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Syrian Opposition: Who Can Replace Assad

From peaceful activism to armed resistance

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Syrian opposition is a diverse mix of exiled political groups, grassroots activists organizing protests inside Syria, and armed groups waging a guerilla war on the government forces.

Opposition activities in Syria have been effectively outlawed since the early 1960s, but there has been an explosion of political activity since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.

As a result, proper grassroots political organizations are still in their infancy. Lack of unity between different groups casts doubts over the opposition’s ability to form a stable transitional government following the anticipated collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Leadership

Most Syrian opposition groups have united under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, unveiled on November 11 2012 in Qatar. Under the leadership of Moaz al-Khatib, the Coalition is committed to the overthrow of the Assad's regime through political means and armed struggle, and aims to become a transitional governing body after the regime's collapse.

1. Syrian Opposition Abroad

Syrian opposition abroad are a colorful crowd of long-time exiles and more recent arrivals fleeing the violence and persecution at home. Apart from the common goal of removing Assad and establishing some sort of a democratic system, there is little that unites these disparate groups.

  • Syrian National Council (SNC): The largest alliance of opposition groups and a strong advocate of foreign intervention in Syria. After failing to unite all opposition factions, SNC was forced by international pressure to join the National Coalition. SNC is a strong advocate of foreign intervention in Syria.

  • Syrian Muslim Brotherhood: Historical enemy of Assad’s Baath Party, the Islamists are the best organized force inside the SNC alliance. The Brotherhood are the main force representing moderate Syrian Islamists, although their actual support inside Syria remains difficult to gauge. Many secular Syrians fear the Brotherhood will push for an Islamist state after Assad’s departure.

2. Opposition Inside Syria

This is the real nerve centre of the Syrian uprising: hundreds of local activist groups that have sprung up since early 2011, with growing coordination on the national level. Activists organize anti-government protests, maintain support networks and distribution of aid, and reach out to international media.

  • Local Coordinating Committees (LCC): These are the guys that news reports on Syria quote as “opposition activists”. Nationwide grassroots networks of activists running all the way down to the village level, the LCC is formally a member of the National Coalition although in practice it operates independently. LCC members come from a variety of political and religious backgrounds, but mostly share a secular political outlook (you can follow latest developments in Syria on the LCC website).

  • Syrian Revolution General Commission: Coalition of dozens of opposition groups and thousands of activists involved in organizing the protests and other political activities. Similar to the LCC, but with a distinct organization and no links to the SNC. The General Commission has established another platform, called the “Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution”, which, unlike the LCC, has a stronger presence of Islamist groups and is more closely involved in the armed struggle.

  • National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC): The main rival of the SNC, Committee brings together veteran dissidents and younger activists. Mostly based inside Syria, NCC rejects the idea of foreign military intervention in Syria and often accuses the SNC of being too closely aligned with foreign powers. The Committee wants to see a united, democratic and secular Syria, and falls generally into the left-wing political camp. It has rejected joining the National Coalition (watch experts on Syria discuss opposition rivalries in this Al Jazeera debate).

  • Kurds: Denied basic cultural rights by the Arab majority, the Kurdish minority in Syria’s north-east is cautious toward the regime and opposition alike. Leading Kurdish groups have united in the Syria-based Kurdish National Council which supports the uprising, but many Kurds are still weighing their chances, and some harbor dreams of carving out an autonomous Kurdish entity similar to the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (read more in article by Syria expert Patrick Seale).

3. Syria’s Armed Opposition

Hundreds of armed groups have emerged since the second half of 2011 but they have never merged into a unified fighting force. Although financial and logistical aid from Western and Gulf Arab governments is starting to trickle in, the armed opposition remains outgunned and outmanned by Assad’s forces.

  • Free Syrian Army (FSA): Led by defectors from the government forces, FSA is the focal point of Syria’s armed opposition. Although its operational ability is improving the FSA remains a collection loosely linked local militias, rather than an army.

  • Al Nusra Front: While still a minority in the opposition, religious extremists are gaining a foothold in Syria. Al Nusra Front is one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria, with links to the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq. Its local recruits and volunteers from abroad fight for an Islamic state in Syria.

  • Kurdish militias: Having initially kept a low profile, in July 2012 militias affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) began taking over majority Kurdish towns in Syria’s north-east, with no coordination with the FSA. This will raise tension with the Turkish government, nervous over PYD’s links to Kurdish militants active in Turkey (read more in this BBC report).
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