It is only in Syria that opposition groups’ names differ between local and foreign, radical and rational, Islamic and secular. Yet their problem is the same: division.
On the second anniversary of the crisis, the political opposition in the country has failed to form a united entity that can agree on one course of action. On the contrary, movements are betraying one another, while other forces have clearly surrendered to foreign politics, all the while deluding local opposition supporters. All local and international conferences have failed to launch an initiative that harmonizes the efforts of political forces. At the same time, many of the young revolutionary movements have fallen victim to political money or lack of political experience.
In light of this, the local opposition can be divided into two groups: The first is the field opposition — born from the “revolution” and the streets — while the second encompasses the local political elite. However, these groups often have very different political visions. Consequently, when the incidents broke out, local coordination committees were formed inside the cities, neighborhoods and towns in order to launch protests and form an entity that would represent the rebellious movement in the media. The committees later united and established another entity called the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, which recently joined the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
All parties are working on documenting incidents on the ground. Moreover, the local coordination committees have succeeded in guaranteeing themselves seats in the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. They have also managed to pressure opposition groups abroad by suspending their membership, after the election of Burhan Ghalioun as SNC president for the third time last summer.
On the other hand, these committees were victims of a lack of political experience. Thus, their speeches were charged with hatred and characterized by an exaggeration of the events. This is especially true for the Syrian Revolution General Commission, which some say is funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Contrary to the situation of the popular movements, the opposition elites overcame the weakness of political discourse through the expertise of their members. The National Coordination Committee (NCC) appeared first, and was followed by the Building the Syrian State (BSS) movement, which publicly called on the Arab League to take its hands off the Syrian case. Moreover, the movement did not attend the Cairo conference last July.
The opposition elites succeeded in gathering many local opposition figures like Hassan Abdel Azim, Aref Dalila, Raja al-Naser, Abdel Aziz al-Khayer and Louai Hussein, in addition to individuals abroad like Haytham Manna. The opposition elites also opened communication channels with many countries that support the regime, such as Russia, China and Iran. In a remarkable step, the US Department of State recently sent out an invitation to the NCC.
All of these movements agree on the importance of peaceful change while minimizing losses. They also emphasize the need for an international consensus that contributes to solving the crisis and achieving a peaceful transition for the government. However, they were attacked with harsh accusations from the popular movement forces and the opposition abroad. Many protesters went as far as to bitterly criticize the NCC and Manna himself, under the pretext that the opposition movement is attacking Islamists and seeking dialogue with the regime.
On the other hand, all unification attempts — whether with the SNC or the Syrian National Coalition — have failed. The SNC breached its agreement with the NCC only 24 hours after signing it. Meanwhile, the coalition addressed figures in the committee — such as Abdel Azim, Dalila and Khayer — as individuals, not as members. Consequently, they refrained from participating in the dialogue.
The foreign opposition
In parallel with local political opposition forces, major foreign forces appeared. At the top of the list was the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which many considered an heir to the SNC. The SNC spent its first year deluding the rebellious street with ideas and promises of international protection, no fly zones and military intervention — none of which took place. With this, the SNC lost a great deal of its popularity, which it had partly built through its highly promising rhetoric. However, the public later found out that the SNC was just building castles in the sand.
The SNC refused any attempts to form a new opposition coalition and insisted that it was the only representative of the Syrian revolution. Later, it reluctantly accepted to cede power, provided that it get one third of the seats in the coalition, ensuring it the power to veto any decision. The forces affiliated with the SNC violently attacked the coalition’s leader, Moaz al-Khatib, after he launched an initiative that called for dialogue with the regime on condition that the detainees be released. These critics dismissed the initiative as Khatib’s personal opinion and insisted on returning to the coalition’s stance that forbids any dialogue with the government.
Malek al-Hafez, a member of the NCC, believes that “the main problem stems from a lack of unity in visions. This is to be expected due to the marginalization and deprivation that political life has suffered from, whereby any political activity or civil movement was forbidden. As a result, we have reached this our present state — a state that had negative effects on the opposition’s approach and the performance of its members. Briefly after the onset of the Syrian revolution, political entities began to appear. Some of these groups were supported by regional and international parties. Consequently, they were bound by their supporters, and they tried to exclude other opposition parties. Despite that, we are always seeking to unite under a single, higher goal: establishing a civil and democratic Syria.”
Safwan Akash, another NCC member, said that the NCC has two distinctive features: independence and local presence. Logically speaking, we would expect for opposition members who had fled abroad or been exiled to return after the outbreak of the revolution, even if they had to do so secretly. However, strangely enough, the complete opposite has happened. We saw opposition members and activists immigrating from Syria as soon as they sensed any danger, and many of them left after being released from prison. This wave was not spontaneous, especially since most of these people belonged to the Civil Democratic Movement, and they were given many tempting offers to lure them abroad. This coincided with an influx of non-Syrian jihadists.
According to Akash, the NCC was and still is inside the country. A Syrian saying goes, “firm stands bear good fruits.” Consequently, the NCC did not go begging in capital cities and hotels. It did not take money, orders or instructions from anyone. On the contrary, it clung to its independent vision and stance. Everybody knows that all regional and ground forces, without exception, look for obedient followers, not allies. So, they do not favor people who cling to their independence. As a result, the NCC was subjected to smear campaigns and a local and foreign media war from the regime, its allies and enemies. Nevertheless, the NCC managed to overcome all these campaigns and stand its ground.
According to Akash, there are two things worth noting regarding the political performance of the NCC. First, the NCC always puts forward what it believes is true and effective, regardless of the prevalent political trends. Many opposition forces make money out of selling stories. They tell people what they want to hear, unlike the NCC’s policy. Second, the NCC has always been busy searching for ways to achieve its goals. It has offered several visions and political initiatives that constitute the core of all internationally and regionally proposed political projects to resolve the crisis.
At the end of the day, the NCC believes that a political solution — not just any, but one that leads Syria to democracy — is still the most appropriate way to end the conflict. However, this solution requires preparations and a welcoming environment that includes an internationally supervised ceasefire, the release of detainees, the return of immigrants and aid to people in need. Following this, a transitional government with full powers must be formed to manage all the country’s affairs and set legal and constitutional frameworks for the shift to a democratic parliamentary republic, with international implementation guarantees from the UN Security Council. This, however, will require consensus on all regional, local and international levels.