From the outset of the Syrian uprising, the civil-nationalist opposition—the activists and politicians who had collectively won international recognition as an alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—faced obstacles to becoming an effective actor inside Syria. It was unable to exert meaningful influence over the intricate and opaque network of civilian governance institutions that arose as the conflict progressed, and was physically separated from the armed factions that guaranteed security in areas of Syria outside government control.
While a range of political and military groups have opposed the Assad regime, members of the opposition’s civil-nationalist wing share a more specific history. This opposition has its roots in the October 2005 Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, signed by activists from across the political spectrum and demanding political reform. After the uprising began in 2011, many of the original signatories joined with the Muslim Brotherhood and other exiled political figures to form the Syrian National Council. The council and other groups later transformed themselves into the Istanbul-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition, whose governance arm is the Syrian Interim Government. Syria’s political opposition also includes the Higher Negotiations Committee, an umbrella organization created at the urging of Saudi Arabia to unify Syrian political groups in preparation for United Nations–sponsored peace negotiations.
For years, both Syrians and international actors have referred to the opposition’s civil-nationalist wing as the “the Syrian opposition,” showing its perceived importance. Because it participated in a UN-approved peace plan for Syria and had its roots in a longer-term civil campaign against the Assad regime and in favor of reform, this opposition enjoyed a legitimacy that was not seriously questioned early on in the uprising. Yet Syria’s escalating military conflict, humanitarian crisis, and increasingly sectarian characteristics created dynamics that made both its civil and nationalist dimensions increasingly irrelevant, ultimately leading to the political opposition’s complete marginalization.
For years, both Syrians and international actors have referred to the opposition’s civil-nationalist wing as the “the Syrian opposition,” showing its perceived importance.
The Challenges Faced by Syria’s Opposition
Throughout the course of the Syrian conflict, several factors helped to limit the civil-nationalist opposition’s ability to behave as an effective political force. These encompassed matters related to the opposition itself, its choices and shortcomings, as well as those linked to the political environment in which it was operating and over which the opposition had less control. Among the former was that the civil-nationalist opposition never formulated clear strategic objectives and was unable to successfully address the challenges of exile. As for the latter, the opposition had to contend with a multiplicity of political actors in conflict with the Assad regime, including Islamist groups, while more generally struggling with the disparate agendas of its foreign backers.
Internal Challenges: Unclear Goals and the Tribulations of Exile
From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the civil-nationalist opposition advocated for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power. However, it lacked a detailed vision of a post-Assad Syria and an actionable plan to bring about change. This would represent a major deficiency, raising doubts about whether the opposition was a reliable substitute for the Syrian regime, with a clear sense of the new order that it sought to put in place.
Initially, the political opposition centered its efforts on implementing theGeneva Communiqué of June 2012, a six-point plan that the UN Security Council described as a framework for a political solution in Syria. However, the opposition’s overall goals remained ambiguous, partly due to the stated objectives of the communiqué itself. The document called for a “transitional governing body with full executive powers, which shall be formed by mutual consent.” Members of the political opposition saw this condition as granting them veto power over whether Assad could be part of any transitional authority,1 further reinforcing their maximalist goal of complete regime change.
However, there was a downside to taking such an absolutist position on the Assad regime without credibly developing other options. The political opposition limited the impact it could have as a negotiating body by showing the regime that it had nothing to gain from negotiations. A former Dutch ambassador in the Middle East and author of a highly influential book on Syria, Nikolaos van Dam, echoed these thoughts, saying “there was no space for working with the regime” in the opposition’s vocabulary.2 By centering its demands on leadership changes and far-reaching reforms of Syria’s military and security institutions, the opposition was implicitly asking its interlocutors on the Syrian government side to voluntarily surrender the foundations of their power in the state. Conversely, the state’s refusal to grant the political opposition legitimacy led to unresolvable tensions that also undermined the negotiations as well. The opposition was also overoptimistic in its perception of international support, mistaking the moral justification of its cause for tangible political strength, while failing to fully recognize that “being right and getting it right are two different things.”3
The opposition’s lack of clarity in defining achievable political objectives was accompanied by another problem, this one also self-inflicted. In choosing to operate from outside of Syria, the constituent groups of the civil-nationalist opposition isolated themselves from the military actors inside the country who came to control the rapidly evolving dynamics of conflict. Moreover, by being perceived as far from the suffering of Syrians at home, the exiled opposition gradually faced a major problem of legitimacy. All this gave the forces on the ground in Syria the upper hand in defining the approach to take with regard to the Assad regime, as well as in receiving foreign assistance.
