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Middle East

Tough times for Syria's opposition

As the Istanbul Friends of Syria meeting approaches, opposition groups have a long way to go until stability is achieved
Last modified: 18 Apr 2013 14:05
Optimism among opposition factions is waning with limited options and the unlikelihood of President Assad stepping down soon [AFP]

The Syrian Opposition Coalition came a long way since rebels started building a body that would lead their fight to topple president Bashar al Assad in 2011

But the optimism of its leaders, the days when members would tell media "this is all going to be over" or "Assad's days are numbered" are ebbing way, and a torturing sense of pragmatism is setting in.

Two years since the start of a pro-democracy movement inspired by the Arab Spring, what has the Syrian opposition achieved and where has it failed?

This is a question only time, distance and a profound analysis of the anti-Assad movement, regional meddling, international concerns and the nature of the conflict can answer.

I met recently with a few senior opposition members who all agreed their institutions are maturing and learning the basics of geopolitical implications of the civil war in Syria.

They are proud to have managed to set up a body that won international recognition, support and has become the voice of a majority that want Assad's government toppled and a new Syria rebuilt.

But their journey is far from over and now they reckon it might take them even years to achieve that goal. The pessimists warn if there is no way out this year, Syria would disintegrate and the rest might be utter anarchy and chaos.

More efficient organisation

The Syrian Opposition Coalition is no longer a loose umbrella of disparate factions. It has a leadership and new bodies. It seems to be operating in a much more efficient way than in the past.

It has garnered international support and was recently given the seat of Syria at the Arab League.

The Americans are no longer cautious when it comes to doing business with the rebels.

In recent meetings, a Syrian source told me, they got strong guarantees that they won't be abandoned and that as far as France, Britain and the US are concerned "Assad will never be part of any negotiated deal".

But after two years of fighting, a decisive victory where Assad could be defeated or forced to flee Damascus seems quite distant.

The rebels are more convinced now than ever that their allies will never provide them with the kind of weapons they need to achieve a victory.

This is why the Istanbul Friends of Syria meeting on April 20 is generating huge interest among the Syrian people; they wonder if it is going to be a game changer or yet another events where words are never followed with deeds.

Negotiating a deal with Assad's main allies Russia and Iran is off the table according to the opposition because the two countries haven’t shown any signs or willingness for a compromise.

Few options

This leaves anti-Assad factions with very few options. 

They could fight till the end, but in the absence of weapons that can level the playing field, a prolonged war will bleed both sides and deepen apathy and desperation among all Syrians. 

It might boil down to a catastrophic stalemate, which is not good for the rebels.

Inaction is also a perilous road that could backfire, affecting neighbouring countries mainly Turkey and Israel. 

Both have warned they will not tolerate a spillover.

By not forcing a way out or a settlement, the opposition and Americans fear groups like Jabhat Annusra, Ahrar al Sham, Al-Muhajiroon will continue to grow stronger, expanding their reach, conquering more territory and positioning themselves as the real force on the ground, and a key partner in any future deal.

This is what the US fears most. Washington is grappling with ways to empower the Free Syrian Army (FSA), train the group to lead the fight, ensure Syria's weapons of mass destruction do not fall in the wrong hands after the downfall of the regime, and police the transition to democracy.

But even the opposition admits it's very naïve on the part of the international community to expect the FSA to undertake such mammoth tasks when it's poorly equipped, undisciplined, and divided along sectarian, tribal and regional lines.

Delicate issues

In a speech delivered a few days ago, Moaz al-Khatib, chief of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces attacked al-Qaeda and appealed on the Nusra Front - widely seen as an al-Qaeda offshoot - to rebrand itself, sever any links with al-Qaeda and renounce violence and extremism.

This is a very delicate issue for the opposition. Its leaders rarely denounce the Nusra Front in public, because apparently many people inside Syria support it.

But for al-Khatib, the presence of the Nusra and its leading role in the fight against Assad in Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Al Riqqa and on the outskirts of Damascus is counterproductive.

The Americans will never send weapons fearing they might end up in the hands of the Nusra, which the USA blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.

A grist to Assad's mill who will warn the world his fight is not against rebels but al-Qaeda.

On the ground, the thud of artillery fire, and the crackle of machine guns is echoing across the country.

With each day comes more casualties and destruction, and with them hopes for an imminent end of the civil war simply fades away.