From Istanbul with Dismay: Meetings with the Syrian Opposition

Lauren Emerson – Generation Dialog – FIKRA Forum – March 15, 2013

Dear Hans,

During a recent trip to Istanbul, I met with people from a variety of sectors who are actively working on the conflict in Syria: young women who recently moved from Damascus and remain in contact with activists on the ground to help coordinate relief efforts, a Syrian businessman who is connected to local Syrian councils, a Turkish journalist, and Kurdish activists, among others.

Though differing slightly in their perspectives on issues of international influences within Syria, several similar points emerged in each meeting I attended.

First, most people I spoke with felt that the West is preoccupied with their concern over the role of Jubhat al-Nusra in Syria. Most admitted that the presence of jihadi fighters, particularly from abroad, is worrisome, but not nearly to the extent that the Western media and governments have portrayed it. One woman explained that many of the Syrian fighters with Jubhat al-Nusra or other Islamist militias joined the groups to ensure food and security for their families rather than for ideological reasons. While these groups have gained respect inside Syria for their competency in supplying provisions and fighting the regime, one man told me that once Bashar al-Assad falls, there will no longer be any use for them in Syria. He seemed convinced that foreign fighters would leave and that those remaining would find very little support, political or otherwise, among the population.

Second, many were insulted by the international community’s fixation on the sectarian challenges posed by the revolution. Some suggested this was merely a stalling mechanism to rationalize further inaction, while others went one step further to say that the focus on sectarian tensions showed that the international community is falling prey to the Assad regime’s tactics. Most agreed that the heightened sectarian divisions caused by the regime will pose a serious challenge in Syria’s future without Assad, particularly surrounding the issue of reconciliation with the Alawi sect, but these challenges will only worsen the longer Assad stays in power. I received mixed reactions when I asked about the Kurdish population and the concept of a federal system in a post-Assad Syria. A few, not including the Kurdish activists I met with, responded positively to the idea of allowing the Kurdish region semi-autonomy, while others were fiercely against the division of Syria. Furthermore, those against federalism insisted that many of their Kurdish friends wanted to be unified as Syrians, not divided according to ethnic or sectarian boundaries. Some noted their concern of external manipulation of the Kurdish region in Syria through the Democratic Union Party (PYD), but for the most part, the Kurdish issue was not at the forefront of most non-Kurdish activists’ concerns.

Third, the resentment toward the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the Syrian National Council (SNC) was striking. Nearly everyone I met with expressed frustration with the SOC, the political maneuvering among its members, and its inability to effect meaningful change on the ground. One man told me that when the SNC agreed to restructure the opposition to form a more broadly representative coalition, it appointed activists lacking credibility inside Syria who supported the council’s ideology. As a result, the SNC was able to maintain a majority within the SOC, and has prevented the coalition from true reform and representation of all Syrians. Another interesting anecdote concerned the local council of Douma, a suburban city of Damascus that has been liberated by opposition forces since October 2012. According to the source, the people of Douma elected a Shura (governing) council, which has been effective in organizing relief efforts, subsidizing the price of bread, and coordinating with local members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, demonstrating the lack of coordination or cohesion, the SOC appointed its own local council, which has been separately involved in municipal responsibilities such as trash collection. As a result, very few Syrians trust the SOC’s ability to adequately reflect the needs of the people; therefore, few believe that the SOC will maintain any credibility among the Syrian people once Assad falls.

Fourth, as has been previously reported, resentment of U.S. policy toward Syria is widespread; many of the activists I met with confirmed this, adding that the existence of Jubhat al-Nusra is a result of inadequate U.S. action. One man told me, however, that in meetings with FSA soldiers, most expressions of anger and betrayal were directed toward Iraq, Hezbollah, and Jordan for their silent or discreet complicity in the Assad regime’s atrocities. While Syrians are not shy about their dissatisfaction with U.S. policy, many still see the U.S. as crucial to the fall of Assad and they still hope for increased U.S. action. In particular, the Syrians I met with felt unanimously that there is still a serious need for antiaircraft weapons. Some also mentioned a secured humanitarian corridor that would allow for the improved provision of relief and a more legitimate transitional government inside Syria’s border.

Last, because I was in Turkey, I asked about Turkish public opinion of the Syrian conflict. The Syrians I met with noted the apathy among the Turkish public toward the revolution, while others cited the role of the Turkish media. According to some, the liberal media has, for the most part, depicted the conflict as sectarian and the rebels as terrorists, using this to criticize the AKP and Erdogan’s policy in support of the revolution. This could be an interesting factor in the lead-up to Turkey’s presidential elections in 2014.

In conclusion, although concerns about sectarian tensions and extremist forces are real and completely legitimate, they are not a cause for inaction. In fact, further inaction — meaning, according to the Syrians I met, the continued policy of supplying nonlethal assistance — will only exacerbate existing problems and allow for other external forces to gain more influence on the ground. The United States is involved in this conflict, deliberately or not. Despite the direst of circumstances inside Syria, the people still evince a glimmer of hope for the democratic future of their country. It is not too late for the United States to meaningfully change the course of this conflict — but not likely to be achieved simply by the provision of food sealed with a stamp reading “Made in United States of America.”

Lauren Emerson is the managing editor of Fikra Forum.