The Middle East Channel

Unite Syria's opposition first

There is a near-consensus among those grappling with the crisis in Syria on the urgency of unifying the Syrian opposition. But 11 months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition remains divided and fragmented. Such disunity complicates military and non-military strategies alike, makes arming the Syrian opposition a daunting proposition, and strengthens the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Amidst growing calls in the U.S. Congress for arming the Syrian opposition, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out that "I would challenge anyone to identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." There is no more urgent task for the international community today than working to help Syrians overcome their internal divisions.

There are a number of major groupings within the Syrian opposition, with new trends still emerging. The Syrian National Council (SNC) remains the best constellation of the different political currents making up the opposition. But to this point, it has failed at pulling the various factions in the opposition under its umbrella. The SNC has been unable to exert control over the armed factions that operate under the rubric of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and is by many accounts losing credibility and influence on the ground as the conflict grows more militarized. The much trumpeted coordination between the FSA and the SNC remains an aspiration rather than a fait accompli. The SNC is internally fragmented, with various components mistrusting each other, and has struggled to formulate a coherent strategy.

The other political opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), has not fared much better. Many of the youth activists, the true heroes of the Syrian revolution, consider its leaders as people who have worked for regime change for years but failed. They particularly resent the NCC's insistence on advocating for dialogue with the regime, even if that dialogue is conditional on the regime abandoning its "security option" by withdrawing all of its military personnel and hardware from the streets, and releasing all political prisoners. After the thousands killed by the regime forces, and the indiscriminate shelling of restive cities like Homs and Hama, the Syrian street has moved beyond dialogue with Assad.

The Free Syrian Army has emerged on the Syrian street as the latest hope for an opposition leadership. But it remains more a collection of small disparate groups than an army. It lacks a command and control structure. The FSA does not have regular access to military supplies. The defectors either take their weapons with them when they defect, purchase them on the black market, or buy them from corrupt military officers or from officers who are sympathetic to their cause but chose not to defect. The FSA has also suffered from its own internal divisions. Recently, General Mustapha Sheikh, an officer who defected from the Syrian Army, formed a new organization the "Higher Military Council" claiming to lead armed defectors inside Syria. There are increasing reports of independent, local armed groups now taking the lead in defending the protesters and fighting the regime forces. These groups are neither beholden to the FSA nor to the SNC.

All of these groups have failed in reaching out to minority groups including Christians, Alawites, and Kurds and the business community.

Despite that not all Alawites have benefited from the Assad rule, Bashar al Assad has succeeded in convincing the great majority that their physical survival is tied to his political survival. Two fears motivate their behavior: fear of marginalization and fear of retribution in a post-Assad Syria. The absence of leading Alawite dissidents in the SNC executive leadership helps reinforce the first fear. That the FSA is majority Sunni, with some of its brigades named after historical Islamic figures well known for fighting Imam Ali and his descendants, revered figures among Shiites and Alawites, does not assure Alawites that the FSA will be able or willing to protect them against retributions if Assad is ousted.

The Syrian Kurds are fragmented politically with many distrusting the SNC as much as Assad. In October 2011, 10 Syrian Kurdish political parties banded together and formed the Kurdish Syrian National Council (KSNC) declaring their commitment "to finding a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue" and emphasizing that they are part of the Syrian revolution. So far, they have not joined the SNC ranks. Their misgivings about the SNC are varied ranging from the SNC increasing dependence on Turkey to their mistrust in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically opposed to their demand for federalism.

As for the business community, the disunity in the opposition ranks reinforces the regime narrative -- Apres moi, le deluge. Syria's traditional merchants struck a devil's bargain in the 1970s with the late Hafez al Assad trading their political freedoms and role for the stability his regime provided. While it is clear to them that Bashar al Assad is no longer in a position to deliver security and stability, a disjointed opposition does not strike them as able to do so either. Their motivation now lies more in their fear of the devil they don't know more than than their support for Assad's leadership role.

Given this state of disarray in the opposition ranks and their failure to date to get their act together on their own, it is time to consider outside assistance to unite the Syrian opposition movement. The "Friends of Syria" group set to convene Friday in Tunis provides the best platform to launch an Arab-led mediation initiative aimed at creating a new coalition of the different Syrian opposition groups as a pre-condition to recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to provide them with material and financial assistance.

