The Syrian opposition is reshaping itself following its defeat in Homs. A new leadership seems bound to emerge. In all likelihood, in the new phase of the battle the is shaping up to combat the Assad regime, opposition leaders are likely to champion new tactics of militancy and Islamization.
The opposition will have to rebuild itself to be more Islamic, militant and sectarian in order to take on the Assad regime. Opposition leaders on the ground, those who are actually fighting the regime, have already become more militant and Islamized. If the SNC doesn’t scramble to catch up, it will become irrelevant. I suspect that the upcoming opposition meeting in Turkey this Thursday and Friday (March 22-23) will reflect some of that shift. The recent high level defections within the the Syrian National Council suggest the opposition is responding to these pressures and new demands. The SNC is going through a period of soul searching and transformation in response to the government’s classic “clear and hold” operations carried out in Sednaya, Homs and Idlib.
The future strategy of the Syrian opposition will have to follow the outlines of a classic “phase two” insurgency predicated on guerrilla warfare. This phase is reached when the insurgent movement initiates organized continuous guerrilla warfare in an attempt to push government forces into a defensive role. “Phase three” insurgency is a war of movement. In this phase the insurgent can directly engage government forces and hold territory. The Syrian opposition prematurely tried to hold territory and take on the Syrian Army. This was a bad and costly mistake. In the first year of the Syrian uprising the opposition naively believed that the entire Syrian population would embrace it and abandon the regime or that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power. Based on the example of the North African uprisings, Syrian opposition members incorrectly believed a “Tahrir Square moment” would arrive within months of the uprising’s start, eliminating the need for a coherent military strategy, a defined leadership, or how to parry government counter-insurgency operations. The passions of Syrians who have tasted little but contempt from their own government led them to rise up in an act of incredible courage. Now, however, the reality of just how difficult attaining victory will be is setting in.
The Assad regime remains vigorous and will last longer than many thought. The reason that mass defections have not destroyed the regime are twofold: sectarian anxieties prevent Alawite defections, and the regime turns out to be more sectarian than many thought; and class anxieties are more important as well.
Members of the Sunni middle and upper classes are not defecting in the numbers the opposition hoped that they would. The reason that neither Damascus or Aleppo have become centers of the revolution is usually attributed to their privileged position in Syrian society. Wealthy Sunnis living in the West have joined the revolution, but that may be because they do not fear the disorder and incompetence of the opposition in the same way as those living in Syria. They have also experienced the freedom and dignity afforded by the rule of law. They look at the brutality of the Assad regime and wonder, “how come we cannot have this.”
The Syrian revolutionaries are largely rural and young, just as were the Baathists in the 1960s. Wealthy and educated Sunnis fear the results of the present revolution could be the same for them as the results of the last revolution, when Syria’s rural poor took power. They will lose money, status and their quality of life, at least temporarily. If the Lebanon and Iraq revolutions are a guide, that decline could last a long time.
The coming “phase II” insurgency will be characterized by:
- the creation of cell-networks that maintain secrecy
- Terrorism: these techniques include bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, threats, mutilation, murder, torture, and blackmail. These actions will be used to provoke the government into overreactions that discredit the regime, alienate the populace, and demonstrate its inability to protect them.
- multifaceted attempts to cultivate support in the general population, by undermining the regime, proving that the opposition must be feared and will eventually win, and by winning gratitude and trust by providing food and shelter to those in need.
- attacks against the government and security forces, such as car bombings in Damascus and Aleppo and the planting of IEDs as in Iraq and Afghanistan will undermine military moral and its ability to move around the country.
In order for the opposition to organize an effective phase II insurgency, it will have to embrace guerrilla warfare and greater Islamization of the resistance. This means Sunni sectarian recruitment, Islamic martyrdom operations, and all the aspects of Middle Eastern insurgency that we have seen used so effectively against occupation forces in the recent past, whether used by Palestinians, Afghans or Iraqis. Elements of the SNC who are unhappy with the way the Ghalioun has
The role of Burhan Ghalioun and members of the Syrian National Council closest to him, such as Ausama Monajed and Bassma Kodmadi, is bound to diminish or change in the coming phase of the struggle. They must be prepared to embrace a much more stridently Sunni insurgency. The regime has proven its viciousness. The secular leaders of the SNC have been very successful at mobilizing the West against Assad. They have gotten sanctions put in place and the regime has been isolated internationally. But they look down on religion and warfare.
Kamal Labwani, a leader of the Syrian opposition who quit the Syrian National Council last week, accused the SNC of being an “autocratic” organization that has sidelined most of its members. “There is no council, it’s an illusion,” he said. Furthermore he accused council chief Burhan Ghalioun of being like Bashar and “running the organization …. [like] Assad’s ruling Baath party.” Haytham Mallah slammed Ghalioun for being reluctant to support the military effort of the Free Syrian Army. Anwar al-Bunni is worried that the Muslim Brotherhood has become too powerful within the SNC. These are all growing pains as the opposition struggles to keep up with the changes on the ground brought on by the Homs crisis and opposition defeat.
In keeping with the Islamization necessary to recruit financial and military assistance for the revolution, opposition organizers in the West are rallying support from the broader Islamic community by presenting the Syrian struggle in clear religious terms. Quoting from the Koran is key to this. Here are selected quotes from a recent Syrian opposition rally held in Australia. Notice the use of Islamic concepts of martydom, khalifa, the umma, rejection of nationalism, angles coming to the aid of Islamic fighters, blood nourishing the roots of Jihad, etc.