In the last of this three-part series on Syria, CNA vice president Eric Thompson, Ph.D., an expert on the Middle East and director of CNA Strategic Studies, discusses what to watch for next in the Syrian conflict. (A transcript of the full interview with Dr. Thompson follows.)
Who are the Syrian Rebels?
“The Syrian opposition is really made up of three primary groups. One are the people on the ground who are opposed to the regime. They’re mainly organized around what are called local coordination committees. There are a number of folks who are opposed to the regime. Some have longstanding grievances against the regime. These are folks who associate with the Muslim Brotherhood, the longest standing opposition group to the Assad regime; the Kurdish population who have long felt they’ve been discriminated against, but there are also those who are seeking political change along the lines of Arab Spring countries we’ve seen elsewhere in the Middle East. And then there are those with immediate grievances and discomfort with the way the regime has been treating its own population. An example of this are families and tribes in the town of Daraa, where the uprising really started, who were upset with the way the regime had detained and held incommunicado a number of youths who had been caught painting some graffiti.
“They’re also very much concerned with folks who are supportive of the regime and taking action on their own. An organization called the Shabiha, which are essentially militias or paramilitary forces that are carrying out regime-inspired actions and violence against folks, so there’s a great deal of concern about that.
“The second group of people who are involved in the opposition are called the expatriate opponents: those people who live outside of Syria. Those who are members of groups that have been banned, or dissidents or exiles who left previously, and they formed organizations in order to create an organized opposition. The most notable of these is the Syrian National Council, which is a 313-member committee of various groups that have come together to try to create organized opposition and a face for the opposition outside of Syria. But there are rivals to this organization such as the National Coordination Committee which is made up of 14 other separate groups that don’t directly associate with the SNC. And then there are a number of independent opponents as well.
“The third group is the armed opposition. One that’s most notable is called the Free Syrian Army and this is an interesting organization. It has claimed leadership in Turkey. A colonel by the name of Riyadh al-Asaad and a brigadier general by the name of Mustafa al-Sheik had said that they are the commanding element of this organization. But all the evidence suggests that these are primarily either soldiers who defected to go back to their towns, communities and villages to protect their family, or they are local civilians who have taken up arms and trying to organize themselves at the community level – at the block or town or village level – to protect themselves and their families from Syrian government forces and security forces and the Shabiha
“Well, I think there are a couple of things we should be watching out for. I think the rise of the Shabiha are informal, paramilitary groups that, for example, may have been involved in the Houla massacre, as a way of sparking fears of intersectarian violence or mass atrocities to try to discourage the opponents from continuing their struggle against the Assad regime. What we saw in Algeria over the course of their 10-year civil war between the government and the opposition was widespread use of violence against civilians to try to disrupt support for the government. And so this idea that civilians could be a pawn in this process and could be exposed to violence in order to create largely symbolic events to either motivate opposition or undercut opposition is something to be very much concerned about. It’s difficult to figure out how to prevent this, but that is very, very important.
“Another thing to watch closely is, does the international approach to bringing pressure on the Assad regime break down. Right now the United Nations is involved; Kofi Annan has been sent as a special representative to bring about, hopefully, a ceasefire and the beginning of reconciliation. But if we see individual countries supplying weapons to the opposition, if we see outside groups like al-Qaeda getting involved, this sort of disruption or break down of an international consensus and a coordinated diplomatic front may be something to be concerned about.
“And the third piece is the break down of cooperation between either local coordination committees on the ground or the expatriate opposition may bring internecine fighting or conflict that prevents the rapid transition or even the resolution of this conflict as people who are unified in their opposition to the regime turn on each other because of the disputes that they have amongst their other previously cooperative partners in this undertaking.”