Small Wars Journal

The Syrian Opposition: A Strategic Analysis

Thu, 09/29/2011 - 4:09pm

Bashar al-Assad’s days as the dictator of Syria are running out. The U.S. and E.U. are expecting yet another regime change in the Middle East. This article utilizes the available data to offer analyses about the major groups opposed to the Baathist regime and about possible outcomes of the struggle.

End of Baathist Syria

Governments around the world are preparing for a post-Assad Syria knowing the end of a brutal autocracy is nigh. Already sanctions have been imposed on the Baathists in Damascus by the U.S. and E.U. But foreign administrations fear Syrian society could disintegrate along religious and ethnic lines among Alawis, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Assyrian and other Christians, Kurds, and others just as Iraq did when Saddam Hussein was ousted. The Syrian Revolution generates qualms of Islamist ascendency as well – stoked by events in Afghanistan and more recently in Egypt. Additionally, the public and policymakers of economically-strained Western nations are wary of having to undertake yet another military intervention either with boots on the ground like in Afghanistan and Iraq or with air power like in Libya.

Since demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 there have been numerous accounts of the opposition movement’s diversity. Some have focused on individual leaders, others on whether protesters support or reject particular opposition councils. Yet other studies have analyzed a few groups and forums; one even examined the supposed failure to create a Benghazi-like transition council. What remains hitherto fundamentally absent, yet necessary to comprehend the disparate elements of the Syrian revolution, is a strategic analysis of the groups involved and the trajectory of their activities.

Much of the information coming from inside Syria remains difficult to verify for opposition members who provide details still fear retaliation from the Baathist government. Consequently, lack of specifics remains a major shortcoming of analyses about the Syrian opposition. There has been too much generality and very little specificity to guide policymakers, diplomats, and generals planning for what may lie ahead in that country – including whether intervention beyond sanctions may or may not become necessary. Moreover pro-violence, defensive, and non-violent opposition organizations are in regular communication and share affiliations based on the common cause of seeing Assad’s regime gone. As the situation within Syria changes, so do the ideological positions and responses of those groups.

Events in Syria are beginning to speed up just as happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya before those countries’ autocratic leaders were forced from office. Assad is losing allies rapidly. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran which shares religious ties via Shiism with Assad and his Alawis, and so initially seemed to be backing Damascus with military advice and may still be assisting with intelligence and cyber technology, is concluding that the Baathist regime cannot win by force alone. Iranian diplomats have already met with Syrian opposition representatives in Europe, seeking to maintain Tehran’s influence in a new Syria. Regime change is coming to Syria, and its consequences will impact the global order in one way or another.

Nonviolent Opposition Organizations

Four opposition groups are currently major nonviolent players in the uprising against Assad’s dictatorship, yet function in different capacities. The Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) was created in August 2011 to provide a united body for directing Assad’s ouster and recreating civil society. It is a conglomerate of more than forty disparate groups – including the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – based both inside and outside Syria. Most recently it has called on the U.N. to establish a no-fly zone to protect civilians from aerial bombardment and the International Criminal Court to indict Assad. Established in April, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) represent dissidents in individual cities and towns who organize local protests, gather detailed data about repression and freedom-fighting, and disseminate information on the revolution to both internally and externally. Similar in many ways to the LCC is the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union (SRCU) which was established in May 2011, but it operates largely in and around the capital city of Damascus. Most recently, in September 2011, the National Council of Syria (NCS or SNC) came into being with the goal of providing a coordinating association that interacts with other nations and international agencies. One common denominator of these four groups has been their insistence on “Altenseekiet” or non-violence coupled with abjuring international intervention (at least for now).

Operational and informational coordination between the organizations is quite remarkable. These four opposition groups document, share, organize, and transfer information outside the country to ensure it is placed on Facebook, blogs, and other web sites which cannot be censored by Assad’s cronies. Yet, drawbacks remain in part due to violent conditions on the ground. So while the amount of information provided by the opposition is voluminous and detailed, it often comes from sources that must remain anonymous – creating problems of verification for news media but valuable from an intelligence perspective.

