Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, a propaganda war has raged between the regime of President Bashar al Assad and the various opposition groups. The Syrian regime has portrayed itself as united and strong and the opposition as radical terrorists. Meanwhile, the opposition has claimed that the regime is splintering and that the opposition is strong and capable of replacing it. Perception is important because the Syrian opposition cannot succeed in ousting the al Assad regime without the support of the Syrian people and foreign governments.
But the reality is that despite extensive efforts to unite, Syria's opposition groups remain fractured. Of the 14 or more opposition groups in the country, only two, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC), are being considered by the West as feasible groups to work with to bring about democratic change inside Syria. The SNC and NCC were created specifically to represent the protesters and the political opposition movement, while the other groups have their own long-held agendas or have too few members to be practical alternatives.
However, the SNC and NCC have differing and irreconcilable objectives for the uprising. Because the Syrian opposition groups are fractured and because no group has the clear support of the protesters, it will be difficult for them to find the level of foreign support necessary to force regime change.
Syrian National Council and National Coordination Committee
Officially formed Oct. 2, 2011, the SNC is based in Paris, though it claims to have 18 offices worldwide. The SNC's leadership has established good relations with Western countries over the course of several meetings, and an SNC delegation has even met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Predominantly Sunni, the SNC also counts a small number of Kurds and Christians among its roughly 300-person membership. Its leader is Burhan Ghalioun, an exiled Sunni academic from Homs, and its membership consists of members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, grassroots activists and traditional Syrian opposition figures who have been exiled.
The SNC aspires to be the national body that represents the Syrian uprising, and it demands the toppling of the Syrian regime to achieve democratic change. There has been some dissension within the SNC on the topic of foreign intervention, revealing fissures within the group, but officially the SNC supports international intevention. In late December 2011, the SNC's leadership called for the establishment of safe zones and humanitarian corridors in Syria and echoed calls by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for a no-fly zone.
The NCC was officially formed Sept. 17, 2011, and is based in Damascus. Its leader is long-time opposition figure Haytham Manna, and its membership includes individuals from leftist Syrian parties as well as other traditional members of the Syrian opposition. It does not have any members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in its ranks.
Though the NCC's members were less hard-line than the SNC's members to begin with, that they are recognized by the regime and allowed to operate in the country makes them even more set in their view that dialogue, not force, is the best means toward regime change in Syria. Since the West is concerned about the anarchy that would likely follow regime collapse, some Western countries could come to see the NCC as an attractive alternative to the al Assad regime. However, unlike the SNC, the NCC strongly opposes any foreign military intervention. Also unlike the SNC, the NCC has met with members of the al Assad regime. As a result, and because the group is based in Damascus, some Syrian protesters view the NCC as a puppet opposition movement controlled by the regime.
Despite the fundamental differences between the SNC and NCC, many members of each organization's executive committee are well-respected and established opposition figures who have very similar backgrounds in Syrian activism. Many of these individuals signed the same pro-democracy petitions, were political prisoners in the same jails and were members of the same opposition groups during the early 2000s.
The death of President Hafez al Assad and inauguration of his son Bashar in 2000 catalyzed a reform movement known as the Damascus Spring, which served as the awakening of the overt political activism that had been strictly forbidden in Syria under Hafez. During this time, Bashar allowed pro-democracy gatherings and even authorized the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
But the activist movement was only tolerated for a little more than a year, shut down in late 2001 when the regime began a large campaign of arrests. Two of the men arrested, Riad Seif and Aref Dalila, would eventually hold prominent positions in the SNC and NCC, respectively. Both Seif and Dalila had signed the same petition in 2001 demanding reforms. After their release from jail — Seif in 2006 and Dalila in 2008 — the men formed an online campaign in 2008 to boycott telecommunications company Syriatel because of its high fees. They hoped that the boycott would do financial harm to Syriatel's owner, Rami Makhlouf, who is Bashar's cousin and a member of his inner circle. The opposition had specifically targeted Makhlouf because he held a monopoly on the Syrian economy.
The connection between the SNC's Seif and the NCC's Dalila is not so unique; many members of both groups have activist ties that go back many years. One of the strongest common factors between SNC and NCC members is the 2005 Damascus Declaration, an opposition statement of unity calling for political reform. Current NCC member Michel Kilo had drafted the document and Seif was the first signatory. Activists who would become members of the SNC or NCC signed the document, as did the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish and liberal factions.
However, the groups' divergent views on how regime change in Syria should be carried out make it highly unlikely that they will ever reach a consensus. Several attempts to unite the SNC and NCC in December and January all failed. That the NCC is based in the Syrian capital indicates that it likely came to some sort of arrangement with the regime. But beyond that, the NCC is unlikely to go back on its long-held call for gradual and peaceful regime change.
Free Syrian Army
The FSA is a loosely organized militant group that reportedly enjoys some support from Syrian protesters. It was formed July 29, 2011, and consists of mostly Sunni army defectors and armed civilians. The FSA began to claim military-style operations against the Syrian regime in early October 2011. The group's primary goals are to topple the regime, protect protesters and undermine the Syrian army. Its leadership, including commander Col. Riad al-Asaad, is reportedly located in various Turkish refugee camps near the border with Syria. Though the FSA claims to have obtained its weapons inside of Syria, either from defected soldiers or through the domestic black market, it also relies on weapons and supplies smuggled from neighboring countries.
The FSA claims to have roughly 40,000 fighters, but it is important to understand that the group is not organized with clear top-down communication. Rather, it is a loosely connected grouping of individuals, many of whom have no relationship or communication with the FSA leadership but are united by their anti-regime sentiments.
Because it rejects the militarization of the opposition movement, the NCC does not have a relationship with the FSA. However, the leaders of the SNC and FSA have established a formal relationship in which the FSA officially recognizes the SNC as the opposition's political representative and the SNC officially recognizes the FSA as the defender of Syrian civilians. The SNC also provides financing and guidance to the FSA.
Though the development of this relationship may seem like a positive step for the Syrian opposition, it is not clear that the FSA and SNC are truly united. Because the FSA is a loose-knit grouping, it is difficult to say that the FSA's members are as tied to the SNC as its leadership is. United by their opposition to the Syrian regime, the FSA's members could quickly split from one another should al Assad ever be toppled. Therefore, formal relations between the SNC and FSA leadership may not carry much weight.
Public Support in Syria
Despite their differences, there is one challenge that confronts all of the Syrian opposition factions: securing the support of protesters and citizens inside Syria. Public support is an essential criterion for assessing the legitimacy and viability of each opposition group. There is little information available from Syria about the public's support, and what is released is usually tainted by the bias of the regime or opposition.
It is known that the SNC and NCC have as members long-time Syrian opposition figures who have long held the respect of the Syrian activist community. However, the SNC loses some support because it includes academics and intellectuals who have spent little time in Syria. Similarly, the NCC loses legitimacy with some Syrian civilians and protesters because it is based in Damascus, which opens it up to accusations that it is a pawn of the regime. There reportedly have been rallies in Syria supporting the FSA, but the extent to which that support is shared throughout the country is unknown.
The opposition factions in Syria are operating under numerous constraints, and given their incompatible principles, it is very unlikely that they will be able to unite and proclaim themselves a viable alternative to the al Assad regime. Not only has the Syrian opposition failed to unite, but further fragmentation is likely, especially if the stalemate with the regime persists.