The US and UK are sponsoring an underground network of Syrian opposition activists, providing training and equipment in an effort to shape an effective political alternative to the Assad regime and to increasingly influential Islamist groups, reports suggest.
Syrian opposition groups have reported a massacre (above) of over 300 people in the town of Daraya, on the edge of the capital Damascus. Amateur video shows rows of bodies covered in blood soaked sheets.
At least 320 people were killed in the district over the past five days, says the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Many of the deaths were caused by pro-regime snipers, say activists.
“No-one can leave his home or apartment because a sniper can shoot him at any time and no-one can leave,” says Radwan Ziadeh,* a spokesman for the Syrian National Council.
“The shabiha (pro-regime) militias… have been transformed into a killing machine that threatens the Syrian people and our future,” said the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists.
By failing to enforce clear red-lines, the US and other external powers have effectively given Assad a “green light,” argues exiled dissident Ammar Abduhamid, a founder of the Tharwa Foundation and a fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
While the US has resisted calls for direct intervention, Western powers are providing assistance to pro-democracy factions within Syria’s opposition.
“Dozens of dissidents have been ferried out of Syria to be vetted for foreign backing,” the Daily Telegraph’s Damien McElroy writes from Istanbul. “Recipients of the aid are given satellite communications and computers so that they can act as a local ‘hub’ linking local activists and the outside world.”
Mina al-Homsi (a pseudonym) is one of the first graduates of the training. She now spends her days plotting how to spread seditious messages throughout her homeland through her own network, named Basma.
One of its main activities is to repackage video shot by amateurs into a format that can be used by broadcasters. In addition to running online television and radio forums, the Basma team have had “tens of thousands” of satirical stickers depicting President Bashar al-Assad as a featherless duck for distribution as agitprop.
The programs, overseen by the US State Department’s Office of Syrian Opposition Support and the UK’s Foreign Office, are designed to facilitate a democratic post-Assad transition.
“There are groups inside and outside Syria beginning to plan for that day-after and beginning to plan for how they might quickly stand up at least that first stage of transition so that we could move on when Assad goes, because he will go,” said the State Department’s Victoria Nuland, confirming the OSOS program last week.
But the assistance is not an attempt to engineer regime change or determine the political composition of a post-Assad government.
“We are not ‘king-making’ in Syria. The UK and the US are moving cautiously to help what has been developing within Syria to improve the capabilities of the opposition,” said a British consultant overseeing the program. “What’s going to come next? Who is going to control territory across Syria. We want to give civilians the skills to assert leadership.”
“Rather than being about promoting political platforms in Syria, it’s about creating a patchwork of people who share common values,” the consultant said.
Pro-democracy voices have been calling for assistance short of armed intervention.
Provision of technical assistance and even arms are needed to prevent extremists from filling a political vacuum, said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Efforts to assist the Syrian opposition democrats have been plagued by divisions between internal and external factions, Islamists and democrats, and urban and rural forces.
“There is definitely a tension between the countryside and the cities, and that’s not unusual, that is historic in Syria,” says Andrew Tabler, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The question is how do those two forces who have traditionally been opposed to each other, the conservative countryside and the more mercantile cities, how do they work together politically in a post-Assad Syria.”
The initiative is also aiming to avoid a repeat of previous mistakes in funding political transitions, in part by empowering activists at the local level.
“It’s also not Iraq or Afghanistan – there are no bundles of cash being dropped on the problem without accountability,” an official said.
Jon Wilks, the Foreign Office diplomat who serves as envoy to the Syrian opposition, told the Arabic newspaper al Sharq al Aswat last week that Britain was already working to lay the foundations of democracy in a post-Assad Syria.
He said: “We must train activists on governing locally in villages and cities in Syria for the post-transitional phase.”
Observers have warned that failure to support Syrian democrats is creating a political vacuum and handing an advantage to radical Islamist groups funded by Saudi and Qatari sources.
“Large swathes of Syria’s opposition are fighting for a state that is more democratic and humane than that which stands today, and – even if they face steep odds – they deserve, at the very least, our qualified support,” said Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
But the US-UK initiative has reportedly “infuriated” the SNC, a largely exiled opposition group.
“We’ve heard a lot of promises from the very beginning of the SNC but none of those have been fulfilled,” an SNC official said. “This has reflected absolutely negatively on our work. The opposition of Syria wants the world to provide humanitarian aid for the people in need and the Free Syria Army wants intervention to stop planes bombing their positions.
“Instead they go around behind our back undermining our role.”
Although officials insist that the program “was not about building an alternative to the SNC but a means to enhance the role of those dissidents still within Syria,” McElroy reports, the SNC’s “failure to provide a united and coherent front against the regime has led some western officials to brief privately that foreign governments were shifting support beyond the exiled body.”
*Ziadeh is a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.