The Middle East Channel

Rebel fragmentation in Syria and Palestine

Commentaries on the Syrian crisis recurrently criticize fragmentation among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. A September 2011 issue of the Economist asked "Syria's opposition: Can it get together?" Five months later, the New York Times called the opposition a "fractious collection of political groups ... deeply divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines, and too disjointed to agree on even the rudiments of a strategy." A report on National Public Radio concluded, "The various factions of the [opposition Syrian National] coalition are giving every appearance of caring more about their own share of power than their ability to represent the Syrian people." Infighting increasingly seems to afflict the rebellion's military sphere as well as its political one. The emergence of al Qaeda-linked groups, and their conflicts with nationalist battalions, has prompted headlines such as "Rebel vs. Rebel" and "Syrian rebels turn on each other." 

Skeptics of the Syrian revolt cite these divisions as reason to fear the collapse of the Assad regime. Rebellion supporters cite them as a major reason that Assad's regime is yet to collapse. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the opposition's disunity as a justification for the United States's hesitation to give it greater support. Given such fragmentation, pundits say, there are no assurances that weapons will not wind up "in the wrong hands."

These concerns are not unique to Syria. Across time and space, many movements have seen adherents agree on the basic goal of overthrowing a system of political rule, yet compete on issues of strategy, ideology, organization, and the distribution of power and resources. The Palestinian national movement is one such case. Based on my prior research, I highlight a few points from the Palestinian experience that can be useful for understanding fragmentation in the Syrian revolt. 

First, political fragmentation, meaning the lack of coordination among actors producing unified political action, is distinct from social fragmentation, referring to the cleavages that divide a population. Many observers of the Palestinian and Syrian movements conflate the two. Yet divisions in a movement for political change -- like divisions in politics in general -- are never automatic extensions of cultural identities. Rather, they are contingent consequences of conflict processes and structures of power.

Second, where political and social dimensions of fragmentation overlap, the application of political power can intensify social rifts as much as vice versa. Such is the case when regimes goad disunity in a strategy of "divide and conquer." Dealing with Palestinian Arabs before 1948, British Mandate authorities tended to accentuate religious or familial loyalties at the expense of national ones. Israeli policies have likewise encouraged Palestinians' ideological and factional competition, directly or indirectly. In the Syrian context, the Assad regime plays upon sectarian cleavages to bolster its claim to be the protector of minority communities. Similarly, many accuse it of facilitating the growth of extremist Islamist groups among rebel forces.

Third, impetuses to fragmentation lie both internal and external to a movement. In an asymmetric struggle against a state, rebels are rational to welcome political, economic, or military assistance from other states. In turn, those states are rational in utilizing their material support to exert influence over and within the rebellion. In the Palestinian case, Arab regimes competed throughout the 1960s and 1970s by funding rival Fedayeen groups or creating their own proxies. This contributed to the proliferation of Palestinian factions, subsidized their ideological disputes, and increased their operational autonomy. In this situation, the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership did not impose a unifying strategy as much as negotiate contradictory pressures in the search of minimally acceptable compromises. Likewise facing the Syrian revolt, a multitude of government, supranational, and individual patrons currently support a hodgepodge of rebel organizations and projects. External patrons' competing agendas duplicate themselves within the Syrian struggle. That undermines command and control while adding new interests, goals, and identities to those already dividing a movement's ranks. Today, many Syrian supporters of the rebellion insist that "chaos" in the sources and distribution of money to the revolt is the gravest cause of disunity within its ranks. If external parties want greater unity in the rebellion, they must cooperate in instituting a transparent, accountable centralization of financial support.

Fourth, amid criticism of movements' splintering, observers should appreciate the level of unity needed for them to emerge in the first place. In the Palestinian and Syrian cases, populations forged and sustained countrywide revolutionary movements despite tremendous obstacles. The Palestinian struggle faced dispossession and dispersal, transfer from one host country to another, and hostility on the part of many enemies, apart from the daunting challenge of winning territorial concessions from a state adversary with much greater material and military resources. Under such conditions, it is no small feat that Palestinians built a movement with sufficient cohesion to sustain itself and compel the recognition of the world.

Likewise, those who lament divisions within the Syrian revolt can consider how it represents a unity no less remarkable. For decades, authoritarian rule suffocated civil society and cultivated citizens' distrust of each other. In this context, Syrians created an ethos and infrastructure for mobilization during the very process of rebelling. Grassroots committees came together to coordinate protests, collect and disseminate information, and distribute humanitarian relief. Neighbors came together to survive sieges, while compatriots in faraway towns held demonstrations in solidarity. Army defectors and other citizens formed military brigades and organized their operations. In areas freed from regime control, communities now build new frameworks for governance and service provision. These undertakings should not be romanticized; none were immune from internal schisms or some individuals' attempts to exploit them for private benefit. Nonetheless, they would never have even emerged had many people not made enormous sacrifices to join forces for a common cause. Hundreds of thousands of people have done so, in defiance of every effort by the regime and its allies to prevent it.

Finally, any national or revolutionary movement is bound to become more vulnerable to splintering the longer that its adversary remains intransigent and the strains of repression accumulate. Palestinians' pursuit of self-determination has faced one roadblock after another, and each setback has led to some measure of dissension about how to proceed. Similarly in Syria, divisions worsen as time wears on, the goal of toppling Assad proves elusive, and the regime's onslaught persists. Clashes between nationalist and al Qaeda-linked groups were unthinkable during the early months of the uprising when al Qaeda-linked groups had no presence on the ground. That they now threaten prospects for a democratic, civil state is a tragic consequence of the prolongation of conflict.

In this sense, the lack of effective intervention by the international community to end the bloodshed is a contributor to fragmentation in the Syrian rebellion as much as a reaction to that fragmentation. Had the international community done more to support an initially unarmed popular uprising, it might never have splintered -- or militarized -- in the ways it has. That the United States and other international actors now invoke the rebellion's disunity as reason for not giving it greater support is thus a cruel irony.

Wendy Pearlman is assistant professor of political science and the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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