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.

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