An A3+1 group consisting of Tunisia, Qatar, and Iraq assisted by Turkey working in conjunction with the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, should be asked by the participants in the "Friends of Syria" to work with the different groups in the Syrian opposition to bring them under one organizational umbrella and agree on a joint political and action platform. Tunisia, as the convener of the "Friends of Syria" meeting, brings to this mediation team the revolutionary credentials and the credibility of an unbiased mediator that is accepted by the opposition groups. While Qatar and Iraq are at opposite ends of the intra-Arab debate on the need for an international role in the Syrian crisis, each has already attempted a mediation effort to bring the Syrian crisis to a negotiated settlement and has its own connections with different Syrian opposition groups. The Iraqi leadership, in particular its Shiite and Kurdish components, are best positioned to reach out to leadership figures in the Alawite and Kurdish minorities and make the case for the need for a united opposition to the Syrian regime. This would also provide an opportunity for the Iraqi government to play a leading role in the Arab bloc. Being the host of the Syrian National Council and of the Free Syrian Army leadership and considering its long-standing relations with the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey adds to the mix its own understanding of the dynamics inside these groups and leverage over their respective leadership.

This coalition-building process should not be left to the SNC. Instead it should create a framework where all significant Syrian opposition groups have an equal weight in the decision-making process. This effort would aim at putting in place a larger opposition council, "a network of networks," composed of the SNC, the FSA, the NCC, the grass-roots activists leadership councils including the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), independent activists like Aref Dalila and Michel Kilo, Kurdish political parties that have embraced regime change including the KSNC, and leading business figures who are sympathetic to the opposition cause. Only a united opposition movement that provides a credible alternative to the Assad regime will hasten its demise.

Randa Slim is an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Coordinated attacks across Iraq kill an estimated 60 people

At least 60 people were killed and over 200 injured in a wave of car bombings and small arms fire across Iraq. Although the attacks targeted security installations and government buildings, civilians suffered the greatest casualties. The worst violence was concentrated in neighborhoods in Baghdad, many of which were predominately Shiite, during the morning commute between 6:00 am and 8:00 am. Suicide bombers and gunmen also hit mainly Shiite provinces north and south of Baghdad. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government suspects al-Qaeda linked militants, under the umbrella group of the Islamic State of Iraq, who have carried out similarly coordinated attacks in the past. Violence has significantly dwindled since its peak between 2006 and 2007, but attacks have nonetheless swelled since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December, and this was the most widespread operation since the U.S. departure.

Headlines

  • The siege on Homs rages on as the "Friends of Syria" say they will first call for humanitarian access.  Meanwhile, U.N. investigators submitted a list of top officials suspected of crimes against humanity in Syria.
  • The judge in the case against Hosni Mubarak and 7 others, charged with ordering the killing of protesters, will announce a verdict on June 2 when the ousted leader could receive the death penalty.
  • After two days of meetings, Hamas leaders approved of new demands for a unity deal with rival Palestinian faction, Fatah.
  • Iran sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council accusing Israel of assassinating nuclear scientists in a "war game" but denied last week's attacks on Israeli diplomats.

Arguments & Analysis

'Egypt stands to lose more than aid' (Stephen McInerney, Foreign Affairs)

"Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment." 

'From football fans to revolutionary heroes' (Daniel Steinvorth, Der Spiegel)

"These days, though, animosity between the two ultra groups has been overshadowed by a new common enemy. A few weeks ago, they even came to a reconciliation agreement. In a statement on their website, the White Knights offered a truce "for the good of Egypt." The Red Devils accepted by putting a smiley-face icon on their homepage. "We have a common enemy that we both profoundly despise: the ravens," says Omar, referring to the black-uniformed and universally hated security forces. Al-Ahly has even come up with a song about the ravens that has achieved cult status throughout the ultra scene. One part goes: "He was already always incapable, and he was only able to get a proper high school degree with a bribe. Come on, you raven, why are you destroying what's beautiful in our country?" The song is one of many meant to taunt the police. Omar even believes the songs might have led police to take revenge on al-Ahly fans on that tragic night in Port Said."

'Egypt's judges in a revolutionary age' (Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace)

"Much of the political focus in Egypt in the year after the January 25 revolution was on the tension between the military council and the Brotherhood; between Islamists and non-Islamists; between civilian political structures and the institutions of the security state; and between older authoritarian ways and newer more participatory ones. Such contests are vital and real. But they should not lead us to overlook another likely contest that is apt to grow even as the other ones diminish: between the forces of politics, popular sovereignty, and democracy on the one hand and bureaucracy, expertise, and professionalism on the other."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

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