July 18, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1706

Following Syrian Regime’s Return To Arab League, Syrian Opposition’s Plight Grows Worse

July 18, 2023 | By O. Peri*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1706

The rapprochement between the Arab states and the Syrian regime – which recently culminated in the regime’s reinstatement in the Arab League after a 12-year suspension and in the participation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the May 19, 2023 Arab summit in Jeddah[1] -- has  once again shed light on the weakness of the Syrian political opposition. In the beginning of the Syrian crisis, in 2011, the opposition enjoyed wide support and was recognized by the Arab world and the international community as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But since late 2015, when Russia intervened in the Syrian war in support of the Assad regime, the opposition has gradually lost its power.

On the military level, the opposition has lost most of the regions it previously controlled in Syria. Even in the small area it still officially controls, in the north of the country, the opposition is in fact quite weak, and the militias that are ostensibly subordinate to it are largely independent and occasionally even fight one another. Moreover, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS),[2] which controls most of the Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria, has been trying to expand in the recent months and is encroaching on the opposition-controlled areas in the northern Aleppo governorate.[3]  

The opposition’s political achievements have been few as well. The negotiations with the regime have been stalled since 2018, and the Syrian Constitutional Committee, established in 2019 to draft a new constitution for the country, has not yet agreed on a single article. Moreover, in June 2022 Russia, with the support of the Syrian regime, suspended the committee’s meetings in Geneva. [4] In addition, UN Security Council Resolution 2254, from 2015, which set out a roadmap for the political process in Syria, stipulated that the process must involve “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition.” This enabled the participation of opposition elements that have moderate positions towards the regime and do not demand its ouster, which, in turn, caused severe disagreements within the opposition that hampered its activity.[5] Finally, the opposition has never managed to attain an independent status, and is heavily dependent on the countries that sponsor it, especially on Turkey, which pays the salaries of most of its members and hosts its headquarters. The opposition’s agenda has often appeared to serve the interests of these countries more than the interests of the Syrian people.  

Since the regime’s return to the Arab League and the renewal of its relations with the Arab countries, the decline of the opposition’s status and the absence of Arab support for it have become even more conspicuous. Saudi Arabia is a particularly clear example of this. Whereas in the first years of the Syria war it supported the opposition both politically and militarily, in the recent years its support has significantly waned. This was especially noticeable when Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which are promoting a “step-for-step” approach towards the Syrian regime in their efforts to resolve the Syria crisis, did not even define the opposition’s role in this process or bother to consult with it.[6]  Even Turkey, which until recently has been considered a major ally of the Syrian opposition, has in the past few months been restoring its relations with the Syrian regime, causing the opposition to fear a possible decline in the financial and political support it receives from Turkey.[7]  

Against this backdrop, in the past weeks there have been notable attempts by the opposition itself and by other elements to restore its status and its relevance, whether by establishing new opposition bodies or by calling for the renewal of the negotiations with the regime. However, so far these attempts seem to have been unsuccessful.    

The Arab states’ rapprochement with the Syrian regime naturally sparked intense condemnation from the Syrian opposition, which described this as an Arab surrender to this regime and to Iran. However, there was also self-criticism by opposition activists, who blamed the situation on the official opposition itself, calling it a corrupt and dependent body that has not managed to steer the popular Syrian uprising and has thus paved the way for the Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime.    

Syrian oppositionists decry the regime’s reinstatement in the Arab League: “The murderer of children belongs in the international courts, not in the Arab League” (Image:, April 23, 2023)

This report reviews the efforts of the Syrian opposition to regain its status following the Syrian regime’s return to the Arab League, and the criticism directed by some opposition activists towards the official opposition bodies.

