Syria's Rebels: Between Talks and a Hard Place

November 8, 2013 Topic: Failed StatesSecurity Region: Syria

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.

Scholars of internal conflict predict that movements with this level of loose coordination and power dispersion will in turn have “widespread, localized, and indecisive struggles [...with] numerous organizations struggling to establish dominance.” The ongoing dynamics within the Syrian opposition closely fit this paradigm.

In this context, potential negotiations between the National Syrian Coalition and the Syrian regime risk worsening these dynamics of intragroup fighting and could put additional pressure on the struggling political leadership. Lacking strong backing within the opposition ranks, the Coalition will be more limited in its ability to compromise and make concessions, and would also risk becoming permanently discredited if it fails to deliver a good deal. The Coalition finds itself in a difficult predicament, facing two bad options.

On the one hand, the group can choose to reject the offer to sit in Geneva. This would be in line with both the widespread skepticism displayed by the main opposition parties regarding the possibility of sitting down with Assad, as well as with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political body that many in the international community recognizes as the ‘representative of the Syrian people’ and that subsequently joined the National Syrian Coalition, becoming the biggest bloc represented in the Coalition—squarely rejecting negotiations with Assad. Yet not participating in Geneva would further alienate the National Syrian Coalition internationally while strengthening Assad’s narrative on the group’s lack of interest in peace. What is more, with the group losing clout on the ground, stepping out from the international arena would lead to additional self-marginalization.

But if walking away from the uncertain political process carries significant risks, participation is equally problematic. If the negotiations prove to be yet another attempt for the Assad regime to buy time, then this will further discredit the Coalition, while threatening to raise the level of internal conflict, even leading to further internal schisms. If, on the other hand, negotiations lead the group towards compromise, the Coalition’s ability to make concessions will be severely limited by its shaky status. What is more, because of ongoing intragroup fighting, openings by the Coalition risk triggering escalations of violence on the ground by rejectionist factions engaged in intragroup outbidding. In turn, such ‘spoilers’ can offer the Syrian government a golden excuse to walk away from negotiations. Finally, the Coalition faces the risk that factions on the ground would refuse to stand by any arrangement agreed upon solely by the National Syrian Coalition.

In this grim context, only open, credible, and goal-oriented talks could both empower the Coalition and prevent some of the risks associated with participating in political negotiations. An open process means investing in prenegotiations within the different groups that make up the Coalition before shifting to the government-to-opposition dynamic. It would also require that the Coalition reach out to the new rejectionist factions. The international community should support this process, without cornering the Coalition into negotiations before it is internally ready to do so.

To be sure, for this option to succeed, there should also be coordinated international pressure not just on the Coalition, but also on the emerging ‘Salafist bloc’ operating outside of the Coalition’s framework. While even in this context the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups would remain spoilers, the chances for negotiations to succeed would still be higher as the level of internal cohesion of the opposition would improve significantly. This ingredient remains elusive, however, as key players such Saudi Arabia have not demonstrated any willingness to push all of their protégés towards an agreement. In turn, this should lead the international community to move extremely cautiously towards Geneva 2, with the understanding that—even if far from perfect—the National Syrian Coalition still represents the most organized political body in the opposition, and its weakening and internal fragmentation would further complicate any future efforts to end the conflict.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group. She recently authored Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration, and tweets at @benedettabertiw.

Image: Flickr/thierry ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.