© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Anatomy, Complexity Of The Syrian Opposition


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Almost every day for about a year now, we've heard about the activities of the Syrian opposition: marches and demonstration that in the face of brutal attacks evolve toward armed resistence.

We hear about neighborhood associations, underground hospitals, about the Free Syrian Army, refugees organized in camps along the Turkish borders, exiles establish umbrella groups in foreign capitals. But the fact is that most of us know little about the many groups that make up the Syrian opposition, their many agendas, what drives them together and what divides them.

What do you want to know about the Syrian opposition? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we want to hear from Asian-Americans. How has Linsanity changed the conversation? You can email us now if you'd like, the address again talk@npr.org.

But first a closer look at the Syrian opposition. We begin with Andrew Tabler, who lived six years in Syria. He's a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He joins us here in Studio 3A. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.

CONAN: And I'd like to begin by asking you: The Syrian government, we know, is dominated by Alawites, who are members of a religious sect that's an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Is it fair to say the opposition represents the Sunni majority of the country?

TABLER: The opposition is made up primarily of Sunnis, but not only. What you're seeing at the moment inside of Syria isn't yet a full-blown civil war or a sectarian war, even a sectarian struggle. What you're seeing is a national struggle, protest movement against the state, as well as more recently something more akin to an armed uprising or armed insurgency against the state.

Syria is predominately Sunni, about 75 percent, and the remainder are minorities. They are gathered around the states, and Alawites serve certainly as the core. But as the violence has raged on for nearly a year, more and more minorities have come over to the opposition side.

CONAN: And there are any number of minority groups - Christians, Kurds - all over...

TABLER: Correct, Ismailis, Druze, as you said Christians - different variety of Christians. So over time, this has shifted, but generally the contours still are, you know, majority of the opposition is Sunni, and those that are gathered around the state still are dominated by minorities.

CONAN: And we also hear of a, well, sort of urban-rural split. Most of the activity, most of the resistance is in the provinces, provincial cities like Homs, while Aleppo and Damascus, the two biggest cities, have been relatively free of this kind of activity.

TABLER: Yes until very recently, primarily - like the Iranian revolution, it was rural, but then it was into - you know, Homs is the size, at 1.7 million people, it's about the size of Philadelphia. So it's not a, you know, it's not a small city. But as the regime began to shell and crack down on Homs over the last two weeks, You see more and more protests not just in the environs of Damascus, but actually - and you can catch these on videos, as well, protests that are near the center of Damascus.

It's not in the main square, the main squares of Damascus or Aleppo, but they're getting closer to the center.

CONAN: And after a regime, 40 years, that has been police state, is it a surprise that the opposition is relatively unorganized?

TABLER: No, I mean, in my opinion, and this is based on research with the Syrian opposition when I was in the country, as well as since that time, you have two natural reactions to being dominated and brutalized for so long. One is depression, understandably so, and the other one is grandiosity.

And what it is, is that oftentimes egos come to dominate discussions of substance, but as the regime has cracked down over time, this - the oppositions got better at organizing in the face of the onslaught, both on the domestic level as well as those that are in exile.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. His research there focuses on authoritarianism with a particular focus on Syria. He's also with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And you've done considerable research on religion in the region. We've talked about the broad outlines of that, but this is becoming increasingly important as we hear reports of sectarian violence in some of these Syrian cities.

HEYDEMANN: The sectarian dimension of this uprising is becoming increasingly important, in part because it's being reflected in the way violence is being organized as the Syrian government tries to put down the uprising and as Syrian citizens organize to resist.

The government is relying on forces that consist very heavily of members of its own sectarian communities, the Alawite community, and the communities who are begin targeted by those security forces tend to be majority Sunni. And so there is something sectarian that is almost inherent to the organization of violence in Syria that contributes to the risk that Andrew referred to of some kind of sectarian civil conflict growing out of this uprising.

In addition, we also have a Christian minority, which is seen as a critical prize by the opposition, a community they would love to be able to offer assurances to, convince them that their community, whose future would be secure and in fact better if they were living under some alternative to the current regime. But the Christians themselves look at what's happened around the region, look at the way other uprisings have given rise to governments dominated by Islamist parties, and they feel quite insecure about what a future after Assad might hold.

