Internal Syrian opposition

EXCLUSIVE

ALAFF continues a series of publications on the Syrian conflict. Last year, ALAFF translated into English the entire book of an acting Russian diplomat Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva “Aleppo: war and diplomacy” (2017, ISBN 978-5-00111-116-0). Use the link to the book to find out information about the author.

The current publication is ALAFF’s author’s English translation of one of the chapters of the new book by Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva entitled “Syria: a hard path from war to peace” (2019, ISBN 978-5-00111-470-3). The book was published in early 2019, is a fresh and relevant material. The book contains more than 700 pages of information, including exclusive details not known to the general public. The book is a revised and adapted material of Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva’s doctoral dissertation. The book was published with a circulation of only 500 copies. A few months ago, the author came to the radio station Vesti FM, where she presented her new book.

The translated chapter is a presentation of the situation with the internal opposition in Syria: the conditions under which there are opposition groups, what they are, what their agenda is, what are the reasons for the failure (lack of demand) of the internal Syrian opposition etc.

Another chapter of the book is devoted to the external (emigrant) Syrian opposition, but the translation of this chapter (more than 50 pages) will definitely take some time. ALAFF also plans to translate other chapters of the book, for example, on the problem of chemical weapons in Syria.

Necessary clarification — using the term “regime”, the author implies a form of state-political structure.


 

CHAPTER 2
Anti-Assad front: structure, ideology, external sponsors

1. Political Syrian opposition: the role, potential, degree of independence

The crisis in Syria was characterized by a high degree of involvement of external players who sought to use the organizations of the Syrian opposition to project their political influence and achieve their own military-political and economic goals. It was these structures that in many ways became the agents of the policy of external sponsors who relied on specific political “projects”. This applied equally to political opposition organizations and armed anti-government structures.

In this regard, of interest is the independent analysis of political attitudes, potential, degree of independence, and — importantly — orientation toward those or other external sponsors of the structures of the internal and external (emigrant) opposition. Consideration of this issue is closely related to the peculiarities of the political and party systems of Syria, within which the opposition movement was developing. Clarifying the links between individual structures and their external curators is extremely important from the point of view of understanding the ideological orientation of these organizations and their orientation towards supporting the political line of those states on whose support they relied. The latter aspect is especially important for understanding the essence of rivalry/cooperation between the countries — sponsors of opposition organizations (including Russia and the United States, as well as the countries of the region), which stemmed from the logic of the transformation of the world order and its acquisition of a polycentric nature.

 

1.1. Limiters of the activities of the organizations of the internal Syrian opposition

The structures of the internal Syrian opposition for both the West and some countries in the region, and for Russia were also an instrument of their policies. However, the states — supporters of the overthrow of the ruling regime in the SAR, which at the very beginning made a bet on the internal opponents of B. Assad, quickly became disillusioned with them. Opposition political organizations both for the West and for Russia were perhaps the most problematic “clientele” that could not be turned into a serious tool for implementing their agendas.

Most external players overestimated the role of internal movements and opposition organizations, hoping with their help to help change the regime of B. Assad (in the case of the West, Turkey, the Gulf countries), or to put the political settlement process under control by manipulating the forces involved in it (Russia, Iran).

Indeed, those and other attempts ended in vain. The reasons, it seems, should be sought in the dynamics of the political life of Syria before the events of 2011.

Since 1963 and for several decades political life in Syria was monopolized by the Arab Socialist Revival Party (“Ba’ath” Party). Since about 1980 (since the congresses of the Syrian regional branch of the “Ba’ath” Party), any serious oppositional activity was virtually impossible.

The coming to power of B. Assad, who at first positioned himself as a reformer, contributed to some political revival, aimed at overcoming the stagnation in social and political life. In 2000 Syrian scientists, politicians and social activists adopted the “Manifesto of 99”. The document called for an end to the state of emergency in the country (introduced in 1963), for the release of political prisoners, for obtaining dissidents permission to return to the country, for ensuring freedom of assembly [1]. Shortly thereafter, the Civil Society Committee was founded by the signatories of the Manifesto, which subsequently received the support of a number of Western states.

This trend has been developed in the form of the “Statement of 1000”, which was signed in January 2001 by Syrian public figures, writers, scientists, and activists. The document expressed criticism of a one-party system of government and called for the establishment of a multi-party democracy [2].

Many activists: R. Seif, M. al-Homsi, R. Turk, V. al-Bunni, K. Labwani, H. Issa — received prison sentences.

The same period was the emergence of the liberal movement “Damascus Spring”, whose members publicly came out with calls for democratization, the introduction of a multiparty system and the release of political prisoners. In 2001 the leader of the “Damascus Spring” movement, A. Dalilya, was convicted for encroaching on the constitutional order, inciting rebellion and spreading false information affecting the national interests of the SAR.

