November 9, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 758

10 Months into Protests, Syrian Opposition Still Divided – A Who's Who of the Syrian Opposition

November 9, 2011 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 758


Seven months after the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad still claims to have control over the country. This control is made possible by several factors: the security apparatuses, which are cracking down on the protestors with an iron fist; the military, which remains loyal to the regime, despite reports that some 10,000 of its soldiers and officers have defected; and the media blackout and the ban on the presence of foreigners, both Western and Arab, in the conflict zones.

The regime is holding its own in the international arena as well, and continues to enjoy the support of Russia and China – which have thwarted any effort to condemn it in the UN Security Council – as well of its traditional allies, Iran and some Latin American countries, particularly those known for their anti-US positions, such as Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.[1] The West, headed by the US, France, and the UK, and which has repeatedly called on President Assad to step down, is still hesitant to roll out a Libya scenario in Syria, and has emphasized the differences between the two countries which they say prevent a military operation from being carried out in the latter.

The Arab League, particularly its secretary-general Nabil Al-'Arabi, has taken a harsher stance and measures against Syria in recent months; these measures reached their peak with the unprecedented November 27, 2011 decision of the League's Council of Foreign Ministers to impose sanctions against the country. These sanctions include bans on flights between the Arab states and Syria, barring Syrian senior officials from entering the Arab states, freezing the Syrian regime's bank accounts in Arab banks, and stopping trade with Syria and all funding to projects in it. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Aal Thani, chairman of the Arab League's committee on the Syrian crisis, warned that if harsh sanctions against Syria were not put into place, the international community would intervene in the country. Both he and Secretary-General Al-'Arabi clarified, however, that if the violence in Syria stopped and the country signed a document undertaking to regulate the activity of Arab League observers there, the League would reconsider the imposition of sanctions.[2]

The decision in favor of sanctions followed numerous attempts by the League to resolve the crisis. While in Libya's case, in which the League called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone and safe zones in the country following a month of clashes between the regime and the rebels, in Syria's case the League's plans for addressing the crisis did not challenge President Assad's role but focused on attempting to stop the bloodshed. For instance, in an August 27, 2011 initiative, the League called on the Syrian regime to stop the violence against civilians; to withdraw military troops from Syria's cities; to free political prisoners; to revoke Clause 8 of the Syrian constitution, which affords the Ba'ath party a political monopoly; to establish an interim national unity government and hold open presidential elections in 2014; and to launch a dialogue with the opposition, with League participation.[3]

Syria rejected this initiative and, on November 2, 2011, reached an agreement with the League's committee on the Syrian crisis. Under this agreement, the League in effect backed down from the initiative by accepting the Syrian regime's claim that it is actually armed gangs that are responsible for the killing of civilians as well as of members of the armed forces. This is reflected in the omission of the demand to withdraw the military from Syrian cities and its replacement with the Syrian regime's wording, according to which the latter will "vacate the cities and the residential areas from all armed phenomena." The agreement also calls for Arab League organizations and the media to be allowed free movement in the country.[4]

On November 12, the League stepped up its position, reaching a decision to suspend Syria from participating in its organizations' meetings, and threatening to impose economic and political sanctions against it if it did not stop the bloodshed. On November 16, the Arab League's Council of Foreign Ministers sent Syria a document setting out the goals and legal framework of a delegation of League observers, which was to arrive in the country in order to investigate the situation there, and gave Syria three days to respond. Syria did so, with some 20 reservations over the document, which in essence stripped it of its content. These reservations were, in turn, rejected by the League, leading it to resolve on November 27, to impose economic sanctions on Syria.

Another factor that has contributed to the survival of the regime is the large number of opposition groups that have emerged in the course of the protests, and the absence of a united leadership that can formulate a joint plan of action vis-à-vis the regime and the international community. According to prominent oppositionist Haitham Al-Malih, "all the opposition leaders have been living in the shadow of an oppressive regime for 50 years... which is why there is no [effective] leadership, but rather a leadership vacuum. Today, everyone wants to join the political arena, but there is no clear path [for them to follow]."[5]

The opposition is divided among two major umbrella organizations: the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), based in Syria, which sees itself as representing the opposition within Syria and therefore as the legitimate leader of the revolution, and the Syrian National Council (SNC), based outside the country, which aims to be "a joint framework for the Syrian opposition and the main address of the revolution, representing it in Syria and abroad."[6] Both these bodies are working to recruit the support of the activists on the ground and of prominent oppositionists such as Michel Kilo, Faiz Sara, and others. So far, the main groups of activists in the field have declared their support for the SNC, whereas the old guard oppositionists have declared their support for the NCC, though some refuse to be active members in it.[7]

The disagreement between these two bodies is mainly over the way in which regime change should be achieved. The NCC advocates gradual change and rejects international military intervention, whereas the SNC calls to overthrow the regime and does not reject the option of accepting international assistance.