CONAN: The fate of the Copts in Egypt will be of critical interest to them. But let me ask you a question also about ideology. The Baath Party, the only party at this moment that's legal in Syria, is a secular party, is combination socialist, national socialist, thug party, but it's got an ideology of its own. It's not specifically religious, though Iran is a supporter.

There are concerns, as you say, that the opposition is going to become Islamist in origin. Indeed, many of the battles that the Baathists and the Alawites on one side have had against opponents over the years has been against the Muslim Brotherhood.

HEYDEMANN: It's true that the Baathist traces its origins to a secular form of Arab nationalism, but over time, there's been a very heavy overlay of patronage and clientelism and family networks that dominate the Baath, which tend to be themselves quite sectarian in their composition, very heavily Alawite.

And what the regime has found it very helpful to do in raising the specter of sectarian violence is to point to their own identity as a sectarian party and to point to the role that Islamists have played in other uprisings in the region and hold out the potential that if they were to fall, Syria would experience the same kind of fate as we've seen in other countries.

The reality is that radicalismist(ph) movements have very little support among the population of Syria, and there is very, very little evidence of organized Islamist activity inside of Syria. There's no question that Syrians are conservatism Muslims, many of them are orthodox, practicing Sunni Muslims.

It would be an enormous surprise if, in a democratic Syria, some kind of Islamic party did not emerge. But to equate this with political Islam or with extremist forms of Islam that the regime is holding out as a threat to reinforce its own position I think is part of this political struggle between Syrians over which of the various contenders offer the best opportunities for Syria's future.

CONAN: And Andrew Tabler, let me go on to another factor. We've been talking about people inside Syria. There are now a lot of people active in this movement outside Syria. We mentioned there are refugees in camps in Turkey. If there's going to be a Free Syrian Army, that's where it's going to be organized, one suspects.

There are also umbrella organizations that portray themselves as the groups that are speaking for the various groups inside, made up of people who've been ex-pats for quite a while.

TABLER: That's true. I mean, the main umbrella organization and the one that Secretary Clinton met with in Geneva a few months back and is covered extensively in the press is the Syrian National Council. It's an umbrella organization. It includes exiled members of the opposition. It includes some groups that are inside of the country, as well.

They have an active media campaign outside. They have meetings. Their head is Burhan Ghalioun, a professor who's based in Paris. And overall, they represent those who are in exile, as well as the groups that are on the ground, and they coordinate them, usually virtually.

And that's been one of the difficulties of all of this is trying to get - you know, umbrella organizations are always hard to shepherd in a certain direction.

CONAN: And a long way from that to a provisional government.

TABLER: That's right, and I think, you know, Steve is, you know, has been doing a lot of work on this and I well-placed to talk about it, as well. But it's been particularly hard and frustrating, I think, for many people because the urgency, very clearly, is there.

You know, now you have hundreds of people oftentimes dying in Syria per day, you know, most recently from rocket attacks. And everyone feels an urgency about what to do, but the question is, you know, what to do and who should be in charge of that, and that's hamstrung a lot of the effort thus far.

CONAN: And we keep seeing groups, outside groups, most recently the Saudis, looking for somebody to give money and weapons to, but is there anybody there to receive them and effectively funnel them to the opposition?

TABLER: We've seen some very interesting developments in this area. When this Friends of Syria group was announced last week as a new framework for coordinating engagement between the Arab League and other supporters of political change in Syria with the Syrian opposition, my own feeling is that the Arab League was sending something of a signal to the Syrian National Council and to other members of the opposition that it really is time, now, for them to put some of these internal struggles behind them, to unite, to develop a coherent platform and to become the kind of effective counterparts for the Arab League and for other governments supporting political change, so they can play the kind of role that those supporters of a transition in Syria need from the Syrian opposition, and which they found it very difficult to live up to, up to this point because they've been focused primarily on resolving a large number of internal difficulties.

CONAN: And there's also the problem with people who have been outside the country for a long time, having any credibility with the people still inside the country, who feel they're on the front lines, and these people are - well, who are they, nobody knows really.

