The Syrian Opposition: Perception and Reality

Due to the recent news I would like to share this article (already written in 2011 but still actual)

by Oscar Assadullah Mukhtar Bergamin

 

The National Council of Syria (NCS), a loose umbrella organization of groups opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, will meet Oct. 1 in Turkey to discuss whether to request the establishment of a U.N.-backed no-fly zone over the country similar to the one that played a critical role in the ouster of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Demonstrations and violent crackdowns by the al Assad government have convulsed the country since the Arab Spring began, and the opposition group is looking to convince potential foreign backers that the collapse of the ruling minority Alawite regime is imminent. But the reality of the situation is much more nuanced: The opposition itself is highly fractured and is operating under heavy constraints.

The geopolitical trends in the region work against the al Assad regime in the long run, but the opposition is ill-equipped to achieve its goals on its own. The movement will be hard pressed to find the level of external support needed to force regime change. While the regime maintains considerable strength, it likewise is operating under significant constraints, and at this point neither the regime nor the opposition has the ability to overwhelm the other, which will leave Syria consigned to a state of protracted conflict for the foreseeable future. Key to understanding this dynamic is an assessment of the Syrian opposition.

Evolution of the Protests

Syria saw hints of unrest in early February, but it was not until mid-March that the protests became more commonplace, when a small group of protesters attempted to organize demonstrations in Damascus through Facebook. The Syrian regime was quick to pre-empt and clamp down on those protests, but a new uprising emerged March 18 in the southwestern city of Daraa, a concentration of rural Sunnis with ties to Sunni tribes and religious groups across the Iraqi and Jordanian borders.

While Daraa was the scene of the most violent unrest and crackdowns, demonstrations began to spread rapidly to the Damascus suburbs, Latakia (where a large number of Alawites are concentrated), Homs, Hama and the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli. Protesters began replicating the Daraa model of protest, whereby they attempt to circumvent government detection by organizing by word of mouth rather than by social networking websites. Pro-regime forces responded by cutting off the city’s electricity and water supply and blocking the delivery of food. Daraa has since remained relatively quiet and locked down.

However, the regime then faced bigger problems in the Sunni strongholds of Homs, Hama and Jisr al-Shughour. As the protests moved into these Sunni areas, the Syrian regime concentrated its resources in the key urban population centers of Damascus and Aleppo, where security forces were quick to disperse protesters. The Syrian regime, relying mostly on the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division, and the 14th and 15th Special Forces divisions — all of which are composed of Alawites — along with armed plainclothes shabbiha militiamen and riot police, attempted to replicate their crackdown in Daraa in the cities of Baniyas, Hama, Latakia, and Homs, among others, but with limited success.

Despite the regime’s efforts, Syrian security forces simply do not have the resources to overwhelm the protesters — as Iran was able to during its protests following the 2009 presidential election controversy. Indeed, Syria has been reluctant to deploy more demographically mixed army divisions for fear of causing more severe splits within the armed forces, thereby overstretching the mostly Alawite units. (Rather than deploy the military to all reaches of the country, the regime has been tracking persons of interest with human and signal intelligence, then raiding those homes on a case-by-case basis.) At the same time, the regime benefits from the fact that Syrian minorities — Alawites, Christians and Druze, who form the economic elite; the Kurds; and a select group of Sunnis that the al Assads have incorporated into their patronage network — have not yet shown the willingness to join the demonstrations and transform Syria’s fractious protest movement into a veritable revolution.

Makeup of the Opposition

There are factions of the opposition that operate both inside Syria and outside. The external opposition is highly fractured, composed of people who cannot account authoritatively for the reality on the ground.

The protests on the ground consist primarily of young and middle-aged men, though women and children are also present at times. The largest protests materialize after Friday prayers, when participants congregate on the streets outside mosques. That is not to say protests are relegated solely to Fridays; a number of demonstrations have been held on other days of the week but on a smaller scale. These protests also consist of men, women and children of all ages.

