Syrian Conflict: No longer a divided opposition?

The uprising that started over 18 months ago, the struggle to oust the Syrian authoritarian ruler President Bashar al-Assad, has taken nearly 50,000 lives according to some sources. Unlike the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Syria has descended into a bloody civil war that is claiming the lives of civilians and soldiers alike. It is true that the Assad regime is weakening as the war rages in more of the country previously unmolested by the conflict, but the opposition is becoming increasingly more fractious. (The Economist November 10th) The emergence of Salafist fighters in the northern territories is concerning the secular, moderate rebels who still deal with most of the brunt of the Assad regime’s military power.

The opposition to the Assad regime has never before solidified under a single umbrella organisation, as much as the Syrian National Council (SNC) has tried to achieve this. The SNC has been discredited by its history of political squabbling and naivety about the situation on the ground in Syria. Mostly made up of veteran Syrian opposition leaders who fled Syria years ago, it lacks the grass roots representation that most Syrian’s yearn for. The Free Syrian Army is one of the largest anti-Assad militia’s, but due to regional interests and the fluidity of the war in terms of territory held and lost, the number of different, and often rival, groups in Syria is in the dozens. These groups range from 100 members to whole battalions of men.

When Kofi Annan stepped down as United Nations Peace Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi took up the mantle. Pressing for negotiations, he is resigned to the fact that without them, Syria will become a “new Somalia”. Riad Seif, a former Syrian parliamentarian and veteran opposition figure has a plan to unify all opposition forces in Syria. Mr Seif called for revolutionary and political opposition factions to “unite under one leadership framework to end Syrians’ suffering and transition Syria to a democratic, civil, pluralistic, strong and stable state” (BBC news November 12th). After meeting in Doha this week, his plan has come to fruition in the form of his National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which will hopefully include members within Syria and abroad, making it significantly more legitimate than the SNC.

It is also hoped that it will be recognised internationally as the Syria’s sole legitimate representative, and become the conduit for all future financial and military aid. It will also administer areas controlled by rebel forces and plan for a post-Assad transition. This hope is already becoming reality, as this step has significantly boosted the support being offered by foreign, notably Western, regimes. The US state department has proclaimed support for the new National Coalition, declaring that it hopes it will bring about the “end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve’’ (Financial Times November 12th). UK foreign secretary William Hague has also stated approval for the Council.

There is no doubt that this new body is in principle good idea, but in reality the bond between opposition forces that has supposedly been created is doubtful. The fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition as well as the emergence of Islamist fighters is already stretching the efficiency of this new Council. Even once Assad is eventually ousted, which this writer believes will happen, the real challenge will be fully consolidating democracy, the challenge that is currently plaguing Egypt.