A peaceful uprising in Syria started in spring 2011 turned into an armed resistance after a few months in the face of savage repression by the Assad regime. Since then, the activists who picked up arms became dependent on support in money and arms to be able to continue. Few other than the Assad regime question this narrative. Yet the consequences of this dependence are often overlooked. The sources of funding for the rebels and the strings attached to them have since shaped the landscape of the armed rebellion, not the other way round. What we have in Syria is not an Islamist revolution but a popular uprising that received funding primarily from Islamist sources. Acknowledging this is essential and has far-reaching implications for defining an effective policy in the Syrian conflict.
As the prospects of military strikes on Syria seem to fade certain questions need to be posed more urgently than ever: how to work with the armed opposition? who are the reliable forces? what are their capabilities? which groups can be part of the plan to replace Assad and how can the extremists be contained?
This paper examines the circumstances and conditions that shaped the Syrian armed opposition and surveys the groups that remain committed to a democratic political system and a pluralistic society in Syria. It describes the extreme fluidity within the armed resistance which reflects primarily the diverse but most often unstable, and therefore, unreliable sources of funding for the rebels. It suggests ways to empower the pro-democracy groups as the best means to reach the dual objective of ending the dictatorship of Assad and achieving a democratic outcome in Syria and argues that the former objective has no chance of succeeding if the latter is not pursued simultaneously.self-reinforcing and largely self-defeating spiral has been at play over the last two years.
Reluctance to provide the right kind of support at the right time has not resulted in lower levels of money and arm reaching the rebels but rather has allowed the wrong sources to become the main providers. With every increase in the support provided in exchange of loyalty to some Islamist agenda, fears have heightened among a growing number of Syrians regarding the outcome of the conflict and Iran has deepened its involvement on the side of the Assad regime to counter what it sees as a Saudi grand design of installing Sunni domination of the Wahhabi brand over the entire region. Unity of ranks in face of the regime remained for a long time the overriding rule for the armed resistance. But as extremist groups sought to dominate in certain areas, efforts by mainstream Syrian groups to re-gain control of the resistance and re-instate its original objectives are leading to a de facto triangular struggle involving the regime, radical Jihadi groups and the democratic opposition.
These dynamics on the ground have major implications for policy:
It is high time that Western governments make clear to their regional allies that support for certain groups with a non-democratic agenda is frightening too many Syrians and delaying the fall of Assad. If money and arms are defining the direction of the conflict, the fluidity of the armed groups should be used as an opportunity to shape the situation on the ground. Western and regional powers should select and empower leaders of democratic groups to redress this balance in their favor within the FSA itself. If properly equipped, pro-democracy groups have the potential to spearhead a movement to alter the balance of power in the battlefield to their advantage and reassure a large portion of Syrians sitting on the fence. Basic relief for the fighters is just as important as the procurement of weapons. An effective strategy to allow pro-democracy groups to regain the initiative should combine civil and military support, bringing stable and reliable support as the only way for leaders of pro-democracy groups to retain the loyalty of their fighters and ensure effective command. Only at this condition is it possible to identify the groups that can be trusted and supplied with sophisticated weapons.
The Supreme Military Command cannot be expected to alter on its own the balance of forces on the ground in favor of democratic groups. Donors have continued to select their own favorite groups even after the creation of the SMC. The SMC is a reliable channel but donors should designate the beneficiaries of the support in coordination with it. The Supreme Military Council should be assisted in its effort to chart an operational security plan for the protection of all vital sites and areas across the country. Its chairman would be in a position then to seek the commitment of regional and local commanders to implement the plan thus allowing the SMC to vet groups in the process.
Small multi-sectarian groups are fighting the regime in areas where it still enjoys support usually at high risk for their security. Providing limited military support to such groups would go a long way in weakening the Assad family; it would pose a serious challenge to the regime which will hesitate to respond with massive bombings in the same way as it does in areas where the resistance is dominant; it would pre-empt the emergence of a demarcation line as a prelude to partition; lastly, it would mend relations between the various communities of the country after the regime worked to stir them up against each other.