Syria: “State Of The Internal Opposition” – OpEd


This report on the state of the Syrian Opposition is a must read. I have copied what I believe are the important parts, but do read the entire thing. I have long admired Ammar Abdulhamid for his independent and clear thinking. Many readers of Syria Comment have criticized Ammar in the past (See the comments on this post: “Ammar Abdulhamid Emerges as Face of the Syrian Revolution, according to Washington Times post“)

State of the Internal Opposition


By Ammar Abdulhamid, September 11, 2012, based on a trip that he and his wife took to Turkey in Aug.

* For many months, rebel groups were on their own when it came to procuring weapons and supplies. The situation changed six months ago, with the establishment of a special Turkish-Qatari-Saudi “operations room” that supervised all arms flow to the rebels. However, and over the last few weeks, the situation changed again. A reported dispute between Saudi and Qatari officials put an end to the tripartite cooperation and Qatar and Saudi Arabia are acting separately, albeit still under Turkish supervision. The specifics of the dispute are not clear, but the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its role seem to lie at the heart of it. The main task of the operations room is to supervise the distribution process of supplies. With backing from Turkey and Qatar, the Brotherhood prefers to take control over the entire process, a development that will leave many groups unsupported, including the largest and most effective fighting units on the ground, but it will give the Brotherhood the ability to control military operations to match its ability to manipulate the political processes in the oppositional scene abroad. To date, the largest rebel groups are still unwilling to endorse a strict Islamist agenda, irrespective of who is in charge: Salafist groups or Brotherhood types. These groups are completely reliant on support from the operations room as well as on supplies they can procure for themselves inside Syria. MB control will starve them out, or push them into a brittle alliance that will not survive the test of time and which will increase mutual animus. In an effort to appease all sides of the divide, Turkish authorities seem willing to let each side run their own supply network. So, the Saudis will continue to back their room, Qatar will back the Brotherhood, and Salafis will receive backing from both while continuing to have their owned independent sponsors from all over the world. For now, however, the main operations room is the one receiving Saudi backing….

* Leaders of local rebel groups are fast acquiring all the usual traits and characteristics associated with warlords, their intentions notwithstanding. The ethos driving the devolution towards warlordism is fed mostly by international inaction, now increasingly perceived in conspiratorial terms, as well as lack of trust in existing political opposition groups and their growing disunity. …

* The divide between Islamist groups advocating, openly or quietly, the establishment of an Islamic state, and other rebel groups, who represent the majority of rebels and still cling to the more inclusive concept of a civil state, is now wider than ever, with the two sides openly competing over acquisition and control of the meager logistical support trickling across the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and at occasions, Jordanian and Lebanese borders. Though occasional hijackings of supplies intended to other groups have been reported, the competition between groups remains for the most part nonviolent in nature and restricted to intrigue behind closed doors. This is not likely to last for long,…

* The Brotherhood and Salafist groups have also managed to control coverage of the Revolution in most Arabic media channels through their sympathizers already employed there, and through outright purchase of smaller channels operated by the opposition. They also used their larger financial reserves to establish control over most media teams operating inside the country, irrespective of the actual ideologies of the founding members. This allows the groups to appear as much larger and more influential over the processes on the ground than they actually are, at least at this stage…..