What distinguishes these four opposition groups from the signatories to the Damascus Spring’s Manifesto of the 99 in the year 2000 is that for the most part they are not artists and intellectuals. Even though some current opposition leaders have worked against the dictatorship in Damascus for many decades and were involved in the events of 2000, they are more focused on the groundwork necessary to oust a hitherto well-entrenched dictatorial elite that views killing citizens as preferable to losing power. The non-violent opposition organizations are also far more reticent about their leaders inside Syria for when internal dissidents’ names become known to the Damascene government, those individuals are arrested, tortured, even killed.

A Defensive Opposition Group?

One group of armed defectors is known as the Free Officers’ Movement. This Syrian military dissident organization has been on the scene in its current form since early July. Unlike the Altenseekiet-style organizations, however, the FOM says it will use violence but only when necessary for protective purposes. It is not ready to declare war on the Assad regime. Rather the FOM sees its role, at least for now, as “supporting the peaceful revolution and the unity of the army, helping other officers and soldiers defect, and protecting the Syrian people.” However its founder, former Assad loyalist Colonel Hussein Harmoush, was captured by the regime. The FOM is at an organizational disadvantage, therefore, as the revolt gains steam across Syria.

Free Officers’ Movements have been a frequent phenomenon across the Middle East. One such entity briefly challenged the emerging dictatorship of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran during the 1930s. Another one proved to be more successful in Egypt during 1952 where it was led to power by Colonel (late President) Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Iraq during 1958 FOM officers directed an anti-monarchist coup; subsequently new members attempted to oppose Saddam Hussein in 2002. Similar groups sought political influence in Lebanon during 1961 and in Yemen between 1961 and 1962. Soldiers in a FOM brought Colonel (later Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution) Muammar Qaddafi to power in Libya during 1969. Another FOM’s members were accused of attempting to overthrow the monarchy of Jordan in 1974. Although not directly the heir to any of the previous FOMs, Syria’s one would be aware of those earlier groups’ tradition of military activism and coup d'états. Whether they will follow the footsteps of their predecessors elsewhere in the Middle East remains to be seen. In Syria, the FOM may ultimately prove to be less effective as an independent entity and more capable under the umbrella of a united opposition to Assad.

Violent Opposition Factions

Some other opposition factions and individual dissidents favor “Tenseekiet” or a violent ouster of the Baathists. Prominent among those calling for an armed uprising is Ashraf Miqdad, President of the Australian branch of the Damascus Declaration but originally from Dara’a, who believes that either international intervention, armed rebellion, or both will be unavoidable. Likewise the Chairman of the Syrian Revolutionary Council of the Coordination Committees (SRCCC), Muhammad Rahhal, does not recognize the SNC and suggests that the opposition must deploy munitions in order to succeed. The recently-formed and Paris-based Syrian Coalition of Secular and Democratic Forces (SCSDF) augments citizens’ use of force by explicitly calling “on the international community to adopt a United Nations resolution to protect civilians” by intervening along the lines of NATO’s presence in Libya.

A more likely source of opposition-led civil war is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA, led by former air force General Riad Asaad and six other officers who broke allegiance to the incumbent regime in late July, counts on military defectors to conduct antigovernment operations from Turkey and Lebanon. It calls for nothing less than an “armed rebellion,” believing that ousting the Baathists will not be possible “except by force and bloodshed.” Riad Asaad himself has launched a media campaign to drum up support for an armed revolution. The FSA hopes events in Syria will take on a Libya-like character through its members securing a portion of northern Syria, convincing NATO to provide aerial protection and armaments, and gradually seizing the rest of the country. Indeed even some dissidents who are not FSA members see soldiers’ defections as producing an opposition military, which will face Assad’s troops in regular and irregular combat, although it is difficult to tell how many subscribe to that view.

Another increasingly violent subgroup is the Khaled Bin al-Walid brigade led by Captain Abdelrahman Sheikh. It is named after the seventh century Arabian commander who captured Syria from the Byzantines and is entombed in a mosque at Homs city. Composed largely of army deserters, it hitherto has been a defensive group intent on protecting defectors. But as attacks by Assad loyalists have intensified, the Khaled Bin al-Walid battalion has begun changing tactics. Now its members are going on the offensive, especially in Homs province and its cities such as Rastan, against pro-Assad troops and the president’s militiamen known Shabbiha. The Salahedin Victory brigade is one more such unit. At present there are approximately ten to twelve such brigades, which appear to have ties to the FSA and FOM as well.