Another organization established recently is the "National Authority for Support of the Syrian Revolution," whose members include some 69 oppositionists residing outside Syria. Its head is former Syrian vice president 'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, who defected to the West and now resides in France and is a prominent opponent of the Syrian regime. According to Khaddam, the organization does not aim to lead the revolution but to assist it in the political, media, and material domains.[8] Khaddam advocates arming the revolution, and has called on all Syrian officers to "fulfill their national duty by rallying and taking part in the overthrow of the regime." He also advocates foreign military intervention in Syria, after the Libyan model. He opposes the SNC, which, he says, does not represent the Syrian people as a whole but only "the Muslim Brotherhood and several independent elements."[9]

The extent of support for Khaddam among the revolutionaries and the public in Syria is unclear. The SNC and NCC both oppose cooperating with him because they still consider him "part of the regime."[10]

'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, chairman of National Authority for Support of the Syrian Revolution and former Syrian vice president

Some oppositionists believe the existence of multiple oppositionist factions has, in fact, strengthened the opposition. Luai Hussein, for example, said: "Uniting the opposition into a single political entity, front, or coalition – a political axis pitted against the regime – might weaken the thrust of the revolution by focusing it on the regime, rather than on [the demand for] freedoms. The more voices and orientations there are, the more effective the struggle... The demand to unite the opposition into a single political bloc comes from the West, [which wants] a single political entity to work with..."[11] Faiz Sara said: "The opposition [includes] streams and orientations that are difficult to unite... These forces will form an alliance and increase their mutual coordination when it is time to establish Syria as a democratic state." [12]

This document will review the major opposition groups in Syria and the ideological differences between them.

The Syrian National Council

Founded September 15, 2011, by Syrian oppositionists who convened in Istanbul, the declared goal of the Syrian National Council (SNC) is to work towards ousting the regime within six months and establishing an interim government.[13] The group, which currently has 140 members, gives priority to the domestic opposition: they require that 60 percent of their members be from inside Syria, and half of these must be from among the youth of the revolution.[14] Oppositionists in Syria have complained that the SNC's makeup does not fairly represent Syrian society,[15] and that it has an Islamic orientation that could repel the religious minorities in Syria.[16] In response to this criticism, the SNC called upon all the opposition forces, in Syria and abroad, to join its ranks.[17] The call bore fruit: within two weeks of its founding, several diverse opposition groups joined the SNC, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration, the Revolution Coordinating Committees (which represent activists on the ground), as well as organizations representing various ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Kurds and the Assyrians.[18] The former general guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni, alluded to the difficulties in forming the council, saying, "Some of the problems between the various opposition members were not easy to overcome..."[19]

According to the SNC's founding statement, published October 2, 2011, the council is "a joint framework for the Syrian opposition and the main address of the revolution, representing it in Syria and abroad. It will provide the necessary assistance in order to realize the aspirations of the Syrian people to oust the current regime and all its components, and to found a civil state devoid of ethnic, gender, religious, or political discrimination."[20] On October 17, the SNC announced the establishment of a 19-member secretariat and a five-member executive council. The position of SNC chairman rotates between the executive council members every three months; Burhan Ghalioun was chosen to serve as the first chairman.[21]

Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of SNC

As a rule, the SNC holds more radical views than the opposition organizations and members of the political opposition within Syria, with respect to foreign intervention and the ultimate fate of the Assad regime. Judging by the slogans heard in demonstrations across Syria, the SNC reflects the voice of the revolution more accurately than these "traditional" opposition organizations.