But the opposition is ideologically diverse. A key element of what is considered Syria’s traditional opposition — groups that have long been opposed to the regime — is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which the regime has demonized throughout the unrest. In 1976, the Syrian MB began an armed insurgency against the Alawite regime, led at the time by al Assad’s father Hafez. By 1982 the group was crushed in the notorious Hama massacre that allegedly killed some 30,000 civilians. The MB was driven underground, and dissenters in other Sunni majority cities, including Jisr al-Shughour, were quickly stamped out.

Today, the Syrian MB remains a key participant in the opposition movement, but its capabilities inside Syria are weak. Syrian MB leader Ali Bayanouni resides in exile in London, and the Syrian MB outside Syria has become increasingly involved in the external opposition movement, participating in conferences such as the NCS conference in Istanbul in late August.

However, the Syrian MB is unable to maintain much influence in Syria due to a limited presence inside the country, and it would take a concerted effort on the part of the Islamist group to earn the trust and fellowship of other Syrians. Since the banning of the Syrian MB in 1980, al Assad’s regime has been quick to blame the organization for militant attacks as a means of instilling fear of the MB among Syrian citizens. Christians, Alawites, and even other Muslims are weary of groups of a conservative Sunni group gaining political influence in the regime.

Opposition has also traditionally been found in Syria’s mostly Kurdish northeast due to the Kurds’ long-standing grievances against the regime, which has denied the group basic rights and citizenship. The Kurds have taken part in conferences led by the external opposition, such as the NCS meeting in Istanbul. Protests have meanwhile occurred in Kurdish majority cities such as Darbasiyah, Amuda, and Qamishli, but they have not reached the scale of unrest as those in Sunni-concentrated areas. The Kurds and Sunnis may share the desire for regime change, but once the goal of regime change is achieved, whoever is in power, aside from the Kurds, will seek to contain Kurdish separatism. There already have been indications that Kurdish representatives among Syria’s protest movement are being excluded from the process of drafting demands.

The Syrian MB and the Kurds are two of several groups that have tried to coalesce, without much success, into a more substantial opposition force inside Syria in recent years. These groups took advantage of the Syrian regime’s weakened position following the withdrawal from Lebanon in the spring of 2005 by drafting and signing the Damascus Declaration in October of the same year. Written by Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, the declaration was a statement of unity calling for political reforms. Declaration signatories include the Kurdish Democratic Alliance in Syria and the Kurdish Democratic Front in Syria. The Syrian MB was originally part of the Damascus Declaration, but internal disagreements led the MB to distance itself from this opposition movement in 2009. Disunity among the opposition remains to this day.

Despite the disconnect between the external and internal opposition forces, some progress is being made to bridge the gap. Of the various councils formed by opposition members outside Syria, the NCS has recently emerged as the only council that has received the support of the Local Coordinating Committees (LLC), a group that claims to unite roughly 120 smaller coordinating committees across Syria. The NCS was selected by a diverse committee of independents, leftists, liberals, and Kurds and claims that roughly half of its members, which include grassroots activists and traditional opposition supporters, are based inside Syria.

In the past, the LLC and many other internal Syrian opposition groups, fearing competition, have been quick to denounce the formation of these external councils. Although many logistical constraints of uniting the external and internal opposition persist, the fact that the LLC has pledged support for the NCS and called upon the Damascus Declaration parties and Kurdish leadership to do so mean this should be watched as a potential sign of the opposition gaining coherence.

Tactical Overview of the Protests

Opposition groups — and thus protests — inside Syria remain relatively small and localized. Protests rarely involve more than 500 participants, and they take place in the cities or areas in which the participants live. Typically, the protests are short, lasting no more than half an hour, though in exceptional cases like Hama, protesters have numbered in the thousands.