In addition to defectors from the regular armed forces, there are reports of militant fighters – who opposed the U.S. in Iraq on the side of the Sunni insurgency there – returning home to join in the struggle against Assad. The presence of these irregulars could complicate the command structure of opposition forces, lead to uncoordinated attacks, involve the use of improvised weapons that cause unintended civilian casualties, and spread those fighters’ anti-American sentiments to other segments of the population. IED usage by irregular forces and even civilians who learned their skills in Libya, having gone there to help fellow Muslims oust Muammar Qaddafi, has been reported, for example. All those individuals may also have acquired a broader skillset including how to organize and sustain a revolt with limited funding, recruit new rebels, share information on government troop movements, and turn a guerilla war into a regime-toppling success story.

Possible Outcomes

Whether a civil war, with large-scale casualties requiring the West to invoke responsibility to protect, occurs depends not only on the opposition groups but also on the Assad regime’s responses to escalating protests. A relatively peaceful transition of power, favored by the U.S., E.U., their Middle Eastern partner nations including Saudi Arabia, and even the Arab League, will facilitate Tunisia-like and Egypt-like conditions rather than the chaos of Libya.

The SNC, SRGC, LLC, SRCU, and FOM, like their more pro-violence counterparts the SRCCC, SCSDF, and FSA, are not geographically concentrated in any particular city or region. So a Benghazi-style transitional council is not too likely in Syria; if one were to arise it would have to occur in the cities of Hama and Homs which have large numbers of military defectors. It But as Turkey aligns itself with the rebels a “free zone” could emerge along Syria’s northern border just as the FSA and the SRGC seek.

For now claims by the FSA, the Khaled Bin al-Walid battalion, and other militaristic groups are more bluster than actuality, but those organizations’ expansions may mark the beginning of a more Tenseekiet-oriented rebellion that could subsume the Altenseekiet-seeking one. One long-term danger, beyond short-term blood shedding, is that a civil war may also generate sectarian schisms for the Syrian military’s officer corps is predominantly Alawi (as is Assad’s family) whereas the rank and file soldiery – like the majority of disenchanted citizens – is Sunni.

Even if the Syrian revolution produces an armed struggle against Assad’s dictatorship, as appears increasingly possible, current signs suggest the opposition will not splinter as happened in Libya. The rebel groups are talking and listening to each other despite rivalry for the ultimate prize of power within a post-Assad Syria. They also work together when dispatching delegations to other countries such as Russia to enlist support, and when lobbying influential multinational agencies for recognition. So it may be more than coincidence that the SRGC was finalized one day after U.S. and E.U. leaders called, on August 18th, for Assad to step down. Even the Government of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah Party, which had been strongly pro-Assad when the protests began, have felt compelled to recommend the regime in Damascus should abjure violence and implement the Syrian people’s “legitimate demands for political reform.”

Nonetheless, Syrian protesters have loudly announced their disapproval of the fundamentalist Islamic model propagated by Iran and Hezbollah. Despite some bloggers noting that the percentage of current or former members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists on the SNC is high (34 of 72 named council members), none of the major groups has espoused an Islamist manifesto. Similarly, rebel leaders’ present actions suggest a fundamentalist takeover of Syria is not very likely although Syrian society may become more conservative in reaction to years of Assad-led secularism.

An increasingly Islamist government in Turkey is expanding a quest to isolate former ally Assad while actively supporting the Syrian opposition by permitting its factions to “open an official office on Turkish soil.” Ankara is cementing ties with the future leaders of Damascus by all but recognizing the rebel movement as the new legitimate government of Syria. So, there is the possibility of Islamists becoming more influential in Syria’s future – for at present the Baathist regime still keeps them violently suppressed. But, again, the revolution’s pattern of development to date suggests otherwise.

Nor are anti-Western tendencies strong for many Syrian revolutionaries’ are well aware Russia, China, and more recently Iran have supported decades of repressive Baathist rule. Moreover, Syria under the Assads has never been pro-U.S. or pro-Israel; not even occasionally neutral. So unlike fears regarding Egypt, there is much to gain for both the Syrian people and the West from internally-generated regime change there.