The announcement of the SNC's founding was received positively both by Syrian oppositionists and in international circles. Demonstrations of support were held across Syria, and the Friday following the council's establishment was dubbed "SNC Friday." The E.U. and U.S. welcomed the new organization, though, to date, they have refrained from recognizing it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Criticism of the SNC's founding and its makeup was voiced mostly by the NCC (as will be explained below) and by Kurdish elements. Kurdish oppositionist Shalal Kado said that the SNC's founding statement does not reflect the aspirations of the Kurds, since it does not call for the constitution to recognize them as the second largest ethnic group in Syria, but links their cause to the larger issues of democracy and civil rights. He called the founding of the SNC an attempt to unite the Syrian opposition under the aegis of Turkey, which, he said, wishes to control the Syrian opposition in order to prevent any solution to the Kurdish problem that is not to Turkey's liking.[22] Yet fiercer criticism of the SNC was voiced by oppositionist Mamoun Al-Homsi, who called it and its head Burhan Ghalioun "opportunists," and rejected the SNC's claim that it represented 80 percent of the Syrian opposition. He called on its members to resign immediately, saying that if they did not they would share responsibility for any further bloodshed in the streets. He criticized the Arab media for providing the SNC with a forum while denying a voice to other opposition factions.[23]

The Question of Foreign Intervention

The SNC's founding statement expresses opposition to any foreign intervention that might undermine Syria's sovereignty, but, at the same time, calls upon international organizations to fulfill their responsibility to the Syrian people by protecting it from the regime using every "legitimate means."[24] Unsurprisingly, the statement refrains from specifying what counts as legitimate means. Apparently, the council members are currently divided over this issue; some of them advocate calling openly for foreign intervention, even military intervention, while others advocate calling for humanitarian assistance only.

Damascus Declaration secretary-general Samir Al-Nasher called on the UN and on international forces to take any measures they see fit in order to stop the regime's deliberate slaughter, saying: "The UN must determine what are the necessary measures and means... be they financial or military... What would have happened in Benghazi had NATO not acted?"[25] Following protests in Damascus calling to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, Al-Nasher said: "The Syrian people wants the UN and the Arab states to protect them from being killed by the Assad regime... If the international and Arab community does not heed the call to protect the civilians, the Syrians will take up arms to defend themselves, as is already happening in many areas."[26] Ahmad Riyadh Al-Shaqfa, general guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, called for "international military intervention in Syria, similar to what NATO did in Libya; that is, airstrikes against the bases of the forces supporting the regime, without the deployment of ground forces." He added: "We and [the rest of] the Syrian people oppose any foreign military intervention on Syrian soil. But if the regime continues to kill its own people, there are many deterring measures [that can be taken against it], such the no-fly zone... If the regime continues to fire mortars [on the people]... planes may intervene in order to paralyze the sources [of fire]."[27]

On the other hand, oppositionist Adib Al-Shishkali said: "The public is in favor of political action. If we request [international] intervention, we will not get it. Syria is still a member of all the international organizations, and we should take diplomatic measures before considering the option of foreign military [intervention]... The [will of the] public is the raison d'etre of the [Syrian] National Council, and it is to the public that we shall turn for all future decisions."[28]

Burhan Ghalioun clarified: "When we request international intervention... we request [only] the implementation of the UN Charter, especially the clause on protecting civilians, which applies to all countries. This is not an infringement on national sovereignty, because human rights laws supersede the sovereignty of [particular] countries... We will not accept any intervention [carried out] without the SNC's consent."[29] Later, Ghalioun added that the SNC rejected the option of foreign military intervention, and that members who had called for such intervention had disregarded the fact that he had been appointed the SNC's sole spokesman.[30] Ghalioun's position may reflect a desire for the SNC to incorporate additional forces in the Syrian opposition who reject foreign intervention, such as the NCC.

Protest in Support of a No Fly-Zone

The situation on the ground would seem to suggest that it is, in fact, the more extreme positions in the SNC which reflect the Syrian street. For instance, an October 28, 2011 Friday demonstration was devoted to demands to impose a no-fly zone in order to protect both civilians and soldiers who had deserted the Syrian army. According to various reports, some 40 people had been killed on that day.

A sign calling to participate in a support rally in Tel Rif'at for imposing a no-fly zone

"Friday of Imposing a No-Fly Zone" Demonstration in Homs

Ghalioun's position angered some SNC supporters, such as the opposition website, considered to be affiliated with Islamic elements. This website stated that "the Syrian people are beginning to resent the SNC's delay in requesting international protection and a no-fly zone. Much time has passed... and the SNC has not yet decided on this issue."[31]

Dialogue with the Regime

The SNC is opposed to dialogue with the regime and calls for its immediate ouster. It rejected the Arab League's November 2, 2011 agreement with the regime, citing the SNC's "commitment to the popular and revolutionary [position] that rejects dialogue with the regime and calls for the ouster of all its leaders. Any diplomatic course the Arab League adopts must ensure the transfer of power to a government that represents the people, [and the] ouster of Bashar Al-Assad and his cronies..."[32]

