On Failing to “Get It Together”

Syria’s Opposition Between Idealism and Realism

by Ali Nehmé Hamdan
published in MER277

Rain falls thick and heavy outside the window. Shadi sits in the near dark drinking sage tea, fighting the November chill, but more so the pessimistic vantage onto Syria from his refuge in neighboring Jordan. A vocal civil society activist in Homs during the early stages of the Syrian revolution, Shadi fled to Lebanon when it became clear that his pseudonym would no longer protect him from the informants of the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Only there, he feared that Asad’s Lebanese allies Hizballah might pick up where the regime had left off, and so he departed for Jordan’s quiet capital, Amman. A journalist now, he maintains regular contact with the Syrian opposition—inside and outside—but the view is not encouraging. It should be no surprise, Shadi says, for the course of the war has “undone an entire society.”

A few months earlier, Syria’s opposition had experienced a brief upswing of optimism, which seemed justified in the wake of numerous battlefield successes. In the south, the Free Syrian Army was at last consolidating alliances to form the larger Southern Front army, making considerable advances in Dar‘a governorate. In the north, extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise) managed to capture key cities in the Idlib governorate and push further into the Ghab plains. Coastal regions came under increased opposition attack, while only islands of control remained for the regime in the east. At Kobane, Kurdish forces repelled another enemy of the opposition, the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who lost their aura of invincibility. To outside observers, the conflict seemed to be turning in the opposition’s favor.

But the summer of 2015 took a turn for the worse. First, in late July, a suicide bombing in Suruç, Turkey disrupted that country’s aloof pragmatism, drawing it into military confrontation—not with ISIS, as expected, but with Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria. Then it emerged that the Southern Front may have been reselling weapons purchased with funds supplied by the United States to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a small militia in southern Syria with suspected ties to ISIS. The Front is now effectively disbanded. Add news of the harsh and divisive tactics of factions like Jaysh al-Islam, and ISIS’ advance to within 12 miles of the Damascus-Aleppo highway, and the situation began to look bleak.

Meanwhile, overt Russian intervention in late September strengthened Asad’s hand, on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Discussions in Vienna confirmed that Asad’s ally Iran will be party to plans for Syria’s future, and the third round of talks in Geneva have devoted more time to differentiating the “moderate” opposition from “terrorists” than to alleviating ongoing starvation inside Syria. Winter has punished rebel-held areas more than regime strongholds, especially while the bombardment of northern Syria continues apace. The psychological math of deepening apathy and tangible danger has made flight to Europe increasingly attractive to pro-opposition Syrians, whether inside or outside of Syria.

These outcomes were far from predictable. In the early days of Syria’s conflict, diplomats and UN officials insisted that Asad would probably last “no more than another two months,” while Asad stated with equal assurance that the opposition was nothing more than gangs of takfiris, as militants who claim the right to excommunicate other Muslims are known. Once violence grew widespread, the regime army’s spotty performance and heavy-handedness suggested that a consolidated opposition movement could prevail in battle and bring to fruition the goals of the revolution. Today the revolution seems almost buried by its failings, foremost among them that such a movement has not consolidated, even after five years of war crimes by the Asad regime. As the opposition struggles to find a voice at Geneva III, it is worth asking why not.

Secret Chambers and Strange Bedfellows

Much of the military progress the opposition made in 2015 was owed to a new form of rebel organization with roots outside of Syria. In 2014, the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan set up a joint Military Operations Command in Amman. It was a sign of how desperate the rebel situation had become that actors previously bent on autonomy were finally willing to sit in the same room and discuss tactics. Known also as the “operations room” (in Arabic, ghurfat al-‘amaliyyat or al-ghurfa for short), this secret chamber became the clearinghouse for financial and logistical support to Syrian rebels in the south, bringing funders from the Gulf and the US into direct coordination with rebel brigades and Jordanian authorities anxious about domestic security. As if to prove that the game had changed, the ensuing Southern Storm campaign culminated on April 1 with the rebel capture of the Nasib border crossing near the Jordanian city of Mafraq.

Similar rooms modeled on the Amman example sprang up inside Syria. In the northwest, the Idlib Liberation Operations Room brought together a number of Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and Faylaq al-Sham (the latter partly affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brothers). This coalition—known as Jaysh al-Fath (Army of Conquest)—successfully wrested control of the Idlib province from the regime. The Conquest of Aleppo Operations Room brought a similar coalition (under a different name, Ansar al-Shari‘a) into loose coordination with US-funded brigades from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in order to counter both the regime army and increasingly frequent incursions by ISIS. Operations rooms in the forested Ghouta region surrounding Damascus and the northern reaches near Kobane have also led to small but strategic victories.