* The potential for warlordism is not going unnoticed by rebel leaders which continue to strive towards greater unity and coordination. Recent developments are particularly telling. In Idlib, and parts of the rural areas of Hama, Homs and Aleppo, most fighting groups, ideology notwithstanding, are now coming together under the banner of the Brigades and Fighting Units of Syria’s Martyrs (Kata’ib wa Alwiyat Shuhada’ Souriyya). The key figure behind this development is one Jamal Maarouf, AKA Abu Khalid. A pious man and a husband of three (polygamy is pretty common in rural areas throughout Syria), Abu Khalid in essence stands for traditional values, a mixture of Islam and rural mores rather than political ideology. In the absence of operational political and judicial structures in his territory in Jabal Al-Zawiyeh, he reportedly relies on Sharia to resolve disputes, but remains willing to let such matters be decided by a local government should one be established. Abu Khalid does not advocate the establishment of an Islamic State, is wary of Salafi groups and hates the Brotherhood. But, in operational matters, he cooperates with all. Syria’s Martyrs Brigades currently include 45,000 strong. But not all major rebel groups are willing to join the Syria Martyrs Brigades. Many, especially the more Islamist-leaning ones, like Al-Farouq and Farouq Al-Shamal, have chosen to come together under a different coalition that was provisionally called Al-Jabha Al-Islamiya li Tahrir Souriyya or The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, led by Ahmad Abu Issa, a rival of Abu Khalid from Jabal al-Zawiyeh. Until recently, Abu Issa has led the Suqur Al-Sham Brigades, which operates mostly in Jabal Al-Zawiyeh. By the time of its public announcement on September 10, however, the coalition had metamorphosed into the Front for the Liberation of Syria. Suqur Al-Sham, Al-Frouq Brigades (Homs, Hama), Ansar Al-Islam (Damascus and Suburbs) and the Revolutionary Council of Deir Ezzor, all joined the Front. On September 3, a group of FSA officers in Antakya announced the formation of the National Syrian Army meant as replacement of the FSA and hoping to unite all groups. Initial reports claimed that rebel groups in Daraa and few in Lattakia and Damascus have rushed to join it. Some also claimed that Al-Tawhid Brigade currently operating in Aleppo City and the rural areas to its north has also joined the NSA. But officers in Antakya say that these reports are not accurate and that, at this stage, no group has confirmed their readiness to officially join the NSA. Indeed, Al-Tawhid recently joined the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo, a local front the Muslim Brotherhood, as evidenced by the fact that its political wing, dubbed the Provisional Transitional Council, includes the likes of Hamzah Ramadan and Ghassan Al-Najjar. …The picture emerging on the ground, then, is one of regional as well as ideological differences, with personalities of certain figures playing a major role in shaping the scene as well. As things at this stage, ongoing attempts at unification in the hope of avoiding warlordism are in fact contributing to it as phenomenon by consolidating power in the hands of few specific groups.

* Leaders of larger rebel groups have been able to provide a measure of security in areas under their control, but they have so far failed to provide any solid governance structures, other than token support to committees started by civil activists to ensure that basic services are provided. Meanwhile, and as we have noted above, even non-Islamist leaders tend to fall back on the Sharia as the main source of law when dealing with local informants, troublemakers and captives, due to lack of knowledge of the civil code and inability to recruit civil judges.

* The FSA: In Antakya, the head of the High Military Council, Brig. Gen. Mustafa Al-Shaikh, originally from the town of Rastan in Homs Province, is emerging as the go-to figure for rebel leaders. Col. Riad Al-Ass’aad is fast becoming irrelevant and is distrusted even by people from his own hometown in Idlib Province…..there are a few high ranking officers who defected over the last few months and who continue to shun the spotlight. Some have been briefed by Turkish and, at occasions, western security officials, but their intentions and plans remain unclear.

* The SNC: on the ground, the Syrian National Council remains irrelevant. … The old SNC leader, the Sorbonne Professor, Bourhan Ghalioun, is reportedly planning a comeback, but current leader Abdelbassit Seida is said to have gown attached to his position as well. … On the other hand, SNC leaders are also planning to form a transitional government in response to a request from France who promised to recognize such government when formed. The French did not clarify what their criteria for recognition will be. Other efforts for forming a transitional government are also underway.

* The National Coordination Body (NCB): formed inside the country by traditional opposition figures from the secular left, this particular opposition coalition, for all the good intentions of most of its founders, has served only one purpose so far: to illustrate how cut off traditional opposition groups are from the grassroots. …

