Whatever the ultimate fate of the fragile cease-fire in Syria, the Syrian opposition will be severely tested in the coming months. It is already badly fragmented and struggling to formulate a coherent strategy for achieving democratic transition. And the situation is unlikely to improve.

Two major fault lines stand in the way of progress: A dynamic of political contestation between those in exile and those inside Syria has deepened divisions over whether to invite foreign military intervention, arm the opposition, or engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime. And a deep class divide within Syria has fractured the opposition on issues of militarization, Salafist Islamist radicalization, and sectarian polarization.

Only by navigating around these rifts will the opposition have a chance to tip the balance against a determined and resilient regime.

Exile-Inside Dynamics

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces and nonstate actors, the impact of war on states and societies, and the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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On April 1, the Friends of Syria recognized the principal opposition coalition in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as “the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.” This move seemingly overshadowed the SNC’s main competition inside Syria, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB)—but only temporarily.

The two bodies have differed fundamentally on three issues that divide the opposition generally. The SNC has called for both foreign military intervention and arming the opposition while opposing dialogue with the regime as a means of bringing about a democratic transition in Syria. It wants President Bashar al-Assad out of power before any talks can begin, although it grudgingly reframed this as its ultimate objective, rather than a prerequisite, when it accepted the Annan peace plan. The Annan approach seeks “a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system” but makes no mention of requiring Assad to step down.

The NCB has until very recently taken a tack opposite the SNC, rejecting intervention and militarization of the opposition and calling for dialogue as the principal means for bringing about change, while insisting on an end to regime violence as a precondition for talks. This approach appears to have been vindicated. The Annan peace plan, which calls for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by a “comprehensive political dialogue,” has been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, the Arab League, and the Friends of Syria. NCB delegations have been received in Tunisia, which was the first Arab state to host the SNC, three times. The group is well positioned to play an important role going forward, since it has also invested in keeping channels of communication open with Russia, visiting Moscow as recently as April 17. Russia has demonstrated crucial leverage over the Syrian regime and asserted itself as an indispensable actor no matter how the Syrian crisis unfolds.

During the Moscow visit, NCB head Hassan Abdul-Azim signaled the possibility of seeking a UN-mandated “humanitarian intervention” in Syria if the Annan plan fails, bringing the NCB closer to a common position with the SNC. While this shift would bring the NCB significantly closer to the SNC position, it is only tentative and should not be overstated. The NCB’s deputy head and representative in exile, Haytham Mannaa, was more ambivalent, arguing that any intervention could lead to a wider regional conflict. The NCB is probably not yet ready to adopt this call fully, certainly in the absence both of Russian support and of readiness among the Friends of Syria to undertake serious military action in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, the fault line that runs between those in exile and those inside Syria crystallizes where militarization is concerned. A particular fear is that the SNC’s focus on arming the opposition and developing the allied Free Syrian Army, which was formed by defecting officers at the end of July 2011, will sideline political activism and make the military central in a post-Assad Syria.

Other opposition groups inside Syria share views similar to those of the NCB. The al-Watan coalition is one such example. Formed in February by fourteen new groups and parties, al-Watan is distinctly uneasy about the opposition’s militarization, even though it has expressed understanding for army personnel who defected to avoid firing on their own people and called for the Free Syrian Army to submit unambiguously to political command. Al-Watan is one of the many fledgling groupings that have yet to show their mettle, but veteran Syria-based activists, such as Louai Hussein, head of yet another new group Building the Syrian State, have also persistently criticized the militarization of the opposition and calls for external intervention.

The same is true even among SNC affiliates that maintain an organized presence inside Syria, such as Riad Turk, head of the People’s Democratic Party and a leading member of the Damascus Declaration platform within the SNC who is in hiding in Syria. Only days after the Friends of Syria meeting on April 1, he argued that the opposition must accept the Annan peace plan and engage in dialogue with regime figures, even while reiterating his insistence on al-Assad’s departure.

The revolutionary command councils that have emerged as nascent local government structures in several cities, most significantly Homs, also remain loyal to the SNC. That could change, as some councils are said to be privately expressing growing unease with the SNC’s policy course and warning of the mounting challenges militarization and radicalization will present.

