The Folly of Waiting for a More Perfect Syrian Opposition

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Today, the debate over Syria focuses once again on the composition of the Syrian National Coalition. And while the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia push the opposition to expand its ranks to include more liberals, the Assad regime continues to make significant gains against rebel forces, who report a loss of morale and — remarkably after two years of asking — lack even the most basic equipment. “If we had more ammunition,” says a rebel from Aleppo’s Tawhid brigade, “we could take Aleppo in 20 days.”

With military intervention effectively ruled out from the beginning, the United States has instead worked to build a more “unified” and “representative” political opposition, despite the fact that liberation movements, historically, are rarely unified or particularly representative. A more unified opposition would, of course, be better, but the persistent hopes for a more perfect opposition have become both a crutch and a distraction from what really matters — fighting Assad’s forces and shifting the military balance on the ground. Progress on the military front is a prerequisite for political progress, rather than the other way around.

From the beginning, there has been a seemingly obsessive concern with creating a more palatable and sufficiently “liberal” opposition. It may have made sense to try in the early months of the uprising, but much less so today, with the armed opposition inside Syria effectively dominated by Salafis and Islamists. A truly “representative” opposition coalition, in actuality, would require adding a significant number of Salafis (there is no Salafi bloc in the National Coalition), but, presumably, this is not the sort of representation that the United States, Britain, and France have in mind.

In the early months of the uprising, the international community worked to build up the Syrian National Council (SNC), after a number of false starts and dueling opposition conferences. Soon enough, the SNC came to be seen as a Muslim Brotherhood proxy and was deemed insufficiently representative of Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity (not without reason), so efforts were made to piece together a broader coalition, culminating in the formation of the National Coalition. This new 60-person strong coalition, in which the SNC was allotted a third of the seats, also came to be seen as dominated by the Brotherhood (despite Brotherhood members only officially having six seats). To be sure, the group is able to extend its influence beyond its numbers through a network of allies, including former Brotherhood members from Ahmed Ramadan’s National Action Group. It seems self-defeating, though, to fault the Brotherhood for being better organized and more effective than the rest of the notoriously fractious Syrian opposition.

In recent weeks, there was yet another effort to “broaden” the coalition to include 20 to 25 additional seats for a liberal bloc led by veteran secular opposition leader Michel Kilo. Western nations, along with Saudi Arabia, effectively tried to strong-arm the National Coalition into accepting Kilo and his allies. When it went to a vote, Coalition members approved only six new seats (according to coalition bylaws, adding new seats requires a 42-vote supermajority). The French were reportedly furious, saying “unless you expand you will get no support from any of us.” Such a reaction, through unsurprising, was a bit odd. In any organization, it is standard practice for existing members to approve expansion of membership.

For their part, American officials – far from being the hapless observers that they are sometimes portrayed as – have put considerable energy, resources, and money into a quixotic attempt to mold the Syrian opposition. Would it be nice if more people like Kilo were in the opposition? Yes. But it’s unclear how much of a difference this would make, considering that most fighters on the ground don’t answer to or particularly care about the National Coalition, whose members are primarily based abroad.

Efforts to expand the Coalition come ahead of the “Geneva II” peace conference, touted by some as a final (or first) opportunity for a real political breakthrough. The idea, here, is that the opposition needs to get its act together so it can speak with one voice to the Russians and regime. There is the small matter that practically no one in the Coalition believes anything will come out of the talks. They are going largely for show, to placate an international community which they still hope will do more on their behalf, including providing advanced weaponry.

Most in the political opposition say they won’t accept anything less than Assad’s ouster, yet Russia appears to see Geneva as an opportunity not to negotiate in good faith but, rather, to rehabilitate Assad. Assad himself is as strong as ever, both on and off the battlefield. The head of German foreign intelligence believes the regime could retake the entire southern half of Syria by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the international community has increasingly bought into the regime narrative of a rebellion dominated by extremist elements (the distinction between Salafi and Salafi-Jihadist fighters is rarely made). Prominent American voices, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, have come awfully close to drawing moral equivalence between the rebels and the regime. It is an strange time to hope for a diplomatic “breakthrough,” when the rebels are arguably at their weakest and the regime at its strongest.

From the beginning, there has been a fundamental problem of sequencing. The original sin of U.S. policy was taking military intervention off the table and focusing instead on a “political settlement,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Instead, intervention and diplomacy should have proceeded in parallel. It was only a credible threat of military action that would have brought the regime, or at least elements of it, to the negotiating table. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Serbian government gave up its ethnic cleansing campaign and agreed to Western terms only after NATO military intervention, not before. In Libya, NATO intervention pushed a once confident regime to desperation, with Qaddafi envoys engaging in cease-fire talks and eagerly offering to negotiate with the rebels.

It is a testament to the faith that the Syrian opposition still place in the United States that they are even willing to go to Geneva. They, and we, have been through this before, the cycle of hope, followed by disappointment and even betrayal. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still hope that American policy might change and adapt, after yet another round of diplomacy fails, as it almost certainly will.