Syrian opposition remains fractured and weak

Until they get organised, more blood will flow


On Thursday, a conference was organised by the LSE Middle East Centre to assess the Syrian revolution 18 months on. It focused on the revolution from inside the regime, looked at the Syrian opposition, and explored the identity and impact of the revolution on the economy and society. The conference raised many issues: Brigadier General Akil Hashem and activist Suheir Atassi called for foreign intervention while others like journalist Stephen Starr and Dr Thomas Pierret offered more nuanced narratives. The conference deliberately skirted around the thorny issue of sectarianism and the Kurdish question. 

However, Professor Burhan Ghalioun, former chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was most candid about the Syrian conflict.  In fact Professor Ghalioun’s comments seemed like an admission of SNC’s failure to lead the revolution. The Sorbonne professor blamed the regime for militarising the conflict which had begun peacefully. It was the regime's brutal suppression of the protestors that was the cause. He described the regime as an occupying power using violence to beat its citizens into submission. He blamed the regime for creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of playing on the Jihadi threat when YouTube videos clearly showed the protests to be otherwise. He claimed that documentation existed to show that there were Syrian intelligence quotas for killing protesters. He rejected the idea that the conflict was a civil war but rather an illegitimate regime’s war against the Syrian people.

Ghalioun blamed the lack of unity within the Syrian opposition on differing political aims as well as the regime’s brutal repression. He said that the international community was incapable of intervening in Syria and accused the Friends of Syria for being hesitant in their support. Much of this professed support was rhetoric rather than reality. He concluded that the conflict had become a stalemate and Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts would go the same way as Kofi Annan’s.

Professor Fawaz Gerges was right in describing Professor Ghalioun as a progressive. However, some hard questions still needed to be asked. Syrian journalist Malik el-Abdeh summed it up when he tweeted: “Ghalioun is blaming everyone but himself”.  Questions about the SNC seemed to draw a blank. What do they represent? Who are they, and what if anything has Ghalioun done to bring them together? None of these questions was dealt with at in the conference. One Syrian delegate asked why had there been no strong leadership? Professor Ghalioun’s response was not satisfactory. “No one,” he said, “neither politician nor an academic can lead this revolution”. But surely opposition leaders could at least channel the revolution? Have the efforts of Kerensky or Lenin, sons of repressive police states, not shown that? Why should Syria be any different? Why has the SNC not channeled the revolution?  The fact that it cannot, to Burhan Ghalioun’s own admission, even coordinate with the Free Syrian Army, shows the extent of its fracture.

What does that mean for Syria 18 months on?  We are faced with a scenario with a touch of the Russian civil war; opposition groups attack the regime with no strategy. The Syrian regime controls the cities, possesses effective military strategy and has all the guns. Moreover, as Dr Christopher Phillips pointed out, Assad’s regime is excellent at propaganda. What does the SNC have? Not even a radio station to broadcast its message whatever that is.  As Stephen Starr has pointed out, the regime might be brutal but at least it represents stability and continuity. It shouldn’t surprise us then that Syrian citizens, Friends of Syria and the international community are hedging their bets. The SNC has not given anyone a credible reason to support them. Until the opposition coordinates with the FSA more effectively and delivers a clear political agenda, opposition activists like Suheir Attasi will remain frustrated. It also means that Professor Ghalioun’s prediction will come true: more blood will flow. 


Rebel forces in Syria. Credit: Getty Images

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge