Syria's Rebels: Between Talks and a Hard Place

Bringing them to the table could shatter what little consensus remains.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, also known as the National Syrian Coalition, has recently been under mounting international pressure to attend the Geneva 2 peace conference. In a recent meeting of the ‘London 11’ group, the main external backers of the opposition reiterated the importance of participating in the Geneva 2 negotiations, designed to implement the June 2012 transition plan of the Action Group for Syria, which includes a ceasefire and establishment of a ‘transitional governing body’ on the basis of ‘mutual consent’ between the parties. The National Syrian Coalition will meet tomorrow to discuss taking a detailed position on Geneva.

The reasons for attempting to broker a deal between the Assad regime and the Coalition are deeply understandable. Given the current internal polarization in Syria, a negotiated political transition represents the only way to put an end to the bloodshed, ensure that the country does not break-up, and restore a measure of stability. At the same time, pushing the National Syrian Coalitioninto negotiations with the Assad regime does carry substantial risks and could easily backfire.

The National Syrian Coalitionfinds itself in an especially vulnerable situation: with the United States getting cold feet over expanding military assistance, and with the option of an international military intervention off the table, the Coalition now finds itself weaker in terms of international backing and domestic legitimacy. Its political leadership is increasingly contested, and its capacity to direct the fighting is more and more limited.

The level of internal fragmentation and infighting within the Syrian opposition forces is indeed the main reason why the current push for political negotiations places the Coalition between a rock and a hard place. Fragmentation, it turns out, matters a great deal in explaining how wars are fought, lost, and ended.

The politico-military opposition to Assad is fragmented along three dimensions: the number of actual groups fighting, the way power is distributed amongst these groups, and the strength of their systems of internal coordination. Most of the analysis of the state of the opposition focuses on the proliferation of armed groups and takes this prima facie as proof of its ineffectiveness. But the opposition’s weakness is not in its numbers: a dispersed and decentralized insurgency can indeed be very effective in fighting a conventional army, as its networked structure makes it more agile and adaptable, and less susceptible to the decapitation of its leadership.

The problems of the opposition derive instead from the increasingly horizontal way power is distributed between the factions that comprise it, and in the decline of the most organized, internationally backed organ of political coordination, the National Syrian Coalition. On the ground in Syria, neither the National Syrian Coalition nor the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can claim to be the main centers of the opposition’s power; to the contrary, power is distributed amongst a variety of actors, including the Al Qaeda-linked factions and a myriad of rebel groups of more or less hardline Islamist convictions. This is not just relevant at the military level, but also at the political one, since more and more of these competing factions are interested in controlling and administering liberated areas directly, in turn leading to attempts to wrestle control not just from Assad but also from each other. This competition is exacerbated by the fact that the main system designed to provide external representation and political coordination—the National Syrian Coalition—is mostly diaspora-based and increasingly contested, squeezed between the demands of its international supporters and those of its constituency on the ground. In recent weeks, this trend has been exacerbated, with leading Salafist factions officially rejecting the authority of the Coalition and creating their own system of coordination.