The Regime's Position: The SNC Is Illegitimate

The Syrian regime regards the SNC as a serious rival. When this organization first declared its establishment, the regime chose to ignore it, as it ignored the founding of many other opposition groups. However, after it was joined by key opposition bodies – such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration, and some of the local coordinating committees – the regime began to take note of it and attack it, realizing that it could pose a threat to its survival, just as the Libyan Interim National Transitional Council posed a threat to Qadhafi's regime in Libya. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem warned that harsh measures would be taken against anyone who recognized this "illegitimate" council.[33] MP Khaled Al-'Aboud said that the SNC represented the desires of France, the U.S., Qatar, and Turkey, which wished to interfere in Syria's domestic affairs.[34] In his column in the government daily Teshreen, Rasha Al-Issa wrote that the SNC was just another in the series of opposition councils "that appear suddenly and are [just as] quickly forgotten because they bear no relation to the Syrian people and the present crisis... The only concern of these so-called opposition councils is to gain a foothold in the international [political] arena. The [oppositionists] who convened in Istanbul have become traders in [Syrian] blood..."[35]

The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) was formed in late June 2011, following three months of consultations among various opposition groups, most of them inside Syria. The organizations comprising this coalition, the majority of which belong to the old guard of the Syrian opposition, include the National Democratic Union, which split off from the Damascus Declaration, the Union of Marxist Parties, and Kurdish parties. Also in the NCC are figures from the democratic Islamist stream, as well as prominent independent oppositionists like Michel Kilo, 'Aref Dalila, Faiz Sara, Haitham Al-Malih, and Haitham Al-Mana', who resides abroad. Burhan Ghalioun, now the head of the SNC, was once a member of this coalition too. Its chief coordinator is Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim, spokesman of the National Democratic Union.[36] Samir 'Aita is the head of the NCC representation abroad.

Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim, NCC general coordinator

The NCC central committee has 80 members: 40 percent of them are representatives of the 15 parties comprising the coalition, 30 percent are from the popular action committees representing the activists on the ground, and another 30 percent are national figures from the various provinces.[37] There is also a 27 member executive committee, headed by Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim.[38]

The NCC wishes to position itself as the supreme coalition of opposition forces, both inside and outside Syria. This organization's chief claim is that the revolution must be led by domestic forces, with the support of oppositionists abroad. According to Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim, the NCC comprises about 70% of the Syrian opposition.[39] However, the extent of support for the NCC among the activists in the field remains unclear, especially since the Local Coordinating Committees have joined the rival coalition, the SNC. According to the NCC, 30 percent of the members of its central committee, which was elected at its September 17, 2011 convention held outside Damascus, are representatives of the popular action committees.[40] However, the latter committees themselves denied having participated in this convention, saying that they are committed to overthrowing the regime, and that acceptance of this demand is a condition for their joining any alliance or coalition.[41] Attempting to settle the contradiction, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai stated that the leaders of the protest movement did not attend the convention, for security reasons, but that "political representatives of the popular action [movements]" did attend.[42]

The convention, attended by 300 activists, issued a road map for resolving the Syrian crisis based on three No's: no to foreign intervention, no to violence, and no to sectarianism.[43] Participants called on the regime to stop the violence, withdraw the military from the population centers, free all the political prisoners, bring those responsible for the killing to justice, recognize the unconstrained right to demonstrate, suspend Article 8 of the constitution – which grants the Ba'th party a monopoly over the government – and to declare the onset of an interim stage, in the course of which a national unity government will be established. Unlike the protestors on the streets and the SNC, the NCC is not calling for the immediate ouster of the regime, but for transferring power in a gradual and agreed-upon manner. It also rejects the option of foreign military intervention, while supporting humanitarian intervention and the exertion of international pressure on the regime. According to 'Abd Al-'Azim, "the imposition of a no-fly zone is the beginning of military intervention... Political and moral international support is one thing, [but] a Security Council resolution and foreign military intervention is another, and we reject it out of hand. We are also opposed to economic sanctions, if they harm the interests of the people.[44]

Unlike the SNC, which criticized the Arab League's handling of the Syrian crisis,[45] the NCC welcomed the Arab League's efforts to resolve the crisis and accepted its suggestion for dialogue with the regime under its sponsorship, on the condition that the NCC's demands of the regime be met.[46] However, the NCC opposed the incorporation of oppositionists in the existing government without the declaration of an interim phase, on the grounds that this would serve the regime, and called for a complete structural overhaul of the regime and its institutions.[47]