We'll talk more about the Syrian opposition after a short break. We're speaking with Andrew Tabler, a next-generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Also with us, Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. They're with us here in Studio 3A. A member of the Syrian National Defense Council will join us in a moment. This is TALK OF THE NATION.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Though Syrian opposition is a common phrase, it's one that merits some digging into. Protestors who have taken to the streets and suffered tremendous blows for it come from a variety of backgrounds with varied interests. We're still learning exactly which factions are involved, to what degree.

Just today, James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress he believes al-Qaida in Iraq may be infiltrating some Syrian opposition groups without their knowledge. What do you want to know about the Syrian opposition? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Steven Heydemann from the United States Institute of Peace are with us here in Studio 3A. Joining us now is Murhaf Jouejati, he's a member of the Syrian National Council, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense university. He's with us from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And the Syrian National Council was formed last year, and it is an umbrella organization. Is it ready to take on that role that we were just talking about just before the break of being a representative group that can meet with outside factors and put aside its own internal disputes?

JOUEJATI: It has already met with several senior government representatives from a variety, a large variety of governments. As Andrew said earlier, it is getting increasingly better as time goes on and as its organizational skills get improved. But again, it is representative of the Syrian people. In fact, the protestors on the ground some time ago have made it one of their slogans, and the Syrian National Council is their representative.

It is, of course, the largest group of the opposition, with a coalition of several political forces and again has been the interlocutor of the Syrian people to outside governments.

CONAN: There's another factor we've talked not so much about, that's the so-called Free Syrian Army that's composed largely of people who have left the Syrian army, and many took their weapons with them. Is this an organized group? Is there a hierarchical structure? Is there a chain of command? And does the Free Syrian Army report to the Syrian National Council?

JOUEJATI: Well, first let me say that these are not soldiers that left the army. These are soldiers that defected because they had been instructed to shoot at fellow Syrian civilians, and they have refused. In many cases, they have been shot in the back. In other cases, they have been able to flee and to form a Free Syrian Army that wants to protect the civilian protestors from this fascist regime.

The Free Syrian Army has been increasing in terms of numbers and has been expanding in terms of geographical scope and in the number of equipment that they have. This is not to say that this is - it's not a regular army. It's not a conventional army. The structure is being built. There are Free Syrian Army soldiers across the country, but I dare say that command and control is still weak, as the leadership of this Free Syrian Army is in Turkish territory, hiding from the Syrian regime, whereas the bulk of the Free Syrian Army is in the rest of Syria, trying again to protect civilians against the regime that is mowing them down.

CONAN: And Andrew Tabler, is it fair to say that outside countries, the United States, the Arab League, Friends of Syria, they're going to be meeting in Tunisia next week, are going to be cautious about the kind of support that they may provide until these questions of hierarchy, control, who's in charge here, until they can answer those questions?

TABLER: Yeah, I think that the - for example, the Syrian National Council is a much more known entity to the United States government, to European governments and beyond. Something like the Free Syrian Army is not. It's not as well-known, and there are different varieties of members of the Free Syrian Army, those that, as Murhaf said, had, you know, left, defected from the military because they were ordered to shoot and were put into a dilemma where they had to choose.

There are others who were sort of, like, local minutemen, sort of civilian defense...

CONAN: Militias.

TABLER: Yeah, kind of folks, who were defending protestors. And they represent another, I'd say more recent version of the FSA. But the U.S. government right now has a very firm policy of keeping its hands off of the FSA, as do a - at least publicly, as do a lot of other governments.

But I think that, you know, like a lot of things in the Middle East, they're handled on a very private level. So obviously those who are picking up weapons are getting them from somewhere. They're coming from the country but also being smuggled in from outside.

And there is a lot of talk of international support, of different countries or different people in different countries supporting them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Steven's(ph) on the line with us from Windham in Connecticut.

STEVE: Hey, thanks, TALK OF THE NATION, for letting me have my say. What's Turkey's role? Who are the players? What's their plan? How do they support the opposition?

CONAN: Steven Heydemann, Turkey was a close ally of Assad until he failed to make good on several promises, consecutively. It's fair to say Turkey is now among his most severe critics.

HEYDEMANN: Turkey has shifted course quite significantly since the start of the uprising. As you said, initially the Turkish government, especially Prime Minister Erdogan, thought that he could play a critical role as a mediator and work with the Syrian government towards some kind of political solution to the protests that broke out last March.

