Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Opposition

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – The Opposition – Report dated 13 June 2012 (evening)

  • This is already a civil war -- Although the foreign participation in the conflict is small so far, it does appear to be growing rapidly, which leads to a warning:
  • War in our time -- Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc -- has become very much a matter of failed states and witches cauldrons of multiple actors -- state and non-state, domestic and foreign, political and non-political (i.e. criminal gangs). So far the conflict in Syria is a relatively straightforward political clash between the government and parts of the population; the lack of a single, unified 'national liberation front' is an open door for the development of a multi-faceted conflict, and the increasing foreign intervention bodes ill for this. Western and regional powers may, given all the problems in dealing with Syria, see covert intervention as their BATNA, but it is a Pandora’s box.
This report is on the Syrian opposition. There are many groups of which some are small and some inactive. It seems extraordinary to write a report about the Syrian opposition and leave out major historic players like the Communist Party or the National Salvation Front or the Damascus Declaration or the Reform Party of Syria, but since groups such as these have become less active, we have left them to one side to avoid confusion in an arena in which there are a plethora of groups. In the event of free democratic elections the multitude of Syrian political parties will again be very relevant. However the NCF Syria research team has identified the following key players. Our judgement is inevitably subjective and we may revise this list in subsequent reports but these are the groups we have noticed as significantly active in the past month or so. For the purposes of this report, they are subdivided into four sections: 1. The key internal groups 2. The key international groups 3. The Free Syrian Army 4. The major Kurdish groups:

The Key Internal Groups

National Coordination Committee

The National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), also known as the National Co-ordination Board (NCB) was formed last September in a congress in Damascus, where it is still mainly based. It is headed by veteran opposition figure Hussein Abdul Azim. It consists of 13 left-wing parties, three Kurdish political parties, and independent youth and activist movements.

Unlike the SNC, the NCC has called for dialogue with the government on the condition that the military is withdrawn from the streets, political prisoners are released and attacks on peaceful protesters cease.

The NCC is strongly against foreign intervention and no-fly zones, preferring economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures. The Committee has refused to engage in the Syrian government’s national dialogue initiative and is reluctant to become affiliated with the SNC for fear of the Muslim Brotherhood influence in the group.

Local Coordination Committee

The Local Co-ordination Committee (LCC) is an umbrella organisation that represents the various grassroots regional organising committees of activists across Syria. The initial local committees were central to the uprising in March last year, and over time have established greater co-ordination between themselves – both in terms of planning, documenting the uprising, informing the public, as well as political positions. The local committees are the closest to the events on the ground and the political will of the communities, and as such they include all political and religious affiliations in opposition to the government.

Local organising committees of the LCC are present in Dara, Homs, Banias, Saraqeb, Idleb, Hasaka, Qamishli, Der Ezzor, the Syrian Coast, Hama, Raqqa, Swayda’, Damascus suburbs, and Damascus.

The LCC is a council member of the SNC, but recently threatened to break away after accusing the SNC leadership of marginalising council members and acting alone on major decisions. The SNC leadership acknowledged the need for more inclusivity, in light of which Burhan Ghalioun resigned as head of the Council. The LCC welcomed the decision.

The Key International Players

The Syrian National Council

The Syrian National Council remain the lead external opposition group due to its financial backing from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and the support of the West. The most significant recent news in regards to the Syrian National Council is the election of Abdelbaset Sieda as its new leader. The top post of the SNC was supposed to rotate every 3 months but former head Burhan Ghalioun decided to step down after being re-elected to stop the Council from fragmenting.
Since its inception the SNC has been plagued with infighting. Such infighting resulted in prominent human rights activist, Haytham al-Maleh, and a small group of opposition activists splitting from the organisation to form the Syrian Revolutionary Patriotic Group in the aftermath of the first "Friends of Syria" conference. This was followed by the resignation of Fawaz Tello, another liberal activist. These examples of fragmentation are mostly related to the SNC's policy towards the Free Syrian Army and its support for the arming of militias within Syria.
The election of Mr Sieda, a Kurdish professor, has been seen as an attempt to unify the SNC with Kurdish and minority factions. In a statement to reporters he said “We will expand and extend the base of the council, so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade.” Mr Sayda, who was elected unopposed has received criticism from mainstream Kurdish factions. As with any Kurd that has aligned themselves with the Syrian National Council he has faced criticism for marginalising Kurdish issues for those of the Muslim Brother dominated council. In April 2012, he pledged the SNC's readiness to recognise the Kurds as a nation within Syria after the fall of the Assad government. However the Muslim Brotherhood dominated and Gulf backed Council will have to make significant steps if they are to gain any meaningful support from Syria's minorities.

The Al Assad family opposition

The United Nationals Democratic Alliance (UNDA) is headed by Dr Rifaat Al Assad who is the brother of the former president of Syria, Hafez Al-Assad and the uncle of the current president, Bashar Al Assad. He runs the group along with one of his three sons, Siwar. Rifaat has allies in Syria, particularly within the old guard and military. Externally, the UNDA has one of the largest Syrian émigré memberships. They also control a satellite TV station called the Arab News Network (ANN). Rifaat’s personal reputation, however, is controversial. In a recent interview with TIME magazine, the exile claimed that he had supporters all across Syria who call for his return. He also pointed out that ‘minorities are key’ in the struggle and while he does not support army defectors or the idea of western foreign military intervention, he would be pleased to see Arab intervention. The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (ODFS) is headed by Ribal Al Assad who is the son of Rifaat and cousin to the current president, Bashar Al Assad. Ribal is seen as having more extreme anti-government views than his father’s UNDA and he certainly has a higher political and media profile in the West. The ODFS is an independent protest group which promotes democracy, freedom and human rights throughout the Middle East.