These tensions will not dissipate, not least because they are tied to the broader political contest being waged between those in exile and those inside. Calling for foreign intervention and arming the opposition is among the few ways the SNC can demonstrate leadership and retain influence among those battling the regime inside Syria. The promise of financial and humanitarian assistance by the Friends of Syria raised expectations, but the SNC has limited means to deliver. And despite winning growing regional and international recognition, the SNC has not presented a credible political strategy to bring about regime change or a detailed road map for a negotiated transition.

That is why the SNC has repeatedly presented itself as an ally and sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, even as the latter questioned the SNC’s presence on the ground and criticized its performance. But the Free Syrian Army is struggling too. Its leadership, which is based in exile in Turkey, has been unable to show more than the most tenuous command and control over the 30 battalions it claims are loyal to it in Syria. The reported pledge of $100 million from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to pay Free Syrian Army salaries will no doubt help the SNC’s cause. It will likely enhance the leverage of the SNC, which will disburse the funds, over the rebel army’s leadership and reinforce the allegiance of local armed groups to the Free Syrian Army, but this is not a guarantee of their political loyalty or ideological orientation.

Those in exile are caught in a bind. Militarization may appear to be a means of consolidating their political claims to national leadership and representative status. But it may also accelerate the emergence of local competition and empower those inside Syria at the expense of the exiles.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Holds the Exile Key

The only exile movement with the potential to bridge this divide is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the SNC’s principal faction and backbone. The Brotherhood has long been the largest and best organized movement in the Syrian opposition, but virtually its entire leadership has been in exile since its armed insurrection in 1976–1982 was brutally crushed by Hafez al-Assad. Those members who were not killed or imprisoned fled the country to escape the 1980 Emergency Law 49 that made membership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense. Many of those exiles have rebuilt themselves as successful businessmen in the Gulf, in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and further afield in Europe and North America.

This may explain why the Brotherhood was slow to join the uprising in its early weeks, and why its natural social support base in the main cities has opted to quietly fund protesters and arm rebels rather than engage the regime frontally. Some leading opposition figures close to the SNC, as well as its critics, insist that only 10 percent of opposition activists inside Syria are loyal to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but clearly it holds much more significant sway in exile, as it occupies 25 percent of the SNC’s 270 seats.

As new Islamist groups have appeared in Syria, including militant Salafists and the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir), the Brotherhood has been at pains to reassure foreign audiences and Syria’s minorities that it represents “the moderate Islamic trend” and that it “is present in all Syrian governorates.” On March 25, it published a Pledge and Charter setting out its detailed commitment to establishing a civil state and constitution in Syria, based on full democracy, pluralism, and the peaceful rotation of power. It goes on to pledge to ensure equal citizenship among all regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender, and unambiguous commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and the freedom of opinion and belief. The document reiterated principles from the group’s National Charter of Honor (2001) and Political Project (2004), but by renewing them, the Brotherhood intended to underline its commitment to the SNC’s political platform ahead of the April 1 Friends of Syria meeting.

At the same time, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood entered the military fray in a clear bid to head off growing competition on the ground from armed jihadists and ultimately to position itself for a central role in post-Assad Syria. Since the start of 2012, if not earlier, it has been funding its own armed groups inside Syria with contributions from its far-flung network of members in exile. It cannot yet be said to field a fully formed and hierarchically structured military wing, but it appears to have gained the loyalty of several self-styled “brigades” in and around Hama.

This militarization calls into question the Brotherhood’s relationship with its unarmed partners in the SNC, and indeed with the rest of the opposition. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is acting unilaterally, which seems to confirm allegations by SNC dissidents, such as the Kurdish National Council’s Yilmaz Saeed, that a triumvirate monopolizes decisionmaking in the SNC. The alleged powerbrokers include the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Farouq Tayfour, its deputy comptroller general and reputedly most influential organizational and political figure, in addition to Islamists Ahmad Ramadan and Nazir al-Hakim, the first affiliated to the National Bloc and the second holding one of the Brotherhood’s seats in the SNC.