But it is the case that after a number of promises from Bashar al-Assad to reform and to end the violence, none of which the Syrian government kept, the Turks shifted and have become fully engaged in efforts to apply pressure on the Syrian regime to try to bring about a political transition.

One of the most important roles that Turkey has played is to make its territory along the border with Syria available not only for refugees, but as Andrew was saying for members of the Free Syrian Army, especially the command of the Free Syrian Army, which operates from zones close to Syria to exercise some limited degree of control and coordination over the units that they manage directly on the ground inside the country.

One of the big challenges for the Turkish government, however, is the possibility that as discussion of further support for the Free Syrian Army develops, they might find them called upon to play a much more active role in training, perhaps even in equipping, the Free Syrian Army. And what we aren't sure about yet is just how far down that road the Turkish government is prepared to go.

CONAN: And Murhaf Jouejati, let me ask you about that. If the Free Syrian Army is going to present a credible force against the Syrian army in what is looking more and more like a civil war, it's going to have to train and equip somewhere.

JOUEJATI: That's right. It's going to have to train and equip somewhere. But let me say this: Initially the entire protest movement was a peaceful one, and it continues to be, believe it or not, largely peaceful on behalf of the civilian protestors. This is the way the Syrian National Council would have hoped things would develop, peacefully to unseat a regime that has been in place for four decades now.

Unfortunately, the regime has used such lethal violence against the civilian population that you have had the emergence of a Free Syrian Army and the types of civilian militias that Andrew talked about. The more brutal the regime becomes, the more it is forcing this opposition to defend itself and therefore the more we may be sliding into civil war if nothing major happens very, very soon.

By that, I mean if there is no international invention of one sort or another that happens very soon, Syria is likely to plunge into civil war.

CONAN: That doesn't answer the question of where the Free Syrian Army, if it's going to train and equip, where that would be.

JOUEJATI: Well, look, Syria is surrounded by countries. One of them is Turkey, and there is already the leadership of the Free Syrian Army that is there. But you do have the possibility that some would be in neighboring Lebanon. The border between Syria and Iraq is very porous, and there's a lot of arms smuggling from there. That is yet another possibility.

So you would have, you would have elements of the Free Syrian Army that are both within Syria and without Syria in the contiguous states.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Steven, and just let me follow up, Steven Heydemann, and that is yes we're just talking about Turkey. We had heard mention of Iraq. The government of Iraq, such as it is, is lukewarm, still supporting the Damascus regime. Jordan is another neighbor. Then there's Lebanon. You have Iraq - Iran, excuse me, supporting the Syrian government. You would think its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, would also support the government.

You have Turkey supporting the opposition, at least to some degree. You will have elements in Iraq supporting the opposition and elements in Jordan, too.

HEYDEMANN: Correct. What this underscores is the extent to which Syria sits at the intersection of a number of critical strategic rivalries in the region. It sits at the intersection of rivalries between Iran, a Shiite country, and some of its prominent Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. It sits at the intersection of a rivalry between moderate Arab regimes, status quo regimes and the resistance front, and for countries like Iraq where the population is also divided along sectarian lines. We have a government which seems to be tracking closely with Iran's position toward the uprising in Syria, but where a Sunni population is anxious to provide whatever support it can for the insurgents, for the protesters inside of Syria.

And the upshot from the very critical strategic position in which Syria finds itself is that some of the violence - and certainly some of the arms flows and other movements, including potentially of terrorists into Syria - could be coming across these borders of states whose nonstate actors and governments take very different views concerning the future of the Syrian uprising.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Greg, Greg with us from Manchester in New Hampshire.

GREG: Hi. I just wondered, perhaps, if Mr. Jouejati can alleviate some of my concerns over the long-term plight of the Christian minority should this regime topple, because, you know, I've seen what's happened to the Coptics in Egypt. And out of the 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, apparently 500,000 have already been, you know, have fled for their lives. So could he alleviate some of my concerns about the Christian minority there in Syria?

CONAN: Murhaf Jouejati?

