When asked to explain why they aren’t providing greater support to the Syrian opposition, US officials have repeatedly fallen back on the excuse that the rebels are deeply fragmented and leaderless. The opposition in Libya, by contrast, “had a face”, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a House panel this March: “We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions.”
In his own testimony, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta echoed Clinton’s worries, saying, “There has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognised, appointed, or contacted.” These statements, however, get the dynamics of the Syrian uprising all wrong.
It is not a ‘leaderless’ revolution, as US officials have claimed. And the US and its international allies should no longer use such arguments as an excuse for inaction. US policymakers have failed to recognise the difference between a decentralised leadership and a fragmented — or absent — leadership.
In travels to Lebanon, which many Syrian dissidents use as a base to organise, I have seen firsthand how the indigenous political opposition has produced strong leaders who have developed viable political structures on the ground. Despite their anonymity to international audiences, these leaders are well known inside Syria, are recognised by different opposition groups, and coordinate together to advance their shared goal of toppling President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.
They are decentralised out of necessity, to ensure the continuity of the uprising amid Al Assad’s brutal crackdown. The Al Assad regime’s repression has actually made the opposition’s political structures more resilient, as its leaders have been forced to create networks that will function beyond their life span. And because Al Assad’s security forces retain significant control in many areas, it is unsurprising that the opposition has been reluctant to reveal the details of its leadership.
Individual leaders have been forced to remain underground or risk being targeted by the Syrian government. When one leader is killed, as frequently occurs, another steps in to take his place. The grassroots political opposition has thus avoided becoming dependent on a single leader.
Homs is a powerful example of this system of leadership. During Al Assad’s relentless shelling of the city in February, many of the Homs Revolutionary Council’s leaders were killed. Yet the fluidity of leadership allowed the council to continue to function and provide invaluable services throughout the offensive. As one activist working in the council put it to me, “We are like the legendary hydra — Al Assad kills one of us, and 10 more pop up in their place.”
These local networks — not the exiled opposition — are truly guiding Syria’s revolution. The network of nascent political structures begins in villages and city neighbourhoods, where activists working in coordinating committees mobilise support for demonstrations. At the district and city levels, Revolutionary Councils and Revolution Command Councils coordinate the activities of the local committees and interface with armed opposition groups.
These councils have largely coalesced behind three national organisations inside Syria — namely, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR), and the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). These organisations serve as the main media conduits for the grassroots opposition, and they coordinate the activities of the regional councils.
These three national coalitions serve different constituencies and are divided by the demands of those they represent. Each organisation has espoused a different vision for the revolution and a post-Al Assad future. The SRGC has adopted an aggressive platform for Al Assad’s removal, actively supporting armed rebels through provincial military councils.
The organisation refuses to cooperate with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group that operates from exile, due to disillusionment with the SNC’s endless internal power squabbles. The more moderate LCCs favour a political solution, proposing a plan for a peaceful transition of power to avert a violent collapse of the government. To achieve this objective, they have opted to cooperate with the SNC and have participated in numerous national conferences with the council. The SCSR, which caters to young protesters, falls between these two.
It has set the outlines for a political solution while also recognising the importance of armed struggle. Although it has sent representatives to SNC meetings, it is not formally a member. Local activist networks and revolutionary councils meet to decide which national platform best represents their outlook and then align with it.
The three groups’ visions and approaches to the revolution differ, but all adhere to a system that grants local groups representation in the national organisations. Syria’s grassroots protest movement has thus organised itself into national coalitions with political platforms. Local activists have the ability to develop practices that work best within their local and regional environments.
This decentralisation has also ensured these organisations retain mass support from diverse demographics, as they are responsive to the needs of their specific constituencies, including Islamists, moderate Islamists, and secular figures. This complex, opaque system has made it difficult for US officials to conceive of ways to help the Syrian opposition as a whole. There is no mailbox to send correspondence to all of them, and there is no Istanbul hotel to meet them in.
Although this has frustrated US policymakers, it is actually a sign of political health in Syria. By adopting a decentralised leadership system, the Syrian opposition has succeeded in creating the foundations for greater political pluralism. For almost half a century, Syria suffered under the de facto one-party rule of the Baath Party. Ultimately, these organisations may reverse that destructive legacy, becoming fully functional political movements capable of creating the type of multiparty system necessary for a successful democratic transition. That, of course, is a long way off, and in the meantime the positive influence of these grassroots movements is increasingly under threat.
As the uprising drags on, activists have become increasingly desperate to receive direct aid and support. The proliferation of money and weapons may have accelerated the revolution, but it has not supported the development of political structures inside Syria. These foreign sponsors risk dividing and radicalising the opposition. Rebel leaders have already reported that in some cases, receiving foreign aid comes with implicit conditions, forcing them to act in ways contrary to their desired direction. In a leaked email, rebel commander Abu Majd wrote, “The basis of the crisis in the city [Homs] today is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation.”
Moreover, in areas where Al Assad’s crackdown has been harshest, including in the cities of Homs and Rastan, hardline Salafist groups have gained a foothold within the opposition. In early April, following the regime’s offensive against Homs, for instance, accusations emerged that the rebels’ Farouq Battalion had begun collecting jaziya, a tax on non-Muslims, in areas of Homs province. To reverse this dangerous trend, the US should take the lead in coordinating international support with the aim of reinforcing the grassroots political structures already operating inside Syria. US intelligence officials have acknowledged that they are vetting the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels to ensure they do not fall into the hands of Al Qaida. This policy is a step forward, but it comes with risks. Facilitating weapon transfers to certain groups could empower militias at the expense of the grassroots political opposition. One key condition for future arms transfers should be that groups receiving weapons agree to submit to civilian command structures.
The Syrian grassroots opposition has protested and fought the Assad regime for more than a year now, largely without tangible support from abroad. In areas that have effectively fallen from Al Assad’s control, these local and provincial committees have already become the de facto government. These committee leaders could very well be Syria’s future power brokers, and US officials must get to know them now. If US officials do not, they may find this promising new generation of Syrian leaders destroyed by both Al Assad and radical Islamist movements, who will only carry Syria into a bloody and catastrophic civil war.
Elizabeth O’Bagy is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the report Syria’s Political Opposition.