Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dispersion of Power and Control in the Syrian Opposition: Only The Beginning?

As tracked through a series of articles in The Global Atlas (here, here and here), we've been follwoing the situation in Syria closely. In what began as a botched uprising followed by renewed protests after the incarceration and torture of Syrian teenagers for anti-government graffiti, the Syrian uprising quickly devolved into a civil war that has not only produced a massive humanitarian disaster within and outside of its borders but has tested the organization and cohesiveness of the broad Syrian opposition. Converging now is a spectrum of developments that's shaping the reality on the ground and raising renewed fears that the Syrian opposition's decentralization and lack of transitional authority on the ground--let alone the lack of consensus on the future shape and ideology of a Syrian state--pose serious problems for any post-conflict settlement. Emerging from the chaos is an increasingly worrisome mélange of powerful militant factions all vying for power and control as largely a biproduct of Syrian National Council's (SNC), and later the National Coalition's failure to effectively lead the rebels as opposed to merely represent them.

Members of the Syrian National Coalition. December 2012. Photo via Ya Libnan.

Absence of effective leadership of the Syrian opposition dates back to the waffling international recognition of the SNC to the National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (both  in exile) in 2012. From the start, the SNC has been unable to organize grassroots group and other activist organizations under a coherent governing framework at the local level. Too often has the leadership focused on the continuation of arms and revenue streams by courting global powers, which, while bolstering the SNC's capacity to wage attacks against Syrian forces and to consolidate representation and funds, have also facilitated the proliferation of new armed and political challengers. The leadership has been unable to translate these assets into an integrated governing structure on the ground, further demonstrating the SNC's illusory role. And while the National Coalition (recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012) is now trusted with the distribution of humanitarian aid (the US and UK previously funneled this aid through the UN High Commission for Refugees), taking on added responsibilities and international recognition has not transmuted into broader inclusion of various elements into the 'opposition umbrella framework.' Repeated calls by the Friends of Syria--international state supporters of the National Coalition--for inclusion and a transitional national assembly have fallen on deaf ears, with the Coalition fearful of diminished influence in a post-conflict negotiated settlement. Many activists upset with these shortcomings cite the lack of Coalition activity within Syria to collaborate with grassroots organizations and merge with all revolutionary forces as particularly disappointing.

Today, the disjointed Syrian opposition and its lack of effective leadership are shaping an increasingly bleak future for the Syrian civil war. The Kurdish opposition groups within Syria have come to the fore as better organized and able to establish a functional local administration and provide security. Other elements disassociated with the National Coalition have called for separate terms for negotiation with President Asad, reflecting an increasingly fragmented array of oppositional demands for peace. The absence of an effective, domestic opposition authority has ultimately created a power vacuum that has facilitated a chorus of provincial councils, militant groups and extremists declaring and demanding control over 'liberated' lands and economic resources. Just yesterday, the leader of al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced his group's alignment with Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra armed group, confirming US suspicions that al-Nusra was connected to al Qaeda all along. Together they form the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and some analysts believe that this rebranding will finally convince opposition groups--including the Salafi formations--to distance themselves. But this only reinforces the opposition's leadership problem. The prominence of the Kurdish groups and the rebranded Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria illustrate examples of the new schisms that are forming among opposition factions. But although some signal a shift away from the rebranded group, the al Qaeda affiliate controls nearly 90% of Syrian oil wells, its granaries and stores of cotton. It seems that the race for Syria's resources--and not just political representation--is underway.

The decentralized nature of the National Coalition, its lack of grassroots networks and transitional assembly, and the proliferation of new armed and local elements spurred by international weapons and funds transfers all spell disaster for the future viability of the Syrian opposition. Faced with deep political divisions and no end to the violence in sight, oppositional factions seem to be pursuing their own interests independent of an umbrella political framework.  Uncertainty continues to plague the future of the Syrian opposition, but following current trends, we should only expect further decentralization of opposition forces. Only a concerted effort to form a transitional assembly including the leadership in exile and the networks on the ground will produce the incentives necessary for political, military and economic consolidation of power in a post-war Syria.

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