Analysis: Rocky road to unity for Syria opposition

Syrian opposition is still far from closing ranks and deciding on a strategy for the day the battle is won.

Pictures of Bashar, Hafez Assad 311 (photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
Pictures of Bashar, Hafez Assad 311
(photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
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.
Kurds make up nine percent of the population in Syria, or two million people.
At 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.
What is 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 citizens.
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 opposition organizations.
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.
The 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 political beliefs.
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 slaughter.
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 Kurds.
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 defend themselves.
They are increasingly attracting new members, though they cannot expect to best regular troops in a pitched battle.
The first 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 Libya.
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.
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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 force.
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.