As Syria’s opposition re-structures its political agenda to take command of a 20-month-long revolution against President Bashar al-Assad, global powers waiting for regime change want to see if this newly branded Syrian National Coalition
can effectively prosecute the civil war.
Under the leadership of Ahmad Maath Khatib,
52-year-old recent exile and former cleric at the Grand Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus, the coalition is seeking international recognition and massive financial support for its cause.
, Turkey and several Gulf states have recognized the new coalition as the transitional structure to replace Assad. France and Britain appear willing to consider more military support. And following his re-election, President Barack Obama announced he is reviewing
his administration’s wait-and-see position on recognition and weapons support.
If this organization is going to have any effect on how this war is fought, they need to become effective pretty quickly
The Syrian coalition, put together in early December, is under pressure to convince potential donor nations that it has support from inside Syria if it expects to get the cash and weapons that might be available. At the same time, the coalition hopes to convince the fighters and activists inside Syria it can deliver the foreign support needed for success.
, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spent a week interviewing Syrian refugees on the Turkish frontier who claimed to be Syrian army defectors leading rebel units in the Idlib and Aleppo regions of the country.
“Time is moving on, the war is moving on, and the war is intensifying,” White said. “If this organization is going to have any effect on how this war is fought, they need to become effective pretty quickly.”
The rebels may not yet have a national political structure, White said, but “The new organization has a chance to shape how the war is going be fought now.”
Can Khatib find a rebel command structure?
Three months ago, experts on Syria’s armed revolution called it a guerilla war run by an array of independent brigades and battalions, each flying its own flag.
Many units have succeeded in conducting hit-and-run campaigns in Hama, Homs, Deraa and later in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus. They have often been unable, however, to hold urban positions against Syria’s tanks, jets, attack helicopters, rocket fire and cluster bombs.
As outside military experts see it, the rebels are not able to mount an effective nation-wide military campaign against the Syrian army.
Much has been made of the threat of extremists that have joined the revolution in recent months, said Joseph Holliday
, a Syria expert at the Institute for War. But he adds that “what we don’t understand is the broader opposition group.”
Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is basedHolliday wrote a report
that described opposition fighters as an aggregation of divisions, brigades and battalions that battle the Assad regime but do not take orders from anyone else. He notes, however, that opposition military councils have emerged in about nine of Syria’s major governorates and that military and political cooperation could improve.
Four commanders and counting
But finding an effective military commander may be more difficult. One candidate was Riad Asaad
, an Air Force colonel who defected in June of last year, set up shop in a Turkish refugee camp and announced he was commanding the Free Syrian Army. But even though Asaad established a public affairs office and a well-designed web site
presence, there were serious questions about what, exactly, he commanded.
Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is based
“Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is based,” wrote Aron Lund this September in a report
for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Lund said the recently created military councils in the governorates only “pay nominal respect, at best, to Col. Asaad.”
Lund wrote that another potential leader of the opposition military effort was Col. Col. Qasem Saadeddine
of the Homs Military Council. He added, however, that even though Saadeddine expanded his command to include four more military councils, the military command structure appeared to be dysfunctional.
The former director of Syria’s National Defense College, Major General Muhammad Hussein al-Haj Ali,
also is a potential leader. He defected this past June and told reporters he was taking over the opposition military effort and was renaming the rebel forces the Syrian National Army.
Yet another potential military leader for the opposition is General Mustafa al-Sheikh
, the highest-ranking member of President Assad’s military to defect.
Al-Sheikh is now described as the commander-in-chief of the Higher Military Council of the rebel Free Syrian Army divided into five geographic divisions.
But some military experts are not convinced al-Sheikh is the opposition’s true military leader. According to Holliday, Col. Riad Asaad and Gen. al-Sheikh have been locked in apparent competition for leadership. “The two of them have this little jousting match up in Hatay, Turkey, going back and forth about, ‘Well, we’re both FSA and now we’re part of this larger organization that al-Sheikh runs, we’re partner organizations …’
“I characterize these two characters … as leaders more interested in figuring out how to gain power for themselves …,” Holliday said.
“My sense is Mustafa al-Sheikh is more important,” said White of the Washington Institute, but he added that no one will command the respect of the fighters unless they are inside Syria directing the actions of brigades and battalions.
Young political activists may hold the key to rebel union
Holliday proposed that the new National Coalition start with the local activists – the Syrians who started the protests last year. Most are organized into one of two larger networks, the Local Coordinating Councils of Syria that is strong in Damascus, Deraa and the south, and the Syrian Revolutionary General Commission that holds sway in the north.
And here is where the ties really matter. They (activists) have been providing some of the basic measures of governance
In many cases, Holliday said, the military councils have blended, overlapped and in some cases merged with the unarmed political activists who have established their own networks of revolutionary councils.
These activists continue to serve the revolution by uploading YouTube videos of protests, funerals, victims and keeping careful records on the 30,000 or so Syrians killed since the uprising began.
“And here is where the ties really matter,” said Holliday. “They have been providing some of the basic measures of governance … They are staffing hospitals and schools and coordinating trash pickup, primarily in Idlib and Aleppo, but also the Homs and Hama countryside.”
Holiday said the activists rely on the militants for protection while they conduct the demonstrations, strikes and funerals and provide medical care and food.
“It’s a practical relationship,” he concluded.