As the conflict in Syria grinds on with no hope of resolution anytime soon, the opposition needs to face a hard truth: that it is not enough to rely on the regime’s brutality to garner support among Syrians. The battle for hearts and minds - as important as the military conflict, and more so in the future - must be actively fought by those who seek Bashar Assad’s ouster.
However, as time goes by and the suffering intensifies, a growing number of anti-regime Syrians I speak to are losing faith in the ability, and even the willingness, of elements of the opposition (armed and political) to live up to the legitimate aims and aspirations of the revolution: the replacement of dictatorship with a secure, inclusive and free democracy.
None of them are considering switching sides, but their support is not unconditional, nor should it be. “The opposition has an enormous burden to not only help Syrians out of this mess, but to do it the right way. If they fail to live up to this responsibility, then I would drop my support for them in an instant, and so should other Syrians,” blogger Maysaloun told me. “All these people did not die to swap one tyrant for another.”
These anti-regime Syrians feel increasingly unrepresented in a revolution that started out with such high hopes, but that they fear has been hijacked, not just by Islamist extremists, but by its foreign backers with their myriad agendas.
This sentiment was summed up by a Syrian employee at the BBC: “Two years ago, the Syrian people began their peaceful quest for self-determination. One year ago, I launched the ‘I support the Syrian revolution’ campaign. Today, the Syrian people have become pawns in a twisted game of chess between regional and global powers. Today, I support only peace. Enough killing. Enough suffering. Enough war.”
This sense of disappointment is as painful to internalize as it is to express. It is spoken of largely in private - by those accustomed to pro-regime hate mail - for fear of a backlash from other supporters of the revolution, and of Assad sympathizers using it to score propaganda points and boost morale. While such reluctance to speak out publicly is understandable, doing so is nonetheless necessary, and should not be seen as deceit or betrayal - on the contrary.
Opposition divisions and failings
With credible reports of abuses (including war crimes), disunity and disorganization within opposition ranks, inadequate spokespeople, diplomatic intransigence, the increasing radicalization of certain armed rebel groups, and threats to extend the fighting beyond Syria’s borders, the words and actions of some in the opposition are cause for concern.
They are creating a disconnect between them and ordinary Syrians who want the end of the regime, but not the destruction of the country and its people. “What has really broken my spirit has been the ineptitude of the political opposition and the increasingly damaged spirit of the rebels on the ground,” a Syrian journalist, who until recently was living in Damascus and is now based in the Gulf, told me.
“The political opposition has failed to provide a viable, credible and united front, but worse still, they have offered no tangible ideology or set of principles that I, or many other Syrians, can rally around. Other than the incessant call for Assad to step down, I would really like to know what it is they are proposing to offer instead. I think their failure to provide a clear vision has kept many Syrians wary and on the fence vis-à-vis the ‘revolution’.”
The opposition needs to be aware of such sentiment, for its own sake and that of the country. I have supported the revolution from the start, but these days I feel forced to clarify that I back its goals, not necessarily its methods, from which I feel increasingly distant. My reaction to some of the things that are said and done is “not in my name.”
Rim Turkmani, a member of the political movement Building The Syrian State, and co-chair of the Damask Rose Trust - whose mission is to “promote the welfare and education of disadvantaged people in Syria” - told me that only the political opposition “chosen by the so-called Friends of Syria and by the mainstream media to be called the opposition” have “lost its way.”
She added: “Most of the opposition figures and movements inside Syria, which have been deliberately ignored by the parties I mentioned, have not lost their way, and remain focused on regime-change without destroying the country. But they face two enemies: the regime itself, and those who want to exploit the situation for their own agendas. Political leadership cannot work from abroad.”
Turkmani’s views are echoed in a recent letter to the Arab League by prominent opposition figures, who criticized “the conflicts between the leaders” of the Syrian National Coalition, and “the flagrant hegemony of diverse Arab and regional players.” They added that “the crisis in the Syrian opposition is worsening” because of “what is happening inside” the coalition, “and the actions of those who dominate it.”
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib said he decided to resign as head of the SNC so that he could “work with a freedom that cannot possibly be had in an official institution.” Elaborating on his frustration with the internal politics of the opposition, he added: “The people inside have lost the ability to decide their own fate. Matters have now reached a point that it is no longer acceptable.
“I have become only a means to sign some papers while there are hands from different parties involved who want to decide on behalf of the Syrians. There are many things I do not agree with and there were ambiguous agreements that I think were not in the interest of the Syrian people.”
Some in the opposition have criticized the Arab League’s decision to give Syria’s seat to the SNC, and various governments’ recognition of the coalition as the sole, legitimate representative of the Syrian people, on the grounds that this is sidelining other movements. This comes against the backdrop of long-running divisions and suspicions between opposition groups on the ground and those abroad.
