On May 16, 2016, skirmishes among anti-regime opposition groups killed over fifty people in the Syrian city of Eastern Ghouta. This raises the death toll to over 500 killed in rebel fighting since last month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Unfortunately, fighting amongst rebel groups has become a regular occurrence in Syria, providing President Bashar Al-Assad with important tactical advantages. For example, while opposition groups were busy fighting one another in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian regime attacked parts of the rebel-held city in an attempt to reclaim it.
In an article published by the Carnegie Middle East Center on April 29, 2016, Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Beirut-based think tank, argued that it is imperative for opposition groups to address and remedy their “lack of leadership and structure” if they ever wish to overcome the Syrian regime’s tyranny. They can no longer rely on the idle hope of foreign assistance, and should instead depend largely on themselves. To accomplish this, a halt to infighting is a crucial first step.
Sayigh believes that unless opposition groups actively rectify their political, military, and administrative shortcomings, the Assad regime will continue to capitalize on their organizational frailties. For the opposition, this could lead to major territorial losses in the near future.
The opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces mounting challenges. Most immediate is the threat of further human costs and loss of territory posed by the sharp escalation of violence by Russia and the Assad regime in recent weeks. More worrying still is the possibility that the U.S. administration, the principal member of the external coalition supporting the opposition and co-sponsor of the Geneva peace talks, may allow itself to be coerced into ceding on several issues of vital concern to the opposition. These include insistence on Assad’s departure from office by the end of a transitional period (if not sooner), negotiating transitional powers and arrangements before discussing constitutional amendments (and not basing the latter on the regime’s revised constitution of 2012), and resisting Russian and regime attempts to impose their own nominees on the opposition delegation.
International efforts to restore the cessation of hostilities in Syria and salvage the peace talks are both justified and necessary. But the opposition cannot afford to focus excessively on this short-term objective. A credible political solution to the conflict is extremely unlikely to be reached before the U.S. is distracted with its own presidential elections, and a new U.S. administration will not direct serious attention to what it regards as a secondary foreign policy issue before Spring 2017 at the earliest. So while the Syrian opposition must deal effectively with complex military and diplomatic pressures in the coming twelve months, it also needs to anticipate the challenges it will meet at the end of that period, and prepare appropriate responses.
The challenges will mount, not least because the Assad regime will spend the interim building on the political, military, and organizational advantages that have given it a slight edge since the start of the conflict. As always, it will present itself as a capable state actor that remains in control of some two-thirds of all Syrians who remain in the country. The regime will claim, as it has done in the past, that it is restoring public services and food supply, commencing physical reconstruction without waiting for the end of the conflict or international assistance, and renewing economic activity. And in parallel it will seek to negotiate local truces through which it can neutralize local communities and opposition fighters and free up its own troops, while planning new offensives.
The opposition must improve its own performance in the same three spheres very considerably if it is not to fall behind irretrievably, in which case it will be marginalized, if not defeated. Politically, its main representative body, the National Coalition, has done reasonably well in forming the Higher Negotiations Committee and presenting credible proposals at Geneva. But if the talks move forward, then it will face a much harder task of maintaining unity while engaging with proposals for transitional power-sharing that offer significantly less than it seeks, but which it has not been able to overturn in the battlefield. This requires building a high degree of cohesion within the main opposition frameworks, and solid support among the civilian activists, local administrative councils, and armed factions on the ground.
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