In light of its positions, some oppositionists in Syria and abroad claim that the NCC is not interested in overthrowing the regime and, in fact, enjoys the regime's support. This is evident, they say, from its ability to hold conferences inside Syria and from the relatively positive coverage it receives in the government media and in media close to the regime. They claim further that the NCC represents the traditional opposition and is not in tune with the sentiment of the street.[48] In response to this criticism, the organization said it had not received permission from the regime to hold its conventions, and that nobody could doubt the sincerity of its members, who have a long history of struggling against the regime.[49] Coordinator 'Abd Al-'Azim explained that the regime had been compelled to permit the conventions because otherwise they would have been held abroad, resulting in increased international pressure on the regime.[50] In order to dispel any suspicion of cooperation with the regime, the NCC recently declared that it would not participate in the local and parliamentary elections unless all its demands were met.[51]

The establishment of the SNC posed a considerable challenge to the NCC in its struggle for leadership of the revolution. NCC leaders welcomed the SNC's founding as a step towards uniting the opposition, but stressed that this step had been taken hastily without formulating a clear political and organizational vision. NCC coordinator 'Abd Al-'Azim said that the two coalitions shared the same goal of bringing about a national democratic change in Syria, but that the opposition abroad, as represented by the SNC, was content to spew slogans of overthrowing the regime without clarifying how it means to do this.[52]

Apparently, considerations of honor and prestige are among the factors preventing the two coalitions from uniting. According to 'Abd Al-'Azim, some SNC members wish to marginalize the NCC so that the SNC remains the sole representative of the protestors and the opposition. He related that his organization had recently tried to reach understandings with the SNC over joining forces, but that the latter had rejected the notion of leading the revolution from inside the country. 'Abd Al-'Azim called on the "reasonable people" in the SNC to work towards uniting the opposition.[53] Burhan Ghalioun said in response that the NCC was the one responsible for the delay in uniting the opposition, and reiterated his call for the NCC to join the ranks of his organization.[54]

The Forces Active in the Field

Since the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria, different forces have been active on the ground, some of which have since aligned politically with either the SNC or the NCC. These forces fall into two main groups. One group advocates non-violent protest with the aim of toppling the regime, opposing any dialogue with it but also rejecting foreign intervention.[55] Its most prominent representatives are the Local Coordination Councils, most of which support the SNC.[56] The second group advocates violent struggle against the regime. Its most prominent members are the Free Syrian Army, which supports the SNC, and the Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordinating Committees, which opposes the SNC.

The Local Coordinating Committees

The Local Coordinating Committees were founded by journalists, human rights activists, and local politicians who initiated activities on the ground and disseminated information about events over the internet.[57] On June 1, 2011, several local committees formed the Federation of Coordinating Committees, which, according to its founders, does not represent any political group. Conditions for joining the Federation were taking meaningful action on the ground and disseminating the message of the revolution, and commitment to the cause and aspirations of the Syrian people, and to those who have fallen in the revolution. On August 18, another body was founded, the General Authority of the Syrian Revolution, comprising the Federation of Coordinating Committees, several "independent" coordinating committees, and internet activists.[58] Also, revolutionary committees were formed in the various provinces, and united into an umbrella organization called the Revolutionary Leadership Council. These field activists are very critical of the political opposition that has not managed to unite for a long time. 'Omar Adlabi, a prominent member of the Local Coordination Committees, said that the field activists were forced to enter politics because of the incompetence of the "traditional" opposition and its inability to unite.[59] According to reports, the local committees pushed for the establishment of a legitimate body to represent the revolution vis-à-vis the international community and the domestic Syrian arena, which would negate the legitimacy of the regime and garner support for the revolution.[60]

Local Coordination Committees, whose slogan is "Freedom, Honor, Citizenship"

The Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordinating Committees

This body was founded on June 20, 2011, by Dr. Muhammad Rahhal. According to his Facebook page, Rahhal (54), a military expert, was born in Syria and resides in Sweden, and is head of the Union of Swedish Muslims as well as of the Global Organization for the Liberation of Iraq.[61] The founding declaration of the Revolutionary Council states that it represents 75 Coordinating Committees from various parts of Syria, and was established "in light of the Iranian occupation of Syria, which is led by the party of Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon in cooperation with the agents of the Iranian occupation within Assad's Vichy government." The declaration also states that the opposition conventions held outside Syria do not represent the Council or the revolution.[62]

Muhammad Rahhal, chairman of Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordinating Committees