* The Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood: Salafi and MB-affiliated groups in Syria and the Syrian diaspora are carrying out their activities with the expected messianic zeal of a people who believe that their moment under the sun has finally come. Indeed, ever since the beginning of the Revolution and benefitting from its good relations with Turkish authorities, the Brotherhood has been busy buying, bullying and intriguing its way into relevance. In many ways, it seems that the lesson MB leaders drew from history is to emulate Hafiz Al-Assad’s own tactics in controlling the political scene in the country. These tactics include: infiltrating every political and rebel movement, controlling every civil and humanitarian initiative, and hording access to the media. …. The Brotherhood has many Salafi-leaning members in its larger base. So, by pandering to Salafists, it is hoping to become an umbrella organization for most Islamist groups in the country. Indeed, the MB is already providing financial support to many Salafi-oriented rebel groups, including Al-Tawhid (Aleppo), Al-Farouq (Homs and Hama) and Ansar Al-Islam (Damascus), but that does not necessarily translate into political allegiance, at least not on the longer run. Indeed, at this stage, it’s hard to know who is manipulating whom in the ongoing interactions between Salafi groups and the Brotherhood. On the other hand, not even under the banner of the Syrian National Council has the MB deigned to provide assistance to groups that refuse to espouse an Islamist agenda. This renders dubious any claim that the Brotherhood makes regarding commitment to the establishment of a civil state. Indeed, for all its public declarations in support of a civil state, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is emerging as the more ideologically committed to the establishment of an Islamic state than all MB branches in the region. ….

* The Islamists – the Salafi Groups: Unsurprisingly, rebel leaders have shown a significant degree of distrust vis-à-vis the Brotherhood and its agendas, and have shown a greater preference for dealing with Salafi groups. For all their calls for the establishment of an Islamic state, Salafi groups seem more willing to accept that the best that they could have at this stage is the creation of Salafist enclaves, or, in civil parlance, Salafist electoral districts. Salafi groups might accept funding from the Brotherhood, but their commitment to an MB agenda, as we noted, is unclear to say the least. Leaders of Salafist groups are emerging from amongst the grassroots, rather than the rank-and-file of the exile community, they feel rooted in the local communities and are more tuned to local realities and aspirations….

* Confessional Minorities: For all the talk about the anti-revolutionary attitude of the Alawite and Christian communities, there are many Alawites and Christians taking part in the revolution both as political activists and as rebels. Their basic attitude towards working with various political and rebel groups could provide certain clues as to future political alliances and on-ground dynamics. Most Alawites and Christians fight with smaller units with clear secular tendencies, such as Unit 111 based in the town of Bdama in Idlib Province. But when it comes to a choice between working with MB-affiliated or Salafi-affiliated groups, most Alawites and Christians prefer MB. The MB is more familiar to them, and by adopting Assad and Ba’ath tactics, the MB is presenting a more familiar political style as well: one based on back room deals and manipulation of the political scene. By comparison, Salafi groups seem more alien and threatening: they openly call for the establishment of an Islamic state…

The Druze community in the suburb of Jeramana in Damascus is coming under increased pressure both by pro-Assad militias and by pro-revolution activists to take a firm stand with either camp. The few Druze villages in Idlib province are providing shelter to refugees from rebel communities. With a population of less than 150,000, the Ismailites of Syria have from the very beginning showed greater sympathy with the revolutionaries and have organized numerous anti-Assad rallies in the town of Salmiyyeh. But they are virtually besieged by loyalist villages, Alawite and Christian, and are unlikely to get more involved.

* Foreign fighters, mostly from Gulf States, Libya, Tunisia, Chechnya, Somalia and Sudan, now number as much as 3,500 by some estimates, and operate out of their own bases in northern and central Syria. Working with a comparable number of Syrian recruits they are at occasions clearly affiliated with Al-Qaeda or similar Jihadi organizations, although the role of Jabhat Al-Nusrah (The Succor Front) in this is not clear. There are also quite a few “foreign” fighters who seem more motivated by Arab nationalism than Jihadi agendas. According to activists based in Antakya, individual members of the Brotherhood seem to be implicated in smuggling Jihadi elements into the country. Some local rebel commanders, while wary of their presence, are, nonetheless, coordinating some operations with them. The groups have already been implicated in hostage taking, torture of captives and mutilations, especially of Alawite prisoners. Although we are only talking about a handful of cases at this stage, the trend is alarming.

… It’s not clear why Turkish authorities put up with Al-Qaeda cells springing up near their borders, and with foreign fighters pouring through. But for now, they don’t seem overly alarmed by the development.

