called on opposition members to unite in their struggle for peace. “The European Union supports the Syrian opposition in its struggle for freedom, dignity and democracy, recognizes the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians and calls upon all members of the Syrian opposition to unite in its peaceful struggle,” the document said.

On 06 March 2012 U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a statement on the situation in Syria, which said in part: "Saudi Arabia and Qatar are calling for arming opposition forces in Syria. The newly-elected Kuwaiti parliament has called on their government to do the same. Most importantly, Syrians themselves are increasingly calling for international intervention, including military assistance. ... What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.

"Therefore, if requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country. This should not mean the United States must act alone. Any intervention should include Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Jordan, and Qatar, and willing allies in the E.U. and NATO, the most important of which in this case was Turkey. The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to protect civilian population centers from Assad’s killing machine and establish safe havens in which opposition forces can organize, rest, refit, and plan their political and military activities against Assad...."

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Page last modified: 19-12-2015 19:03:10 ZULU