Meet the Syrian opposition in Turkey…and its endless conferences

Something I wrote while based in Istanbul in February 2012, after lots of meetings with figures from the Syrian opposition…little seems to have changed one year later. Originally published on The Majalla.

Voice of the People?

Just another conference for the Syrian opposition

Syrian national council

One year has passed since the beginning of Syria’s uprising, and Turkey has been providing opportunities for numerous Syrian opposition figures to coordinate their efforts against the regime. However, the results are largely discouraging.

Sheikh Nawaf Bashir, head of the Baqara tribe from Deyr az-Zour and former member of the Damascus Declaration, acts frustrated when he receives a phone call to organize yet another conference in Istanbul: “Abu Ja’far… another conference! What’s this conference for? Why do we keep on organizing conferences, if there is no international support?!”

One year has passed since the beginning of Syria’s uprising, and Turkey has been providing opportunities for numerous Syrian opposition figures to coordinate their efforts against the regime. However, the results are largely discouraging: an endless proliferation of rival groups failing to achieve international recognition. The outcome of a conference entitled Friends of Syria, held in Tunis on 24 February, failed to overcome such a deadlock, because no country recognized the major opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as the unique legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Having met with representatives of at least four different blocs, there appears to be no consensus on the way the international community should tilt the balance in favor of the uprising. The SNC and the vast majority of committees on the ground call for arming the revolutionaries and establishing a buffer zone to protect civilians and increase defections. In contrast, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), a group of veteran dissidents headed by Haytham Al-Manna and Hassan Abdul-Azim, opposes foreign military intervention and does not exclude dialogue with the regime.

According to activists, the death toll has reached more than 9,000 people, and any bloc still wanting to negotiate is perceived as a tool created by the Government. “The NCC is a bunch of traders of blood, they’ve been bought by the regime,” says Ibrahim Al-Hajj Ali, an activist from Aleppo, who was expelled from the army for trying to form a Sunni Islamist cell. “Haytham Al-Manna called on the demonstrators to return to their houses…We don’t want these people back in Syria, even after the collapse of the regime!”

Samir Nashar, a representative of the Damascus Declaration on the SNC’s executive committee, holds a more balanced view of the NCC, considering it a representative of the elites tied economically to the regime in Aleppo and Damascus. An NCC member and lawyer from Dara’a, Hassan Al-Aswad, defends Manna’s intentions to focus on “those who are scared to participate in the uprising, particularly the minorities.” At the same time, Aswad believes that the NCC’s insistence on non-violence and dialogue to confront the regime’s brutality is remote from reality.

In its bid for support, the SNC is also accused of being driven by power struggles and subject to foreign pressures. Emblematic of this was the renewal of the presidential mandate of Burhan Ghalioun, despite being a council based on replacing its leader every three months. Samir Nashar, the only member of the executive committee who voted against the extension, claims that “a month ago, some were against the re-election of Ghalioun and then they changed their position, due to ‘regional influences’ possibly coming from Qatar.”

The Antalya conference’s organizer, Ammar Al-Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist who is about to launch his own bloc, is proud of having kept himself outside the SNC. He believes that group is divided between Qatari support for Ghalioun and Turkey’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite trying to shape a democratic body, the SNC seems to lack the required political and financial transparency, according to its members’ accounts: “There is a problem when it comes to the transparency of funding,” says Nashar, “because so far the support came from businessmen, individuals and not from countries.”

The SNC appears to be the formation closest to the streets, counting on the support of various networks of local committees, but its critics claim it should go further, by including activists in decision-making bodies like the executive committee, Al-Maktab Al-Tanfidhi. These are exactly the demands of Nawaf Al-Bashir: “Seventy percent of the SNC have no followers in the Syrian streets; we want a presidential committee elected by Syrian activists to have them in the ‘political kitchen.’”

No one really wants to meddle in Syria

After almost one year, what is clear to all sides is the scarce will of the international community to intervene in support of the Syrian opposition. Even the Gulf countries have shown little intention to support the opposition militarily until recently. According to a source close to the Syrian Minister of Finance, Mohammad Al-Hussein, the Assad regime received $500 million from some Gulf States and $300 million from the UAE after three months of bloodshed in Syria last June.