The UNDA has recently joined a new secular group called the Syrian National Democratic Council (within which the UNDA is the largest component). Newly formed in Paris in mid-November 2011, during a conference to which representatives of all strands of the opposition were invited from across Europe, this secular group joins together UNDA, elements of the KDP, Independents, former Ba’ath Party and Syria’s Women’s party. A seventy member council was chosen and a nine member central committee elected.

Building the Syrian State

‘Building the Syrian State’ is a curious name for a political movement but it plays better in Arabic than in English: It was founded by Dr. Rim Turkmani and Louay Hussein. It is a small movement with a strong presence in the UK but we include it because it is currently active unlike many of the others. Describing themselves they write, “Hussein was the first political opposition figure to be arrested after the onset of the uprising in Syria last March and was released a few days later, after being tortured. He, together with colleagues, set up and ran the first public opposition conference within Syria, the Samiramis Conference, last June (2011). Since then, he and others have established the Building the Syria State current“. The group describes itself as 1. Opposed to military intervention. 2. Opposed to arming the rebels. 3. Opposed to reforming the government. They want regime change. 4. Opposed to foreign political interference supporting one specific party. 5. Opposed to economic sanctions. 6. They reject violence as a solution to the conflict. They believe that sectarian war will produce a sectarian solution, and not a democratic one.

The F.S.A.

The Free Syrian Army

The FSA has radically evolved since its creation in July 2011 by Col Riyad Mousa al-Asaad (not to be confused with the Syrian president Bashir al Assad). On the plus side it has grown from a young militia constituted of a small group of army deserters carrying light weapons into a 15,000 strong opposition group armed with weapons smuggled in from abroad. On the minus side it remains fragmented and is effectively a collection of local brigades and militias some of which have different local names and very few of which answer to Col Asaad the titular head of the FSA. The FSA has been carrying out deadly guerrilla attacks against the Syrian army in and around Idlib in Northwestern Syria and the more central town of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus. The FSA is no longer an ex-army opposition group; it has recruited civilians and various militant groups and has gained credibility to such a degree that other militant groups, not formerly part of the FSA, have decide to fight in the name of the FSA.

Most elements of the FSA remain hostile to the SNC with its equivocation about violent revolution. However, the FSA and the SNC have recently formed a liaison office to permit both groups to keep in direct communication with one another.

On the dark side, a few elements of the FSA have been responsible for sectarian action, notably against the Christian community in the city of Homs. 90% of the Christian in Homs have left the city, as a result of the actions of the notorious Al Farouk brigade of the FSA. Most left in March of this year following threats to the inhabitant of the Alhamidia, Bistan and Aldiwan districts of Homs who were asked by the gunmen to leave immediately or be shot. Al Farouq brigade includes Salafist gunmen from Iraq and Libya in its numbers.

The FSA is a Sunni Muslim group and most of their financial and weapons support comes from rich Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But arms and money has also been smuggled in from Libya through Lebanon. The growth of Islamist factions in Libya explains Libyan backing for the FSA.

The Major Kurdish Groups

The Kurdish National Council

The KNC’s leader, currently Abdul Hakim Bashar, is elected on a rotational basis to serve for three months and the council is formed of an alliance between several groups, the largest of which are Yakkiti (the KURDISH DEMOCRATIC UNION PARTY - This is the most prominent opposition within the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council; Sometimes called the “Yakkiti” party it is split into two factions) and the KDP (the KURDISH DEMOCRATIC PARTY has links with its Iraq sister party; It has strong grass roots support in Syria and is one of the top three Kurdish parties; Its policies are more pragmatic than those of the other Kurdish groups).
The KNC objective is an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria. This Kurdish group is reluctant to negotiate with the Assad government because of fears it may lose credibility at street level, and reluctant to throw its full weight behind the uprising, for fear of an Islamist successor government that may further marginalise Kurdish interests. With considerable numbers of Kurds in Syrian Kurdistan, Aleppo and Damascus, the KNC has the capability to mobilize against the Assad government, but has not done so.

With the Syrian uprising tilting towards sectarian conflict, the KNC lacks leverage in the absence of support from either the West or the Arabs.


PAYEDEH – This is the new name for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (formerly the PKK now also referred to as “PYD”, i.e. “Payedeh” or the Party for Unity and Development). This is the largest of the Kurdish groups. PKK members are said to be able to move freely inside Syria, are allowed to bear arms and launch propaganda campaigns. If true, this shows a significant change in Syrian policy, which had banned the PKK’s activities in 1999 as a result of an agreement with Turkey. PKK elements in Syria have also been reported to be working in cooperation with Syrian government forces to stop mass revolts against the al-Assad government in northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo, whose residents have close ties with Turkey.

PYD have been criticised by other opposition factions over their possible collaboration with Damascus. There have however been recent clashes between PYD and supporters of Bashar Al Assad’s government. The most recent report of such a clash was on May 9 in Aleppo. Although it remains unclear if the PKK has connections to the Syrian government, a PYD controlled Kurdish region in Syria would certainly be a worry to Turkey.