The development of the group’s independent brigades poses an additional obstacle to building up the Free Syrian Army as the opposition’s unified military wing. This comes at a time when many of the local armed groups loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army—such as the Farouq Battalion operating in the area of Homs or the al-Furqan and Abu ‘Ubayda al-Jarrah battalions around Damascus—have become more sectarian, and more Salafist. The mix of opposition military formations has become increasingly diverse: generally secular defecting senior army officers who have attached themselves to the Free Syrian Army command or to its competitor, the Higher Military Council, both based in Turkey; armed Salafists operating loosely under the Free Syrian Army banner; independent jihadists; and now the Brotherhood brigades. Unifying them is no less a challenge than uniting the opposition politically, and will have at least as much impact on the future of Syria’s transition.

The emergence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a military contender may also strain its own internal cohesion. It is no longer the tightly structured and disciplined organization it once was. Its senior cadres and veterans have not been able to return to Syria to take command or bring their experience directly to bear. Its scattered members in exile are not in full agreement on political strategy. And it is already evident that individual donors rely on personal connections to fund local networks and committees inside Syria rather than work through a central framework in accordance with approved priorities. Much of this support probably goes into humanitarian relief and social work committees as the Brotherhood seeks to rebuild its organization inside Syria and influence developments on the ground.

Ironically, it is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that is most likely to channel the financial and humanitarian assistance pledged by the Friends of Syria to those in need in the country—and consequently to reap the political benefits. The Brotherhood has the most extensive support network inside Syria and, for that reason, runs the SNC’s relief and development projects bureau, which receives outside aid.

As the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood reestablishes itself on the ground, new internal dynamics may evolve between its senior leaders in exile and younger, local contenders who will inevitably emerge from the daily struggle in Syria. This may add to long-standing fractures within the group. Its current leadership trio of Comptroller General Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfeh, Tayfour, and Shura Council head Mohammad Hatem al-Tabshi all come from its Hama branch, known for its social and religious conservatism. However, most of the group’s funding at present is believed to come from members in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are close to the Brotherhood’s former comptroller general, Ali Sadr-al-Din al-Bayanuni. Like him, many of them come from the Brotherhood’s Aleppo branch, historically regarded as more tolerant. Relations between the Saudi group and its colleagues elsewhere are already said to be strained.

If armed conflict continues and the trend toward militarization persists, the Brotherhood could suffer a debilitating polarization within its own ranks. It has happened once before. More militant members broke away from the Brotherhood in 1979 to form an urban guerilla group, the Fighting Vanguard. This fate is not far-fetched: With a leadership in exile and rival Islamists already competing for hearts and minds on the ground, the Brotherhood may be propelled toward hawkish positions as a means of asserting its legitimacy. And as the so-called “Sinjar Records” seized by U.S. forces in Iraq showed, the Fighting Vanguard provided inspiration for jihadists there as well.

Class War

The opposition must also overcome deep-seated class divisions within Syrian society. Organized opposition groups—from the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to the National Coordination Body and others inside Syria—are made up of members of the country’s large urban middle class. These Syrians are neither recent, rural arrivistes nor wholly dependent on the state for their livelihood.

In contrast, and with only a few exceptions, all the violence to date has taken place among communities hardest hit by a decade of neoliberal and predatory government policies—disinvestment in infrastructure, deteriorating public services, and severe subsidy cuts. They are found in provincial cities such as Dar’a, Idlib, and Deir el-Zor, as well as their rural hinterlands, “inner city” neighborhoods of Homs and Hama in which smuggling networks flourished. They come from the so-called rif (countryside) of Damascus and Aleppo, consisting of large urban poverty belts fueled by rural migration, interspersed with more settled, relatively affluent municipalities that are less openly hostile to the regime.

This is the “other” Syria, which has become most alienated from the regime, taken to arms, and turned most visibly pious and Salafist. An example is Douma, the largest “city” in the Damascus rif. Its population stood at 109,000 in the 2004 census but is now estimated at 400,000. Numbers swelled as 1 million rural inhabitants were driven by drought and urbanization into the cities in 2003–2009, inner city poor moved out of gentrifying low-income neighborhoods of Damascus, and Iraqi and Palestinian refugees fled into Syria.

