Syria Deeply Asks: What is the State of Syria’s Opposition Ahead of Geneva Talks?

On Nov. 22, seven of the largest non-extremist fighting brigades in Syria came together to form the Islamic Front.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The alliance has since been touted as the country’s “new” moderate opposition, compared to al-Qaida-linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Syria in Iraq.The Islamic Front is seen by many as having the military power and on-the-ground clout to eclipse the Syrian National Council, the political opposition-in-exile, and its allied armed opposition, the Supreme Military Council. 

*Yesterday, the U.S. withdrew its nonlethal support for SNC-backed rebels in northern Syria after the Islamic Front took over several of their buildings. The advance forced FSA Commander Gen. Salim Idris to flee the country for Turkey, in what many saw as a symbolic and embarrassing incident. Headed into the second round of Geneva peace talks in January, Syria’s political opposition could be facing a dearth of support among both its constituents and among the international community.** *

We asked a trio of experts to weigh in on the state of the original Syrian opposition, and what it must do to stop itself from fading into obscurity.

Ayham Kamel, associate, Eurasia Group: 

The opposition, throughout different stages, has really lost considerable legitimacy, either because of its deteriorating relationship with its Western counterparts and regional allies, or most importantly with its support base in Syria and the rebel groups that are actually fighting the regime. Since day one, the main problem for the opposition has been to create a coherent political military front against the regime, and that has proven rather difficult.

There is a definitely an effort going on right now by the Saudis to revive the original opposition. But that will prove very difficult, especially given that the Geneva talks will get anywhere in terms of substantive changes. It will likely revert back to the cycle where it’s the physical developments on the ground that dictate the conflict. And what’s happening on the ground is that regime forces are gaining ground and expanding their presence across the country, while the opposition is clearly much more disintegrated and divided into clear lines of radicals and moderates, with the moderates losing power by the day.

The rebels since day one didn’t answer to any form of political opposition and were independent in their decision making and policy making. And that has been a problem for a while. What’s new in the current environment is that radical Islamic forces are gaining more traction and fighting power, and they are more dominant in the field. What is also new is that the opposition has gone through so many cycles of change that inside Syria, whether it’s among rebel fighting groups or the civilian population, it has much less credibility on the ground.

Riad Kahwaji, chief executive officer, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA):

So far they are the body recognized by the Arab League, so they have that advantage. They’ve been recognized by a number of governments. But the question should be whether they will have any influence on the ground in Syria if they reach an agreement with the government at Geneva II, meaning, “Will they be able to get the rebel forces on the ground to adhere to any of the agreements they reach at Geneva?” And that’s the big question.

What the moderate Syrian opposition lacks is a leader born out of the actual struggle on the ground who can go out and negotiate. When we have had revolutions in other places, there’s always a symbolic leader. In Syria, we don’t have anybody. We have factions all over the place that once fought under the FSA command.

They’ve lost their influence on the ground. They need to reconnect with people to reestablish legitimacy, otherwise they have just become figureheads. They must do this if they want to be dealt with in a serious manner. There’s no other choice.

Christopher Phillips, lecturer at Queen Mary University and associate fellow at Chatham House:

It seems to be a one-way street in terms of the increasing power of what might be broadly called extremists, at the expense of moderates like the Supreme Military Council and the original FSA. Whether or not that means the “death of the moderates” or not is a different question.

It’s possible to imagine a different situation whereby the extremists are rejected by the majority of Syrians and alternative moderate forces emerge. What will be interesting is whether the FSA and SMC are too tainted by association to fill that gap, and whether alternatives, perhaps from civil society, will emerge to fight ISIS.

Most people in Syria don’t like ISIS or want them, but they’re the ones providing aid and security, given the FSA and SMC can’t provide that. I don’t think it’s so much that their ideology has been discredited.

Idris and the SMC still have international support and legitimacy. The SNC is in the most perilous position. Geneva could be a potential turning point or a death knell for them. Most Western diplomats are putting a lot on Geneva. It’s not the SNC’s last hope, but it’s going to be very important. If they can get someone in the SNC to agree to negotiate, that might convince the international community that they’re still okay. But if not …

When historians write this up, they will probably say that there was never a point in which the SNC formed a realistic government-in-waiting. Two points in particular stand out to me as really significant.

The first was their inability in summer 2012 to make strong connections with the fighters on the ground. There was a massive surge of rebel victories on the ground at that time  that’s when Aleppo fell  and the SNC was unable to forge alliances and connections with what was then a large, moderate set of fighters on ground.

The other was when Moaz al-Khatib resigned in April 2013. He was a realistic reconciliation figure that a lot of Syrians on both sides could rally around. He resigned because of interference from Qatar, because of their insistence of forming a government in exile and elbowing him to one side. And that was when it became clear that the SNC wasn’t its own actor, that it was heavily formed by outside actors. Khatib famously said: “I will negotiate with the regime,” over a year ago. He said he’d do exactly what they’re now asking the SNC to do.

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