Syria's 'pinball' opposition
August 6th, 2012
04:26 PM ET

Syria's 'pinball' opposition

Editor's note: Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has reportedly defected from Bashar al-Assad’s regime to join “the revolution.” But who is behind the so-called revolution? CNN’s Tim Lister shares his thoughts on the state of the opposition in Syria, and what the reports of jihadist involvement could mean.

What is the state of the opposition? Since the unrest began, we've heard that there wasn’t a united opposition as was the case in places such as Libya. Has that changed?

Bashar al-Assad’s opponents – both the politicians and the fighters – are like a bunch of pinballs flying in different directions, often beyond control and sometimes cannoning off each other. That’s always been the concern about Syria, one that Assad himself has encouraged – a sort of "Après moi, le deluge." The ethnographic map of Syria looks like a Jackson Pollock painting: Sunnis, Kurds, Alawites and Christians live cheek by jowl (although the Kurds are heavily concentrated in the northeast.) All have their own priorities and agendas. Many Christians and Alawites believe that whatever follows this regime would be worse for them. Many Kurds view the upheaval as an opportunity to achieve their own state within a state (much like their brethren in Iraq.)

The exiled opposition seems in a state of perpetual confusion. Veteran activist Haitham al-Maleh said last week he had been tasked with putting together a transitional government. The Syrian National Council described the announcement as premature, prompting al Maleh to say essentially that it was useless.

The SNC has struggled on two fronts: failing to fashion a united front among its 260 members, who range from Communists to Islamists, and unable to forge meaningful links with opposition elements within Syria such as the Local Co-ordination Committees.

Its attempts to exercise some authority over the Free Syrian Army have also failed.

Reporting for Time magazine last week from Idlib province, Rania Abouzeid wrote: "There are real and serious rivalries between exiles and those inside Syria, sub-splits between those groups, deep schisms between the armed and political opposition, and among some armed groups in different areas. At the moment, most of their guns are pointed in the same direction, but it’s easy to predict what may happen when their common enemy falls."

There are plenty of rivalries among FSA commanders. Even local co-operation, let alone a nationally co-coordinated campaign, is at a premium. Brian Fishman at the New America Foundation, who has closely followed the evolution of the Syrian resistance, says it remains a collection of localized and, at best, regionalized units. Within the FSA, he says, there are innumerable positions and aims but only one over-arching goal – getting rid of al-Assad.

In Libya, the Transitional National Council was operating out of Benghazi very soon after the revolt against Gadhafi began – but it too suffered many internal divisions that reverberate across the country to this day. If anything, the disparate interests of the Syrian opposition are even more pronounced.

One element that is of growing concern within and beyond Syria is the presence of jihadist cells that have gained combat experience in Iraq, Yemen or Libya. Jihadist forums are full of almost daily appeals for fighters to go to Syria, but intelligence analysts see the numbers in the low hundreds rather than thousands.

Fishman believes that jihadis with experience elsewhere may be “force multipliers” – training other groups in urban guerrilla warfare and bomb-making. So far, Syria hasn’t seen the scale of suicide attacks and roadside bombs that was the case in Iraq in 2004-06, although groups like the al-Nusrah Front (which now has its own media arm) have posted videos of some suicide attacks that are eerily reminiscent of al Qaeda in Iraq.

There’s a risk in conflating jihadists with Islamists who have no truck with al Qaeda. But Colonel al Kurdi is concerned that a growing influx of foreign jihadists could mean trouble down the road.

It may “lead to chaos in Syria even after the fall of the regime because of internal feuds that may happen between the groups and the power struggle that may occur," he warned.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria • United Nations

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Jaden

    Yeah inviting crazy terrorists to help get rid of Assad is a move the rebels will live to regret..just wait til it's time to get rid of them. Like parasites, they'll be settled in like a disease. They need to get rid of the jihadists right away.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
    • Nina

      It's already too late.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  2. GOD BLESS Bashar and Putin!!!

    Thank God for Russia and Bashar! They are protecting the millions of Christians in Syria. Please report on the thousands of brave Syrian soldiers who are devout Christians fighting against Al-Qaeda terrorists. Western propaganda does not work in Russia or Syria. Putin won and so will Bashar! ALL ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS SUPPORT OUR BROTHERS IN SYRIA AGAINST TERRORISM!

    August 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  3. fan

    So there's a down side to the "Syrian Opposition". I hope the CIA is reading this, dude.

    August 7, 2012 at 4:01 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Despite the unpredictable outcomes in the post-Assad Syria, the overthrow of Assad is worth all the pain and losses. Right now, different parties join forces to fight for the same goal. What follows afterwards – chaos – is inevitable. They will have to learn the lesson the hard hard and it takes time for life to return to normality. Although peace and stability still leave much to be desired in Libya, many people still think they're better off today than under Gaddafi.

    August 7, 2012 at 5:09 am | Reply
    • pete

      where did you get your information about Libyans being better off?

      August 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • desert voice/troubledgoodangel

      While I agree that Assad needs to go, I am upset about the "losses". They should not be taking place! The human life, especially innocent, is too precious. Faced with the Arab Spring, Assad should have resigned, for there wasn't any other choice. Instead, egged by two persverse powers, China and Russia, he continues to preside of the murder of his own people, to save his dark legacy! He may be doing this under the influence of Asma, his wife. He is getting himself prepared a place in hell because of her. Was Syria better off under Assad? I disagree. It was a Lord Chamberlain's "peace at any price"! For better of for worse, we must not secondguess the desire of people to be free!

      August 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      If you think you are ready to pay the price: do not be surprised later on when the same "good terrorists" attack your home town and kill your fellow-citizens...
      I hate those liberals (dem, rep and EU)! They never learn from their own mistakes because it is always somebody else's fault: usually of the very same people who suffer and loose everything because of them!

      August 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  5. the Lord

    Both President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski and President of Syria Bashar al-Assad has been poisoned and isolated by Blosheviks. Both Dimitri Medvedev and Mitt Romney was not informed and whole plot has been directed against them.

    More on Google+:

    August 7, 2012 at 5:52 am | Reply
  6. Lee

    Revolution can not buy but it can be obtained only by changing in thinking of people .Syria is not ready for a revolution . Article stated "It may “lead to chaos in Syria evenafter the fall of the regime because of internal feuds that may happen between the groups and the power struggle that may occur,” he warned." If the article comment is true, is not western power trying to destabilize Syria ? Under Assad regime it may not be democratic but no violence , but without him it is a civil war ? Which is the best ?

    August 7, 2012 at 7:01 am | Reply
  7. desert voice/troubledgoodangel

    The lack of unity in a situation as this will prove catastrophic. The problem lies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the U.S. These nations ought to demand a common leadership, or simply threaten an intervention. Today, the world isn't sure who is threatening whom. The Christians, in particular, should be guaranted a credible protection, which can only happen if there is a solid and credible single leadership! The countries I mentioned bear the responsibilty for the lack thereoff!

    August 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply

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