Syria's fractured opposition a long way from victory

As Western and Arab powers continue to debate how best to affect a regime change in Syria that would prevent an all-out civil war, most observers believe an end to the bloody stalemate between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents is a long way off.

A look at some of the factions and coalitions opposing the Assad regime

Syrian soldiers who defected to join the Free Syrian Army are seen among demonstrators in the northern town of Kafranbel on Jan. 29, 2012.

As Western and Arab powers continue to debate how best to affect a regime change in Syria that would prevent an all-out civil war, most observers believe an end to the bloody stalemate between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents is a long way off.

International powers remain deadlocked on what to do in Syria. The U.S. and some European powers favour the removal of Assad, but Russia and China apparently fear a regime change that might threaten their long-term interests in the region.

The two countries vetoed a resolution before the UN Security Council on Jan. 28 that called for a transfer of power from Assad to vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa and the creation of a unity government that would organize new elections.

Russia has been a long-standing ally of Syria, has an important naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and has been selling arms to Syria for years.

Both Russia and  China may also fear that a regime change in Syria would embolden Western powers to do the same in Iran, which is a major supplier of oil and natural gas to China and an ally of Russia.

The prospects for a resolution to the Syrian conflict, which the UN says has killed at least 5,400 people since it began in March 2011, are not helped by the fact that the Syrian opposition itself is fractured and divided over everything from its tactics to its allies and its vision of the country's future.

Members of different factions of the Syrian opposition argue among themselves during a meeting in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2011. Representatives of various Islamic, secularist and ethnic groups did eventually agree to form a coalition called the Syrian National Council, but three months later, it still remains extremely fractured. (Stringer/Reuters)

"There are a lot of different divisions," said Joshua Landis, an associate professor and director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma who runs the website Syria Comment.

"There's the Islamists versus the secularists; there's the young versus the old; there's the inside leaders who are on the streets versus the SNC [Syrian National Council] type leaders ... who have been out of the country for a long time and who are very savvy at talking to the West."

There are also, he points out, ethnic divisions between Kurds and Arabs as well as religious divisions between the minorities and Muslims.

The lack of coherence is not necessarily the fault of the opposition, say some Syria watchers. It likely has more to do with the particular characteristics of the country itself, which is three-quarters Sunni Muslim but ruled by members of the minority Alawite sect and contains several other minority groups.

As well, any organized party-style political opposition has been effectively wiped out as a result of 40 years of autocratic Assad family rule.

"Syria has always been a fractured nation with a very weak sense of national political community," said Landis. "And that's the reason why a family like the Assad family has been able to rule for 40 years, because they are pros at divide and rule, and they have been extremely cautious in grooming personal loyalties as opposed to national loyalties."

Broadly, the main opposition forces break down into four groupings but even within these there are many factions and interests.

Syrian National Council (SNC)

This is the largest and most internationally visible opposition group. But it is, in fact, several disparate groups that came together and formed a coalition in Turkey just a few months after the start of the uprising.

The coalition has its roots in something called the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, a statement signed in 2005 by members of both the secular and Muslim opposition in Syria, including, significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Syria since the 1960s. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable by death since the 1980s.

The declaration marked the first time that opposition groups came together since the brief period of reform in 2000-01 and the first that the U.S. and other Western powers began openly identifying a Syrian opposition.

The two biggest factions in the SNC are the secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the council also includes representatives of Kurdish factions and smaller grass-roots groups as well as tribal leaders and independent opposition leaders.

Head of Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun speaks to the press during a news conference in New York, Jan. 30, 2012. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The SNC is currently led by Burhan Ghalioun, an exiled secularist who taught political science at the Sorbonne in Paris before assuming the chairmanship of the coalition.

Many believe he was put up as the group's chairman in order to present a Western-friendly face to foreign powers, but that it is the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups that wield the power in the council and who would likely get the most popular support in any elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohammad Riad Shaqfa has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia, has said it would not seek to make Syria an Islamist state. 

The members of the council are clearly divided among themselves as they have had to limit the council chairman's term to three months because they haven't been able to agree on who the chairman should be.

They are in favour of removing Assad from power and against negotiating with the regime but agree on little else.

They have also been vague on whether they would support a foreign military intervention, with some factions saying they would accept Arab forces but not Western troops, and others voicing support for actions short of intervention such as  a no-fly zone.

The SNC has no coherent economic plan or vision of Syria's future, and the internal bickering within the council and lack of a strong, unifying leader threatens to render the council impotent.

"Syria does not have the luxury of being like Tunisia and Egypt," says Landis.

"In Tunisia and Egypt, the revolution could be leaderless and young people, faceless Facebookers could just storm into Tahrir Square and demand change, and the military gave it to them because the military was not an expression of the president.