Because Syria is so religiously and culturally diverse, the greatest danger for that nation’s future remains the prospect of inter-faith and cross-ethnic conflicts arising from the removal of an autocracy which kept sectarian strains under wraps. Alawis, Druze, and Christians seem to be afraid of attacks against them in a post-Assad Syria as happened in Iraq and Egypt. As a result, it has been suggested that some minority members still hope Assad will survive in power not because they approve of him or his policies but, ironically, for the stability that his totalitarian state offers them. In the eyes of certain Sunni rebels especially the militant fighters returning home from Iraq and Libya to join in the struggle, however, such hesitancy would be viewed as affiliation with a hated tyrant and could result in retribution.

Opposition leaders are attempting to alleviate minorities’ concerns and defuse confessional tensions. To ensure religious communities do not turn against each other, their leaders met early in the Arab Spring to formulate means of ensuring sectarian violence does not arise. Although their country like the opposition movement itself is largely Sunni, the revolution and its makers could bode well for tolerance at home and cooperation abroad if rebel leaders are able to prevent Muslim fundamentalists from further dividing Syrian society.

In a hopeful sign despite ethnic differences, indigenous Kurds have not called for partitioning the country. Indeed most of Syria’s 22.5 million multicultural citizenry, approximately 74 percent Sunni Muslims, 13 percent Alawis and other Shiites, 10 percent Christians, 3 percent Druze, plus miniscule Jewish and other religious groups who are 90 percent Arab by ethnicity, 10 percent Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and others share a common goal of bringing nearly five decades of Baathist socialist dictatorship to an end. Independent poll data gathered within Syria over the past months indicates the quest for ending Baathist hegemony has kept sectarianism largely at bay so far. That data also suggests that religious minorities too are not supportive of the Baathist incumbents and want to see Assad gone from power quickly.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia observed correctly about the Syrian situation: “Any sane Arab, Muslim, or anyone else knows that this uprising has nothing to do with religion, ethics, or morals.” It is important that all Syrians understand they alone ultimately control the possibility of a unified, tolerant, peaceful, and prosperous future.

About the Author(s)

Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in Strategic Intelligence and Information Management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, Islamic, and International studies, senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security, and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is also a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.


Addendum to Article:

Establishment of a breakaway government has now been announced ( by the Syrian opposition. It includes representatives from diverse ethnic and religious groups including the Assyrian Democratic Organization ( of Christians. The formation of this new administration should speed up the process of Western and Middle Eastern nations withdrawing recognition from the Assad regime, as happened previously in Libya.

The presence of an opposition administration also will shift momentum toward, and increase pressure on, the U.S. and E.U. to assist the rebels with military aid and advisors along the Libyan model of responsibility to protect (R2P). The option of militarily supporting the opposition is slowly gathering steam in Washington. The underlying propositions are: (1) If NATO could help oust Qaddafi, and not stand in the way of Mubarak’s overthrow, then why should other dictators (especially anti-Western ones) feel safe; (2) The removal of Assad would be in the American interest.

So the temptation to eliminate the Baathist regime may prove irresistible even though Western nations are struggling with fiscal problems which make paying for yet another foreign intervention difficult and are witnessing previous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq yield limited results. Indeed, reliable sources indicate that the Office of Transition Initiatives at USAID is beginning to prepare for the inevitable – to assist a new government in Syria – irrespective of whether Assad is forced out by his own people or his departure occurs due to the West assisting the opposition politically and tactically.

Mark Pyruz

Thu, 09/29/2011 - 6:15pm

There appears to be a misperception in the West with regard to Iran's policies and tactics of crowd control at demonstrations deemed as unlawful assemblies. Iran utilizes a less-lethal policy of crowd control, albeit with tactics more common to the U.S. of the late 1960s and 70s. Moreover, this is primarily the responsibility of Iran's police force (NAJA), supplemented by a volunteer auxiliary, and not the military.

That Iran would provide military advice to Syria, when Iran's post-election response was not militarized, appears highly suspect. In fact, Syria has previous experience with a highly militarized response to demonstrations during the early eighties, where Iran does not.

Also, Iran reaching out to the opposition should be seen more in the context of trying to arrange a compromise solution, rather than pursuing the option of a potential post-Assad course.