Efforts To Rehabilitate Or Replace The Syrian Opposition Bodies

As part of the attempts to revitalize the Syrian opposition in light of the regime’s reintegration in the Arab world, in the recent months there have been efforts to establish a new political opposition body in place of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is considered to be the opposition’s main representative body. According to an April 14, 2023 report on the opposition website Orient News, activists who do not belong to the official opposition bodies recently met in Qatar to form a new opposition leadership.[8] The pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that Qatar, which has for years supported the Syrian opposition and remains opposed to the regime’s reinstatement in the Arab League, is encouraging opposition activists to form a new, more inclusive, political body that will be better suited to dealing with the current situation, namely the Arab openness to the Syrian regime.[9]

Saudi Arabia too is said to be interested in forming a new opposition body that will be willing to accept its “step-for-step” policy vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, which seeks to achieve certain concessions from the regime but not to oust it. [10]

A meeting held on June 5-6, 2023 in Paris, attended by dozens of Syrian civil society representatives as well as international representatives, was seen by some as an attempt to form a new opposition body.[11] Furthermore a notion that has been circulating since 2021 has resurfaced, namely forming a military council that will rule Syria until the election of a new government, possibly headed by Manaf Tlass, a Syrian officer who defected from the regime’s army and the son of Syria’s former defense minister, Mustafa Tlass. In a June 9 interview with the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al -Arabi, Tlass spoke of forming a national liberation movement in which all the Syrian opposition forces would be represented.[12]

In response to the Arab rapprochement with Assad, and presumably also to the initiatives to form new opposition bodies, the existing ones made efforts to revitalize themselves and refresh their outlook. On June 3-4 the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represents the Syrian opposition in the political process, held a meeting in Geneva, attended by representatives of its various factions, who had not met for three years due to disagreements between them. Also present at the meeting were representatives of the U.S., the EU, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt, as well as the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen. In a statement it issued after the meeting the HNC expressed its willingness to renew the talks with the regime based on UNSC Resolution 2254.[13] However, since the regime rejected this resolution even when it was at its weakest,  it is unlikely to heed the NHC’s call today, when it is in a much stronger position whereas the opposition is weak.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who are leading the current Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime, were invited to attend the NHC meeting, but chose not to. Moreover, according to a June 24 report on the Syrian opposition website Orient News, several days after the meeting in Geneva the NHC asked Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and the Arab League to meet with its representatives in order to hear their position on the Syrian issue, but none of them heeded its request. It should be noted that, in Qatar’s case, this was the first time it had ignored a request of the Syrian opposition to meet with opposition officials.[14]   

Syrian Opposition Activists Criticize The Opposition Bodies: They Have Failed To Effectively Lead The Syrian Revolution

As stated, some activists blamed the official opposition bodies themselves or the regime’s growing strength and the opposition’s growing weakness, accusing them of poor performance, corruption, self-interest and subservience to foreign agendas, and calling on them to resign.   

Syrian Researcher: The Opposition Is Brain Dead, Its Leaders Must Resign

For example, in a June 26 article on an opposition website, posted one week after President Assad attended the Arab League summit, Syrian researcher Rashid Al-Hajj Saleh wrote that the Syrian opposition is weak and corrupt and cannot continue to exist in its current form. "The problem of the Syrian opposition," he said, "goes back to the beginning of the Syrian revolution and has three aspects. First, the official opposition [bodies] – the NHC and the [National] Coalition – relied on the international community and on international military support more than on the Syrians and their protest movement. Second, the national opposition must strictly avoid accepting funds and wages from other countries on a regular basis… Third, the [opposition] leadership lived abroad for decades and visited [Syria only] for several hours at a time, almost clandestinely, and therefore lost touch with the events of the revolution and with the terrible suffering of the people. All these issues caused the people to feel distant from and displeased with the official opposition. They created a situation whereby, for over a decade, the Syrians have had a weak opposition plagued with favoritism, corruption and poor performance. Worse, it was more concerned with surviving and preserving its power than with the revolution and its success, and lost any ability to impact the [Syrian] political arena…  

“Assad’s return to the Arab League can only be seen as evidence of the abysmal failure of the official opposition. The Syrian people have paid for this failure again and again, and it is time they stopped paying for mistakes they didn’t make. [Today,] more than a week after Assad visited Saudi Arabia [for the Arab League] and the [National] Coalition failed to take responsibility for this, it can be said that the Syrian people’s relations with the coalition have reached the point of an irreversible divorce. Therefore, the coalition, as a whole,  must resign or disband, for it is politically useless and has lost any ability to impact the events in Syria…   

“Saudi Arabia has pressured the Arab League into normalizing its relations with the [Syrian] regime, and what steps has the coalition taken to deal with this? The simple answer is 'none.' Nothing but whining and wailing and empty words. And what steps has the coalition taken against the possibility of further integration of the Syrian regime in the Arab region and the world? The simple answer is [again] 'none.' What will the coalition be able to do in one, two, five or ten years? The answer is 'nothing.' The coalition has lost all its influence, because it is virtually brain dead. Years of corruption, favoritism and greed for power, and of handing out jobs, have ultimately taken their toll.”[15]

Cartoon on Syrian opposition website: “The Syrian opposition” is divided, with each member trying to steer in a different direction (, June 20, 2023)

Syrian Writer: Oppositions’ Poor Performance Contributed To Resurgence Of Assad Regime

Syrian writer and researcher Tareq ‘Aziza made similar arguments. In a May 25, 2023 article in the London-based Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, he claimed that the Syrian opposition has been preoccupied with the personal interests of its members and with the agendas of the countries that fund it, instead of serving the Syrian people, and that this contributed to the survival of the Assad regime. He wrote: "The regime's return to the Arab League and Bashar Al-Assad’s participation in the Jeddah summit drew a storm of angry and condemning responses from Syrian opposition circles… While some of these responses focused on deriding the Arab League, and especially the countries that had supported and promoted the Syrian regime’s return to the league, others mentioned that the official bodies of the Syrian opposition also had a hand in creating the present situation, due to their ongoing failure and their complete subjugation to the forces that support and fund [them], as well as their corruption and lethargy.

“It is no secret that the bodies of the Syrian political opposition, which emerged after the Syrian revolution and were recognized by the Arab region and the world, did not grow out of the rebelling [Syrian] street, nor were they elected bodies authorized to represent [the people]. Rather, they were imposed on the Syrians by some countries that were active in the region and the world… Although the groups and figures who comprise these political bodies do include people who have a measure of credibility and commitment to the Syrian cause, ultimately these people, alone or as a group, were not enough to fulfil the duty and meet the great challenges of the Syrian revolution. [Indeed], their efforts were often in vain, [superseded] by personal or partisan interests or arguments that came at the expense of the national interests. Moreover, the [opposition] decision-makers were often more loyal to the countries that sponsored them and to the agendas of those countries than to the goals and aspirations of the Syrian people, as evident from their conduct and the results of their actions…

“The outcomes [in Syria] could have been different, at least on the political level, had the opposition retained a measure of independence and tried to exploit the differences among the various forces [that supported it]… It can be said that some of what Assad is reaping today was sowed yesterday by the opposition.”[16]


* O. Peri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1693 – After 12-Year Suspension, Syrian Regime Is Welcomed Back Into The Arab League, May 17, 2023.

[2] HTS is a jihadi militia comprising several factions that has been designated as a terror organization by the U.S. Its main component is Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria but severed its relations with Al-Qaeda in 2016.

[3], May 26, 2023, April 28, 2023.

[4] Russia suspended the meetings after the host country, Switzerland, joined the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia in response to the war in Ukraine.  According to recent reports, there are plans to renew the meetings in an Arab country, apparently Oman or Kuwait.

[5] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1214 - UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime – December 28, 2015.

[6], May 6, 2023. On the step-for-step approach, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1693 – After 12-Year Suspension, Syrian Regime Is Welcomed Back Into The Arab League, May 17, 2023.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 24, 2023; Al-Arab (London), May 10, 2023;, April 23, 2023.

[8], April 14, 2023.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 20, 2023.

[10], May 27, 2023.

[11], June 2, 2023.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 9, 2023. It should be mentioned that there is no evidence that Tlass and his supporters have a significant support base in Syria.

[13], June 4, 2023.

[14], June 24, 2023.

[15] May 26, 2023.

[16] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 25, 2023.

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