These developments raised hopes that the plethora of opposition groups in Syria might finally “get it together” and be able to end the war. A UN official close to negotiations indicated as much, noting that thanks to the rooms the number of parties working with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura, who is overseeing the Geneva talks, had dropped by half over six months. [1] This shift is reflected in the maps of territorial control that dominate media coverage of Syria, which have since simplified their code to four colors: the regime, ISIS, rebels (loosely defined) and Kurds.

But while operations rooms signify greater rebel coordination on the battlefield, they mask forces that torpedo hopes for a larger, more stable coalition. For one thing, not all operations rooms are alike. That they are called “operations rooms” suggests a copycat tactic more than a coherent organizational strategy among opposition groups. Some are categorically different from one another: For instance, the Amman Operations Room is widely known to be an arm of the US and Gulf states, which exert disproportionate influence over the Southern Front, while those set up in the northwest by Jabhat al-Nusra are locally organized and marred by internal schisms. In Turkey’s capital of Ankara, the existence of another such room is an open secret, but it has so far failed to be as effective as its Jordanian counterpart.

Other rooms simply reflect existing rivalries rather than resolve them. Such is the case in eastern Ghouta. Organized by Jabhat al-Nusra, the new Army of the Epics Operations Room has routinely come into conflict with the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta of Zahran ‘Alloush (assassinated in December 2015), whose Jaysh al-Islam had possessed a near-monopoly over military opposition to Asad in this region. But perhaps no operations room lays bare the trials of rebel cohesion like the one dubbed Euphrates Volcano, a collaboration of battalions from the FSA and other factions with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s northeast. YPG commanders describe the difficulty of working alongside the FSA, which lacks equipment and coherent chains of command. FSA brigades were not even able to transport ammunition from place to place after it was airlifted to them by the US military.

The chambers also widen the gap between the suit-and-tie geopolitics of diplomats and the popular geopolitics of rebels, refugees and revolutionaries. For every militia on the ground inside Syria there is a handful of NGOs run by Syrians sitting across the Turkish border in places like Gaziantep, Antakya and ?anlıurfa. These organizations train the members of local councils in everything from administration and accounting to conflict resolution and community policing—and, importantly, document human rights abuses. Yet the civil society activists are effectively shut out of the operations rooms, about which their opinions are split. Shadi said curtly, “Whatever the room does, it is for us—so we don’t ask [questions].” Foreign diplomats reinforce this division of the opposition into civil-political and military-clientelistic spheres. At talks in Vienna, Riyadh and Geneva, major international actors pass judgment on which elements of the opposition deserve a political voice. All too often, these elements turn out to be older opposition actors with little popular support, many of them widely suspected of ties to the Muslim Brothers. “Gaziantep gives the illusion of a strong opposition,” said a UN official, describing its activist scene. “But it’s through the Syrian National Coalition”—the formal umbrella for the opposition elements favored by the West—“that the real work will get done.”

The operations rooms thus favor realpolitik over the democratic idealism of the revolution’s early stages. Calls for stability dominate the rhetoric of diplomats in an eerie echo of the Asad regime. It should be no surprise, then, that this turn comes at the cost of the opposition’s general legitimacy, such that in 2015, the question shu istafadna? (“what have we gained?”) became a common expression of frustration among ordinary Syrians. And with democratic activists so firmly sidelined it is increasingly implausible for the US to claim that it is supporting democratic change in Syria. Indeed, it is difficult to compose any such narrative tying together the strange bedfellows colluding to remove Asad by force of arms. The Kurdish YPG were accused by Amnesty International of forcibly removing Arab populations in the northeast, while Jaysh al-Islam has paraded families loyal to Asad about suburbs of Damascus under opposition control in a desperate bid to avoid regime shelling. The apathy rising among Syrian activists, and the Western aid workers who work alongside them, reflects the feeling that the revolution is entirely out of their hands.

Finally, and most importantly, the operations rooms are locally specific, a sign that collaboration among militias is highly provisional. What is the Army of Conquest in Idlib becomes Ansar al-Shari‘a in Aleppo, which in turn becomes the Army of Victory in Ghouta near Damascus. This localization of opposition activity in spite of claims to national scope is a key dynamic shaping the nature and legitimacy of the opposition, inside and outside of Syria.

