In recent months, opposition movements in Syria have vainly tried to find some
common ground that could bring together the ethnic and religious communities
that make up the country. Their failure to do so goes a long way to explain why
they did not get much needed international recognition and help the way Libya
rebels did. Assad still feels secure in the knowledge that he represents the
only legitimacy in his country, and believes he can still save his regime at the
price of some concessions.
What happened last week demonstrated how far
the opposition is from closing ranks and deciding on a strategy for the day the
battle is won.
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The National Kurdish Council representing most of the
Kurdish minority announced January 18 it was suspending its participation in the
other opposition organizations, having been unable to obtain assurances
regarding the recognition of the specificity of the Kurdish people as a
fundamental part of Syria. Created by the Kurdish National Congress October 26,
the Council comprises no less than 10 parties and 150 public figures. It was
tasked with opening a dialogue with opposition organizations in order to stress
the need for a solution to the Kurdish problem in a democratic way that is on
the basis of self-determination within the framework of a united Syria. The
Council was given two months to get results, but to no avail: no opposition
organization was ready to tackle the issue. Nevertheless, it does not intend to
turn to the regime, since all contacts have been shut down; Assad has yet to
release Kurdish militants arrested during the demonstrations, in spite of the
amnesty announced according to the demands of the Arab League.
up nine percent of the population in Syria, or two million people.
least half a million do not enjoy Syrian citizenship – or any other – and are
deprived of social and other rights. The government is waging an all out war to
“arabize” them. They are forbidden to speak their own language and cannot
register their children under Kurdish names. This had led to a number of
flare-ups in the past usually ending in bloody repression. At the beginning of
last year, Assad, in an attempt to defuse the situation, promised to look into
the problem of the stateless Kurds, but so far has done nothing.
worthy of notice is that even opposition organizations fighting dictatorship in
order to establish a secular democracy are not willing to pledge their support
for a fair solution to the Kurdish problem.
In an unrelated development
also January 18, a hundred Alawite intellectuals posted a declaration on
Facebook indicating they supported “the freedom intifada” of the Syrian people
and called on all Alawites to take part in toppling the regime and help set up a
new Syrian republic based on law, democracy and equality between all
They said their views were shared by many in their community
fearing the present unrest will turn into a full scale civil war. They asked all
opposition organizations to condemn manifestations of hatred towards other
communities that would endanger Syria. For the first time a significant number
of Alawite notabilities – belonging to Assad’s own community, which rules the
country – dared go on record to say they were cutting off their ties with their
brothers who are in power, because they are threatening to plunge the country in
a civil war, which would endanger the whole community. In other words, in
Assad’s own community there are many who do not believe he will be able to
weather the crisis. Here again, there has been no reaction from
The main body of the opposition can be divided
in three groups. The National Syrian Council, the National Syrian Coordination
of forces fighting for democratic change and the Free Syrian Army.
most important opposition group is the National Syrian Council, established in
Istanbul on October 2, which includes a number of mainly Sunni opposition
movements: the liberal “Damascus declaration for democratic change”, established
in 2005; the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently the majority group in the Council;
several independent Sunni personalities; representatives from the Kurdish
minority, and of the Assyrian Christian minority. At the head of the Council is
Borhan Gallion, who lives in France, and is not affiliated with any group. The
Council’s official platform is to establish a secular country that will not
discriminate its citizens on the basis of sex, nationality, religion or
This program appears to be a smokescreen, perhaps at
the instigation of the Muslim Brothers. The fact that the Council is not
prepared to open a dialogue with the Kurds can only reinforce suspicions
concerning the way it will deal with minorities. The Council is against setting
up militias on a community basis and rejects external intervention – while
calling on the international community to protect Syrian citizens against the
security apparatus of the regime. An ambiguous position to say the least.
Without outside military intervention, how can the citizens be protected?
Observers sent by the Arab League were powerless to stop the
The National Syrian Coordination body is the umbrella
organization of leftist parties, including a communist party, a Kurdish party
and some opposition figures. It also declined to open a dialogue with the
The Free Syrian Army is made of deserters from the regular army
and is headed by Col. Riad al- Assad; according to him there are 20,000
soldiers, though the actual number is not known. Equipped with light weaponry,
they try to sabotage military or security installations and teach people how to
They are increasingly attracting new members, though
they cannot expect to best regular troops in a pitched battle.
two organizations – National Syrian Council and National Coordination – signed a
cooperation agreement on December 31; they are to determine jointly how best to
fight, manage the transition period as well as what will be the nature of the
new Syria. However it is hard to see how the two – one Islamist and the other
extreme Left – could agree. The Council also managed to come to an
agreement with the Free Syrian Army on January 12 to coordinate opposition
activities and protect the population while encouraging defectors to join and
respecting the independence of the Free Army.
Another opposition figure
is Abdel Halim Haddam, former vice-president and Foreign Minister of Hafez
al-Assad who was forced to flee the country in 2006 because of his opposition to
Bashar Assad and now lives in France.
He has set up a “Front of National
Salvation” comprised mainly of old guard figures; he has not been welcomed in
the Council because of his past. He would like the Security Council to intervene
and even to send troops to Syria.
In spite of ongoing efforts at
unification the opposition is hopelessly divided; it has a dialogue with the
Arab League but is not recognized as the legitimate representative of Syria. The
Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s membership still maintains an open
dialogue with Bashar Assad and is not ready to ask for Security Council
intervention. Arab leaders fear outside interference would lead to a
bloody civil war and wholesale destruction as was the case in
Russia remains Syria’s staunch ally, and would veto any Security
Council attempt to impose sanctions. It has sent warships to the port of Tartus
in a show of solidarity. Iran actively helps Assad and is allegedly
involved in repressing demonstrations; Hezbollah, who needs Assad in power to
keep supply lines from Iran open, also supports the regime.
In spite of
bombastic declarations by a number of Western leaders who say Assad’s regime is
doomed, Syrian opposition has not been able to draft Sunni middle classes in
Damascus and Aleppo into the fight; Christian and Druse minorities are still
sitting on the fence; even the Kurds, not having received suitable answers from
opposition organizations, are not ready to enter the fray.
The head of
the Syrian National Council went to Cairo last Saturday to urge the Arab League
and Arab ministers to take the Syrian crisis to the Security Council; he would
like to see neutral zones set up between the army and population centers as well
as no-fly zones; perhaps also some form of international protection
It is not likely to happen anytime soon. The League will probably
abide by the recommendation of the head of the observers delegation, who has
said the delegation has contributed to a decrease in violence and in the number
of victims. Not all agree with that hopeful statement. What is beyond doubt is
that there will be no quick end to the Syrian drama.