It is areas like Douma that boycotted en masse the referendum on the revised constitution announced by Bashar al-Assad in February. The middle-class opposition generally preferred to cast a “no” vote —including some members of the ruling Baath Party’s partners in the “National Front” that supposedly governs the country, most important of which is the Communist Party. And as civilian protests resumed following the cease-fire, the largest took place in Douma.

The contrast has several implications for the opposition. The urban middle class has produced a bewildering array of new, unregistered political parties and associations, most of them either secular or at least eschewing religious agendas. But political discourse in the other Syria is framed almost entirely by reference to Islam. Although this offers a potential point of entry for the Brotherhood, the class fault line favors the far more amorphous Salafist trends.

That has more to do with the bifurcated nature of the Syrian economy than pure income levels. Not everyone in the other Syria is poor, after all. Rather, what is important is that these communities survive with a local economy that is largely informal and unregulated, dependent on the circulation of labor within Syria and to Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf as well as on smuggling or other illicit activity.

The Brotherhood, however, is strongest among those affiliated with the formal economy—in the free trades and professions and in commerce. It supports the free market and consequently favors top-down distribution of charity and aid in order to access poorer social sectors, rather than state intervention. If the experience of Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition in rural and urban poor areas is anything to go by, the Brotherhood’s structure will work against it even among its beneficiaries, who regard the Salafists as social equals and as offering more hope for an end to dependency on discretionary handouts.

The class fault line also reveals a paradox. The principal opposition coalitions remain heavily dependent on the other Syria to maintain pressure on the regime but do not really represent it. Opposition leaders are rightly convinced that the other Syria will continue its uprising with undiminished fervor. But it is they who are known to the outside world and who will inevitably assume command of any transition, whether it is reached through negotiation or coercion. Even so, they propose visions of a future Syria that look set to diverge increasingly from what the masses expect.

There will be ways of dealing with these contradictions in a post-Assad Syria, that is, assuming these tensions do not first derail the opposition. And they may bring about a different political and social bargain than that officially espoused by the main opposition groups and coalitions at present.

The Challenges Ahead

The Syrian opposition will be hard put to surmount these two fault lines. Despite the obvious need for unity, the Syrian National Council in exile and the National Coordination Body within the country continue to harbor deep distrust of each other. Leading members of the SNC accuse the NCB of positioning itself to head an interim or national unity government and of harboring regime stooges. Some in the NCB describe their SNC counterparts as having blood on their hands for promoting militarization and as traitors for accepting foreign funding. More importantly, the NCB and even some SNC affiliates inside Syria fear that the exiles will return to take power, as the Iraqi National Congress did in Iraq with U.S. protection.

The opposition’s center of gravity may shift from exile toward those inside Syria if the Annan peace plan makes progress, however painful and slow. But the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could disrupt that shift rather than see its influence diminished in the process. That fate could be avoided if the Brotherhood is able to translate its leading position within the SNC into a tangible presence on the ground in Syria.

The class divide will be among the hardest challenges to overcome in a post-Assad Syria. The other Syria is the result not only of the neoliberal economic policies and predatory behavior of the regime in the past decade. Its roots also lie in the formal bifurcation of Syria’s national economy in the 1990s into wholly distinct public and private economies—each with its own separate legislative and administrative frameworks. Differences in political and ideological trends are thus truly long-term and structural.

These challenges will multiply as new authorities come under immense pressure from the West and international financial institutions—and also from the pro–free market Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s significant business community—to resume and expand neoliberal economic reforms of the sort that many believe pauperized them. The post-transition experiences of neighboring Iraq after 2003 and of Libya and Yemen since 2011 illustrate graphically how difficult it is to overcome the potent fusion of socioeconomic legacies, militarization, and sectarian, ethnic, and regional resentment.

These fault lines will shape the course taken by the Syrian opposition in the coming months and will eventually exert a massive influence on any prospective transition process. Whether the opposition faces protracted, tortuous negotiations with Assad and his regime or a return to unequal, armed confrontation, any progress it makes toward unity and reconciliation will be repeatedly strained to breaking point.