Navigating the Syrian Opposition

by Darth Nader on January 9, 2013

No, this is not another “who’s who” of the different members of the Syrian National Coalition. I won’t be explaining who Riyad al-Turk is and how he’s different from George Sabra. Rather, this is a rough guide to the different strands in the Syrian opposition that I’ve encountered over the past 2 years (because, contrary to popular belief, the Syrian opposition is not monolithic, but a diverse and multifaceted grouping of different people with a vast array of opinions). I’ve met these people through Skype, Twitter, Facebook, email, as well as in person. Some are in Syria, and some are not. These are the categories that I believe make up the Syrian people’s opposition today:

“We don’t have any more bread, but now we have our honor.” – Aleppo

1) The Pacifist Crowd (“Jama’ait al-Silmiye”) 

The Pacifist crowd are known for their uncompromising, unrelenting commitment to the principles of nonviolence. Many were activists in the revolution very early on, and were instrumental in organizing protests and strike actions. Several of them were very active in the Local Coordination Committees.

Jama’ait al-Silmiye (JS) are very disillusioned as of late due to the increased dominance of the armed component of the revolution. They opposed the militarization of the revolution for a variety of reasons: First, because of their staunch, somewhat dogmatic commitment to nonviolence. Second, because of their fear that the rise of the armed groups will only empower the Islamists in the revolution, as many of the Jama’at al-Silmiye tend to be on the secular side. Third, because they see armed groups as “hijacking” what was once “their” revolution.

For all these reasons, many (but certainly not all) of the JS have become solely focused on exposing and shedding light on the “crimes committed by the Free Syrian Army,” in a very “I-told-you-so” fashion. This has led many other opposition activists to label them traitors or accuse them of switching sides.

I have found that JS usually advocate some variation of one of the following three solutions to end the Syrian crisis:

  • The Negotiated Settlement: The people of JS who argue for a negotiated settlement argue that through the use of violence, the FSA has become just as bad as the regime, and therefore no longer has the moral high ground to say “No to negotiations with the killers.” The only solution is, therefore, for “both sides” to put down their weapons and come to the negotiating table that has never even existed in the first place.
  • Intervention: The bulk of people who are still arguing for intervention belong to the JS crowd. Yes, it does seem paradoxical for people who believe in nonviolence to advocate for foreign military intervention, yet I have yet to receive a good answer from the JS intervention crowd on how commitment to nonviolence and advocacy of military intervention can co-exist in the same moral universe. The argument for intervention by these people is that it is the quickest way to end the violence in Syria, and, if foreign powers intervene, this will prevent Islamist groups from gaining the power they would in a self-won victory. Thus, intervention kills two birds with one stone.
  • Return to Mass Protests: Perhaps the most committed to the revolution of the JS are those who advocate for a return to mass protests. They are not as disillusioned as the last two groups, they simply claim that the revolution took a “wrong turn” after the armed component became the dominant force. They believe that the way to bring down the regime and “take back” the revolution from the armed revolutionaries is to engage in mass civil disobedience, protests, and non-cooperation, until the regime can no longer survive. When these people run into trouble, however, is when they are asked what exactly is to prevent the regime from simply gunning down protests as it did when this tactic was used when the revolution started. After all, the armed component only became the dominant mode of struggle after the tactic they are advocating was so harshly repressed. To this, I have yet to receive an adequate answer, although, I will admit, I do share with this group a similar nostalgia for such tactics.

 2) The FSA-Are-Always-Right-And-Can-Do-No-Wrong Crowd

This crowd is the exact opposite of the previous crowd. They refuse to acknowledge any fault, any excess, or any wrongdoing committed by any member of a group engaged in armed struggle against the regime. This group tends to be dominated by Islamists, although there are some notable secular figures who also belong to it. They brush off any accusations of sectarianism. Anytime a minority is targeted in Syria, they declare either that the event did not happen and was regime propaganda, or that the people targeted were “probably shabiha” and “got what they deserved.” Anytime any pro-revolution activist complains about excesses by the rebels, the response of this crowd is usually the same: “Rouh sawee katibe ou sammeeha Guevara” (“If you don’t like it, go form your own brigade and call it Guevara”). Basically, this sums up the reasoning of their position: If you are not fighting on the ground, you cannot complain. The only role of civilians and non-combatants in the revolution is unconditional support and solidarity with all fighters and all the actions they commit, no matter what. The scariest part about this group is how much they remind us all of Ba’athists, at least tactically.

3) Everyone Else

The majority of activists fall somewhere in between these two typologies. There are those who are very much in favor of civil disobedience and mass protest tactics but who realize that the extent of violence utilized by the regime has no longer made that possible, and thus, begrudgingly accept the new dominance of armed partisans as the only alternative, albeit with varying degrees of caution. There are those who advocate for a scaling down of the armed resistance and for the FSA to return to its original defensive role, which, with the new capabilities of the FSA, may have the ability to re-spawn mass protests and civil disobedience. There are some who support the FSA but are aware of its flaws and excesses, and are wary of Islamist dominance, and thus, still call for an intervention that will never come. Others are totally in favor of armed resistance and do not have any fantasies about return to nonviolent tactics, yet also insist on being critical of the armed resistance so as not to simply replace one oppressive military dictatorship with another. The key in the last one is not cautious support of the FSA, but rather, to be a strong supporter while also remaining vigilant and not being scared to speak up against misconduct.

