Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Peace & Conflict Studies Sam Khanlari The Middle East and North Africa

Syrian Opposition Remains Divided

Robert Ford stepped down from his post as the American ambassador in Damascus in 2011 shortly after protests escalated into armed confrontations between rebels and Syrian forces. Expert consensus suggests there is no military solution to the crisis; however, efforts to bring groups to the negotiating table have proven equally futile.

Robert Ford

Speaking publicly for the first time since his resignation, Ford questioned the opposition’s ability to unite for a common Syrian agenda to help bring a political solution to the crisis, pointing to the divided nature of the Syrian rebellion. “The opposition needs to reassemble around a Syrian agenda first and foremost. They always get snagged up… over who should lead the process,” Ford said at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington last week.

As Lakdar Brahimi, the figure entrusted with brokering ongoing peace talks between the ruling Assad regime and opposition groups considers resigning from his post, the prospects for diplomacy fade.

Brahimi convened representatives from the warring groups together at the end of last year, resulting in localized ceasefires and negligible humanitarian relief. UN Chief Ban Ki Moon said this week that both government and rebel forces, deterred by fragile armistices, have blocked humanitarian aid from reaching civilian areas.

Lakdar Brahimi

Despite attempts at reconciliation, all sides continue to wage war. Last week, Syrian government forces handed the rebels a decisive defeat, capturing the eminent town of Yabroud near the porous Syrian-Lebanese border.

Robert Ford also suggested that American intervention in Syria’s war last summer would not have guaranteed a rebel victory. Despite the three-year campaign, the Syrian Armed Forces maintains their resiliency, and are bolstered by allies in Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Aside from support from its allies, “[t]he regime at its center has a certain unity and coherence lacking in the opposition,” Ford said.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has stated that the rise of extremist fighters in Syria endangers Lebanese security, and Hezbollah will maintain a presence in Syria until foreign powers withdraw support for rebel forces. Without coincident, Hezbollah’s involvement has been limited to areas along the Lebanese border, where Syrian rebels have crossed over to find refuge in sympathetic villages.

Additionally, the growing number of foreign fighters in Syria, many of which are originate from groups directly linked to or sympathetic to al Qaeda, has further aggravated efforts to reach a diplomatic solution. The increasing number of radical Islamists exacerbates the imbalance between government and rebel forces, weakens moderate rebel voices, and helps to strengthen the basis of Hezbollah’s intervention into Syrian territory. Unlike an isolated threat contained within Syria’s borders, radicalized foreign fighters may soon pose a threat to Western powers, as stated by US officials including Secretary of State John Kerry.

Saudi Interior Ministry banned Saudi citizens from venturing into Syria to wage jihad, and urged citizens already engaged in Syria to return or face prosecution.

The influx of foreign fighters over the past eighteen months has dramatically altered the landscape of the UN-brokered peace talks which first took place in 2012. While the initial communique aimed to facilitate a transitional governing body composed of members of the present government and the opposition, Syria and her allies now view the rise of radical Islamists as the primary obstacle to a political resolution. During the second round of peace talks in Switzerland in January, the Syrian government said it “wanted to reach a ‘common vision’ on the subject [of foreign-backed terrorism] before moving on to others.”

Gulf Support in Jeopardy?

Last August, a diplomatic overture between the United States and Russia ended a week-long standoff between Syria and the Americans over an alleged chemical attack east of Damascus. A subsequent agreement to ship out Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons ended prospects of outright Western intervention in the crisis, which Robert Ford asserts would have only created a “power vacuum” between opposition groups, rather than helped put an end to unrest in the war-torn country.

The past several weeks have revealed policy divides between major rebel backers in the Gulf, notably between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A publicized rift, based on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has exposed diverging facets of the foreign policies of the two countries. In protest of Qatar’s policies, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Doha on March 5.

Although both Gulf states have avidly supported anti-government uprisings, Saudi policy has recently shown signs of lessening support for Islamist groups active in Syria. The growing threat posed by the influx of al Qaeda-affiliated groups has given greater influence to moderate forces in states like Saudi Arabia, who now oppose Qatar’s policy of arming radical Islamists in the region.

Earlier this month, the Saudi Interior Ministry banned Saudi citizens from venturing into Syria to wage jihad, and urged citizens already engaged in Syria to return or face prosecution.

Qatari Foreign Minister Attiyah last week denied reports of disagreements with Saudi Arabia, saying, “[w]e have the highest level of coordination with the Friends of Syria and in particular with Saudi Arabia.”

In part due to the Assad regime’s superior military capability and its strategic approach to securing transport routes to and from its capital, the rebel insurgency has had little room to manoeuvre.

As the crisis enters its fourth year, rebel allies may consider altering strategies primarily targeted at increasing the negotiating power of the rebels, but it is unclear what prospects of hope remains for a diplomatic solution. Meanwhile, government supporters look ahead to the next mandated series of elections sometime in 2014.

Sam Khanlari
Sam holds a Hon. B.A in Political Science & History from the University of Toronto and currently works as a Program Editor at the NATO Association of Canada. Most recently, Sam held the managing editor position for The Attache Journal of International Affairs at the Munk Centre in Toronto.