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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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