JOUEJATI: The Christian minorities in Syria are a significant proportion of the population, unlike the case in both Egypt and Iraq. And what has happened to the Copts in Egypt and to the Iraqi Christians during the civil war in Iraq is absolutely outrageous. Syria does not have such a history of sectarianism. The Syrian Christians are part-and-parcel of the Syrian social fabric. They are very well-represented in the Syrian National Council, whether at the presidential council level or the general secretariat or the general assembly.

Again, the Christians are - and the Alawis and all other minorities are part-and-parcel of the Syrian social fabric. What the Syrian National Council wants is to overthrow the Assad regime - again, which is a fascist regime, and has turned its arms against its people - in order to establish a civil democratic state in which all Syrians are equal before the law regardless of their ethnic or sectarian origins and backgrounds.

CONAN: Laudable aims, Andrew Tabler, but if Christians are perceived as backing the government and that, at least from this remove, is how they're perceived right now, aren't they at risk - if the other side wins - of having some scores settled?

TABLER: There is a risk of that, I think. I think I agree with Murhaf. I think people inside of Syria - including the Sunni community inside of Syria - are very tolerant, and that's because the Sunni community itself is quite diverse. You have urbane Sunnis from Damascus and Aleppo. You have tribal Sunnis from eastern Syria or around Daraa. And you have some conservatives from the northwest, and then you have Kurds, who are also Sunnis. So in Syria, they understand diversity more than anywhere else.

It's true, though, that the longer the Christians back the regime inside of Damascus, the more they risk some sort of retribution if it goes into full-blown civil or sectarian war. Now, we're not there yet. But if it goes in that direction, it could be very dangerous.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call. That is Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also with us, Steve Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace, and Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University and a member of the Syrian National Council. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And it's interesting, Steve Heydemann, as we look at some of those other divisions - tribal, religious - are there age differences? Are there young and old? Syria, like many Middle Eastern countries, is very young, the majority of the population under 25.

HEYDEMANN: There is significant participation in this uprising on the part of Syrian youth. When we talk about youth in Syria, we're talking about a much larger category than many Americans might imagine. We're talking about young people, perhaps all the way up to the middle 30s. Essentially, if you're not married in Syria, you're considered to be part of that category of youth. But this is not an uprising in which youth are the only participants. In many cases, they've taken a leading role.

Youth are very prominent in these local coordinating committees that organize protests in towns and villages across Syria. And they've become leaders. They've established credentials as political leaders, as activists on the basis of their role in the uprising. And that's given them enormous standing within their communities. But this is an uprising that cuts across generational lines inside of Syria and cuts across gender lines. We see enormous participation from women in these uprisings.

We've seen women's demonstrations. We've seen mothers' demonstrations. We've seen all of Syrian society really mobilized to participate. So even if youth are a large cohort of participants in the uprisings, this is a national protest movement. And it's important to look at it in that context.

CONAN: And, Andrew Tabler, let me ask, finally: You said we're not quite at civil war yet. We're seeing resistance, people fighting the army to try to keep them out of various neighborhoods. We're seeing ambushes on the road. We're seeing bomb attacks, including suicide bomb attacks. When do we cross the line?

TABLER: It's a really good question. The regime's violence over the last year has - and they've also not just used direct regime violence, but also shabiha, these sort of Alawite-dominated gangs to terrorize populations. This has caused people to begin to fight back. But as Murhaf mentioned, it's primarily a peaceful movement. And here's the - what's interesting. Even as - and this is the political problem for Assad. Even as the regime bombards Homs with rocket fire, if you go and you look at the protest maps every day and you look at the videos and you see where they are, the protests continue unabated throughout the country.

And unless that - there's some sort of solution to that, I think that we're going into this cycle of violence which could turn into something closer to a civil war or sectarian war. The longer this goes on, the longer Assad holds on, the more bloody and sectarian, unfortunately, it's going to get.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, thanks very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to Steven Heydemann. They were both kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. On the phone with us from his office in Washington, at the National Defense University, Professor Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council. Thanks, sir, for your time today.

JOUEJATI: Thank you.

CONAN: When we come back, we're going to be talking about, well, Linsanity. In just two short weeks, an obscure point guard has become a legend in New York City. We'd like to hear from Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders: How has Lin's meteoric rise changed conversations in your community? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.