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What’s the State of Syria’s Opposition?

Rex Brynen is a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal and an expert on Middle East conflict and development. He talked with Syria Deeply about the state of  Syria’ s political opposition after the unraveling of talks earlier this month in Istanbul, and after the U.S. announced that it would provide small weapons and ammunition to rebel fighters on the ground.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Syria Deeply: What’s the current state of the opposition?

Rex Brynen (1)Rex Brynen: We’re still in a situation where the opposition suffers from some profound disconnects and fragmentation. You have to look at the political leadership that’s both in exile and abroad. They’re the interlocutors between the diplomatic community and what’s happening on the ground. There is absolutely no evidence that the disconnection has diminished and it’s actually grown worse.

Then there’s the fragmentation of opposition groups, particularly the armed opposition groups on the ground, where we’ve seen no success in improving military coordination. There are a few cases of successful coordination; in many ways the fact that Qusayr held out as long as it did [two and a half weeks] indicated that commanders had managed to put together battlefield coordination that was somewhat functional. And Jabhat al-Nusra has managed its internal coordination quite well. But we do not see an armed opposition that is capable of substantial operational cooperation, let alone strategy cooperation. And that, far more than the [needing Western] weapons issue, has been a primary shortcoming.

It’s striking to realize that the Syrian opposition is more fragmented than militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’re setting a new standard for fragmentation where we are seeing hundreds and maybe thousands of [Syrian opposition] militias right now. There are two sets of issues. The first is the military imbalance, the inability to do things beyond local actions and to have a strategic plan. Secondly, there’s no branding of the opposition anymore on the ground. It’s hard to tell what the opposition stands for. For every group that attempts to behave itself, another behaves inappropriately and dynamics get driven by the lowest common denominator.

A striking example of this was the very well-publicized murder of a little kid in Aleppo [earlier this month by an unknown rebel group]. His dad was asked who did this and he said, “I don’t know, I can’t tell the militias apart.” So if people on the ground who have a particularly vested interest can’t tell who these guys are, you have an anarchistic environment. And apart from military inefficiencies, this makes it hard for the opposition to grow.

I think one implication of that, coupled with the rise of more military jihadist groups, is that the opposition can’t grow on the ground in Syria, leaving a lot of people on the fence or even actively supporting the regime. It’s hard to me to see that we’re in a better position than we were two years ago. At that point, there was an excuse for the lack of coordination – we were just starting out, it’s hard to form an opposition.

SD: Does the US announcement of arming the rebels just change the opposition’s states? Will it shift the balance on the ground?

RB: I don’t think [Obama’s announcement] is a magic wand. We already had the arming of activists going on. There’s no particular reason to believe that the U.S. entering [the situation] changes what the Qataris and Jordanians have already been able to provide. I suspect the U.S. is already more than involved via Jordan’s supply of Croatian arms in southern Syria.

SD: Isn’t the U.S. already involved, under the table, with the opposition? A U.S. senator just went as far as to go in and meet with them.

RB: The U.S. could say it wasn’t technically arming rebels because it was arming the Jordanians. They facilitate the sale to the Jordanians, the Jordanians give it away [to the rebels] and the U.S. can claim it’s not involved. Does the provision of weapons give more force to the opposition now? In theory, it does. Indeed, it was quite striking, the arrival of Croatian arms [earlier this year] in southern Syria, provided by the Jordanians. The first images showed them all in the hands of FSA units, and a few weeks later you see them in the hands of people the Jordanians would not have given them to. The weapons get traded, stolen, sold. And I don’t think the provision of military resources from the outside has proved the slightest bit effective in providing coordination or unity.

SD: When do you think U.S. weapons will arrive in Syria? How will we know the rebels have received and are using them?

RB: I think this is going to be very subtle. The opposition runs out of ammunition a little less frequently than it did. They hold their ground in places a little bit better. Some of the Croatian weapons that were provided used ammunition only available in the former Yugoslavia, which has the advantage of when you stop providing the ammo, the weapons are useless. Is that a clever attempt to prevent heavier weapons from proliferating post-conflict?

I don’t see the dramatic new arrival of whole new weapons systems on the battlefield that have a game-changing effect. Wars aren’t suddenly won because one side got a new weapons system the other side didn’t have. What we have to recognize here is that it’s partly a warning to the Syrian [government] that if its sporadic chemical weapons use increases, the Americans will match that with their own actions. It’s part of a broader signaling that, yes, we will ratchet up our policy if you continue with the sporadic use.

SD: Who exactly gets the weapons?

RB: It’ll be the units that rhetorically align with FSA. Maybe some moderate Islamists too. Ammo is probably more important than actual guns. Manpads [shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles], absolutely not. I would be extraordinarily surprised if they provided anything that allowed rebels to shoot down military aircraft, because anything by that definition can shoot down, in a few years, a civilian aircraft. The only way I could see that happening is if they took special teams and trained them and gave them a Manpad. They are extremely dangerous in the wrong hands – one Manpad, one [Boeing] 747, 400 people.

SD: Will it make a difference on the battlefield?

RB: Anti-tank guided missiles would make some difference. Overall, all this stuff will improve the military capacities of the opposition, [but] we’ve seen that in the south, from Deraa all the way up to Damascus, there’s been no real erosion of the regime position.

SD: What do you expect to see in the coming month of global diplomacy?

RB: We see a lot of maneuvering around the Geneva conference. It fails to produce any breakthrough. We do not see the emergence of any real Russian–American consensus on how we move forward. A lot of press attention will go to Western arming efforts, but that’s slightly misleading because the Saudis have as much money for weapons as America does – Americans are not only ones who can arm the rebels.

All of this is a recipe for a stalemate. I don’t fall into a “the regime is winning” category; it’s more “the regime is no longer losing.” They have showed improvements in capability and strategic vision, and it’s possible they will continue to win strategically important battles.

The latest stats on the death toll in Syria are striking because the single largest [casualty] component is Syrian security forces, even higher than civilian casualties. They’ve lost tens of thousands of military personnel. So it’s not like it’s an easy war for the regime. [But] they have an ability to capitalize on the fragmentation of the opposition. The opposition is in a reactive stage where it pushes a little on all fronts but can’t decide on a strategy framework that works well.


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