Small Wars Journal

Aiding Opposition Civilian Authority in Syria

Fri, 06/07/2013 - 3:30am

In March a group of Syrian rebels posted a video on Facebook roughly translated as “The Arrival of the First Batch of Non-Lethal Weapons and the Beginning of Their Use in Homs.”[1] In the video, the rebels use spray bottles, chairs, and other items as weapons. They even overlaid a soundtrack of weapons fire that perfectly matched their theatrics. The mocking video was funny and its message was clear: guns and the people who carry them will determine Syria’s future.       

The United States, though, has chosen to see the problem differently—and incorrectly. In announcing non-lethal aid to Syria’s opposition earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States ought to help the Syrian opposition meet basic needs of civilians:[2]

“They’ve had difficulty doing that now. And some folks on the ground that we don’t support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help…We need to help them to be able to deliver basic services…You have a vulnerable population today that needs to be able to resist the pleas to engage in extremism.”[3]

This approach is based on the idea that popular attitudes determine the relative strengths of opposing sides in unconventional war. In this model, rebels capitalize on overt or latent anger at a government and provide benefits, such as basic services, to populations; populations in turn support whichever side they like better. Helping one party increase its service delivery would, theoretically, increase its popularity and therefore its strength. It is easy to see why we might focus on popular attitudes since grievances based on poverty or exclusion lend themselves to succinct explanations of rebellion, and rebel-produced media and histories invariably contend that their popularity explains their success.

 And yet, in civil wars like Syria’s, strength is not necessarily a product of popularity; often strength actually produces popularity. This means that helping friendly opposition parties deliver services will neither displace the formidable and effective Jubhat al-Nusrah, which the US has designated a terrorist group, nor hasten the fall of the Syrian regime.

This is because compliance is more important than winning hearts and minds. While popularity is helpful, rebels truly need people to provide material support such as food or shelter, share intelligence about regime activity, or maintain silence in the face of intimidation. These behaviors, not popular attitudes, comprise the support rebels cannot survive without. Explanations that focus on popular attitudes are inherently problematic, for the threat of punishment keeps most people from revealing their true preferences and often compels them to say whatever they think their interviewer wants to hear.[4]

In fact, attitudes and behavior can be incongruent. For example, residents of Kiswa, a suburb of Damascus, do not like the regime but they cannot support rebels on account of regime control.[5] Rebels have also encountered a version of this phenomenon in Aleppo. "We liberated the rural parts of this province,” said one, “We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn't. We couldn't rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them… people said they wanted to stay neutral."[6] Today, residents are skeptical of rebels but nevertheless obey them.[7]  Said one, "I'm…stuck between two sides making me to choose.  I just want to live my life." Another added, "…people here just accept whoever has power…I'm not with anyone.”[8]

Rebels offer safety in exchange for support. Because the regime is so unforgiving as to target even patrons of rebel-controlled bakeries,[9] rebels need force to protect those who support them more directly. When rebels destroy regime arms or bog down regime forces, there is both a decrease in regime military capability and a public message: the rebellion is viable and worth supporting. Force also underpins rebel governing functions, such as directing traffic,[10] keeping order in bread lines,[11] and performing public safety duties like detaining criminals.[12] These are not simply popular services; they are also part of a system of social order that keeps people safe, bolsters confidence in rebel authority, and enables support. 

Al-Nusrah’s ascendance follows a similar logic. When al-Nusrah led several Islamists groups in taking the Taftanaz airbase in January, the leader of another armed group acknowledged, “Jabhat al-Nusra
 have the Syrian people’s support
 because they are the only real fighters on the ground.”[13] And while al-Nusrah delivers services to communities in places like Deir Ezzor[14] and Aleppo,[15] these activities are feasible only because it has pushed out, kept out, or otherwise compelled the acquiescence of other actors, including other opposition forces.

Even organizations that seem to be purely civilian reveal an intimate relationship between civilian authority, force, and rebellion. In the town of Taftanaz in the spring of 2011, for instance, public demonstrations required armed protection from regime spies.[16] In Homs, civilian activist journalists know local commanders by name and associate with them amicably.[17] Today local civilian coordination councils have emerged to perform a range of governing activities. Some of these functions, such as detaining regime informers,[18] are overtly coercive and are direct extensions of armed opposition.