These are the various types of opposition activists that I have come across in the course of the revolution. Of course, no one person falls perfectly into one kind of typology. Think of the first two as forms of “ideal types,” and the last category as various examples of how different aspects from each of the ideal types can be combined to form an opposition activist’s “position.”

First published here.

  • Brian S.

    As always an interesting and informative post from Darth Nader.
    To provide an illustration of his first category, in an organised expression, there is this grouping, much favoured by people like Jonathan Steele,
    http://www.santegidio.org/pageID/3/idLng/1064/id/5355/Syria_from_the_oppositions_gathered_in_Sant_Egidio_an_appeal_for_a_political_solution.html
    Although they don’t attack the FSA as “just as bad as the regime” (or at least not here).
    Another phenomenon worth noting is the emergence of a “dummy opposition”: one group has obviously been put up by the regime for some purpose or other (perhaps just to muddy the waters, perhaps to prepare the ground for some future political manoeuvre ) http://www.breakingnews.sy/en/article/10222.html?m=0
    And there are two other supposed groups with a more sophisticated “reform” veneer who target the media, and have had considerable success in getting acceptance from Al-Jazeera and the BBC (and MR magazine).

  • Aaron Aarons

    There is one glaring characteristic of the totality of photographs of Syrian oppositionists, or at least of those on this web site, that is, as usual, not mentioned:

    Almost every live human being shown in any of these photos is male.

  • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

    I was hoping for a more detailed and political breakdown (Islamists, nationalists, leftists), but I think DN is pointing to an important problem that transcends ideology, and that problem is denial. We saw a similar thing with Occupy where there was extreme reluctance to even acknowledge much less deal with the sexual assaults in the encampments in an above-board way.

    After the U.S. designated Jabhat al-Nusrah a terrorist organization, tens of thousands of Syrians voted to adopt the following slogan for the Friday protests around the country: “There’s no terrorism in Syria except Assad’s terrorism.”

    This is obviously false factually although it is an expression of solidarity with the most militarily effective force in the fight against Assad.

    Another force that is part of the JS crowd are petty-bourgeois intellectuals, in Syria and abroad (for an example, see this piece or this Twitter user). These highly educated intellectuals wholeheartedly supported the peaceful protests but became fearful once the people who served them coffee and cleaned their offices took up arms to defend themselves without paying any attention to the intellectuals’ bleating (reminds me of how many left intellectuals railed at Occupy for not listening to them about the demands question).

    The last thing I’ll say is that I think DN writes as if there are no mass protests in Syria, and this is not true (I don’t think it was his intent to paint things this way; it’s a reflection of the predominance of the violent/military dimension of the revolution given that there’s an all-out war going on). These four videos were uploaded from different locations in Syria in the past 24 hours:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzcFsAbSl1s
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JnxkqFGLP8
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTJM2QDEbLE
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp8r1qzmNbc

    The last of these is particularly heartbreaking because children are protesting for “a no-fly zone from God.”

    So to conclude: the revolution still involves huge numbers of Syrians through mass demonstrations despite the unbelievable brutality of the regime.

    • Brian S.

      @Binh re “denial” Your right about this. As I mentioned on another thread I’ve been watching the video of a recent day conference on Syria held at the LSE which included two key opposition figures Burhan Ghalioun (former president of the Syrian National Council) and Suhair Atassi (from the grassroots Syrian Revolution General Commission and now a member of the Syrian National Coalition) – each was quite impressive in their way, but when any difficult topic(jihadis, kurds) came up they seemed to go into denial mode . This is fairly common among nationalists (and indeed not a few leftists) and also I think may reflect Syrian cultural values – you keep your “dirty linen” in the family. This was flagged up well by the Syrian-British sociologist Sami Zubaida – who commented (in relation to the kurdish issue) – ” I understand perfectly why you are saying these things – but you’re ignoring politics”.

      • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

        I think the “dirty linen” thing is almost a universal human response when people feel weak, vulnerable, and/or attacked (look at the British SWP, Occupy) that transcends political ideologies and has little to do with Syrian (or Arab) culture. Malcolm X said much the same thing:

        “And when you and I here in Detroit and in Michigan and in America who have been awakened today look around us, we too realize here in America we all have a common enemy, whether he’s in Georgia or Michigan, whether he’s in California or New York. He’s the same man: blue eyes and blond hair and pale skin — same man. So what we have to do is what they did. They agreed to stop quarreling among themselves. Any little spat that they had, they’d settle it among themselves, go into a huddle — don’t let the enemy know that you got a disagreement.

        “Instead of us airing our differences in public, we have to realize we’re all the same family. And when you have a family squabble, you don’t get out on the sidewalk. If you do, everybody calls you uncouth, unrefined, uncivilized, savage. If you don’t make it at home, you settle it at home; you get in the closet — argue it out behind closed doors. And then when you come out on the street, you pose a common front, a united front. And this is what we need to do in the community, and in the city, and in the state. We need to stop airing our differences in front of the white man. Put the white man out of our meetings, number one, and then sit down and talk shop with each other.” (Message to the Grassroots, 1963)

        Of course I don’t agree with this approach. A movement, organization, or party that is cannot openly and honestly deal with its baggage only weakens and hampers itself.

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