The Challenge of Uniting An Armed Syrian Opposition

Article Summary
Haitham al-Manaa argues that while the Syrian revolutionaries initially avoided violence, the regime’s crackdown forced many to take up arms. This armed opposition quickly became fragmented and influenced by Turkey, the Gulf states and Salafist groups. Is there any way to unify these segmented factons around a common goal?

On March 18, 2011, the most significant mass civil movement in the history of modern Syria began in Daraa. This movement was inspired by the revolutionary atmosphere of the Arab Spring. Since the beginning, it distinguished itself as a peaceful movement against corruption and tyranny, embracing both local and national demands for democratic change.

In the second week of the civil movement, one of the satellite channels announced a campaign against violence, sectarianism and foreign intervention. This campaign was a political strategy to ensure the unity of Syria, the people and their struggle. It was also designed to attract the majority of the people to support the “Freedom and Dignity” uprising. This strategy aimed to break the authority’s siege on Daraa, and to take the movement from Daraa and spread it throughout Syria. Because of the tremendous roles of Rif Damascus (the countryside province surrounding Damascus) and the coastal city Banias, the uprising spread from local areas and extended throughout the nation.

The uprising’s growth occurred amid a turbulent situation in the absence of a united political apparatus. Multiple influences were present, and the thousands of youthful participants entering civil political life for the first time were not in harmony. Furthermore, multiple factions attempted to exploit the exceptional situation to serve their own interests. These attempts were made by using the Internet and the media, or by exploiting international and regional politics. It only took three months for international plans to emerge regarding the Syrian conflict, plans designed to create changes in the political geography of the Middle East.

The fact that non-Syrian actors entered the conflict did not serve the cause of the Freedom and Dignity uprising. Some of these non-Syrian actors highlighted the importance of toppling the Alawite regime and draining Shiite influence, creating a Sunni axis to extend from Ankara to Riyadh. Others attempted to use the Syrian crisis to remove Russia’s military presence from the Mediterranean, while still others sought to diminish the importance of the struggle, “Islamize” it or attribute it to the Salafists.

Both Russia and China saw the future of Syria as an opportunity to shift from a unipolar world to one in which a number of influential powers dominate the decision-making process. One of the paradoxes of this crisis is that the events in Syria could be used by Saudi Arabia to recover from its foreign-policy failures. These failures have been ongoing since the end of the past decade, following the events of 9/11.

Since day one, the regime used a security crackdown to deal with the movement, based on its conviction that the uprising is a conspiracy against Syria. Due to this line of thinking, the regime has refused to acknowledge that the events that took place were part of a spontaneous popular movement.

The authorities made three important decisions that transformed the military into a vital player in manipulating the course, form and content of the popular movement. The first decision was made on April 24, 2011, when army forces entered Daraa. The second decision was made at the beginning of the month of Ramadan in August 2011, when army forces attacked three Syrian cities — al-Bukamal, Deir al-Zour and Hama — in one day. The third decision occurred in the second half of Ramadan, when the military violently attacked the popular movement on the coast, in Homs, Rif Damascus and Idlib. Perhaps these events were essential in prompting a segment of demonstrators to accept the idea of self defense and acquire arms, when the excessive use of violence by the regime became unbearable.

The idea of arming the opposition first came to light after a group of demonstrators killed more than 120 soldiers near Jisr al-Shughour in the first week of June 2011. This was followed by the departure of roughly 10,000 refugees to Turkey. The idea of armed resistance swiftly gained steam within religious circles under the title of jihad, while Gulf satellite news channels labeled it as sectarian. The Arab Gulf Salafist groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have been the most organized and significant non-Syrian sources of financial support.

The demonstrators pushing for democracy and civil rights resisted this trend, but the military and security crackdown throughout the country increased acceptanc of the idea of arms for the protection of peaceful demonstrations. The security crackdown — which included torture, assassinations and the arrests of prominent movement leaders — played a great role in creating the counter-violence that is being carried out by the anti-regime parties. However, we have always stood firmly against the idea of arms since it creates a happy hunting ground for dictatorships. Furthermore, the regime is weaker in the face of a peaceful movement than it is against armed movements.

The first negative result of arming the opposition was the obstruction of the development of civil and democratic protests. The movement was intended to garner widespread public support, thus pushing the uprising to become a true democratic revolution. Rural areas and the city, minorities and the majority, secularists and Islamists, the historic legitimacy of the democratic parties and the revolutionary legitimacy of the youth movements were all supposed to be integrated through this democratic trend. However, it became divided between the populists, who consider that all decisions made by the popular movement are right, and the rationalists, who believe that opposition politicians should guide the spontaneous movement, instead of following it.

Arming the opposition has led to the emergence of completely fragmented and scattered groups that are mostly made up of defected soldiers and volunteers. So far, these groups have failed to create a unified military and political strategy to confront the authority’s security policies.

The Turkish authorities have gathered defected Syrian soldiers in a special camp within its borders. These defected soldiers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence. A number of defected units within Syria supported this army, while a vast number of gunmen announced their affiliation to the Free Army without having any organizational coordination with its leadership or political harmony with the other units. The arming of the gunmen was made public after the rise of weaponized conflicts and the raid on the Baba Amro neighborhood in Homs. Then, Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced to the media their support for arming the opposition. They invested large sums of money for this purpose at the expense of humanitarian and political aid, which is no longer considered a priority by these two countries or by the non-governmental Salafists in the Gulf.

The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition, immense support of the Free Army and the arrival of more than 200 non-Syrian Jihadists during the past six months have led many people to refrain from participating in the social movement. This is especially true for minorities, residents of major cities and activists in the peaceful civil movement. The Gulf countries that are arming and funding the opposition introduced a sectarian angle to the previous political rhetoric and prompted religious groups in different areas of Syria to adopt Salafism.

There is no common strategy that binds the armed opposition groups together, nor are there any signs of their pending convergence. Kofi Annan’s plan was an honorable and useful way out for the gunmen outside the Syrian army. This plan called for a cease-fire, withdrawing the army and the opposition gunmen from the cities, relief for more than a million people who have been directly affected by the 15-month-long clashes and the release of prominent civil-movement figures.

Yet there were those who considered the plan a new opportunity for the regime to gain time, and thus did not seriously address it. On the other hand, the Syrian authorities exploited every cease-fire violation that the gunmen committed to justify launching vast military campaigns against different areas. This has led to a number of massacres in Soran, Khan Sheikhoun, Houla and Homs.

The first four weeks of the plan stressed the need to give it fresh momentum to succeed, either through expanding the structure (increasing the number of observers and equipment), function (forming multiple interdisciplinary teams specialized in cooperating with experts on arms and explosives) or goal (refining the political horizon by clarifying the features of the transitional stage).

It is likely that Russian efforts to maintain dialogue with the different sides and to hold a comprehensive international conference on Syria could open the door for a security solution. However, this raises the following questions: Is it possible to control the political decisions made by the armed groups? Or will the chaos that stems from the presence of arms directly affect the chances of a successful political solution that will bring about democracy in Syria?

Found in: turkish influence in syria, syrian uprising, syrian, sectarianism, salafism, houla massacre, free syrian army, armed opposition, alawites

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