“THE AMERICAN HOLD IN SYRIA “Usually derided for its infighting or discarded as unnecessary, Syria’s political opposition shows the oppositions, misunderstandings and conflicting geopolitical interests upon which it had been founded. That its main political bodies have failed to overcome their inherent weaknesses and play a proactive role is unfortunate. But so too is the opposition’s Western and Arab partners’ striking failure to address the ways in which their own mixed signs, independent agendas and poor coordination have undermined the structures they ostensibly seek to empower. Each viable interpretation of the war would require the evolution of a credibly democratic opposition; for all its shortcomings, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces currently is alone in possibly meeting that analysis. To do so, however, it will need to dramatically bolster its presence on the ground; opposition backers will have to streamline their assistance, and all must develop a strategy to deal with the growing jihadi phenomenon.
The roots of the political opposition’s difficulties lie, first and foremost, within the oppressive domestic environment from which it emerged. The result has been a combination of exiles, and secular dissidents deprived of a real political constituency, also as Muslim Brothers geographically detached from their natural base. Little wonder that, because the uprising began, this diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets but also meaningful political experience and the means to evaluate their respective popular power.
In conferring a cast of legitimacy to exile-based umbrella groups – in October 2011, to the Syrian National Council; later, in November 2012, to the Coalition – on-the-ground activists were not endorsing a specific political leadership. Rather, they saw the political opposition because the uprising’s diplomatic expression, a body whose job essentially was to mobilise international support.
The problem is that this outlook was at sharp odds with that of relevant Western governments, Washington’s in particular. For the Obama administration, such direct military intervention never appears truly to possess been within the cards. Rather, it saw the advantage of getting the opposition to unite and proffer a more broadly appealing vision of the post-Assad future. In contrast, the opposition saw value in those tasks – made all the more difficult given its diversity and distance from the ground – only insofar as they were accompanied by substantially more Western support. Washington waited for the opposition to enhance itself; the opposition waited for Washington to empower it. Both shared the goal of a Syria without Assad, but neither developed a technique to realize the goal that took account of the other’s constraints, triggering a cycle of frustration and mistrust that discredited the political opposition and Western governments alike within the eyes of the uprising’s rank and file.
Possibly too further damaging to the opposition has been needed of coordination among its regional backers, ramifications of which are felt on the political and military fronts. Politically, competition between its most vital supporters, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has fuelled divisive intra-Coalition dynamics. This has proved to be a huge distraction. At critical points, it’s effectively ground Coalition activity to a halt.
Militarily, Saudi-Qatari fight is but one aspect of the region’s broader collapse to cooperate. This has helped create propitious conditions for more extremist groups to thrive. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), led by Salim Idris, is represented within the Coalition and has been endorsed – on paper a minimum of – by the opposition’s main international supporters as the lone channel for military support. But it enjoys scant leverage on the ground, debilitated not only by lack of meaningful Western backing but also by the widespread perception that it cannot control which rebel faction gets what. Rather, those decisions appear to be made in Doha and Riyadh. Too, well-armed militant organisations in need of weaponry and capital have alternative choices: loot from capturing regime arms depots; occasionally lucrative assets deriving from the control of oil facilities and border crossings; and plentiful private funding, chiefly from the Gulf.