By Laura RUFALCO
July 7th 2014
When one studies the Syrian civil war it is quite noticeable how little it is said about the political opposition to the Assad regime, especially in the period after 2012. Deeply divided, with little or no connection to the Syrian armed combatants, the Syrian political opposition is mainly situated outside Syria. If the exiled members of this opposition are the ones going to international meetings and peace conferences, the Syrian people and armed groups combating inside Syria do not recognize them as their representatives. Lack of legitimacy and diverging interests are distancing foreign backers as well. As the possibility of a diplomatic issue for the conflict seems to fade away, many questions concerning the importance of the political opposition in Syria are raised. This articles aims to give an overview of the most important Syrian political opposition groups and to analyze whether they are still relevant or not.
- The Syrian National Council (SNC).
President: George Sabra.
Announced on October 2011 in Istanbul, the SNC was first considered the most important political opposition group. Supposed to work as an umbrella organization, the SNC aimed at coordinating the different groups opposing Assad within and outside Syria, coordinating political organizations and armed groups:
“ The SNC was set up by a coalition of groups and individuals, including signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005), the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, various Kurdish factions, representatives of the Local Coordination Committees, other political parties or platforms including Damascus Spring and the National Bloc, representatives of the Alawi and Assyrian communities, and some independent figures. By March 2012, the SNC claimed it comprised 90 percent of the opposition parties and movements, although this claim has been challenged by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and others.”
However, differences within the SNC prevented the coalition of becoming a homogenous group. As a matter of fact, they become deeply divided and completely disconnected with the reality of the battleground in Syria. Furthermore, conflicts with the Free Syrian Army further undermined SNC credibility. As the SNC lost its legitimacy, foreign backers of the rebel groups pressured the Syrian opposition to form another coalition that would be able to coordinate the opposition. In November 2012, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State of Obama administration, affirmed that the SNC could ‘no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition’, which allowed the creation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCS). Nowadays, the SNC continues to exist in the figure of its coordinators in exile, but the group is marginalized, ineffective and has no negotiation force.
- The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCS)
President: former: Ahmad Al-Assi Jarba, actual: Hadi al-Bahara.
Created with international support, the NCS was formed in November 2012 during a meeting in Qatar. Its primary goal was accomplishing what the SNC was unable to do: to accommodate different opposition groups, in order to earn international recognition and funding. The NCS was initially formed by a council of 60 seats, with the SNC occupying over one third of the council seats. Nowadays, the NCS has more than one hundred seats and the SNC has no longer the majority. Conflict arose when part of the NCS decided to form an interim government, recognized by foreign powers such as the USA, the EU, the Gulf States and the Arab League, where it occupies Syria’s seat. Diverging positions between the prime ministers and the leader of the NCS were common ground: the first Prime Minister, Mr. Hitto, renounced and was replaced by Ahmed Tomeh. Differences between pro-Saudis and pro-Qataris deeply divided the NCS.
More diversified than the SNC, the NCS does not include hard-line Islamists groups- being considerate as an illegitimacy organization by most of them. Another absent in the NCS is the National Co-ordination Committee, an opposition group based in Syria and contrary to armed action against the government. But the NCS was able to gather support from the FSA and to coordinate different groups such as the Local Coordination Committees.
However, as the SNC, the National Coalition has been struggling with inside infighting, power disputes and lack of international proper funding, which leaves the group with very little room for negotiation manoeuvres. Facing this reality and the declining foreign support, the National Coalition was forced to formulate a transition plan that does not exclude Bachar al-Assad completely from power, a movement that is deeply contrary to its primary goal: to oust the Alawite president.
- National Co-ordination Committee.
The National Co-ordination Committee is a non-armed opposition group formed in June 2011 by several political parties. This Committee has important differences concerning the SNC and the National Coalition, mainly the fact that the Co-ordination Committee is based in Syria and is not completely opposed to engage negotiations with the Regime. It demands a peaceful transition based on the release of political prisoners, the ending of Assad’s Regime and an immediate cease-fire between the Syrian Army and rebel groups. Even if they recognize the importance of the FSA, they are intrinsically against violent action and foreign intervention, being averse to the predominance of religious groups in the Syrian opposition. Being antagonized by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar for their willingness to negotiate with the Regime, the Co-ordination Committee turned itself towards Russia, Iran and China, countries that are supposedly open to support negotiations between Bachar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. As other opposition groups, the Co-ordination Committee faces internal divergence concerning important points such as whether or not they should negotiate with the Regime and whether or not to support the armed action of the FSA.
In September 2012, the Committee organized the Syria Salvation Conference, in Damascus, composed by several opposition groups. The conference was said to be tolerated by the Regime, which continued, however, to persecute some members of the opposition parties.
National Co-ordination Committee, composition:
- National Democratic Rally
– Democratic Arab Socialist Union
– Arab Revolutionary Works Party
– Communist Labor Party
– Syriac Union Party
– Democratic People’s Party
- Together for a Free Democratic Syria.
- Kurdish parties:
– Democratic Union Party.
– Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (withdrew from the Committee to join the Kurdish National Council).
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The three main political opposition groups inside and outside Syria share a few common characteristics: they are facing internal divergence concerning major aspects of their action, which prevents them to be a united organization with power to become a real political threat or alternative to the Regime. They are allegedly accused of defending foreign countries interests in Syria, instead of defending the civilians affected by the conflict. Being unable to completely organize themselves and to be a serious alternative to the Islamic armed opposition, the political opposition is not able to earn the trust of the Syrian people. Facing domestic and international discredit, they do not have the power to force the Regime to engage in negotiations, nor to coordinate the rebel groups inside Syria. Trapped within a militarized competition, the political opposition in Syria seems to be a forgotten, powerless actor struggling to exist in this complex scenario that is the Syrian Civil War.
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Author Unknow. Syria crisis : Guide to armed and political opposition. BBC News, 10/17/2013. Last consulted on 07/07/2014, on: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-15798218
AL-GHARBI, Musa. Collapse of Syrian opposition: disaster or opportunity? Al Jazeera America, 02/28/2014. Last consulted on 07/08/2014, on http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/syrian-national-counciloppositionwar.html
BARNARD, Anne; CUMMING-BRUCE, Nick. Syrian rebels sketch peace plan that omits demand for Assad’s ouster. The New York Times, 02/12/2014. Last consulted on 07/09/2014, on http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/world/middleeast/syria.html
O’BAGY, Elizabeth. Syria’s Political Opposition. Middle East Security Report 4, Institute for the Study of War, April 2012. Last consulted on 07/08/2014, on https://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Syrias_Political_Opposition.pdf
 Author Unknow. Coalitions. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.