All politics is local
My friends in the Syrian opposition are understandably discouraged. Months of intensified Hizbollah and Iranian support have brought the regime advances on the ground. Some Islamist forces have parted ways with the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) and its affiliated Supreme Military Council (SMC), whose brigades are finding themselves in a two-front war against both the regime and Islamist extremists. The American/Russian agreement for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, now endorsed by the UN Security Council, implicitly assumes the regime will stick around over the next year to get the job done. Washington support for the Etilaf has rarely seemed less certain, even if arms supplies and training are supposedly being amped up.
If Etilaf wants stronger international support, it is going to need to be able to present itself as a serious bulwark against extremism and state collapse.
Anyone thinking Bashar al Asad can play that role is sorely mistaken. He has done his best to polarize the situation in Syria so that he can be viewed as fighting extremism, rather than as repressing a popular rebellion. That polarization is a serious threat to the Syrian state, which was once regarded by the opposition as something to be preserved. Many now see no alternative to disbanding its army and security services, which have conducted themselves in inexcusably violent and sectarian ways.
So the regime is compromised, but the opposition is also. The worst has come from its extreme Islamist wing. The UN human rights reports on Syria document the rise of opposition abuses, on a curve well behind that of the regime but still distressingly similar in its rise. With priority now given to chemical weapons, about which the opposition can do nothing since it apparently has no control of them (and no one, even Moscow, is even pretending that they really do), the regime can present itself as indispensable, even if reprehensible.
To offset this tilt in the direction of the regime, the Coalition needs to present itself as a serious bulwark against extremism and collapse of the Syrian state. This above all means
- gaining better control of the opposition fighting forces;
- presenting a clear alternative for future governance in Syria.
Neither of these is proving easy to accomplish. The SMC is trying to regain some degree of loyalty from brigades that have joined Islamist extremists. It is difficult to see how that can happen without a substantial flow of resources that reconnects the SMC and individual brigades. The formation of a national government by the opposition has stalled for months, even as the Coalition manages to improve its delivery of at least some humanitarian assistance.
Syria is fragmenting into a patchwork. It will likely never again be as centralized a state as under the Assads, who essentially ruled everything from the presidential palace in Damascus. Kurds in the north, Alawites in the west, Druze in the south, Sunnis throughout the country will be unwilling in the aftermath of war to entrust their security or well-being to anyone beyond their local areas. Rebuilding the state will require a localized effort, one that recognizes the widely varying security needs of different communities and adjusts to the reality of populations with varied experiences of rebellion and war.
Progress for a demoralized and discouraged opposition is likely to come not in the form of a national government, but rather from focus on the needs of people at the local level. That is where a determined and clever opposition can outbid the brutal behavior of a regime that has focused for decades on building and maintaining national institutions.