Turf Wars, not Ta’ifiyya

For all the discussion of sectarian violence, the shared accident of being Sunni Muslim has not bound together opposition to Bashar al-Asad’s allegedly ‘Alawi regime any more than it has prevented Sunnis from collaborating with it. Civil wars do not simply release pre-war tensions in such a straightforward way. For this reason, Syria’s managed descent into violence has given rise to new contenders like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rather than empowering the old guard of the Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brothers, who are accused of watching from the wings in Istanbul. Add the turf wars among foreign donor states, which exacerbate discord within the opposition, and it becomes clear that no single social category or “cleavage” explains the evolution of Syria’s opposition or the course of the ongoing civil war. Indeed, the greatest casualty of this conflict may well be Syrian society, which is growing increasingly unrecognizable.

Nevertheless, patterns can be discerned from the local, regional and geographic dynamics of the conflict. These patterns are partly reflected in the spread of local councils (majalis mahalliyya) throughout opposition-held Syria. Although the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) claims these bodies within its mandate, in effect local councils receive only sporadic funding, are not centrally administered and—with the notable exceptions of provincial councils in Aleppo and Dar‘a—are often composed of unelected elites like businessmen, doctors or religious scholars. At their simplest, the local councils coordinate the receipt of international humanitarian aid, but the better-organized ones can boast of providing services such as road repair, drainage maintenance and digging wells, as in the northern town of A‘zaz. These success stories are few and far between, however, and seem paltry beside the well-organized communities run by the Kurdish YPG, in which coordination between military defense and local councils is far more robust. [2] 

Differences among the conflict’s active fronts further keep the opposition from consolidating. These battle lines are often drawn in frontier zones where rebels can get access to materiel, funds and reliable medical treatment outside Syria, but are also determined by local social forces and physical geography. With the entry of Hizballah fighters into Syria, rebels and smugglers who once regularly traversed the Lebanese border to support the FSA were forced to withdraw from the pro-opposition region of Zabadani. Zabadani, like Madaya (the town whose starvation haunted the headlines over the winter), remains under siege by the regime army and is deemed by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs to be out of reach for all but the most basic forms of humanitarian assistance. Even more significant was Hizballah’s spring 2013 takeover of Qusayr, which lies at the mouth of the Homs gap, a strategic pass through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The gap’s capture made rebel defense of Homs—arguably the capital of the revolution—impossible by cutting off its main supply lines. After being starved for months, the last armed rebels left the city’s Wa‘r neighborhood in December 2015 and Homs is now firmly in regime hands.

Armed opposition activity has since relocated along two poles: a diffuse northern front that stretches along the border with Turkey all the way to Iraq, and a far narrower front near the border with Jordan. According to a Syrian journalist based in Amman, the FSA has been able to maintain legitimacy and internal coherence in the south thanks to strong ties among the large extended families (hamulas) of the greater Dar‘a area. [3] The north, on the other hand, possesses a more developed civil society presence, but at the same time plays uneasy host to a number of Islamist organizations like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Activists point to Turkey’s porous border, which allows outside Islamist fighters, aid and weapons to enter the northern front relatively unhindered, while Jordan’s more secure border has kept the southern front a relatively closed system. Setbacks in the south aside, the two fronts are widely seen as different universes.

Even the exile activities of Syrians are shaped by local factors. In Jordan, the vast majority of Syrians involved in activism, journalism or humanitarian work hail from the southern Hawran region around Dar‘a or the Damascus and Qunaytra governorates. It is not uncommon to find former classmates from Damascus University reunited in Amman and engaged in such work. But Jordan’s harsh refugee policies have led many Syrians with means to seek opportunities elsewhere—primarily in Europe, by way of Turkey. By contrast, the Turkish border city of Gaziantep has become a kind of “exile capital” hosting a robust ecology of NGOs, militants, humanitarian organizations and (increasingly) private contractors. One finds people from Dayr al-Zawr, Palmyra, Damascus, Homs and even Dar‘a traveling to Gaziantep to continue the revolution. But, above all, the Turkish city attracts people from Aleppo—it is known as Little Aleppo or, not without affection, “an uglier Aleppo.”

