A Guide to Syria's Opposition

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

While some elements of the revolution have devolved into sectarian gangs, the majority of the movement is developing institutions that resemble governance. The opposition began as and remains a collection of political outsiders fighting for political power. Opposition leaders have not yet had the opportunity to reflect on what type of government they want to create. Instead of lamenting the many things that can go wrong, the international community and the United States in particular should do the following:

● Do not favor a specific group. The revolution is decentralized, and showing favor could increase the prospect of violent competition, not to mention the risk of empowering the wrong elements. Reach out to the myriad voices in this revolution.

● Provide additional training and equipment to enhance communications. The revolution evolved with many groups operating in isolation. Healthy communication between oppositional elements will be key to stability in the post-Assad period. The United States already has provided communication equipment to the revolutionaries. Expand that program.

● Assist in the development of civic groups and the rebuilding of destroyed communities. This revolution evolved from the streets, and it is from the streets that effective and integrative governing institutions will be created. Civil society is essential in creating cooperation and reconciliation.

These recommendations will increase the possibility of a stable transition. They do not guarantee stability or represent the only priorities to pursue. The revolution, if successful, will be chaotic long after Assad is gone. This is the unavoidable cost of such a movement. Harsh, even violent, competition will take place between elements of the opposition. What the international community must remember is that this revolution’s success depends on the results of this internal competition that will take place after Assad’s fall.

The voices of reconciliation and rebuilding are present and powerful among Syria’s revolutionaries. Radical voices and sectarian interests are not dominant now, so we should not assume they will be in the future. We should be cautious about the prospects of sectarian war, terrorism and national collapse. But this movement has evolved with a strong ethic of political moderation. Caution is warranted. But when it comes to the revolution, let us be cautiously optimistic.

Jeffrey Payne is the academic resources coordinator at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter @JeffreyPayneFP. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: FreedomHouse2