A Guide to Syria's Opposition

It's time to stop defining the rebels through caricature and start making a plan for working with them.

The world needs to listen to Syria’s revolutionaries. The community leaders, activists, exiles and fighters who make up the opposition too often are defined through caricature and false assumptions.

Many have emphasized the movement’s prime failings, in particular the divisions within the opposition and the sectarian interests of certain elements. The truth is that the opposition is not yet defined as a movement beyond its resistance to the Assad regime. It is a hodgepodge of groups, connected by circumstance and seeking political voice. The evolution of the Syrian revolution will be an ongoing process, regardless of whether or not the conflict with Assad’s forces continues. The United States and international actors should be helping the revolutionaries evolve beyond a mere opposition, not lamenting its failings or fearing its future.

The Syrian opposition’s divisiveness is a reflection of Syrian society as a whole. The Assad regime governs as an exclusive minority, deliberately isolating itself from the majority. The ineffectiveness and corruption of the Assad regime produced ample amounts of popular dissatisfaction, but dissidents kept silent because of the regime’s one highly performing creation: the state security apparatus. Thus, while Syria faltered, dissatisfied elements within the majority were inhibited from organizing by Assad’s security forces. Dissidents were forced into exile, online activism or silence. Assad and his coalition were protected.

Then came February 2011, when Assad’s vulnerabilities came into focus and an opportunity presented itself to dissidents.

Like so many others around the world, Syrians fixated on the revolutions in North Africa. For the dissatisfied, the start of the Arab Spring was a model, evidence that political outsiders could pressure for change and overthrow established rulers. Assad’s coalition watched these events as well but took to heart another lesson: dissent cannot be tolerated.

An Evolving Movement

The revolution began as a series of moderate protests asking Assad to initiate reform. The calls of Syrian activists were met with violence, encouraging the radicalization of some oppositional groups and the evolution of an armed insurgency. Today, the Syrian opposition is a loose-knit alliance of groups employing radically different methods. The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organization housing small bands of fighters, is the primary military organ of the opposition. The bands of fighters within the Free Syrian Army pledge allegiance to a mixture of inspirations. Some organize their resistance based upon a geographic location (i.e. a town) while others organize along ideological or sectarian lines.

The Syrian National Council acts as a government-in-exile, waiting to take power upon Assad's removal. Yet it is removed from the revolution, largely controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and perhaps has spent more time gaining international legitimacy than engaging with the opposition.

A final major element of the opposition is the local coordination committees, a collection of neighborhood activists who oppose violent tactics and have developed as a trusted grassroots network. It is these committees that sustain communications networks to spread news about the revolution. A myriad of less influential elements, including groups employing terrorism and small bands of foreign fighters, make up the rest of opposition network.

Apprehensions surrounding the revolution developed because no one knows how this movement will evolve. The international community, while supportive of the opposition’s aims, fears the complications that could result from the collapse of the Assad regime. Many look at Syria and see reminders of Iraq. Others fear how a revolutionary regime in Syria would affect Kurdish identity, the security of chemical and biological weapons, Lebanese stability or even Iranian nuclear ambitions. With the country’s many sectarian divisions, revolution seems to be a recipe for disaster.

An Agenda for Diplomats