News / Middle East

Syrian Opposition Has Many Faces

Rebel forces have been fighting the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for nearly 18 months.  But many experts and Western politicians say it is unclear who makes up the Syrian opposition.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at The London School of Economics and Political Science, says there is more than 100 armed Syrian oppositions.

“There are multiple factions and sensibilities and points of view within the opposition, outside and inside Syria,” he says.  “You are talking about Islamists - not only the Muslim Brotherhood.  You also have Salafis.  You have moderate Islamists.  You have nationalists.  You have secularists.  You have leftists,” he adds.  “It is one of the most complex and complicated portraits that one can really draw, when one talks about the Syrian oppositions.”

Splits Within Syrian Opposition

Gerges says that inevitably, there are splits within the various groups.  “Not only are there major cleavages among opposition groups outside Syria, in particular the Syrian National Council and other groups, you also have a major divide between the opposition inside Syria, or rather armed opposition groups inside Syria and opposition groups outside Syria.”

Analysts point out that one way of looking at the opposition is that it is divided, fragmented, inefficient and does not present a coherent alternative to President Bashar al-Assad's government.

But Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert with London’s Chatham House, sees the opposition in a different light.  

“The other way of looking at it is that division is its strength.  Division is, in a way, a sign of a healthy political society.  This is the whole of Syrian society, with all its historical diversity and ethnic diversity and ideological diversity emerging for the first time,” he says.  “This is what will create a democracy in the future.  The expectation of a united opposition under a strong leader is a wish for another dictator.”

Analysts say it will be interesting to see whether opposition factions will be able to put aside their differences and govern Syria if, as opposition forces predict, Assad is forced from office.

Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass (July 2012 photo)Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass (July 2012 photo)
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Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass (July 2012 photo)
Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass (July 2012 photo)
Leadership Under General Manaf Tlass?

One person who has been identified as a possible transitional government leader is General Manaf Tlass, who defected to France a few weeks ago.  Tlass’s father, Mustafa Tlass, was for many decades Syria’s defense minister, and Manaf Tlass was a childhood friend and a close and trusted aide to Bashar al-Assad.

But many experts, including Fawaz Gerges, say Tlass is tainted by his former association with the Syria's president.

“Many of the opposition members, in particular inside Syria, remember the Tlass family as a very close family to the Assad family,” Gerges says.  “Its history, its close, long history with the Assad family does not really allow it to play a critical role in the post-Assad regime.”

Analyst Nadim Shehadi adds that the opposition outside Syria does not have legitimacy inside the country.  Even the Syrian National Council based in Istanbul is seen as too close to Turkey.

Shehadi says the real political revolution is happening on the ground in Syria.  “And this is what is getting the regime mad.  The regime can handle violence, and can prevail over violence and has been promoting violence.  The regime can survive 10 years with the violence," says Shehadi.  “But the regime cannot accept for one single day that there is a legitimate opposition, political opposition against it.  They still describe them to this day as mercenaries and part of the conspiracy against Syria.”

Many experts say the opposition is still a long way from gaining the upper hand because it appears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ready to fight to the end as did former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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