It should be noted “in the margins” that such a harsh reaction of the Syrian authorities to attempts of activization by the opponents was due not to the position of B. Assad, but rather the approach of the so-called “the old guard” of the political elite of the country, which associated itself with the times of the president’s father — H. Assad — and did not allow for the liberalization of the country’s political life.

Nevertheless, the political processes in the SAR continued to develop and gain momentum.

The next step was the resonant “Damascus Declaration” of 2005, adopted by a number of opposition and human rights organizations, which emphasized the need for a change of power in Syria through the implementation of democratic reforms [3]. Later, some supporters of the “Damascus Declaration” were also arrested and imprisoned. It should be noted that the Christian oppositionist M. Kilo became one of the main authors of the “Damascus Declaration”. In general, it can be stated that neither the supporters of the “Damascus Spring”, nor the “Damascus Declaration”, nor the “Muslim Brotherhood” [4] that were deep in the underground had a serious influence on the situation in the country.

In a sense, the turning point for the Syrian opposition movement was the events related to the “Arab Spring”. Accustomed to exist under tight control by the Syrian special services and in an extremely narrow political framework, the opposition failed to master the methods of political struggle, did not gain experience in effectively opposing the authorities in the legal field, did not realize the importance of consolidating the ranks to achieve major political goals and, most importantly, remained split ethno-confessional. In the conditions of the transformation of the crisis into an internal armed conflict that followed soon, political groups — from secular liberals to Islamists of various kinds, dissidents, coordinators of local protests (here one can also add insurgents of assorted IAF) — demonstrated their inability to negotiate with each other, could neither overcome political contradictions nor narrow down the historically conditioned ethno-confessional rifts, remaining split along both ethnic and religious lines. Some were aimed at carrying out serious reforms and liberalizing political life, while others called for the violent overthrow of B. Assad’s regime and the abandonment of the secular character of the Syrian state. In the conditions of the predominance of armed groups “on the ground”, the space for political structures, which was already very conditional, narrowed even more.

Yes, after the adoption of the Law on Political Parties in 2011, political life has somewhat revived. However, the “circles on the water”, which were provoked by the new law, were limited. The adoption in 2012 of the new Constitution of the country, which approved the principles of political pluralism, made it possible to establish new parties and associations. This document, however, stipulated the impossibility of forming political parties on a national and confessional basis. Thus, the Kurdish parties and the “Muslim Brotherhood” remained outside the framework of legal political space — which corresponded to the interests of official Damascus.

A milestone in the organizational development of the domestic political opposition spectrum was the “National Conference on the Salvation of Syria”, organized by the Syrian opposition, which took place on September 22-23, 2012 in Damascus. It was attended by such domestic opposition organizations as the “National Development Party”, “Solidarity Party”, “Social Democratic Party”, “New Syrian Movement”, youth organizations, civil society structures, and prominent political figures. In the final statement of the Conference, the call for the regime and the opposition to stop the violence sounded balanced — just as the appeal to external forces did not feed the parties to the conflict with weapons. The document called for the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General L. Brahimi to convene an international conference on the Syrian settlement, denied any violence on ethnic and religious grounds [5]. At the same time, the annex to the “Basic Principles” document developed on the basis of the conference clearly contained a request for changing the regime of B. Assad and all his symbols and building a democratic secular state [6]. The latter essentially coincided with the line of external emigrant opposition structures, aimed at overthrowing B. Assad. Moreover, the document also contained a reference to the meeting of the opposition in Cairo in 2012, during which mainly the emigrant opposition structures attempted to develop a common political platform and as a result of which a document was also adopted, indicating the need to overthrow the B. Assad regime [7]. Such a formulation of the question, of course, was perceived in Damascus as a challenge to the state system and political system of the SAR. This could not fail to attract the attention of the Syrian authorities, who took measures aimed at preventing the newly-formed group of activists from transforming into a full-fledged political opposition movement.

Indeed, during the armed conflict in the SAR for various reasons, including fear for freedom, the internal structures of the Syrian opposition were forced to abandon radical slogans, confining themselves to demanding B. Assad’s leaving as a result of democratic reforms (this is their fundamental difference from emigrant structures, who, at the direction of external sponsors, immediately put at the center the regime change as the first step of a political transition). Most parties and associations were in favor of dialogue with the government of the SAR without preconditions. Yes, among the heterogeneous masses of the internal opposition there were both more radical representatives (created in 2011 from left parties, Kurdish organizations, independent political and youth activists the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Changes — the NCC) and the so-called “loyalists” (Popular Front for Change and Liberation — PFCL). However, getting support from external sponsors suggested a radical approaches. By 2016, this was realized by the NCC (with the submission of the radically minded A. Asravi and S. Akkyash, the head of the NCC and the former leader of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, H. Abdelazim, joined the emigrant High Negotiating Committee in the hope of receiving a more generous fee), a little later — in the summer of 2017 — by the PFCL (the head of PFCL K. Jameel began negotiations with the HNC on the convergence of positions). Life itself has proved inconsistency in the Syrian realities of liberal ideology, pushing its carriers towards greater radicalism.

