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.