Since the start of the uprising in Syria, countries supporting the opposition groups wanted to unify them. They organized a series of the so-called “Friends of Syria” conferences one after another only to adjourn without realizing their objective. In most cases, the meetings created more discord than opportunities for unity.
The unrealized Eid Ceasefire (hudna; quiet) proposed by the new UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, exposed the level of disunion among the armed groups as well. Although the government, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) all agreed to the four-day quiet, violence during the religious holiday continued unabated and it may have gotten worse. The FSA attacks on Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo during the same period, for example, added another dimension to the conflict and offered a preview of what may happen in the future.
The failure to honor the ceasefire and the attacks on Kurdish neighborhoods add credibility to Brahimi’s pessimistic assessment of the crisis in Syria. He has been reminding leaders of every country he’s visited of the gravity of the situation and warning them that it will get worse unless the world community act in a constructive way. That is not lowering expectations; it is statement of facts. While defections of high ranking officers stopped, signaling the purging of the Syrian military from unreliable elements, the opposition forces are outgrowing there leadership frame. Instead of coalescing into a single block with a single agenda, the political and military oppositions continued to splinter into disparate organizations each of which claims that it represents the Syrian people.
The SNC that was hastily established in Turkey lacks unity, vision, will, and popular support inside Syria. But it enjoys the widest support from Western and some Arab and Islamic countries, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. It is dominated by exiled dissidents including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The NSC has links to the Free Syrian Army and is believed to channel financial and military support to select groups from among the Free Syrian Army. But the SNC inability to reign in extremist groups caused some western leaders tosecond guess their earlier decisions.
The National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change (NCC short for National Coordinating Committees) consists of representatives of left-leaning and Kurdish opposition parties inside and outside Syria. It called for regime change through peaceful means. Most leaders of the NCC oppose “the militarization of the uprising” and support armed struggle only for self-defense. They lack international support (compared to the SNC), although China and Russia have shown interest in talking with them. If there is going to be a political settlement, the position of the NCC might end up being the basis for an agreement.
In August 2011, another group of Syrian political parties announced the creation of another coalition, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC). Leading figures of some thirty groups met in Istanbul on August 9, 2011 to form this entity. The coalition has no political platform and no known mechanism for influencing events inside Syria.
Most recently, the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR) was created to provide a voice for the youth inside Syria. Leaders of the SCSR argue for a dual-track plan of action, civil and military, to overthrow the regime. Until the writing of this article, the SCSR is believed to have some representatives in the Syrian National Council but it did not formally join it.
The earliest political and advocacy entity established to organize the movement against the Syrian regime is the loosely connected Local Coordination Committees of Syria (Lijan al-Tansiq; LCC). The LCC consists of a network of local groups that organize and report about protests, arrests, kidnappings, and killings. The LCC is committed to civil disobedience and opposed to armed resistance and international military intervention.
The armed factions are just as fragmented as the political groups. They only share the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime. But they have radically different agendas for post-Assad Syria and they have different international backers, too.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is generally referenced as the main armed entity. It was founded by some Sunni military officers who defected in the early months of the uprising. The head of this organization is Riad al-As`ad (Riad Mousa al-Asaad) who defected in the summer of 2011 and settled in Turkey. He announced in August that he was moving his command center to inside Syria but, according to news reports, he returned to Turkey few days later. The absolute majority of armed groups portray themselves as affiliates of the FSA and they display the latter’s logo and colors. Even many of the Islamist groups operate under the banner of the FSA. Islamists’ affiliation with the FSA is less about operational, command and control matters and more about “mainstreaming” themselves. Since Turkey, Qatar, and some Western nations are willing to support the FSA, armed groups sought its cover in order to avoid the label of “terrorism.” The fact that the FSA leadership accepted the ceasefire but most armed groups affiliated with it continued to fight indicates that the membership is nominal and symbolic. This reality bolsters some observers’ conclusion that the FSA has no actual influence over armed groups inside Syria—at least not over all of them.
The Military Council for the Syrian Revolution (MCSR) is another self-declared military leadership organization believed to have local command and control centers in most Syrian provinces. It is headed by another defecting officer, Mustafa Sheikh. Unlike the FSA, this organization is believed to operate from within Syria.
The National Syrian Army (NSA) is a third entity founded by Mohamed Haj Ali, another officer who defected in the fall of 2011. Officers of this organization are criticized by fighters affiliated with the FSA for waiting too long before defecting. They are also accused of being created and co-opted by some Western nations in preparation for post-Assad era. Some observers contend that the NSA was created by France after succeeding in helping Manaf Tlas, a long time insider and personal friend of Assad, defect.
The fourth organization is the Joint Military Leadership for the Syrian Revolution (JMLSR) headed by Adnan Sillu, a Major-General who defected from the Syrian army in July 2012. The board of the JMLSR consists of about twenty officers said to represent armed groups that are active in the northern and central provinces.
In addition to these military leadership organizations, many other armed groups operate independently or under the leadership of the so-called Consultative Council of Jihad (CCJ). Some armed groups have multiple affiliations, others switch affiliation often. Some groups label themselves as “special ops” and have no affiliation. They specialize in kidnappings, executions, and assassinations of Syrian army soldiers and persons accused of being shabbiha (regime supporters).
In all cases however, the large umbrella leadership organizations serve as liaison offices to coordinate action among the various armed formations, provide financial support, and distribute arms and ammunition. They depend on foreign sponsors to maintain influence and control and operate sophisticated media campaigns to promote their activities and attract foreign sponsors.
On the ground, armed groups form at the level of brigades (sing. katibah) consisting of five to several dozen fighters. Some brigades may unite to form larger contingents (sing. liwa’), which then operate under the banner and nominal command of one of the aforementioned military leadership councils.
Recent reports from inside Syria indicate that most of the arms and ammunition are being stored, not distributed to fighters. Such a strategy of hoarding and stockpiling weapons signals the level of distrust among the various fighting groups and their desire to prepare for the battles for power and control in the future. That means that even with Assad out, infighting will most likely persist. Even if peace were to be attained in Syria, these weapons can be used later to destabilize neighboring countries and carry out attacks inside or outside Syria.
Given the multitudes of political organizations and military councils, it is impossible for any one country at this time to exert a significant level of control over the armed opposition. Regional and world powers have different reasons for supporting opposition groups the same way countries that are supporting the Syrian government do so for different purposes. Their initial support of the opposition groups and the supplying of arms created a fiend that cannot be easily controlled. Consequently, even a political settlement will most likely further fracture the opposition and may lead to factional infighting. If that were to happen, it will inflict even more devastation on a population that is on the brink of catastrophe.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.