Richmond World Affairs Council

Syria, Part 4: The Opposition

The protests in Syria have gripped the nation for the past year. The spark from the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisiacaught in Syria, and quickly escalated into a full scale fire. Which groups are leading the protesters? Who are their members? Are they united in their efforts or are there many groups vying for power? How long have these groups existed? This blog aims to answer all of these questions and more.

Before the protests began, there was a government ban on party gatherings which eliminated the possibility of the formation of these groups. The protests began spontaneously without one major group or person to pinpoint responsibility on, because of the lack of collaboration. When the protests and brutal government crackdown began, the need for organized leadership became evident. These groups formed in order to direct the revolution and attempted to increase its effectiveness.

The Syrian opposition is divided into four groups or organizations, each with their own goals, tactics, and ideologies. The primary group that is most widely recognized throughout Syriaand in the international community is the SNC, or Syrian National Council. This is the “united front” in the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Originally formed in October 2011 by dissenters from the regime who had been exiled, the SNC is led by Burhan Ghalioun and dominated by the Syrian Sunni Muslim majority. This organization includes the Muslim Brotherhood in its members. Because it is primarily run by exiled Syrians, there have been many claims of its ineffective leadership due to their remoteness. In March of 2012, many smaller opposition groups joined together under the SNC title because of international frustration at the lack of unison. This is now the formal representative of the Syrian people and the most internationally-respected group. They demand immediate change from the regime of Assad, though they refuse to converse with the present government because of the high level of corruption.

The secondary leadership group of the Revolution is the National Coordinating Committee, or NCC. The NCC is led by those within the country who have long been at odds with the government. They have a dialogue of 13 political parties to dominate their policy-making, those parties whose power has been long-restrained under the single-party Assad regime. The NCC does not trust the Islamist influence within the SNC, which was one of the reasons they refused to merge in March of 2012. They differ from the SNC in that they want a gradual, scheduled transfer of power rather than the immediate change in power. The NCC will accept dialogue with the regime on the conditions that the government stops firing on the protesters, withdraws the military from the streets, and releases political prisoners. It is the only group to accept negotiations; for all the others hold that they would be used by the regime to divide the protesters.

Both the NCC and SNC are more remote leading groups, but the group that primarily organizes the protesters is the Local Coordinating Committee. This is a blanket organization whose goal is to use non-violent protests to topple the regime. The Coordinating Committee has many local chapters that organize people in individual cities rather than nationwide. They are not trying to gain control of the government or leadership of the Syrian people; they are merely trying to end the regime to allow a democratic government to take hold. The majority of the Local Coordinating Committees look to the SNC for political leadership, though the organizations are so variegated that their opinions on the future of Syria differ greatly.

The primary combat group associated with the anti-Assad movement is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They are primarily composed of defectors from the Syrian National Army who aim to take down Assad by force rather than peaceful protests. Led by the Cl. Riyadh al-Asa’ad, this group is based in Turkey, where many military personnel have fled. The most recent desertion reported by Turkish media was Monday, July 2, 2012 when 71 soldiers and 14 senior officers defected against the Turkish border.  The FSA claims to have a total of 15,000 soldiers, but nonpartisan estimates claim it to be closer to 7,000. The FSA is very poorly trained and equipped, though this has not stopped them from attacking the outskirts of Damascus, the city that holds most of Assad’s popularity base. They call for some measure of international intervention, primarily a no-fly zone covering all of Syria. Though they fight with the opposition, they have been accused of brutality that can match that of the Syrian army. There has been alleged torture of captured officials and Assad supporters, as well as excessive violence in their campaigns.

The lack of cohesiveness in these basic groups makes it nearly impossible to determine a clear leader for Syriain the future and detracts from the effort that the protesters are making. Without time to have formed clear lines for parties or the ability to orchestrate elections, the Syrian opposition remains nameless and difficult to work with. Though the merger under the SNC title has helped, the international community has no unquestionable representative of the people. In Syria there are many diverging opinions, all aspiring to control the policy of the country in the future. If the Syrians hope to succeed in their revolution, it is essential that they present a united front in the face of Assad’s crackdown. 

~ Rachel Smith