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Can You Name Bashar al Assad's Opponent?

You can't, and that's the problem, argues the International Crisis Group.
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Pro-Assad demonstration in Lattakia, 2011. (PHOTO: SAMMY.AW/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Pro-Assad demonstration in Lattakia, 2011. (PHOTO: SAMMY.AW/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

They're handing out winter blankets in refugee camps on the Lebanon/Syria border, if this audio report from Syria Deeply's "Daily Take" is to be believed (upper right of the linked page). And a few hours ago, international inspectors said—if in a preliminary way—that the Syrian government has complied with promises to render their chemical weapons inoperable. The deadline was tomorrow.

However, neither of those two reports today implies an end in sight for the two-year-plus-long conflict, from which the refugee exodus now reaches as far away as Italy. Just over a week ago, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group published a briefing paper arguing that the grinding stalemate results, at least in part, from the lack of a clear political opposition to the Damascus government. While most of the talk in the English-language press has focused on the make-up of competing anti-Assad militias—the fighting—the ICG report gives a rarer focus on the political opposition, and finds there isn't much of one.

"In providing a stamp of legitimacy to exile-based umbrella groups on-the-ground activists were not endorsing a specific political leadership."

The argument as ICG puts it goes like this: Early in the Syrian uprising, it was so difficult to demonstrate safely, organizing a viable opposition was nearly impossible. Instead, a "hodgepodge of exiles, intellectuals and secular dissidents bereft of a genuine political constituency, as well as Muslim Brothers geographically detached from their natural base" became the highest-profile anti-regime organizers. Much of the effort occurred outside Syria, where it was safer.

That caused problems when things got more violent, and desperate. "[A]s the uprising began, this diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience and the means to assess their respective popular weight."

The alleged disconnect gets deeper, the analysts claim, with a difference in how demonstrators inside Syria and organizations outside it interpreted what each other was doing. The people inside the country saw the exile organizations as a way to get the rest of the world behind their cause. The outside groups—ICG focuses on the Syrian National Council, and later the Coalition—operated as if to be the heart of opposition itself.

In providing a stamp of legitimacy to exile-based umbrella groups – first, in October 2011, to the Syrian National Council; later, in November 2012, to the Coalition – on-the-ground activists were not endorsing a specific political leadership. Rather, they saw the political opposition as the uprising’s diplomatic expression, a body whose job essentially was to mobilize international support. This understanding rested on an implicit wager: that as regime violence intensified, the West would follow the Libya precedent and, through military action, contribute to President Bashar Assad’s demise.

Up to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, that had looked like a bad wager. Today's report of Damascus' compliance with the order to take those weapons offline—if indeed they have, and haven't duped inspectors—makes it look like an even worse one. That would leave the next move to the opposition political organizations.

The report notes that competition between outside supporters of the opposition, mostly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, hasn't helped the Syrians unify their political effort. ICG goes into some detail about that rivalry and others. It's pretty thorny detail, and it's here.

ICG's is just one opinion, but the group is widely-respected. Their report is not encouraging reading, unfortunately. That's doubly true for the people sleeping in tents on the border, getting blankets today for the coming months. Winter should hit the region around Syria's borders with Lebanon and Turkey, where much of the fighting has gone on, in earnest within a few weeks. It gets pretty cold in that part of the world.