In August 2011, Rahhal declared that, in light of the crimes of the Syrian regime, non-violent protest was useless, and consequently the Revolutionary Council planed to arm its activists with weapons that would be seized from the regime's operatives. He opposed any dialogue with the regime, and also stated that the SNC, founded by "ghosts detached from the revolution,"[63] was too selective and alienated the opposition.[64] In October, Rahhal declared the establishment of a revolutionary interim council and the "Salah Al-Din Army," and called on the opposition to demand international intervention and the imposition of a no-fly zone.[65] The Federation of Coordinating Committees denounced Rahhal's statements and said that his Revolutionary Council does not represent anyone and, in fact, does not even exist.[66]

The Free Syrian Army

As the protests in Syria spread, soldiers and officers who refused to take part in their suppression began to defect from the Syrian military. According to some reports, over 10,000 soldiers and officers have defected, though this figure cannot be confirmed.

On June 9, 2011, Syrian officer Hussein Harmoush declared his defection from the army and the establishment of the Brigade of Free Officers, which later became the Free Officers Movement. In its founding statement, this organization urged the UN and the Security Council to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria in order to protect the citizens, and to impose a no-fly zone. It also called on the supporters of the revolution to arm the protest movement, as was done in Libya,[67] to protect the non-violent protestors, and to pursue the security and regime operatives who had ordered to harm protesters. The Free Officers Movement emphasized that its mission is defensive in nature and that it will only attack the army if the latter targets civilians. The movement's Facebook page features the logo of the General Authority of the Syrian Revolution, suggesting that it operates in coordination with it.[68] On September 7, 2011, Harmoush was arrested by the regime. Several weeks later, the movement announced it was joining the Free Syrian Army, founded by Riyadh Al-'As'ad on July 29, 2011.[69]

As for Colonel Riyadh Al-'As'ad himself, he defected from the Syrian army in protest of the violent suppression of the demonstrations and established the Free Syrian Army, composed of defected Syrian soldiers, in order to protect the people and the revolution and to topple the regime. Al-'As'ad called on the Syrian officers to join the defectors, and declared that the Syrian security forces, which are harming civilians, are a legitimate target for his army. He also called to unite the opposition in Syria and abroad.[70] According to Ibrahim Majbour, a co-founder of the Free Syrian Army, the members of this organization advocate continuing the non-violent protests until the regime collapses, but as soldiers they have a duty to carry arms and defend the people.[71] Al-'As'ad told the British newspaper Daily Telegraph that the Free Syrian Army wishes to be recognized as the military wing of the SNC, which it supports, and that it intends to sit down with the SNC and consider ways to promote this coalition's goals on the military level. An SNC member told the daily that contacts are indeed taking place "under the table."[72] The Free Syrian Army has several "battalions" in various parts of the country, including in Damascus and its environs, in Idlib, and in Al-Bukamal; the largest battalion is in Homs. The Army's headquarters is located on the Turkish border.

Riyadh Al-'As'ad, head of Free Syrian Army

Meeting between Burhan Ghalioun and Riyadh Al-'As'ad, November 2011

Pro-Regime "National Opposition"

Recently, groups have appeared which are purportedly oppositionist but which are, in fact, pro-regime. These groups are composed of former members of the Ba'th party and/or the regime, who do not belong to the "traditional" opposition. Apparently, the emergence of these groups is an attempt by the regime to form a "friendly" opposition and to create an appearance of openness. It is not surprising that Qadri Jamil, a leader in one of these groups, was recently appointed to the regime-established national committee for drafting a new constitution.[73] NCC official Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim called these groups "a fake opposition that supports the regime... and is far removed from the goals of the protestors."[74]

These "national" opposition groups advocate non-violent protest, voice some criticism against the regime, and express reservations about its handling of the demonstrations; however, they are careful not to attack Assad, and oppose the calls to overthrow him. They advocate dialogue between the domestic opposition and the regime, as well as reforms, but stress that this must be carried out under Assad's leadership and without foreign intervention. They accept the regime's claim that armed terrorist gangs are operating in Syria against peaceful civilians, demonstrators, and the security apparatuses alike. They also harshly denounce the opposition outside Syria, as well as Turkey's attitude towards Syria and anyone who takes a firm position against the Syrian regime. These groups receive extensive and sympathetic coverage in the Syrian official media and in the media close to the regime.

The prominent groups in this stream are the National Democratic Initiative, headed by former information minister Muhammad Salman, and the Popular Front for Change and Liberation in Syria. Another body is the National Initiative for Syria, headed by MP Muhammad Habash, which sees itself as representing the silent majority in the country and as a mediator between the opposition and the regime.