* Of the 3,500 foreign fighters, around 1,300 are said to be Libyans operating mostly in northern Syria and Al-Haffeh Region in Lattakia Province. …

* Though still a tiny minority, an increasing number of individuals acting in the name of the Free Syrian Army are now involved in racketeering activities, including blackmail of local business communities, misuse of funds donated to support the revolution and trading in arms and medical supplies provided free of charge by support groups…..In the town of Eizaz, in Aleppo Province, recently pounded to the ground by Assad’s MIGs, there is now a small band of 200 fighters led by a character called Ammar Dadikhi, a smuggler and a Salafist who proclaims his disdain of the Syrian people to his visitors and calls for the establishment of an Islamic State. He is also the man believed to hold most Hezbollah prisoners in Aleppo. He is one of dozens such characters now emerging all over the country, establishing little fiefdoms and complicating an already complex situation: too small to be considered warlords, too armed to be dismissed. They are the dogs and rascals of this war.

* In another alarming trend, ranking members of the Syrian National Council, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other opposition coalitions are busy establishing their own militias on the ground….Personal agendas are often as prominent as ideological ones.

* Still, and for all the disillusionment, disappointment and disaffection that people felt, all activists and rebel leaders we met have yet to fall on anti-Western sentiments. They are critical of Europe and the U.S., President Obama in particular, and are beginning to entertain all sorts of conspiratorial theories as to why intervention has not happened. But they are not hostile per se, and are still calling for international intervention…

* Many if not all rebel groups still dream of a traditional military victory over Assad. They still think of the liberation process as a military conquest allowing them to move from one town to another, from one region to another, until all Assad’s loyalist forces and militias are defeated and rebel groups have wrested control of every inch of the country. Being aware of the many ideological and personal differences that separate them, certain rebel groups seem to think that military muscle might be the way to deal with their current partners as well down the road. …

State of the State

* The Assad regime may not have fallen yet, but the state has already collapsed. At this stage, Syria is nothing more than a hodgepodge collection of militarized national, tribal and confessional cantons connected by a fraying thread: a quickly fading memory of a united Syria. The regime might remain in control of certain key services and regions, and it might still be able to crackdown and rain terror from the skies on its opponents and their supporting communities, but large swaths of the country have clearly slipped beyond its control. The problem: no parallel governance structures worthy of the name are emerging anywhere. …

* Ethnic cleansing of Sahel Al-Ghab area in Hama province and certain parts of rural Homs is for now a done deal and will not be easily reversible, if ever…

* Individual Acts of vendettas are increasing. Sectarian sentiments are now the norm rather than the exception. ….

* Taking the current state of affairs in consideration, the odds of a successful partition of Syria, even if unofficial, have actually plummeted over the last few weeks. Neither the Alawites nor the Kurds, the two likely groups to opt for such an arrangement, will be allowed to rest in peace in their newly carved out territories. In the coast, local Sunni communities are already stockpiling on weapons to fight against ethnic cleansing that is bound to take place when Alawites make their move. Considering the proximity of different communities to each other and increasing sectarian tensions, their posture may not remain defensive once the process begins to unfold, especially in the region of Al-Haffeh. In fact, as we write this report, a battle is raging in the northernmost parts of Al-Haffeh region, centered on the village of Burj Kassab and its surroundings, where rebels are trying to gain access to the sea and counteract ethnic cleansing by pro-Assad militias. The move, however, have forced residents in nearby Alawite villages to leave their homes, as their villages came under pounding for the first time since the beginning of the revolution. So, sooner rather than later, and barring full scale international intervention, Sunni Arabs, driven by a desire for vengeance, will take the fight to the Alawites, and what has been seeded in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Hama and Deir Ezzor will be harvested in Lattakia, Jableh and Tartous.