Whether they were based in Istanbul in the case of the Syrian National Council, and later the Syrian National Coalition, in Riyadh in the case of the Higher Negotiations Committee, or in other opposition offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Cairo, representatives of the civil-nationalist groups were unable to significantly alter the course of the conflict or negotiations for a settlement. Indeed, the drawbacks of exile came to also negatively affect those who had initially opposed the Assad regime from within Syria and who were later co-opted by the civil-nationalist opposition outside the country. The political opposition would often absorb activists from inside Syria, hiring them to work in its institutions and removing them from the context in which they had operated. As a result, within months they had lost all their contacts on the ground, rendering them largely superfluous.4
More damaging is that all this took place at a time when armed factions and ad hoc local councils inside Syria began taking over security and civil administration in areas outside government authority. These new bodies established separate funding channels with international donors, reducing the civil-nationalist opposition’s sway over events on the ground. This cycle soon became self-reinforcing. The funding secured by Syrian-based opposition groups, who already had doubts about the exiled opposition’s credibility as a coordinating body, diverted resources away from the exiles, further diminishing the political opposition’s power and coordination capabilities.
External Challenges: A Multiplicity of Actors and Foreign Agendas
Prior to 2011, the political opposition in Syria had been characterized by divisions, which the uprising only magnified. While the signatories of the Damascus Declaration, who spanned the ideological and sectarian divides in Syria, had hoped for it to evolve into a separate political movement, many of the declaration’s key figures were detained after the document’s signing. Between 2006 and 2008, key signatories left Syria after internal disputes and state pressure prevented them from creating an entity that embodied the declaration’s principles, leading to one of many intraopposition schisms.
After the start of the 2011 uprising this pattern persisted, as opposition groups advocated for different approaches toward the emerging conflict. In Damascus, opposition figures initially established the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). The NCC differentiated itself from other opposition groups by rejecting the influence both of political organizations outside Syria and of foreign powers, adopting positions that other opposition members viewed as unacceptably accommodating toward the Syrian government. Signatories of the Damascus Declaration, led by veteran opposition leader Riad al-Turk, and the NCC, led by another opposition figure, Hassan Abdel Azim, struggled to agree on a common platform. According to Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based intellectual who would later lead the Syrian National Council, disagreements over leadership roles frustrated these attempts at collaboration.5 While international pressure pushed the Syrian National Council and the NCC to sign a “National Covenant for a New Syria” in 2012, the political opposition failed to unite meaningfully. The disparity among the demands of its constituent groups, ranging from a transition away from Assad to more gradual reforms, prevented the emergence of a unified negotiating stance.
This vacuum created an opening for others to fill the void. The military escalation in Syria soon underscored the strength of newly formed armed Islamist factions, who quickly showed themselves to be better organized and more capable of large-scale coordination, mobilization, and recruitment than their non-Islamist counterparts. While members of the political opposition preoccupied themselves with discussing unification efforts at international conferences, the Islamist factions assumed control of major population centers inside Syria and expanded their influence over civilian governance. Islamist entities, such as the Public Service Administration put in place by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a main Islamist faction in Idlib Governorate, assumed coordinating roles among local councils in areas outside government control. These developments placed the civil-nationalist opposition in a quandary. While Western donors regarded Islamist factions and civil coordinating bodies as toxic and moved to sanction the most visible ones, many non-Islamist opposition figures believed that tactical alliances with such groups were the only way of confronting the Assad regime effectively.
The ambiguous approach taken by the political opposition toward Islamist armed factions and civilian bodies—initially defending them from international criticism while privately maintaining a skeptical distance—proved detrimental to the opposition’s overall ambitions. As the Islamist groups assumed greater power over lucrative checkpoints, courts, and aid distribution channels that formed the basis of an informal power structure in opposition-controlled areas, the civil-nationalist opposition was nearly powerless to assert itself as the administrative alternative to the Assad regime that it had originally intended to be.
The ambiguous approach taken by the political opposition toward Islamist armed factions and civilian bodies . . . proved detrimental to the opposition’s overall ambitions.
This weakness was exacerbated by an inconsistent international approach toward the conflict. The absence of a unified, cohesive response from outside powers confused the civil-nationalist opposition and complicated its efforts to work on achieving a common goal. For example, although Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2010–2014, made clear to opposition figures that the United States would not commit to military action, he and other international envoys showed their support for the growing protests in the uprising’s early days. They joined demonstrations, encouraging people to participate despite escalating violence from the Syrian government. These actions came with seemingly impactful acts of international support. In August 2011, governments gathered together in the international Friends of Syria group called for Bashar al-Assad’s removal and recognized the Syrian National Council as “the legitimate representative of all Syrians.”
Despite these displays of pro-opposition sentiment, Western governments remained divided over the usefulness of pursuing this course. For example, key figures in then U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration, such as then secretary of state Hillary Clinton and director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus, favored a rapid escalation of support to armed opposition factions. In summer 2012, their plan to arm the Syrian opposition found backing from the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, Obama rejected the plan and high-level White House officials argued for a more reserved approach, expressing skepticism about the Syrian opposition’s long-term prospects.