The effectiveness of other functions, such as enforcing dispute resolution or detaining common criminals, usually depends on some sort of implied coercive ability. Where this coercive ability is lacking, there have been problems. Unarmed jurists in Aleppo, for example, have had difficulty asserting themselves in the face of armed rebels with their own justice systems.[19] Elsewhere, armed groups have disrupted civilian council aid distribution. Despite their popularity, civilian councils in Kiswa and Suwayda, a district in southern Syria, find it difficult to distribute aid because the regime targets activists and aid recipients.[20] And where armed protection for protests was ad hoc in Taftanaz, civilian councils now often coordinate with armed rebels to protect protests.

As the similarity in governing functions suggests, distinction between “civilian” and “armed” opposition can be tricky. Some civilian council have armed opposition members in their leadership or have formed their own police forces made of rebel fighters, while some armed brigades include engineers, lawyers, and doctors that are responsible for logistics and aid distribution.[21]

The United States has said repeatedly that Assad must go. Despite this direct rhetoric, American action has been underwhelming, with humanitarian aid alone expected to advance US objectives on the ground. With Tuesday’s reports that administration officials are preparing to send lethal arms,[22] along with earlier reports that night-vision goggles and body armor were under consideration,[23] it appears as though the United States might be coming around to something the Syrians satirists have known for a while.


[2] Michael R. Gordon, “US Steps Up Aid to Syrian Opposition, Pledging $60 Million,” The New York Times, 28 February 2013.

[3] Anne Gearan, “Kerry: U.S. Must Help Counter Aid to Syria Opposition from Extremists,” Washington Post, 27 February 2013.

[4] Ilhan Tanir, “In the Land of the Free Syrian Army,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 4 October 2012.

[5] Correspondence with local residents.

[6] Erika Solomon, “Rural Fighters Pour into Syria’s Aleppo for Battle,” Reuters, 29 July 2012.

[7] “Aleppo’s Winter of Discontent,” BBC News, 12 December 2012.

[8] Erika Solomon, “Aleppo Residents Have Mixed Reactions  to  Syria Rebels,” Reuters, 31 July 2012.

[9] AFP, “US Condemns 'Vicious' Syrian Bakery Attack,” 24 December 2012.


Howard LaFranchi, “In War-Torn Syria, Tactic of Targeting Civilians Is on the Rise,” Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 2012.

[10] Jane Ferguson, “Inside Homs with the Free Syrian Army,” Al Jazeera, 8 February 2012.

[11] “Aleppo’s Winter of Discontent,” BBC News, 12 December 2012.

[12] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Syrian Rebels Sidetracked by Scramble for Spoils of War,” The Guardian, 27 December 2012.


Karin Laub, “Syrian Rebels Struggle to Run Broke Town,” Associated Press, 17 December 2012.


Ilhan Tanir, “In the Land of the Free Syrian Army,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 4 October 2012.

[13] Tracey Shelton, “Syrian Rebels Take Major Airbase in Taftanaz,” Global Post, 11 January 2013.

[14] Hassan Hassan, “All (Syrian) Politics Is Local,”, 20 December 2012.,1

[15] Correspondence with local residents.

[16] Anand Gopal, “Welcome to Free Syria,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2012.

[17] Jane Ferguson, “Inside Homs with the Free Syrian Army,” Al Jazeera, 8 February 2012.

[18] Ben Hubbard, “Syrian Rebels, Civilians Brace for Long Civil War,” Associated Press, 27 November 2012.

[19] Kristin Chick, “In Rebel-Held Aleppo, Syrian Civilians Try to Impose Law Through Courts, Not Guns,” Christian Science Monitor, 3 November 2012.

[20] Correspondence with local residents.

[21] Correspondence with local residents.

[22] Karen DeYoung, “Obama Preparing to Send Lethal Arms to Syrian Opposition, Officials Say,” Washington Post, 30 April 2013.

[23] Matt Spetalnick, “U.S. Readies New Non-Lethal Military Aid for Syria Opposition,” Reuters, 19 April 2013.


About the Author(s)

Sam Abrams is a Senior Associate with Caerus Associates (, a strategy design firm.


Bill M.

Fri, 06/07/2013 - 10:40am

I agree with the premise that those with the guns, if they choose to use them, in an internal struggle have a powerful advantage, but I disagree with the author's sole focus on tbe need for the U.S. to provide those arms. Many other nations are capable of providing that assistance. If they are not, then I suspect they have good reasons for not doing so.