* In Kurdish regions, Arab tribes are reportedly arming themselves in preparation to defend the “integrity of the state.” Kurds, who are also arming themselves, have been able to prevent confrontations by measuring their steps and attempting to establish wider contact with some tribal leaders to allay their fears and address their concerns. Much still needs to be done in this regard if an Arab-Kurdish conflict is to be prevented. Intra-Kurdish rivalry is also on the increase, as PYD loyalists continue to assert themselves on the ground in an attempt to impose control over Kurdish-majority towns. To complicate matters, different PYD leaders and factions seem to be serving different agendas. Syria’s Kurds are now locked in their own internal struggles, which could devolve into conflict, and until they reach some real agreement between themselves or implement the agreement already reached in Irbil (Hewler), they can be considered effectively hors de combat as far as the revolution is concerned, in spite of the revolutionary sympathies of young Kurdish activists.

* A general breakdown in law and order is unsurprisingly reported everywhere. The regime has reportedly released most criminal convicts and Jihadi leaders from its prisons. The move seems to come as part of a strategy to encourage lawlessness and discredit the rebels. Indeed, special security units were formed tasked with carrying out robberies and kidnappings and blame it on the Free Syrian Army. Still, genuine criminal gangs have also appeared quite independently ….

The Humanitarian Front

* From the humanitarian perspective, the situation in Syria is growing increasingly dire. It’s unfathomable why more is not being done,….Only one camp now has an active school that teaches in Arabic. Educational activities in other camps are episodic, and instruction is carried out in Turkish. Volunteers and NGOs who could bridge these gaps are not allowed access. Turkish authorities have finally called for more international help. Western officials we met, however, are not sure what difference this will actually mean on the ground. Turkish authorities are highly suspicious of international NGOs and prefer to try to manage the situation on their own. UNHCR has not been called in. But as the number of refugees in Turkey fast approaches 100,000 and could double by yearend, it is becoming increasingly clear to them that some help beyond financial grants is needed. Turkish authorities are now hoping to establish camps inside Syrian territories, even without an official declaration of a safe zone. The camps will be put under rebel control and rebels will be tasked with protecting them.

* On the medical front, what’s being provided to the wounded in all these countries is woefully inadequate, and though Turkey comes out ahead again, much still needs to be done. Amputees are proliferating in border hospitals in Turkey amidst reports that in many cases the amputation was unnecessary. No counseling is provided. Local staff does not speak Arabic …

* Inside Syria, the situation of the IDPs is tragic…

The Turkish Role

* For all the assertions of solidarity with the Syrian people and all the declared willingness to coordinate policies and actions with the Obama Administration and other NATO allies, Turkey’s leaders’ attitude vis-à-vis the current conflict in Syria remains difficult to decipher. At this stage, they seem to be looking at the situation through the visor of internal identity politics. The Kurdish Question is definitely on the minds of Turkish authorities, so is the less publicized Alawite Question. Though the likelihood of an Alawite uprising is minimal, Alawite discontent could further complicate AKP electoral calculations in certain key provinces. Neither Turkey’s Kurds nor Alawites would be happy with increased intervention in Syria. ….

* No matter what the U.S. and other western powers have to say regarding the SNC, Turkish authorities, though aware of MB’s shortcomings, including its lack of a large popular base in the country and its internal divisions, remain wedded to it because of the ideological connections between AKP and MB, pure and simple. No amount of pressure can break their connection.

The U.S. and Turkey-Based Opposition

* As part of its ongoing outreach to the opposition, the U.S. has finally opened a special office in Istanbul dedicated to this end: The Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS). The office is meant to serve “as a training facility, coordination center, and point of contact for the international community with opposition networks inside Syria,” and “is staffed by Syrian activists who maintain extensive relationships with opposition councils and civil society organizations inside the country.” OSOS, we are told, “will serve as a clearinghouse for information on the opposition and its needs, build the capacity of opposition groups and activists and facilitate the distribution of assistance into Syria.” Out of deference to Turkish authorities and the SNC, ranking members from the SNC and the Brotherhood were included in the advisory board, including current SNC leader Abdelbassit Seida, and MB interlocutor Molham Aldroby. OSOS is funded by the State Department, as were previous efforts at supporting the opposition in Istanbul. Our stay in Turkey coincided with OSOS-organized workshops on sectarianism (Istanbul) and women empowerment (Gaziantep and Kilis). It’s clear at this stage that the focus is on civil society in the broader sense. ….