There is also widespread concern about the rising prominence, influence and battlefield prowess of radical Islamist groups, amid reports that they are imposing strict shariah law in areas they have captured. Some in the opposition question the wisdom of militarizing the revolution at all, as well as whether, or to what extent, foreign help should be sought.
Arguably the most effective anti-regime fighting force, Jabhat al-Nusra, has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has denounced elections as anti-Islamic. The pledge was swiftly condemned by the SNC, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, an umbrella group of some 20 rebel brigades, including some of the most prominent.
What the Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly describes as “the creeping Islamization of the revolution” may well portend a day of reckoning between moderate and extremist elements of the opposition. Many do not expect such a showdown to happen until after the downfall of their common enemy, but it may occur before then, with their differences growing as the conflict drags on.
Fighting may also spread beyond Syria’s borders, with rebels having staged a cross-border raid into Iraq, and threatening to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon in retaliation for the latter’s military involvement in Syria in support of the regime - a threat they cannot successfully carry out, and can ill afford to attempt.
Another major point of contention within rebel ranks is the election of a prime minister who would form an interim government. After the election of Ghassan Hitto as premier earlier this year, several SNC members walked out of the meeting, and others announced the suspension of their participation in the coalition.
In his first speech as opposition prime minister, Hitto said “there is no place for dialogue with the Assad regime.” This declaration undid a ground-breaking offer by Khatib of dialogue with those in the regime whose hands are not “stained with blood,” and on condition that talks must lead to Assad’s removal.
Khatib’s initiative - which was applauded by the United Nations, as well as foreign backers on both sides of the conflict - was a departure from the SNC’s policy of refusing dialogue unless the dictator stepped down first. As such, the reaction of the Syrian National Council - the largest component of the coalition - was to reiterate its “rejection of any dialogue” with the regime.
Assad’s stated refusal to consider stepping down, or to talk with opposition groups unless they lay down their arms first - rendering the idea of negotiations totally meaningless - is besides the point. The opposition should not be as stubborn as the regime, particularly as the toll being paid by Syrians in this prolonged conflict is rising by the day.
British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab is worried, but unsurprised, by the “crimes” and increasing sectarianism of “segments” of the opposition. “When uneducated people face a regime which instrumentalizes and exploits sectarian hatred, which indulges in sectarian massacres, and when those people are traumatized, then sometimes they will respond in sectarian ways,” he told me.
He blames the “very disturbing” rise in prominence of Salafist groups on “the failure of the Arabs, Europe and others to allow the Syrian people to arm themselves.” Nonetheless, “this is a popular revolution,” so “the question of me feeling alienated from [it] does not arise,” said Yassin-Kassab. “The people are facing a genocide, a fascist regime which is actively destroying the people, the social fabric, the heritage, the infrastructure.
“In these terrible and traumatizing circumstances, I think the revolution is doing incredibly well,” he added, praising “some truly excellent leaders” who “speak in non-sectarian and intelligent terms,” as well as “thousands of local leaders on the ground of remarkable quality.”
Given that rebels are facing a brutal regime that is far better armed, in a country with a diverse population that has been suffering horrifically for more than two years, perhaps we are expecting too much of the opposition. After all, the problems it faces would likely be experienced by any other revolutionary movement under similar circumstances.
“The regime and the opposition are essentially different realities, so I do not think that you can feel disenchanted from both in the same way,” said Dr Thomas Pierret, lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “The regime has an address, a leader, it is unified and it has a clear pattern of action, that is, mass killing and destruction.
“The opposition is a very diverse reality,” he added. “Many Syrians certainly dislike one or several of these components, but at least the ‘opposition’ offers them a broad spectrum of political options. The regime does not.”
Nonetheless, opposition figures have taken on a huge responsibility, so they must act responsibly, not least because they are likely to be Syria’s next leaders. As such, their conduct now will shape the country’s future, a future that should hold promise and opportunity for all its citizens. Some might say that holding them to such high standards is naive and impractical given the realities on the ground.
In no way do I wish to downplay the sacrifices they have made, and continue to make. However, they are leading a revolution which, for the sake of Syria and its people, should be held to the highest standards, certainly higher than the tyrannical regime it seeks to replace. To demand any less would be to sell the country short.
The Gulf-based Syrian journalist is sceptical: “The majority rebels - what I call Syria’s street-corner boys - have given up the peak years of their lives to see their homes, schools and families gruesomely torn apart without respite. What started out as the bud of a new dawn has been decayed by accounts of their own brutality and retributive assaults... How are such damaged people going to be able to repair Syria?”
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Middle East Magazine
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash