x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

New Syrian order cannot be ignored by Assad regime

The Syrian opposition has been badly divided, but that is now changing; new forces represent a political reality the Al Assad regime will ignore at its peril.

Until very recently, the opposition to Syria's ruling regime seemed to be hopelessly divided.

Since the eruption of protests more than six months ago, the expatriate opposition has been fissured, and inside the country those who organise protests are divided among disparate groups.

The divisions seemed to be deepening further after a day of protest last month under the profoundly contentious slogan "international protection".

But then Sunday brought the news that the opposition has been waiting for: the formation of a unified Syrian National Council in Istanbul. It is too early to gauge how much influence this new council will have, but the early signs indicate the majority inside Syria are happy to lend support to it. The council is still a work in progress.

Still, the reasons for the earlier disconnect among protesters should not be ignored: that is, the emergence of powerful opposition forces inside Syria that control the events on the ground and are ideologically different to the traditional forces.

When protesters took to the streets in Deraa in mid-March, they had no leadership. They were not sponsored or led by the opposition. The protests were spontaneous and were driven by anger at the torture and humiliation of 15 school boys in early March.

Slowly, protesters began to organise themselves and formed small organisational committees - initially consisting of as few as two members - to draft slogans and mobilise other Syrians to join the demonstrations. Those small committees are credited for expanding protests town by town and city by city. The committees have performed wide-ranging roles, from intercommunication and logistic support to passing on news materials to Syrian activists outside the country, who turned their rented rooms in Beirut and Istanbul to studios, to send the videos and news on to the international media. They helped keep Syria in the spotlight despite the absence of professional news reports from inside the country.

As the protests grew, the mission of the committees became more complex and required more coordination to provide activists with necessary equipments to cover the events and pass donations to victims and affected areas.

So, more coordination committees were established and as days went by they came under one bloc: the largely secular Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LCCS). Another bloc, the predominantly religious Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union (SRCU) was created later. The establishment of the union was clearly a result of disagreement in viewpoints among the protesters themselves, especially as they both performed similar roles. The union members might have been unhappy with the committees' rejection of any foreign help. Many protests had no qualms in asking for foreign help, although they both reject military intervention.

The two blocs agreed on sensitive matters such as peaceful uprising, civil state, unity of Syrian people and rejection of dialogue with the regime. One could sense, however, an elitist attitude on the part of the local committees - judging by the statements they have issued in relation to political positions and statements. The union's statements lately echoed the protesters' demands to form a national council which the local committees were until recently reluctant about. To make the council a reality, the union formed the Syrian Revolution General Commission which has included activists from inside and outside the country, tasked to set up a national council for the opposition.

Early last month, another bloc was formed: Syrian Revolutionary Council of Coordinating Committees. It is a dubious council that has no apparent new significance, headed by Muhammad Rahhal, who claimed to be the only member who lives outside Syria. Mr Rahhal openly called for arming the protesters.

Another issue worth highlighting is the source of funding. The regime often argued that because protesters would need funding for such facilities, that indicates they receive funds from foreign hands. I have learnt through contacts in Syria that a large number of businessmen have secretly joined the anti-regime protests. Their support has direct effect on the ground, as protests become more organised. Many businesses in the affected areas are closed but the owners are still paying their staff as well as donating to victims and the unemployed.

Protesters also do not need a lot of money to operate, relying on basic communication equipments despite their security risks and the firm restrictions on the internet.

Still, the regime accused them of receiving foreign funds and refused to recognise them as legitimate partners in dialogue. In the "national dialogue conference", held on July 10 and headed by Vice President Farouk Al-Shara, the regime selected opposition figures - some respectable figures - who have no direct contact with the protest movement. The regime realised that recognition of the new blocs would legitimise them For that reason, the security forces chose to hunt them down and arrest them. Now the Assad regime might have no choice but negotiate with the newly-formed Syrian National Council.

The formation of the council was delayed for six weeks largely due to differences over the scale of representation for activists on the ground. Eventually, it was agreed to give them the majority of seats. These emerging forces are the new political reality in Syria and can no longer be ignored. It is they who will eventually help end the rule of the Baath party.

 

Muhammad Ali is a Syrian political analyst and activist based in Istanbul