MESOP TODAY’S EDITORIAL : The Fate of Syria’s Opposition

Ahmad Beetar (FIKRA FORUM) – 23 Jan 2015 – What is more important: bringing down Bashar al-Assad’s regime or combatting terrorism in Syria? This might be one of the most important questions for the United States at this point in time. On the one hand, many believe that Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the regime, despite committing atrocities, can at least reach understandings and compromises, whereas radical Islamic groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), do nothing but accuse their enemies of heresy and behead them. As such, the priority for Washington and the international community should be fighting and defeating the jihadists.

Given the inefficacy of the current air campaign and the unlikelihood of a U.S.-led ground operation in Syria, there is a vocal constituency in the United States advocating for a partnership with Assad to fight against the jihadists. Within the U.S. government itself, there is disagreement over Syria. Both the White House and Congress agree on the need to eradicate Syrian extremist groups, but there is disagreement over how to accomplish that goal. As a result, the U.S. government finds itself paralyzed as the Syrian civil war drags into its fifth year.

Although it has been overshadowed by the jihadists in recent months, a key factor in this debate is the Syrian opposition. Unfortunately, the opposition is using the same refrain as it did in 2012: Assad is responsible for killing civilians, and the revolution is being carried out by peaceful demonstrators protected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). When asked about ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups, oppositionists have only one response: “They are a product of the regime.”

During my last visit to Syria in the late 2013, I noticed that the old Syrian flag from the time of the French mandate had been replaced by the now-infamous black jihadist flag. It is the only one waving along the entire road from Aleppo to Damascus and in all the regions controlled by the so-called revolutionaries. Jihadists now control key checkpoints, as YouTube videos from Syria demonstrate. Some say the videos are fabricated and that the FSA still exists, but I am skeptical given what I saw with my own eyes.

The media refers to the “FSA,” whose leadership is based in Turkey (despite their claims of “liberating” hundreds of miles of Syrian territory), but in reality, there are dozens of armed groups, each with its own sponsor, fighting on behalf of the opposition. As long as their sponsors do not agree to a unified vision for Syria, it will be impossible to unite them. And even if the sponsors were to get on the same page, it is highly unlikely that their leaders could coalesce under a single, unified command. Despite these realities, every time members of the Syrian opposition meet with U.S. officials, they propose forming an army to fight both the regime and extremist groups.

The opposition also fails to explain why a large majority of the Syrian people still support the Assad regime. Indeed, these Syrians are convinced that the regime, despite its brutality and human rights violations, is better than the opposition. As the number of regime supporters grows, the idea that pro-Assad Syrians have been bribed or coerced becomes less convincing, and this is a serious threat to the opposition’s narrative. At this point, the most the opposition can hope for is a role in Syrian political life at some point in the future, which may allow them to gain some popularity among Syrians.

The options available to the United States and its allies are not appealing. Air strikes have been ineffective, dealing openly with the Assad regime is a red line, and the opposition has more of a presence in the media than on the ground in Syria. Coupled with the stalemate between the White House and Congress, which will continue through 2016, it seems that there will not be a serious solution to the Syrian conflict in the near future.

Ahmad Beetar is a Syrian journalist living in Washington, D.C. –