"But in Syria, the military is an expression of the president, and it is remaining loyal to the regime and the people are going to have to destroy it, the revolution is going to have to destroy an army and a regime that remains powerful and loyal to the president."

National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB)

A more moderate opposition coalition than the SNC, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change is made up of secularists within Syria who favour a peaceful transition of power without any military intervention and who are willing to negotiate with the Assad regime.

The group is led by Hassan Abdul Azim, a moderate dissident in his 80s who has been a prominent member of Syria's socialist movement since the 1960s.

Some see him as too meek while others consider him the opposition's best chance of starting a dialogue with the regime.

Unlike the exiled leaders of the SNC, he has experience on the front lines of the current uprising, having been briefly arrested by security forces in April 2011.

The NCB's main spokesperson outside Syria is Haytham Manna, a writer and human rights activist.

The group had signed a co-operation agreement with the SNC in December 2011 outlining a post-Assad transition to democracy, but the pact fell apart when the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions within the SNC accused SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun of negotiating the pact without their input. 

The dissenting SNC members opposed any co-operation with what they saw as the too moderate NCB, some of whose members they considered to be agents of the current regime.

Local coordination committees

These are small grassroots groups organized on a local level within Syria that are leading the demonstrations that have been fuelling the uprising since March 2011. They often include young activists in their 20s and 30s and rely on small, tight networks of family and friends that have less chance of being infiltrated by regime spies.

Both the NCB and the SNC profess to be communicating and co-ordinating with these committees, but it is hard to verify the extent of this co-operation as identifying committee members would put them in jeopardy and getting accurate reports from within Syria has been difficult.

Free Syrian Army

More a loose affiliation than a coordinated fighting force, the Free Syrian Army is made up of defectors from the Syrian military and opponents of the regime who have picked up arms.

It is nominally led by Col. Riad al-Asaad, a defector from the Syrian military who is attempting to coordinate the fighters from a refugee camp in Turkey. In reality, bands of fighters within Syria have been largely operating independently of al-Asaad and each other, launching their own attacks on troop convoys and other actions against government forces.

Free Syrian Army commander Col. Riad al-Asaad during an Oct. 6, 2011, interview with Reuters at a refugee camp in Hatay, near the Turkish-Syrian border. The army is more a loose affiliation of local militias acting on their own than a co-ordinated force. (Hasan Yetmez/Reuters)

"They're fighting for a common cause, which is to get rid of this regime, but they're organized on a very local basis," said Landis.

The number of Free Syrian Army fighters is unknown, but al-Asaad told the Reuters news agency in Ocotber 2011 that 15,000 soldiers had defected from the Syrian military.

Even if the total number of opposition fighters is more than that, it's still nowhere near the Syrian army's estimated 200,000 soldiers, along with an unknown number of state-sponsored militia fighters, known in Arabic as shabiha

The shabiha are considered even more loyal than the military since they generally come from the same Alawite sect that Assad belongs to, whereas most of the conscripts in the military are Muslims from Syria's Sunni majority population.

With or without the support of foreign troops, many observers of the conflict agree that overpowering Assad loyalists will require a large military action.

"In the long run, this is a military affair, like Libya, like Iraq," Landis said. "When the army doesn't defect, you've got to take it down. You're not going to defeat this regime unless you destroy it."


It is unclear who all is funding Syria's opposition groups, but it is a safe bet that Syrian exiles as well as foreign powers have played some role in supporting the opposition.

Syrians within the country have also likely provided funds although the economic sanctions imposed by several Western countries and intended to weaken the regime could have the inadvertent effect of choking off this source.

As with the Libyan conflict, some Western countries have tried to freeze Syrian assets on the understanding that they would be funnelled to whatever legitimate opposition should eventually take Assad's place but, unlike in oil-rich Libya, there hasn't been that many assets to seize. 

Overthrowing the Assad regime won't be cheap, says Landis, and the opposition will need a lot more resources than it has now if it is to succeed. 

Popular support?

More cautious observers have warned that, inside Syria, support for the anti-regime demonstrations is much less widespread than international media would have the public believe.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits troops who were injured in clashes with rebels at a Damascus hospital Jan. 31, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. Many Syrians fear the chaos that would be unleashed were a full military assault launched to topple the Assad regime. (SANA handout/Reuters)

Between the hard-core Assad loyalists and the young activists leading the anti-regime protests is a mushy middle made up largely of middle-class Sunni Syrians who have already witnessed street muggings and attacks against their neighbours, and are apprehensive of a volatile situation spiralling out of control.

"They understand the Syrian realities better than the young people, and they're very cynical, and they see that Syria can become Iraq," said Landis.

"When Bashar says, 'It's either me or the deluge; it's either me or civil war,' they understand that."


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.