Such divergent approaches had the effect of creating false expectations in the opposition. Symbolically meaningful gestures were viewed as more significant than they really were,6 as the opposition itself erred in allowing an excess of wishful thinking to cloud an understanding of its real power.
Regional and international backers of the political opposition compounded their absence of clarity by imposing conflicting visions of what the opposition’s future should be. Western powers largely envisioned a cross-sectarian, nominally liberal political body that would build a consensus around the outlines of a postwar transition. Yet Western diplomats remained unable to achieve this, particularly when the opposition itself was isolated from developments inside Syria and hard-pressed to define a unified negotiating stance. Pro-opposition countries in the Middle East, however, pursued a more maximalist agenda that created a wider tent under which anti-Assad forces could gather. The openly sectarian and extremist armed groups that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar supported at various times only increased the West’s reticence to associate itself with the opposition’s in-country centers of power, furthering the contradictions that plagued the political opposition’s relationship with its international backers.
Ultimately, the civil-nationalist opposition could isolate three broader failings that prevented it from asserting itself as an effectual actor. One was its organizational fragmentation. By failing to present a clear, unified, and implementable set of demands, the opposition limited its own impact. Even as its political bodies issued statements emphasizing the importance of unity, such gestures rarely translated into tangible efforts to integrate its constituent parts administratively. This flaw only reflected, and reinforced, the opposition’s unclear, indeed conflicting, goals about the nature of a post-Assad Syria.
A second drawback was that the civil-nationalist opposition overestimated its reach, presuming that gestures of symbolic or rhetorical backing by foreign actors were tantamount to having influence inside Syria, which was not the case. Though regional and global calls of support for the opposition came often in the conflict’s early years, the armed factions controlling territory inside Syria paid little attention to either the political opposition’s international status or its attempts to have a say in developments within the country. When the armed opposition’s fortunes began waning in 2016, the bodies nominally recognized as sovereign over all anti-government forces in Syria had no practical tools, beyond rhetoric, through which to contest the Syrian government’s advances.
A third failing is that from early on in the conflict, both the civil-nationalist opposition and its foreign backers failed to openly recognize the outsized influence of armed Islamist factions. The superior organization of these factions allowed them to seize Syrian territory, but the widespread unwillingness of the civil-nationalist opposition to recognize the true reach of these groups left it with no means or structures to seriously counter Islamist forces once they became a part of the conflict. Such impotence would have far-reaching consequences, since by being so patently unable to oppose these groups, let alone assert meaningful influence over them, the civil-nationalist opposition would itself lose the backing of foreign powers repelled by the Islamists’ behavior.
The Civil-Nationalist Opposition Moving Forward
The civil-nationalist opposition finds itself trapped in an obsolete framework for ending the Syrian conflict. International mediators, still stuck in a mindset that took form in 2011 and 2012, have been unable to advance a settlement process that includes the military actors most responsible for events in Syria. This contradiction—a political framework for resolving a conflict defined by armed combatants—is rooted in the early marginalization of the civil-nationalist opposition, but still informs efforts aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict.
Though anti-government armed factions and opposition governance bodies inside Syria, with the exception of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, have taken significant steps toward unity since 2017, they have done so with near-exclusive Turkish financial backing. Turkey, which has been engaged in a deconfliction process with Russia and Iran, has compelled the political opposition to blunt its original objective of regime change. In the ongoing Syrian government offensive against remaining opposition forces in Idlib Governorate, however, Turkey has struggled to enforce even a ceasefire line, scrambling to build new military positions to deter Syrian government forces while armed opposition factions retreat from a rapidly shrinking territory.
Throughout this most recent phase in the Syrian conflict, the civil-nationalist opposition has remained largely out of view, cut off from the groups engaged in the fighting and unable to coordinate the massive amounts of humanitarian aid needed to sustain the civilian population trapped in Idlib. Whether Idlib remains a de facto Turkish protectorate in the near future or quickly falls to government forces, the political opposition faces two unappealing choices: it can either remain committed to the framework of a negotiated resolution of the conflict that even backers of such an outcome have tacitly abandoned; or it can retreat from its original regime change goals to advocate for incremental reforms. The lack of options beyond these two illustrate the extent to which the political opposition’s ability to impose itself as an indispensable actor in the Syrian conflict is limited.
About the Authors
Amr Alsarraj is a researcher and analyst specializing in Syria and the Middle East. He has contributed to the strategic design of U.S.-funded programming in Syria, as well as in the Syrian Transition Roadmap. He has also participated in the UN-supported Geneva consultations and the Civil Society Support Room.
Philip Hoffman is a PhD student in history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has previously worked on humanitarian aid projects in Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
1 Telephone interview with a United Nations official, May 22, 2019.
2 Telephone interview with Nikolaos Van Dam, May 31, 2019.
4 Telephone interview with a United Nations official, May 22, 2019.
5 Email interview with Burhan Ghalioun, June 2, 2019.
6 Telephone interview with Nikolaos Van Dam, May 31, 2019.