The National Democratic Initiative

Established by former information minister Muhammad Salman, this organization includes other former members of the regime and the Ba'th party, and various Syrian intellectuals. Its Facebook page states that the measures taken so far by the regime – such as the lifting of the state of emergency, the liberation of political prisoners, and the promise to reconsider Article 8 of the constitution – reflect a change in its outlook, but that the continued employment of the security apparatuses and the sweeping arrests prevent the necessary political change from taking place. The Initiative calls for a peaceful transition from a "popular democratic" regime to a representational, multi-party democracy; for freedom of the press and the formulation of a new constitution via national dialogue; and for the establishment of an interim unity government, the liberation of political prisoners, and an investigation into the killing of protestors and security personnel.[75] The group accepts the regime's claim about the armed gangs operating in Syria, but does not refrain from criticizing its handling of the protests, stating that the employment of the security forces has complicated the situation and may lead to foreign intervention.[76] In recent months, delegations from the organization met with President Assad several times, and, according to Salman, met with a serious response. Salman attacked oppositionists who accuse the Initiative of cooperating with the regime and who wish to undermine it, saying that these critics merely "want to become 'stars' at the expense of the rebelling [protesters on the] street."[77]

Muhammad Salman, one of the founders of National Democratic Initiative and former information minister

The Popular Front for Change and Liberation

Established July 9, 2011, this organization incorporates the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, headed by 'Ali Haidar, the National Council of the Syrian Communist Party (Unified), headed by Qadri Jamil, and other figures, including Lebanese researcher Mikhail Awwad, known for his support of Assad's regime. On October 30, the Popular Front elected its leading bodies, including a 50-member central committee, an 11-member executive bureau, and a presidential council whose members are Qadri Jamil, 'Ali Haidar, and 'Adel Na'isa, a former member of the Ba'th national leadership. According to Jamil, each of these bodies comprises representatives of the parties (30%) and of the non-violent popular protest movement (30%), as well as representatives of the provinces and independents (40%).[78] The Popular Front and the National Democratic Initiative are apparently cooperating, and their representatives met several times recently.[79]

The Popular Front rejects any external intervention in Syria's affairs and condemns all requests for outside assistance but also all attacks on Syrian civilians; calls to limit the authority of the security apparatuses to defending the homeland; supports non-violent popular activity; and advocates the drafting of a new constitution that will ensure a smooth transfer of power.[80] It is in favor of dialogue between the regime and the national opposition, and believes that "any solution [to the crisis] must come from within, based on dialogue that will yield courageous solutions that do not entail a 'winner' and a 'loser.'" The Front accepts the regime's position that the dialogue must take place inside Syria, describing any other option as an infringement upon Syria's sovereignty.[81] The Front has called the demand to overthrow the regime "an impractical and unreasonable slogan."[82] It is also critical of the SNC, saying that the latter was established by Western elements "to play a role similar to that of the Interim [National Transitional] Council in Libya."[83]

The Popular Front is also active outside Syria, especially among forces supportive of the Assad regime, such as Russia. A delegation of Popular Front representatives met in Moscow with officials from the Russian foreign ministry, and thanked them for Russia's veto in the Security Council, which Qadri Jamil called "a historic landmark."[84]

Popular Front for Change and Liberation heads: Qadri Jamil (middle), 'Ali Haidar (left)

As for countries critical of Syria, the Front takes a harder line than the regime itself. At a meeting in Turkey with representatives of socialist parties opposed to Erdogan's regime, 'Ali Haidar called the Turkish government "a spearhead of the Western-American-Jewish plan."[85] The Front has also criticized the U.S. and the West. For example, Qadri Jamil called to expel U.S. Ambassador in Damascus Robert Ford from the country for "overstepping the boundaries of proper diplomatic conduct," and to nationalize American and European companies in Syria if their countries participate in tightening the economic siege on Syria.[86] Regarding the Arab League, 'Ali Haidar said: "There is a problem with the makeup [of this body] and its management. It must be replaced with a Syrian league. It is an organization without vision, whose decisions are worthless."[87]

The National Initiative for Syria

According to MP Muhammad Habash, a prominent spokesman of the National Initiative for Syria, the group's goal is to represent the silent majority in Syria and to find the middle ground between the regime and the opposition, in order to mediate between them. Its first convention, held on July 3, 2011, was marked by chaos and violence, to the point that a brawl developed between participants. Prominent oppositionists such as Michel Kilo and 'Aref Dalila declined the invitation to attend the convention.

