3. The Opposition Remains Deeply Divided, and Lacks a Clear Strategy
When France’s President François Hollande urged the Syrian opposition earlier this week to form a transitional government in exile that France and other Western governments would immediately recognize as the legitimate government of Syria, he seemed to have forgotten one of the golden rules of French cuisine: You can’t reheat a souffle. Recognizing an opposition government and mounting a regime-change military operation may have worked in Libya, but it’s essentially off the table in Syria. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by U.S. officials, who branded it “premature” given the consistent failure of Syrian opposition groups, over 18 months of rebellion, to create a single unified leadership. Washington’s response was immediately slammed by Syrian National Council (SNC) leader Abdelbaset Sieda, who accused the U.S. of indecisiveness, but his complaints would have been undermined by the fact that his group’s longtime spokeswoman Basma Kodmani resigned from the SNC on the same day, declaring that it had failed to earn “the required credibility and did not maintain the confidence of the people”. Indeed, despite its support from the French government and Turkey, the SNC appears to have been largely sidelined, having failed to win the support of unarmed opposition groups on the ground, or of the various armed formations that fight under the Free Syrian Army banner.
(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)
Besides having no umbrella political leadership, the rebellion also appears to have limited military coherence, with hundreds of disparate fighting formations making their own decisions at local level, and Islamist fighters — some of them foreign — making an increasingly visible showing.
The danger of a militarized rebellion without clear political leadership was highlighted in the recent battle for Aleppo, where rebels freely conceded that they failed to win over the majority of the city’s residents, and that even many anti-Assad elements were angry that the mostly rural insurgent groups had chosen to wage a head-on battle that they had no hope of winning, at great cost to the local civilian population. While the fighting in Aleppo has underscored the tenacity of the rebellion and the inability of the regime to destroy it, the impact on its ability to peel away middle class support for Assad has been mixed.
Even if it was provoked by the regime’s own brutality, the militarization of the rebellion runs the risk of alienating many elements ambivalent or opposed to Assad. A protracted war that sees the economy steadily decline has already seen elements of the Sunni elite and middle class switch sides, but should the military impasse remain unresolved, it also risks creating a war wariness in the population — and, perhaps, also in the region and beyond — that eventually makes ending the war a greater priority than its outcome.