Syria’s impotent opposition consistently fails to provide any threat to Assad

·7-min read

Ten years after the start of the conflict in Syria, the Syrian opposition has never managed to shake the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Marginalised by foreign sponsors, duped by Damascus and split in different directions, the opposition has consistently failed to wield any influence.

Entangled in interminable negotiations with the Syrian regime and marginalised by their own foreign sponsors who are focused on personal interests, Syrian opposition groups have never been able to bring Bashar al-Assad to his knees, ten years after the start of the conflict in Syria on March 15, 2011.

While no one seems able to depose the Syrian president, the opposition in exile has also not managed to meet any of the hopes or expectations of the mobilised population who have been fighting his regime since March 2011.

The opposition never really got off the starting blocks. Since 2014, it has been relegated to the background of Western attention after it became much less eager to demand the departure of Assad once the war became more complex, involving jihadist groups in Syria, such as the Islamic State (IS) group.

"Sadly, the Syrian opposition no longer has any say in Syria, because they no longer have any influence and pose no credible threat to the Assad regime," says Ziad Majed, a professor at the American University of Paris and one of the authors of "Dans la tête de Bachar al-Assad" (Inside the head of Bashar al-Assad), speaking with FRANCE 24.

A lack of representativeness and leadership

"The political opposition does not represent the people and has never managed to properly organise itself or unify its ranks to influence the course of events throughout the last ten years," agrees Antoine Mariotti, a journalist at FRANCE 24 and author of "La Honte de l'Occident - Les Coulisses du fiasco syrien" (The West's Shame - Behind the Scenes of the Syrian Fiasco).

When the Syrian population rose up in resistance against the Assad’s regime in March 2011, they demanded a structured opposition to represent them. The people have been left severely disappointed, says Majed.

"From 2012, intellectuals opposed to Assad’s regime and Syrian revolution activists stopped acknowledging the official opposition in exile,” he says. As a result of the regime's barbaric repression of these intellectuals, they believed their priority remained taking down Assad, and therefore preferred to refrain from engaging in a battle of legitimacy against the opposition.

Contrary to what happened with Yasser Arafat in Palestine and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, nobody has successfully established themselves as a viable leader of the Syrian opposition, argues Majed. "The regime is very aware of how important this is, it realised right from the beginning that it was crucial to prevent any credible opposition leader from emerging, by eliminating all those who had the potential to play such a role inside the country," he says.

Majed uses the examples of the assassination of Mechaal Tamo, a Kurdish politician very involved in the Syrian revolution, as well as a series of forcible disappearances of potential leaders who were beginning to emerge in the peaceful mobilisation against the regime, such as Ghiyath Matar and Yahya Charbaji, or the forced disappearance in 2013 of the opponent Fayek al-Mir, a figure of the secular left.

“Other opponents have been forcibly disappeared, such as the lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and her companions, when they were travelling through an area controlled by armed opposition movements," he recalls, referring to the internal frictions in the anti-Assad camp. On the other hand, due to the severity of their repression, other opponents have been forced to leave the country and work from exile abroad, which has caused their influence on the ground in Syria to wane over time.

Empty Western threats

Some opposition members sought to claim the role of leader at the expense of their rivals, even though they had not set foot in their country for a long time because of continuous repression, says Mariotti. "Isolated, without solid teams on the ground, they were in a way disconnected from the Syria of 2011. This meant that this opposition in exile, vulnerable to foreign influences, has never managed to impose itself on the national landscape, nor has it been able to command the military operations of the rebel groups on the ground.”

"It should also be remembered the key role played by the unfulfilled promises and procrastination of Western powers,” says Mariotti.

>> After a decade of war, Assad’s presidency is intact but under tutelage

In August 2012, then US president Barack Obama was asked about what could lead him to use military force in Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus.” Obama said that crossing it would entail “enormous consequences”. Nevertheless, after its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had been reluctant to get involved in another Middle East conflict – the red line persisted, ostensibly, as nothing more than an empty threat.

“This type of Western retreat has served to discredit the opposition and push a number of opponents who are disappointed with the West into the arms of Islamist groups,” says Mariotti.

An opposition marginalised by its own foreign sponsors

The fracturing of the official opposition, who had been recognised at the end of 2012 as the "sole representative of the Syrian people" by more than a hundred countries, has been to the benefit of four major international players: Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States. They either control areas of Syrian territory directly or through their allies.

"The issue became more complex as the conflict evolved and was no longer just a matter of Syrian protagonists wanting to change a regime that had been in place since 1970, as was the case at the beginning of the revolution,” says Majed.

“In 2011, despite contrary feedback from foreign intelligence services, everyone was wrongly convinced that Assad would be brought down in a few months and the opposition would quickly take control,” says Mariotti. “This prospect whetted the appetites of certain countries in the region who were looking for places to dominate, countries such as Turkey and certain Gulf states, who initially sponsored and then co-opted opposition groups in order to advance their own agendas to the detriment of the Syrian people’s hopes for their future.”

At the end of 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, which stated that a UN-facilitated, Syrian-led political process should establish, "within six months", "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance", and set a timetable and modalities for a new constitution. Under the new constitution, "free and fair" elections should be held "within 18 months" under UN supervision.

However, talks have remained at an impasse for some time, paralysed by disputes between Iran and Turkey. Attempts to unite forces to form a single delegation for negotiations have also not produced any results.

"In reality, faced with a divided opposition, the regime simply pretended to take the UN’s demands into consideration and made it appear that it was willing to play the negotiation game, knowing that it was protected by both its Russian and Iranian allies," explains Mariotti.

A new type of opposition’

According to Majed, ten years after the 2011 uprising, "all that remains is what has emerged from the rubble of Syria and in the countries of exile, that is to say a certain Syrian civil society and a new type of opposition, which can be seen through the trials currently underway in Germany and which are going to open in several European countries with regard to crimes against humanity committed by the regime”.

On February 24, the High Regional Court of Justice in Koblenz, Germany, sentenced Eyad al-Gharib, a member of the Syrian intelligence services, to four and a half years in prison for "complicity in crimes against humanity". The trial was the first in the world to externally examine abuses attributed to Assad's regime.

“While it has no illusions about its ability to change the regime within Syria, this civil society opposed to Damascus is making its voice heard in an international legal struggle, as well as in the research and intellectual production that aims to preserve the memory of the 2011 revolution,” says Majed.

“For them, it is a question of winning the war of the narrative against the regime, and preventing the normalisation of Assad and his regime in the name of realpolitik, so as not to let his crimes go unpunished.”

This article was translated from the original in French.