POMED Notes: “Understanding the Syrian Opposition”
On Friday, the Rethink Institute hosted an event titled “Understanding the Syrian Opposition: A Turkish, American, and Syrian Dialogue.” The discussion was focused on the current status of both the internal and foreign-based Syrian opposition movements. The talk was moderated by Fevzi Bilgin, Director of the Rethink Institute. The panelists were Hussein Sayyed, President of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, Andrew Tabler, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kadir Ustun, Research Director at SETA-DC, Radwan Ziadeh, Executive Director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Burak Kararti, a counselor at the Turkish Embassy, and Louay Sakka, from the Syrian Support Group.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Andrew Tabler opened the panel expressing surprise at the longevity of the civilian opposition movement in Syria. Considering the Assad family’s history of success in violently quashing protests, the 15 month protest movement’s continued vitality is remarkable. Tabler noted that perhaps the Syrian opposition’s stubborn survivability can in fact be attributed to previous violence perpetrated by the regime. During the decade following the 1982 Hama massacre, Syrians primarily stayed at home. While the economy contracted and political opposition groups dwindled, the Syrian birthrate exploded. According to Tabler, the post-Hama demographic shift is what has created the huge number of revolutionary youth and the current “hurricane against the regime.”
Among the political opposition, Tabler said, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has remained the most visible, but attributed this to the fact that the SNC is an exiled group. Its ability to operate outside of Syria made the SNC much more visible and thus the de facto face of the Syrian opposition. Following trends in Tunisia and Egypt, there was a false assumption that backing civil opposition groups like the SNC would yield fast results. Unfortunately, Tabler noted, that conclusion came from an underestimation of Assad regime brutality, and, with little action resulting from SNC declarations and no western military intervention in sight, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stepped in to fill the void in the domestic opposition. Tabler concluded with a breakdown of the current situation in Syria, describing Assad’s current security strategy as a game of “whac-a-mole.” Because of stretched resources, the Syrian army cannot occupy opposition strongholds for extended periods of time, instead the army bombards hotspots with artillery, occupies them for a few days, and retreats, allowing the FSA to return to abandoned areas. Many parts of Syria, Tabler said, are now beyond the regime’s control. However, without a western military intervention, Assad will still be able to hold on for some time. Not dealing with the Syria crisis as soon as possible will be costly, Tabler concluded.
Kadir Ustan argued that Syria is not an isolated problem but rather an important regional issue. As long as Russia and Iran support the regime and as long as the international community fails to stand united with a solution, the conflict will continue. And the consequences of the conflict, Ustan added, won’t stay inside Syria’s borders. Western nations hoping to establish good relationships with the new governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt may find a frosty reception thanks to their apathy with regard to Syria. Likewise, Russia and Iran may be completely sacrificing their relationships with the rest of the Arab world thanks to their continued support of Assad. Russia, Ustan said, is aware of the fact that Syria is a bad investment but wants to use it as a bargaining chip with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States has few interests to protect in Syria which makes their reticence to act somewhat reasonable. Finally, Ustan said that it will be a problem if the U.S. only acts on Syria after the manifestation of a security threat to Israel – such an outcome would surely alienate many Arab governments.
Hussein Sayyed addressed the audience via Skype from Idlib, Syria. Sayyed began by explaining that any fragmentation in the current political opposition is the direct result of decades of brutal repression. However, Sayyed argued, at the moment it would be best for the opposition to avoid politics altogether. Rather, the toppling of the Assad regime should be a top priority. Though the revolution is the focus at the moment, “ballot boxes will rule the future of Syria” Sayyed said.
Radwan Ziadeh took a data-driven approach to his description of the current crisis. According to Ziadeh, 54% of the Syrian population is under 22 years old. Additionally, of the 14,462 Syrians killed in violence since March 2011, 60% were under the age of 30. Ziadeh also claimed that 1,014 of the victims were younger than 18. Ziadeh then pointed out that in the case of Libya, the U.N. Security Council responded quickly to save civilian lives. In Syria, however, little has been done. “This is a critical moment,” Ziadeh said, “better to intervene to prevent civil war, rather than to end civil war.”
Burak Kararti presented a Turkish perspective on the Syrian opposition, claiming that Turkey stands ready to do everything in its power to support any plan backed by the UN Security Council. From the beginning, Kararti said, Turkey viewed the Syria crisis as a humanitarian situation. The government of Turkey has spent over $150 million on healthcare and education for Syrian refugees. Finally, Kararti called on world governments to cut off the Assad regime by imposing further sanctions and empower the opposition with financial and military aid.
Louay Sakka wrapped up the panel by giving an overview of the current status of the Free Syrian Army. Although it began as a rather disparate force, a lot of work has been done to create a command structure and the FSA has now united under military councils. Sakka claimed that the FSA has over 60,000 fighters and controls large portions of Syria. In other areas, the Assad regime only has control during the day, or at times when tank battalions are stationed nearby. The Free Syrian Army is made up of 20% Syrian defectors and 80% local civilian volunteers. All the financial support of the FSA is funneled through civilian councils. Sakka asserted that the FSA’s ranks could be swelled 3 to 7 times given sufficient defectors and proper infrastructure. However, Sakka noted, the Free Syrian Army is still in need of anti-tank weapons and air cover. Working with the FSA could yield quick results, Sakka said, and air strike targets have already been prepared should military intervention become a palatable option.
In the question and answer session, the panelists agreed that turning to Iran to negotiate with Assad was a bad idea. Both Sakka and Ustan noted that Iran has routinely provided Syria with weapons and intelligence. “The focus should instead be on Russia,” Ustan said.