The newly unified Syrian opposition is insisting that it should be the sole conduit for channeling logistical and financial assistance to the in-country rebels.
The credibility of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (above) will hinge on it securing “the buy-in of as many Syrian stakeholders as possible, as well as a concrete mechanism for governing the country and bringing the civil war to an end,” observers suggest.
“The burden of proof is still upon the SNCORF to show Western countries that it can deliver and use its expanded mandate to reach out to all armed groups in Syria,” writes Qatar-based analyst Michael Stephens.
“Why, given all the money previously invested in the opposition – which after one year produced no concrete steps in either moving toward a unified political position or in hastening the demise of Bashar – should Western nations keep funneling in more cash and resources?” he asks.
“Syria’s internal war appears to be approaching a decisive stage,” he writes. “Barring a major change in Bashar al-Assad’s approach or massive intervention by Hizballah and Iran, the regime’s military situation will likely continue to deteriorate, perhaps dramatically, in the weeks ahead.”
“The rebels may not yet have a unified political structure, military command, or national strategy for their war against the regime, but the cumulative effects of their operations are significant and mounting,” says White, a defense fellow specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran.. “Furthermore, they hold the military initiative in key areas of the country.”
Western states’ refusal to arm the opposition is a mistake that will play into the hands of extremist forces.
“Outside military assistance to the rebels could shift the situation even more quickly and decisively in their favor, potentially preempting any regime move toward extreme measures,” White contends in a new policy brief:
[M]ilitary aid provided soon to the right groups — namely, ones that are politically acceptable to the West and militarily effective — could help shape the post-Assad situation in a way favorable to U.S. interests. It could also enable these groups to play a more decisive role in the outcome of the fighting and claim a more central role in bringing down the regime. This would better position them for the post-Assad struggle with other groups, especially Islamist extremists.
But other analysts believe the Assad regime remains resilient and that the new coalition’s leadership may be as dysfunctional as its predecessor, the Syrian National Council.
Unlike in other Arab countries, where autocrats were brought down by citizen uprisings, the Assad regime shows no signs of fading into oblivion soon, writes Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
There are four reasons Assad remains in power, she argues in Foreign Policy:
1. The regime’s inner sanctum has not cracked. …This core appears to consist of more hawkish figures who see the struggle in existential terms. As the inner circle gets smaller, the regime’s response only becomes more determined and bloodier.
[T]he regime is calculating that it can hold on to power and deny the armed opposition the ability to deliver tangible results on the ground — making it increasingly likely the rebels will lose steam.
2. The Syrian military is not close to a breaking point [as] the attrition rate in the Syrian army is at best around 5 to 10 percent — not enough to seriously erode its fighting capacities. …..Assad’s losses in military personnel have been made up for by the increase in the ranks of the paramilitary shabiha.
3. Syria’s Alawite community remains hostile to the uprising. Political dissent among Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, has so far been extremely limited — despite a few military and civilian defectors:
The opposition — especially the exiled leadership — has utterly failed in reaching out to the Alawite community. No opposition figure has yet made a convincing case to the Alawites that their future in a post-Assad Syria will be safe from revenge killings, that they will enjoy equal rights as their Sunni brethren, that their economic interests will be safeguarded, and that they will not be treated with suspicion for years to come. Even worse, there is no serious thinking going on inside the opposition of how to develop such a narrative.
4. The Syrian opposition remains fractured. Although different groups have been working on a “Day After” agenda, there is not yet a common political vision of how to get from now to the day after Assad’s fall.
In short, there is a political vacuum and an organizational vacuum at every level of the Syrian opposition.
On the other hand, “the militarization of the conflict has sidelined the activists and civic groups that launched the uprising,” writes Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation.
“The failure — and the unwillingness — of the political opposition to articulate a credible road map for a solution ensures that military conflict will be the uprising’s default course in the short to medium term, plunging the country deeper into chaos and violence.”
The new opposition coalition elected Maath al-Khatib, a Damascus-based imam, as its president. He has been described as a “dynamic and progressive” moderate Islamist, but the country’s Alawites and would-be Western backers may not be reassured by some aspects of his politics.
“Khatib has sounded the right notes, which superficially at least bode well for an inclusive coalition. His demand for ‘freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian … and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” notes the RUSI’s Stephens.
While Khatib used his post-election speech to call for equal rights for “all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” his previous rhetoric toward his country’s minorities has been nothing short of virulent. One of his articles describes Shiite using the slur rawafid, or “rejectionists”; he even goes further, criticizing Shiites’ ability to “establish lies and follow them.”
Khatib’s website also features anti-Semitic rhetoric, he notes:
In one of his own articles, he writes that one of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s positive legacies was “terrifying the Jews.” He has also published others’ anti-Semitic observations on his site: In one article, written by Abdul Salam Basiouni, Jews are described as “gold worshipers.” Finally, in an obituary of a Gaza sheikh copied from IslamSyria, Jews are dubbed “the enemies of God.”
But other observers suggest that such rhetoric is unfortunately all too common even in ‘moderate Islamist’ discourse; that the choice of prominent dissident Riad Seif, female activist Suhair Atassi, and a yet-to-be-named Kurd will provide reassurance to funders; and that Khatib brings considerable credibility to the opposition.
“Many of the leaders in the past who were involved with the initiatives were accused of being comfortable in the opposition from their luxury hotel rooms,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ed Husain:
But this man has been arrested many times inside Syria since the year 2000, when the first Damascus Spring happened after the death of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader Bashar. …. And having Suhair Atassi, a prominent female activist, as his vice president, a woman who’s not veiled, helps reassure others inside the country that maybe this new formulation has a vision for Syria that’s different. To Khatib’s credit, he has repeatedly spoken about minorities and been reassuring about minority rights, and despite being a cleric, he has not framed the entire discussion in religious and sectarian terms.