To cap it all off, activists and former militants repeatedly stress how damaging personal divisions and rivalries are even within the more formal opposition institutions. Based in Gaziantep, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) was formed as an executive body of the SNC, but its various branches have neither the will nor the capacity to effect change inside opposition-controlled regions of Syria. Within these areas, local councils compete for resources from the SIG, described in an interview with a former employee as highly unprofessional, petty and itself riven by interdepartmental conflicts. Even humanitarian work suffers unduly from internal distrust and (as a result) low capacity. After leaving a position as an FSA medic, Mahmoud began smuggling medicine and winter jackets to children in besieged Homs. He received nothing but criticism and ill will from neighbors, who perhaps viewed his efforts as self-aggrandizing. When asked why, he hazarded, “Sometimes people just can’t stand seeing another person doing good.”

In this way there remains a disjuncture between the tendency of opposition actors to use all-inclusive civic language and their ability to act in concert even when circumstances permit. It illustrates what Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur argued so pointedly: The Asad regime has been able to transform a countrywide movement for reform and regime change into highly localized struggles for survival. In this engineered Hobbesian environment, local, personal and, indeed, sectarian divisions grow claws not present before the war. [4]

Bending Not to Break

One analyst has likened efforts to explain Syria’s opposition to “nailing jello to a wall.” [5] One need only peruse the various guides to the Syrian opposition to appreciate the truth of this statement. In contrast to conventional understandings of civil war, in which two well-defined parties square off, as many as 500 distinct militias are fighting against Bashar al-Asad’s regime. International intervention further stretches the boundaries of who is a relevant actor in Syria’s theater of violence.

But the shifting nature of the war has still allowed Syria’s opposition—its armed and civic components—to survive for much longer than it otherwise would have. Too often, rebel forces are seen as an organizational template or an ideology abstracted from the physical infrastructures, geographic constraints and economic networks in which they are embedded. [6] But these material realities matter. The ongoing barrel bombing of rebel-held zones like Aleppo makes the consolidation of stable opposition institutions nearly impossible inside Syria. At the same time, makeshift militias with few commitments to rooted constituents are better able to survive such aerial assaults. Kurdish areas of the northeast have been relatively unaffected by barrel bombing, with most such strikes hitting cities like Aleppo and Dar‘a. The scale required to foster a unified chain of command among rebels and provide secondary services like logistics and medical care, as well as ensure the welfare of civilians in these zones, would require massive investment not only in rebuilding cities destroyed by war but in aerial defenses as well—the very sort that the FSA has consistently requested from the beginning. [7] 

In the absence of such support from the “friends of Syria,” the opposition has been forced to withdraw key functions to cities close to the front lines but protected by host states like Turkey and Jordan. Thus, Gaziantep and Amman have taken on significant (if not very dramatic) positions as key nodes for the opposition. In such places operations rooms have flourished—first outside Syria, then eventually in consolidated opposition-held areas of the north like Idlib. But neither Jordan nor Turkey will abide a fully armed, well-organized insurgent group with roots in its territory. For this very reason, among others, Turkey has hamstrung efforts to empower the already well-organized YPG.

Nevertheless, Amman and Gaziantep (as well as Istanbul and Antakya in Turkey and Irbid in Jordan) function—legally or not—as provisional staging grounds and meeting spaces for opposition factions to mix with donors, diplomats and one another. These “exile capitals” are large enough to hide in but relatively open, unlike the operations rooms, and not subject to the whims of funder states. Negotiations between activists and armed factions in Gaziantep have secured safety from random violence and kidnapping for many activists making regular trips inside. Similarly, FSA officers are allowed to house their families in Amman and visit them regularly provided they maintain a strict code of silence. The SIG has offices and representatives in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt; its Hajj Committee negotiates agreements between host states and Saudi Arabia to facilitate the pilgrimage; and it has tried to print passports that are recognized in a limited number of countries, making residency, work and migration easier for exiled Syrians.

But these cities’ status as safe havens remains a double-edged sword. Although Amman and Gaziantep protect the political and civil opposition, relations with the armed opposition “inside” are strained. In November 2015 the Levant Front, a member of the Conquest of Aleppo Operations Room (which administers the Bab al-Salama border crossing from Turkey) denied entry to an SIG delegation bound for rebel territory. Prominent in the delegation was the SIG prime minister, Ahmad Tu‘ma, who was visiting rebel-held Syria for the first time after two years in office. According to one member of the delegation, the politicians were taunted by armed members of the Levant Front as “infidel apostates” and not so subtly encouraged to return to Gaziantep. A formal statement issued later by the Levant Front expressed disapproval at Tu‘ma’s aloofness and called for his immediate resignation, a request echoed by other SIG figures. According to the Levant Front communiqué, the prime minister’s public humiliation was intended to “emphasize the need for the interim government to engage with revolutionary forces on the ground so that, especially in these trying times, it can become a government for the people and the revolution.” The director of the SIG’s telecommunications sector announced his own resignation and vented his bitter frustration: “I will be of [better] service forming a new government or alternative body in place of this broken-down, unreformable one.” [8]

Asad’s Syria?