Contrary to some reports published on the Iraqi daily Al-Mada, Nawaf Bashir denies that any sort of contact occurred between Syrian-Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and the Gulf countries. When asked about the allegations against the Gulf States and the UAE, Mohammad Faruq Al-Tayfur, representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC’s executive committee replied: “I cannot confirm this information, but it could have happened in the beginning, while the Gulf countries were still supporting the regime, mainly to contain the stability of the region.” However, during the Tunis conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’ud Al-Faisal finally promised to have Bashar leave “either voluntarily or by force,” thus nurturing the SNC’s expectations of Saudi military support.

Turkey is praised for having hosted the Syrian opposition both politically and militarily, but the SNC places no hopes on a unilateral military intervention coming from Ankara. Both Nashar and Al-Tayfur are convinced that Turkey will not act without the consensus of the international community, though Nashar still hopes to see Turkish ground forces enforcing a buffer zone, supported by Libyan-style NATO air strikes.

However, following the conference in Tunis, there is growing frustration about the Western—and especially American—stance, as US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton voiced her fears that a foreign intervention could lead to civil war. In that respect, the opposition is united in ascribing America’s concerns to the border Israel has been peacefully sharing with Syria for almost 40 years.  Nevertheless, for liberals within the SNC, Western support still holds some relevance to contain the Gulf’s brand of political Islam, as Nashar notes, “if the intervention occurs under the UN monitoring, it would prevent Saudi and Qatari political interests from prevailing in Syria.”

Armed resistance beyond the Free Syrian Army

After one year of massacres, many of the demonstrators who started calling for reforms one year ago consider violence as the only option for a way out. Violence means arming the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose structure is still unclear to many.

The SNC tends to recognize the Turkish-based leadership of Colonel Riyadh Al-Asad, but everyone is aware that there are other groups on the ground. The last relevant group to emerge is guided by Brigadier General Mostafa Al-Shaykh, who defected last January. Former officer Ibrahim Al-Hajj belittles the importance of the FSA as a unified structure and stresses the autonomous nature of the armed resistance active in Syria. “There is no such a thing as the FSA, it is only a name for the resistance,” confirms Al-Qurabi.

Even the SNC has no clear ties with the FSA according to Samir Nashar, who admits that there is “scarce communication” between them.  In order to strengthen this feeble coordination, a group of SNC members have recently set up a National Front for the Support of the FSA, and the SNC has created a Military Advisory Council, a sort of Ministry of Defense based in Turkey. According to Tayfur, this second institution is aimed at reassuring the international community that the SNC is in control of the armed resistance, but the project has yet to meet expectations. Colonel Riyadh Al-Asad rejected the institution, claiming he had not been informed of it beforehand. Outside the SNC, some believe the best strategy to control armed resistance, and violence in general, would be to enhance the power of civilian committees: “The issue of having civilian committees is aimed at controlling the military departments within them, in order to know who the weapons belong to,” suggests Hassan Al-Aswad. His model is the local council of Zabadani, a body created when the opposition took temporarily control of this suburb.

War of Egos

Besides the differing views, what is most discouraging about the opposition is the abortive war of egos. “The fact that any kind of opposition has been forbidden for the last forty years had an influence on its current structure,” admits Nashar. “It is not institutionalized, the individual still plays a big negative role.”

To understand how some figures of the opposition see themselves, one need only quote Al-Qurabi when he said that that when he was “working to support the revolution, most people from the SNC were drinking milk from their mothers.”

Another well-known dissident in exile in London, Wahid Saqr, claims that SNC members Fida Al-Majzub and Shaykh Khaled Kamal were in Damascus in January to bargain Ministries with the regime. Are these, as his critics claim, groundless allegations from a former Alawi officer who cannot tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over the SNC?

Amidst personal resentments, each faction competes with the other in claiming to represent the streets, whilst, in the words of Nawaf Bashir, “leading the revolution from five stars hotels.”


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