Muhammad Habash, among founders of National Initiative for Syria and former MP

In general, the group has not hesitated to criticize the regime, but has as yet shied away from censuring Assad's leadership. The National Initiative calls on the regime to withdraw its forces from population centers, free political prisoners, allow demonstrations and free media coverage of events in Syria, and prosecute those responsible for the killing of protestors and security personnel. It also calls to enact comprehensive reforms within a year and to establish an independent interim government. It rejects any foreign intervention in Syria, and shares the view that dialogue, led by the president, is the only way out of the crisis. Accordingly, it took part in a conference chaired by Syrian Vice President Farouq Al-Shara', which was meant to prepare the ground for a national dialogue initiative planned by the regime. The organization sees Assad as a key figure in any transition to democratic rule.[88]

The National Initiative has identified a positive, albeit slow, change in the regime's positions. Four months after the outbreak of protests, Muhammad Habash said: "Syria is not what it was several months ago. There is political activity, and dialogue conferences take place on a daily basis..."[89] We have a new Syria, and we must take advantage of the climate of liberty in order to build a free and democratic [country]." He also condemned the visit of the U.S. ambassador to Hama,[90] and Turkey's policy vis-à-vis Syria.[91]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] A delegation of senior officials from these countries visited Syria on September 10, 2011, where they met with President Assad, promising him their countries' continued support for Syria in all realms and international organizations. SANA (Syria), September 10, 2011.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 28, 2011.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), September 6, 2011.

[4], November 3, 2011.

[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 14, 2011.

[6], October 2, 2011.

[7] Faiz Sara expressed support for the NCC but refused to become a member in its executive committee., October 15, 2011.

[8], October 30, 2011.

[9] Le Figaro (France), November 6, 2011.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 17, 2011;, September 19, 2011.

[11], September 29, 2011.

[12], September 24, 2011.

[13], September 15, 2011.

[14], September 15, 2011.

[15], September 20, 2011.

[16], September 19, 2011.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 16, 2011.

[18], October 2, 2011.

[19], October 2, 2011.

[20], October 2, 2011.

[21], October 19, 2011

[22], October 3, 2011.

[23], November 7, 2011.

[24], October 2, 2011.

[25] Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 3, 2011.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 29, 2011.

[27], October 3, 2011.

[28] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), October 22, 2011.

[29] Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 3, 2011.

[30] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 17, 2011.

[31], October 25, 2011.

[32], November 4, 2011.

[33] SANA (Syria), October 10, 2011.

[34], October 3, 2011.

[35] Teshreen (Syria), October 4, 2011. Columnist Bannan Al-Nassaf wrote in a similar vein in the daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime. He claimed that the SNC members acted out of self interest and that the people did not recognize them as their representatives. Al-Watan (Syria), October 10, 2011.

[36], August 13, 2011.

[37], September 18, 2011.

[38], October 8, 2011.

[39], September 19, 2011.

[40] Al-Rai (Kuwait), September 19, 2011.

[41] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 18, 2011.

[42] Al-Rai (Kuwait), September 19, 2011.

[43], September 18, 2011.

[44], September 19, 2011.

[45] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 22, 2011.

[46] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 19, 2011.

[47], October 11, 2011.

[48], September 24, 2011.

[49] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 18, 2011.

[50], September 19, 2011.

[51] Al-Khalij (UAE), October 2, 2011.

[52], October 4, 2011.

[53], October 11, 2011.

[54] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 17, 2011.

[55] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 1, 2011.

[56], September 20, 2011.

[57] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 1, 2011.

[58] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 29, 2011.

[59] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 1, 2011.

[60] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 29, 2011.

[62], June 20, 2011.

[63] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 28, 2011.

[64] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 2, 2011.

[65] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 2, 2011.

[66], September 26, 2011.

[69] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 25, 2011.

[71], September 27, 2011.

[72] Daily Telegraph (UK), November 3, 2011.

[73] SANA (Syria), October 16, 2011.

[74], October 25, 2011.

[76] Al-Watan (Syria), August 29, 2011.

[77] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 21, 2011.

[78] Al-Watan (Syria), October 30, 2011.

[79], October 23, 2011.

[80] Al-Watan (Syria), July 10, 2011.

[81], October 23, 2011.

[82] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 26, 2011.

[83] Al-Watan (Syria), October 24, 2011.

[84], October 6, 2011.

[85] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 26, 2011.

[86] Al-Watan (Syria), October 16, 2011.

[87] Al-Watan (Syria), October 16, 2011.

[88] Al-Watan (Syria), July 4, 2011.

[89], July 19, 2011.

[90], July 10, 2011.

[91], July 19, 2011.

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