Following a stalemate that had lasted, imperfectly, from September 2018, the Syrian government and their Russian allies launched a campaign in early May against opposition-held territory in Syria’s northwest. If a larger campaign against Idlib province is coming, then it could be the death knell for the Syrian opposition as a force within the country’s borders. Aside from the significant territory east of the Euphrates controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and pockets of Turkish-occupied territory in the north, the Syrian government will have reclaimed the country following eight years of war. While this may still be some time away from becoming a reality, it is a fitting time to assess how the Syrian opposition failed in its objective to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and end the regime his father began in 1970.
Over the course of eight years, the Syrian conflict went from complex to more complex, but its origins, of course, were in the idea that the Syrian government, and its president Bashar al-Assad, had lost the legitimacy to govern the country. The conflict evolved from peaceful protesters standing off against a dictatorial government, to a roughly two-sided war of rebels versus government, then to a total breakdown of the state into at least four distinct areas of control: the Syrian government, ISIS, the SDF and the opposition.
So what went wrong? We all remember the hope that permeated the news media and social media in 2011, when everyone was convinced that the Arab world’s “spring” had finally come. Eight years later, however, the Syria that remains is not what anyone envisioned when they took to the streets to protest against the government. Given the Arab Spring’s track record around the region, it would be naïve to dismiss an argument that pinpoints an Arab-worldwide phenomenon that explains the failure to democratize in the region.
Arab intellectual thought is filled with blame for some defect (khalal or ‘illah) in Arab society that explains the region’s problems. As a young member of parliament, the prominent Syrian writer from Raqqa, Abdul-Salaam Ojeili, volunteered in the Arab army formed to defend Palestinians against the creation of Israel in 1948, one of three Syrian members of Parliament to do so. He wrote about the experience later in his memoirs: “Volunteering in this campaign gave me invaluable experience and rich knowledge, on both a personal and general level. I discovered many things during the time I spent in Palestine, and on the battlefield, if I can say it, about the progress of our affairs, and the situation of our peoples, and on the standing of our men. Unfortunately my experience revealed a lot to me that disappointed the young idealist that I was. And unfortunately the progress of our national [qawmiyyah, meaning Arab] affairs since 1948 has reinforced my negative assessment of our situation and our capabilities, the same assessment that I made at the time.”
Though a committed Arab nationalist throughout his career, this disappointment in Arab public and private life would be a recurring theme in Ojeili’s writing. This assessment is repeated by many Arab writers, and it is something I hear again and again from Arabs outside of the intellectual sphere. A Syrian friend, who is Sunni Arab, well educated, and was once a supporter of the opposition, recently told me that only two people can rule the Arabs: Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. This was a significant shift in his thinking and is a variation on a common theme I hear often from people in the region. Any future Arab democratic movement must address this fundamental issue: that many of the people in their own society do not want democracy and do not believe that it is a viable model for their society, not to mention the more obvious obstacles of the religious objections to the very idea of democracy and entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo. A larger cultural assessment of the Arab world is well beyond the scope of this essay, however. For now, it is worth looking at the more immediate issues that led the Syrian opposition to its demise.
Arab and Islamic Chauvinism
One of the fundamental mistakes of the opposition was to maintain the Arab and Islamic chauvinism that is characteristic of Syrian politics. This limited the size of the popular coalition they were able to build, though paradoxically it was also a reflection of popular sentiment among many Syrians. For example, the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from a conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2015 that was attempting to unite the opposition. The group, who often drew sympathy from members of the secular opposition, said it was withdrawing, in part, because the conference organizers refused to assert the Islamic identity of Syria and its people. What does that tell the non-Muslims of Syria? Likewise, much of the opposition rejected Kurdish demands for cultural rights, or for autonomy in the country’s northeast, which is more diverse and less monolithically Arab than the rest of the country. Simply put, the opposition did little to offer non-Arabs or non-Muslims a feeling that real change was coming to the country in the form of equal rights for previously marginalized groups.
Lack of Political Strategy
The political and armed opposition in Syria also had no coherent political strategy. It had an abstract vision—its specifics not agreed upon by all supporters—for a democratic Syria. In achieving that goal it took two contradictory steps: it turned a blind eye to the sins of anyone also committed to eliminating Bashar al-Assad from power, and it refused to make peace with undesirable allies that would have helped them achieve their goals. The Kurdish-led SDF should have a natural ally for the opposition, given the Syrian regime’s oppression of its Kurdish community before 2011, but the opposition refused to accept Kurdish political aspirations, and assumed a separatist motive to the SDF’s project in the northeast. In contrast, the SDF made amends with the Syrian regime where and when it suited them, which many mistook for sympathy with the regime. In reality it was shrewd politics and good strategy, and allowed the SDF to focus on defeating the Islamic State and increase the territory under its control rather than fighting a multi-pronged war against both the Syrian regime and Islamist groups. The opposition made no such steps.
The democratic opposition also blamed the international community for failing to provide the necessary support to them. They criticized President Barack Obama for not providing enough support to the secular elements of the armed opposition, and in doing gave Islamists the upper hand. In this circular logic, the groups who are perceived as the strongest will gain popular support and will be better able to out-position their enemies, and therefore the West should have supported groups that most closely align with their values. But winning at this sort of strongman game of politics requires those involved to act like strongmen, which is the opposite of the consensus-based democratic politics that those groups claimed to be fighting for. The result is just a shift in power from one strongman (Bashar al-Assad) to a new strongman (whoever comes out on top of the fight for power within the opposition). This is precisely how Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970, first as the Baath Party took power and eliminated opposition parties, then as the military wing of the Baath Party eliminated the civilian wing, then within the military wing of the party itself as Assad slowly outmaneuvered former allies and came out on top. That struggle gave Syria the political system it has had for fifty years, and there is no reason to think it would have been any different if the secular opposition had managed to come to power in Damascus in 2011 and eliminated its Islamist rivals, necessarily by force.
An Incoherent Governance Structure
The areas of Syria under opposition control came to be characterized by chaos and anarchy. In most areas, myriad armed groups had the power of the gun, while civil authorities were set up to keep the electricity on and the water running. Local councils received funding from Western governments, but had little authority, and were subject to the whims of the strongest armed group in the area. The Syrian Interim Government existed on paper only and operated from Turkey. Provincial councils existed in Aleppo and Idlib, for example, but under what legal authority did they exist? It was unclear.
To take an example, one project, called AJACS, was set up to support the Free Syrian Police, and was meant to be an alternative security actor providing justice to local communities. It was funded by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Denmark. The project set up an unarmed community police in over sixty communities. If someone stole your motorbike from in front of your house, then you could go to the police and they would investigate. Many of the officers were defected from the Syrian police, and community members provided reasonably positive feedback on the project in many places. But at best it was merely a Band-Aid, trying to provide some semblance of order in a chaotic situation. It was not clear what legal authority these police operated under. They turned over detainees to Islamic courts set up in the region, who at best used their own version of Syrian law, taking the laws they liked and disregarding those that they did not. At first the project’s donors were horrified that they were cooperating with these informal (i.e. illegal) courts, but what is a police force if they cannot turn over detainees to a court? The donors turned a blind eye to the issue, and the project continued.