With five years of faulty predictions, many continue to grapple with the unpredictability of Syria’s conflict—and no one more than Syrians themselves. Analysts attempting to deduce the outcomes of the war from pre- or early-war variables will fail in light of the extreme disruption of social ties that has taken place since 2011. After years of violence and decades with the regime “killing” civil politics, it should be no surprise that Syria’s diverse opposition has faced enormous obstacles to getting it together. [9]

Yet despite this unpredictability, one stable principle remains: From the very beginning, the actor most capable of shaping the contours of political struggle in Syria has been the regime, personified by Bashar al-Asad. And so it will continue to be. Through a combination of sieges, bombings, massacres and pragmatic truces, the regime has effectively transformed the territory of Syria into a giant mechanism for sorting out the “missing middle” from Syria's opposition landscape. The cumulative effect has been that even the most rudimentary calls for democracy may now seem utopian, and long-term reconciliation is trumped by geopolitical bargaining. Finishing his tea, Shadi morosely summarized the increasingly complex situation. “I think the SNC is caught between the Syrian people and what the world wants—America, Great Britain…the West.” The SNC’s representative in Amman is a useless appendage, he continues. For Syrians in exile, there is astoundingly little contact between the armed factions, institutional bodies and far-flung individuals that purport to represent them under the banner of the revolution.

And it is an increasingly frayed banner at that. On February 3, the Geneva III talks were suspended for fear that there were not enough relevant participants, and that those who arrived in Geneva did not take the talks seriously enough. But the fighting has not followed suit. At the time of writing, regime soldiers had reached the outskirts of opposition-held Aleppo thanks to Russian aerial support. Within days, thousands of residents had fled across the border into Turkey, certain of a brutal siege to follow. A meeting on February 11 of the pro-opposition International Syria Support Group pushed member states to step up aid to such besieged areas in an effort to keep opposition alive, literally, and was complemented by a brittle ceasefire agreement signed in Munich set to take effect a week later. But with Bashar al-Asad confidently asserting his intention to retake the whole of Syria, and Russia openly expressing doubts that the ceasefire will hold, there is little reason for optimism.

Syria enters the spring of 2016 torn and exhausted. The country is fragmented even as it is entangled in a complex web of competing international forces. These entanglements are not straightforward enough to reduce to “proxy” relationships. Russia’s aggressive battlefield efforts certainly aid the regime in Damascus, but President Vladimir Putin’s rapid push for negotiations nevertheless shakes regime assurances that, at the end of the day, it will remain Asad’s Syria. Tension is such that during a surprise visit to Moscow on October 20, 2015, Asad sat alone with Russian officials, evidently lacking even the company of a Syrian flag. Meanwhile, Russia has established “coordination mechanisms” with Jordan and Turkey, to regularize its presence in the region.

Paradoxically, opposition activists have become pragmatic about the international nature of Syria’s conflict. “It is unsolvable without Iran…or Bashar or Hizballah or Russia,” says Shadi without hesitation. “Speaking logically? It just isn’t. Speaking in revolutionary terms? We don’t want any of them. But I want to speak logically.” Shadi’s realist turn is emblematic of the dimming idealism of activists in exile, who feel cut off from a revolution for which they suffered so much in 2011. The irony is that somewhere nearby in Amman is a hidden room where the revolution’s outcome will likely be decided. The activists are not invited.

Endnotes

[1] Interview with UN official, Gaziantep, Turkey, July 20, 2015.
[2] Interview with Munzir, opposition activist and Kurdish resident of Afrin, July 28, 2015.
[3] Interview with Ahmad, pro-opposition journalist, Amman, September 30, 2015.
[4] Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur, “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions,” Middle East Report 269 (Winter 2013).
[5] James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 132.
[6] Martin Coward, “Network-Centric Violence, Critical Infrastructure and the Urbanization of Security,” Security Dialogue 40/4-5 (August-October 2009).
[7] Kheder Khaddour, “The Assad Regime’s Hold on the Syrian State,” Carnegie Middle East Center (July 2015), pp. 9-10.
[8] Radio al-Kull, November 12, 2015. [Arabic]
[9] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 45.

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