Coordinating these protests is a challenge for the opposition movement. Since mid-March, most of the coordination has been conducted by local coordinating committees operating within Syria. Opposition members insist coordination is improving with these entities, which are responsible for planning protests in their respective communities. These committees use Facebook to designate the theme of an upcoming protest. STRATFOR sources claim that liaison officers in many cities and towns report directly to a command center in Ashrafieh, a Christian sector in Beirut. They receive instructions on the timing of the demonstrations from there, and they send images of the protests and police brutality to the center.

To curb what interface there is among the groups, the al Assad regime has tightened controls on the country’s communications, especially Internet communications. This is especially true on Fridays and Saturdays, when bigger protests are more likely to occur. But in this regard the regime is careful not to overstep its boundaries. Shutting down communications in full would compromise the Sunni business class’ support for the regime. In addition, the regime uses communications to its advantage by identifying members of the opposition.

After 40 years under authoritarian rule, many Syrians possess the technological savvy to find ways around the regime’s communications controls. Syrians have found ways to communicate internally via the Internet or cell phone, and some have posted video recordings of the protests to the Internet. It also likely that they have learned methods of avoiding detection from opposition groups in the Middle East, not to mention the fact that there are a number of open source tools available on the Internet to help avoid detection.

They also use more traditional means to coordinate their activities. Locations such as local mosques or neighborhood stores or tea houses are useful meeting points because they are common places where most Syrians tend to frequent on a given day. Opposition members use couriers to pass messages between each other, and likely employ other covert measures, such as drop spots, when necessary.

Why Syria is Not the Next Libya

There are four main reasons why Syrians working towards the overthrow of the Assad regime cannot expect to replicate the experience of the Libyan rebels, who were able to carve out an independent territory of their own early on in their uprising, then received significant external support in their fight against Moammar Gadhafi. The first problem is that there is no “address” for the Syrian opposition, to quote U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There is no one overarching body that the international community can recognize as the alternative to the Assad regime, but several competing organizations that speak with different voices. Though Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) has proven not to have been a true representative of a united Libyan opposition in recent weeks, it did serve as a unified symbol of opposition to Gadhafi for several months. All of the disparate rebel groups that fought against Gadhafi pledged loyalty to the NTC until the fall of Tripoli and resultant power struggle began to expose its internal divisions.

The second problem for the Syrians is geographic. Their country cannot provide the sort of safe-haven that the Libyan rebels had from the beginning of the rebellion in the east (and later in Misurata and the Nafusa Mountains). No safe-haven means no place to amass forces for training, nowhere to store weapons sent in from abroad, and nowhere to form a de facto political capital in Syria. Though Turkey has at times issued empty threats about creating a buffer zone on its border, thus far none of the other neighboring countries have hinted that they would ever consider providing any sort of haven across the border.

The third problem is that unlike in Libya, where there were mass army defections in Benghazi and elsewhere in the east at the onset of the uprising, this never happened in Syria. Whereas Libyan defections were numerous and began just days after the start of the uprising, Syrian army defections took months to gain momentum only became more frequent in late June, and even then defectors did not contain large numbers of top commanders. The Syrian soldiers defected to form the Free Syrian Army but their size and strength remain unknown — they are believed to number in the hundreds, and are largely sequestered on the Turkey-Syria border. Only recently has the Free Syrian Army claimed to have a battalion stationed near Homs, though this has not been independently verified.

The fourth problem has to do with the lack of desire among the countries that could serve as external patrons of the Syrian opposition to have Syria’s destabilization spread across the region. Libya may be right across the Mediterranean from Europe, but it is much more isolated than Syria is in the heart of the Levant. Regime change in Libya does not create nearly the same sorts of prospective problems in the region as the toppling of the Alawite regime in Damascus would.

War of Perceptions

There are two sides to every war, and the war of perceptions in Syria is no exception. Through state-run media agencies, the al Assad regime has portrayed the opposition as armed terrorists while depicting military personnel as peacekeepers who attack only when provoked. The regime has accused foreign states of using the unrest to divide Syria, playing to the population’s fear of foreign meddling. It also has downplayed or denied rumors of officials having resigned in response to the government’s handling of the protests, and it has vilified those who report contradictions of its official statements.

