Opinion

Collapse of Syrian opposition: disaster or opportunity?

The growing marginalization of Syria's government-in-exile could spur diplomatic progress to end war

February 28, 2014 7:00AM ET
Men calling for Syrian unity in a suburb of Damascus on Feb. 17, during a cease-fire between the group controlling the town and the regime.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Much like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, the Syria National Coalition (SNC) — the constellation of Syrian opposition groups currently backed by the United States and its regional allies — has never enjoyed much legitimacy or influence within Syria. Its only meaningful link to events on the ground has been the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which is headed by the military defectors who initially called themselves the Free Syrian Army and ostensibly reports to the coalition as its “government-in-exile.” Unfortunately, the SMC has enjoyed little more credibility than its civilian leadership in the SNC.

Many of the most significant rebel militias have explicitly and unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of both the SNC and the SMC, decrying them as exogenous tools of outside interests — this despite the massive and growing reliance of the militias themselves on foreign money, supplies and fighters. They have opted instead to form the so-called Islamic Front. Relations between various armed factions have since devolved into an open civil war (within the larger civil war) for northern Syria.

Salim Idriss, the former chief of staff of the SMC, has gone so far as to refer to the idea of a unified Free National Army as a “pipe dream” — words that seem prescient in light of the most recent developments.

Following the close of the second round of Geneva II talks, the SNC made the surprise announcement on Feb. 16 that it was relieving Idriss from his duties as the SMC’s chief of staff and replacing him with Brig. Gen. Abdullah al-Bashir. It also made renewed calls for sophisticated weaponry. It appears that these efforts will bear fruit, despite the SMC’s proven inability to effectively control and utilize the resources already being provided. 

Idriss has refused to recognize this decision from the government-in-exile — and, in fact, now refuses to recognize said government at all, severing all ties with the SNC and those forces that remain loyal to it. And he is not alone in going rogue: A number of the key SMC commanders have joined him. In essence, there are now two Supreme Military Councils; each refuses to recognize or coordinate with the other, and neither exerts much leverage on the ground.

What do these debilitating schisms among opposition groups mean for peace and reconciliation in Syria?

Little to offer

One critical effect of this development is that the already marginal influence of the SNC within Syria (by way of the SMC) has been dramatically reduced. This has important implications.

First, it suggests that a military intervention in Syria would be disastrous, since it would be unlikely to favorably change President Bashar al-Assad’s “calculus” and there is absolutely no chance that the “good rebels” — the so-called moderate groups that are willing to play ball with the U.S. — would be able to seize, wield or maintain power legitimately in the aftermath. Instead, such a move would likely launch an even more grievous phase of the civil war.

Second, if a deal is reached, the SNC will not be able to implement or enforce its side of the agreement, given that it has little credibility among the Syrian people and exerts no meaningful authority within the Syrian theater. 

What really matters is how the Syrian people feel about the rebels. Increasingly, the only ones who seem to recognize their legitimacy are their foreign backers.

During the Geneva talks, and in defiance of calls from the Syrian government for a more inclusive approach, the credible, indigenous political opposition groups were marginalized in favor of the Western and Saudi-backed SNC. In turn, the head of the Islamic Front rejected altogether the notion of a negotiated settlement and endorsed putting a bounty on the heads of those who participate. That is, none of the players with clout are even participating in the talks — yet. But if these more substantial actors were to take part in subsequent dialogues, the SNC would be further rendered superfluous.

Third, the SNC has little to offer at any negotiating table. They do not have the ability to enforce cease-fires — a chronic problem throughout the crisis that has only worsened over time. This means that subsequent negotiations with the coalition would entail the regime making concessions and receiving nothing in return.

Accordingly, the regime has decided that a better way forward is to orchestrate truces and cease-fires at the local and regional levels, bypassing the SNC, which has been hitherto unable to either coalesce into a legitimate interlocutor for the state with a coherent vision or set of demands, or develop the know-how or means to realize its objectives.

Impact on peace process

These facts should help put to rest the official narrative that Assad has lost “all credibility” with the Syrian people. Despite the confidence with which such proclamations are made, there is little empirical evidence to substantiate them and substantial evidence against the credibility of opposition groups. Beyond empty rhetoric and shallow anecdotes, no proof is ever offered.

In fact, most of the Syrian population appears to support the regime over the armed opposition, and these popular dynamics are only growing stronger as the opposition implodes. As has been argued elsewhere, it almost doesn’t matter how people feel about the regime precisely because it is the default: It will remain in power unless and until a sufficient portion of the population actively sides with the opposition (barring direct foreign military intervention). That is, what really matters is how the Syrian people feel about the rebels. And increasingly, the only ones who seem to recognize the SNC’s legitimacy are their foreign backers in the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, this recognition from abroad is not trivial. The Geneva Communique and subsequent talks were never about forging an agreement between the Syrian government and the political and armed opposition. Rather, they were focused on getting certain members of the international community, principally the United States and its regional allies, to stop perpetuating and escalating the conflict — thereby paving the way for, and increasing the viability of, a Syria-driven peace process. 

Accordingly, the one thing the SNC can provide the Syrian government through negotiations is its explicit endorsement of a regime-approved transition road map. While such an agreement would have little significance to most of the militias fighting on the ground, it would make it difficult for their patrons to justify continuing to train, arm or fund these groups in pursuit of their own geopolitical ends. This, in turn, would have a dramatic effect in helping to wind down the conflict.

In an attempt to play this one card remaining to it, the SNC has finally put forward a transition plan that, compliant with the terms of the Geneva Communique, does not bar Assad from the transitional government or subsequent elections and would potentially keep much of the government intact.

Here’s hoping the regime will know when to take yes for an answer.

Musa al-Gharbi is an instructor in the Department of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona, and an affiliate of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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