Revolutionary road: Among the Syrian opposition

After meeting with Assad loyalists and opponents in Lebanon last week, it is clear that the Syrian uprising’s third phase will be not only more violent but could be a decisive one. Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told me that they are gearing up for direct confrontation in coming months with the forces loyal to President Assad, regardless of whether they have the support of a foreign intervention.

 They say defections are increasing, and a FSA officer boasted to me that men at arms number 17,000 across the country (most go north to the Turkish border, while an estimated 500 are coalescing at the border with Lebanon). Until regional conditions improve to their benefit, FSA commanders told me they are advising sympathisers to delay their defection. 

Asked about his level of confidence in the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition’s umbrella group, a senior FSA officer said there were contacts but also disagreements because SNC members didn’t understand security matters. He also said that the FSA had to force the SNC to harden its position by threatening to form and announce an independent Syrian Military Council. 

The coming confrontation will mark the third phase of the Syrian conflict since the initial uprisings in Damascus and Deraa. Despite the heavy-handed security response of the regime, the flames of insurrection were fanned across Syria in the months after the uprisings. Revolts in Hama, Homs, Idlib, Bu Kamal, Deir Ez-Zor and many other regions, however, ended with a tactical victory for the regime as it managed to prevent mass insurrection in Aleppo and Damascus and foiled the opposition’s ambition to use Ramadan as a turning point. 

The third phase started with the (arguably shaky) consolidation of the opposition, increasing military defections, the Arab League’s failed mediation attempts followed by its suspension of Syria’s membership, a hardening of Turkey’s position, and growing calls for (still-undefined) international intervention, but also growing economic pain for the regime. At the same time, attempts to convince key constituencies to drop Assad through signaling and sanctions have failed to deliver quick results. The business elites and Sunni urban class of Damascus and Aleppo have not yet deserted the regime. And, arguably thanks to regime manipulation, the uprising is increasingly acquiring a sectarian colouring. 

My conversations with Syrians in Beirut and northern Lebanon left me with the sense that the initial revolutionary euphoria has given way to a darker mood. No side can afford to back down anymore. Anti-regime Syrians told me they have gone too far to stop, and that the pain and death that would inevitably follow would massively outweigh the cost of persisting. In any case, they argue that the regime has suffered deadly blows to its internal legitimacy, lost any Arab cover, cannot resurrect an economy that may shrink by as much as 8% – and that, now more than ever, victory is in reach. They also exude frustration and anger at attempts to reason with Assad, writing him and his clique off as butchers and autocrats. 

Pro-regime Syrians display a typical mix of intransigence and complacency. They are convinced that they face criminal and Gulf-backed Salafi groups, that Syria is the victim of a conspiracy because of its self-proclaimed place as the heart of Arabism, that Turkey has expansionist ambitions of Islamist nature (“We exposed the length of Erdogan’s beard,” an Aleppo businessman told me), that Bashar Al-Assad is serious about reforms anyway and that the security forces are being bloodied and yet still winning. Asked how they envision tomorrow’s Syria, they talk about a resurgent Syria that will defeat all its enemies and become a fortress against Western aggression and Islamist gains. 

The demand I invariably heard from anti-Assad Syrian activists in Beirut and refugees and defectors in Lebanon’s north was for an internationally imposed no-fly zone over parts or all of Syria to protect civilians. They however are less clear about important details: Who should lead it? How broad should be its mandate? How to avoid a regional escalation? How to overcome the opposition of regional and international powers? 

I told Syrian activists that there was no readiness or willingness in the West for such an operation despite the relative success in Libya. NATO’s secretary general and other senior Western officials have resisted this idea. I also pointed to the testimony last week of Jeffrey Feltman, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, who counselled against a resort to violence. Feltman has a point: entering active resistance mode would recast the narrative from revolution to civil war, give an advantage to a regime all too willing to use force, and worry or alienate fence-sitters and minorities. 

The members of the FSA I met or talked to make another case: while they certainly care about the protection of civilians, they argue that only when Assad’s air dominance is eroded can major units defect with all their gear and heavy weaponry and confront the regime’s hardcore loyalists. They say it makes no sense for these would-be defectors to flee with mechanised assets, transport vehicles and command-and-control equipment if this makes them more visible and more vulnerable from the air. They add that a no-fly zone would help them capture and occupy barracks, government buildings, roads and other infrastructure, which they have refrained from doing so until now. To be sure, this military rationale does not align with the logic of humanitarian intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine that was invoked in Libya.

Asked to describe current FSA activities inside Syria, a senior FSA commander listed:

-       protecting demonstrations;
-       facilitating the movement of defectors;
-       identifying regime informants;
-       securing exit routes and supply lines;
-       stocking weaponry and ammunition;
-       linking and organising defectors inside Syria.

 Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

November 15, 2011, IISS

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