For its part, the opposition is also crafting a version of the story in Syria, the bulk of which originates from two sources: the Syrian Revolution General Commission, purportedly an umbrella group for 70 percent of the more than 200 local coordinating committees operating within Syria, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Both groups operate from abroad and claim to play a role in coordinating the protests. Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reportedly leads a group of some 200 activists throughout Syria; he claims to maintain contact with his sources through Skype, Gmail and phones with unregistered numbers. However, the degree to which these two groups actively coordinate the opposition is questionable, given that they do not operate in the country.

What is unquestionable is their role in reporting on the opposition inside Syria — reports that picked up by mainstream and Western media. LCC avail themselves to the media and actively post developments on Facebook in Arabic and English. Through these outlets, the LCC present updates on casualty counts, the whereabouts of the military and abductions of opposition figures — unsurprisingly, these figures conflict with those of the regime. They have also alleged that security forces surround hospitals to prevent wounded protesters from receiving medical treatment, and that they have stormed several schools. These reports, like those from the regime, should be viewed with skepticism; the opposition understands that it needs external support, specifically financial support, if it is to be a more robust movement than it is now. To that end, it has every reason to present the facts on the ground in a way that makes the case for foreign backing.

Conflicting storylines do not conceal the fact that the opposition is very unlikely to overwhelm and topple the regime without substantial foreign military and financial backing. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a long-term interest in restoring Sunni power in Syria, but are more concerned about the short-term cost of sectarian spillover and provoking Iranian retaliation as Tehran seeks to maintain its strategic foothold in the Levant. Unlike Libya, Syria is unlikely to be the recipient of foreign military intervention. In fact, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford explicitly said that the situation is “a Syrian problem and it needs Syrian solutions,” and that the opposition must “figure out how to win away support from the regime, and not look to outsiders to try and solve the problem.”

Small-scale logistical support is most likely under way already. External opposition groups that support Syria accept donations and membership dues, though much of this money goes to sustaining themselves rather than to support an uprising in Syria. To move money, Syrians use a Hawala network, a remittance system that operates outside traditional banking or financial avenues. Such a system is ideal for the opposition because there are no wire transactions to be tracked or smuggled currency to be found. It also makes difficult to quantify exactly how much money is being transacted.

The opposition remains largely nonviolent. This is likely a strategic move; maintaining a nonviolent image allows the opposition to appear sympathetic to would-be foreign backers when the regime cracks down on protesters. But it is also a tactical decision in that the opposition will not engage in a war it knows it cannot win.

However, there are some elements within the opposition who believe they will never receive external support and seek to arm themselves. This especially true among some within the youth faction, who argue that they do not need to maintain a nonviolent image and they should obtain weapons and counter the regime offensive before the Syrian regime has a chance to take advantage of regional distractions to intensify its crackdowns. In theory, weapons and equipment should be relatively difficult to procure inside Syria — most of the country’s arms were confiscated after the anti-regime uprising in Hama in 1982 — but porous borders, highly functional smuggling networks, and a region awash in military hardware make weapons acquisition less problematic than in other areas of the world. Before that happens, they must receive substantial covert backing, and there is no evidence to suggest this is happening.

Without foreign backing, the opposition movement is unlikely to acquire enough money or gain enough traction to acquire large quantities of weaponry, let alone achieve regime change. The movement is simply too small and too ill equipped, and it is unlikely that foreign powers will come to the Syrian opposition’s aid. As the opposition and the regime continue to shape the perceptions of the reality in Syria, the developments there will continue to be stalemated, regardless of how they craft their narrative. If the regime is to face a meaningful threat to its stability in the near term, that threat is far more likely to emanate from Alawite divisions within the regime than with the opposition in the streets.

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