* Other American-supported efforts in Istanbul will include working with experts from the United States Institute for Peace to fund an office for a Syrian NGO called “The Day After” dedicated to training Syrian activists on the challenges of the transitional period. …

Another U.S. sponsored initiative is the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center currently being established under the auspices of IREX and which might open an office in Istanbul as well. The center will be dedicated to managing the challenges of transitional justice in Syria. Activists on the ground are also reporting and for the first time that the communications equipment, long-promised by the Americans, are making their way into the country as well. OSOS and American NGOs seem to be involved in the distribution process as well.

Concluding Observations

* Realities on the ground as well as regional geopolitical realities indicate that outright military victory by any one side is just as impossible as holding a viable dialog with Assad. Assad does need to be taken out of the Syrian Equation, and military means seem the only way to achieve that, eventually. But military means will prove woefully inadequate when it comes to what lies beyond this necessary step: stabilizing the country, getting all the pieces of the puzzle back to fit, and dealing with rebel leaders and ethnic and regional realities…..

* Future engagement with activist and rebel leaders by members of the international community should seek to convey to all the limit of the military solution in securing the country. At one point or another, the rebels and activists need to be ready to negotiate with representatives from other side of the divide. No matter how the military situation changes on the ground, there will always be communities and enclaves where the majority population has backed the Assad camp, be it out of confessional or ideological loyalties, or out of pure self-interest. These people will be ready to fight to the bitter end if they thought that their survival is at stake, especially after so many massacres have been perpetrated by them or in their name. Rebels and activists have a learning curve to be ready for dealing with this situation. ….

* At end of the day, a political process is still required to bring this conflict to an end, … The political process needed at this stage should focus on producing exactly this new constitution, spelling out the specifics of how communal and regional rights will be protected, and clarifying how transitional justice will be meted out and what its limits will be. …

* Syria has been locked in a state of conflict for months, but rather than embark on a serious mediation effort, international leaders have been busy stalling and passing this hot potato…

By demanding that Assad order his troops back to barracks without showing any readiness to punish him,…. international leaders have made themselves irrelevant….Indeed, western leaders’ approach has been to wash their hands of the whole thing, while Russian, Chinese and Iranian leaders were quite willing to dip theirs in the blood being spilled by pro-Assad militias all while adopting their propaganda and lies. This needs to change. …

By now, there is nothing called a regular army in Syria. What we have are pro-Assad militias, made up of a mixture of army troops, security forces and civilians. The overwhelming majority are now Alawites, supported in certain regions and neighborhoods by Christians as well Sunni Arab and Kurdish recruits. Most members of pro-Assad militias have been involved in atrocities, but they really believe that they are fighting for their lives and for their families. In their minds, they are involved in preemption, in preventing future atrocities against their communities. …

We need to find ways to engage the pro-Assad militias themselves. …The most important effort that can be launched at this stage is an outreach strategy led by the rebels and activists in cooperation with representatives of the international community targeting pro-Assad militias meant to induce such outcome. As for Assad and his generals, a trip to the ICC might help bring closure to the victims of their crimes, and might provide family members of all victims a channel for their grief and anger other than retribution.

* The State in Syria has already collapsed and the country will not be pacified for years to come. At this stage, it is effectively a failed state. The thinking at this stage should focus on how Syria could be put back together again, how she can be pacified, how to prevent her humanitarian situation from worsening, and how to prevent spillovers into neighboring countries. The choice facing many in the international community is no longer whether to intervene but how to intervene…..The endgame at this stage could only be the removal of the Assad regime and replacing it with a more accountable system of governance. …. Iran and Russia might be beyond the pale of making a positive contribution in this regard. But most other regional powers can be coaxed into a process once the U.S. is willing to assume a more proactive role. All this will need to take place outside the framework of the UN… Meanwhile, a solution to Assad air power needs to be found … the situation in Syria will have to be micromanaged… by whatever administration occupies the White House…

Ammar Abdulhamid: Syrian pro-Democracy activist, founder of the Tharwa Foundation, and Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Khawla Yusuf: Syrian pro-democracy activist and co-founder of the Tharwa Foundation.

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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