This in turn put the members of the moderate opposition before a difficult choice — either to continue their activities in extremely difficult domestic political conditions and with vague prospects, or to come “under the wing” of emigrant radical structures, in whose ranks — and this was the main tragedy — the main role was played by Islamists. It could not have been otherwise, since it was the Islamists, who had been underground for decades, were the most organized, cohesive force that also had a coherent ideological system — in contrast with the same NCC, distinguished by outdated dissident thinking, lack of political flexibility and inability transform according to political realities. In fact, by 2016-2017, the NCC was kept afloat solely due to the authority of a long-term political struggle personally by H. Abdelazim and his associates. Some of them received lengthy prison sentences (for example, R. Naser and A. Heir).

The exception was probably only the Party of the Democratic Union (PDU), founded in 2003 in Koban, associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (in connection with which it was listed as terrorist in Turkey). However, this party stood alone due to the presence of well-trained and motivated armed units (the so-called Syrian democratic forces), which controlled the impressive territory of the SAR, and from about 2016 which were one of the most combat-capable groups in the fight against ISIS terrorists and the main ally of the United States in this matter. The political agenda of the PDU was limited geographically, as well as substantively — by the aspirations of the Kurdish population — and had little to do with territories inhabited mainly by Arabs.

The attitude of the “moderates” to the forced alliance with the Islamists was ambiguous, and therefore led to a split in the ranks of some organizations. A number of personalities left NCC, including Z. Vatfa, who announced the creation of an alternative alliance — “NCC — a Movement for Democratic Change”. The programmatic guidelines of the union, however, were raw and blurry: constitutional reform (without specifying) must be the engine of the political process, it is necessary to form a single delegation of the Syrian opposition to negotiate with the government. The principle of combating terrorism in Syria is not clearly linked to the demand for the withdrawal of all foreign formations (not specified which). It is obvious that the new union of oppositionists still had to go through a stage of organizational and ideological consolidation.

The foreign wing [of the opposition], headed by H. Manaa (the “backbone” of this wing, besides H. Manaa himself, was also M. Habbo, B. ash-Shaara, S. Alnabwani, A. Maalyul, H. Haddad, M. Habash) left the NCC due to the participation of three delegates of the NCC in the conference in Riyadh, which was held in December 2015 to create an emigrant structure — the High Negotiating Committee, which was under the tutelage of KSA, Qatar and Turkey (depending on specific figures and ideological charge) and in the ranks of which were representatives of armed groups, including “Jaysh al-Islam” — by the way, Russia proposed to add this group to the terrorist lists of the UN Security Council. It was precisely because of the presence of “terrorists” in the ranks of the HNC H. Manaa and a group of oppositionists left the NCC and formed new movements — “Qamh” and the Syrian Democratic Conference, whose office was located in Geneva, but which at the same time had some connections with “the ground”, first of all in the northeast (in the areas controlled by the PDU due to the proximity of H. Manaa to the head of the PDU S. Muslim) and the south (where H. Manaa himself comes from). The platform of the Syrian Democratic Conference assumed the launch of a comprehensive political process of the Syrian settlement on the basis of the Geneva communique and UN Security Council resolution 2254; taking measures to restore confidence — first of all, removing sieges from the blocked cities and delivering humanitarian aid there; the release of political prisoners, the creation of conditions for the return of refugees [8], as well as the transition to work to restore the destroyed infrastructure and the economy of the SAR [9]. As for “Qamh”, it advocated reducing the influence of foreign countries on the Syrian settlement, for transferring “powers” to the Syrian people regarding the search for a formula for solving the crisis [10]. That is why both movements have chosen to distance themselves from the “setting-up” events of the emigrant opposition (for example, the “unifying” conference in Riyadh in 2015, meetings of the Moscow and Cairo opposition blocs in the same year). “Qamh” was also skeptical about the UN-led inter-Syrian talks in Geneva, rightly seeing in them an attempt by external forces to direct the political settlement of the crisis in the SAR. The SDC and “Qamh” projects, although they continued to exist, were not particularly successful. The reliance on Kurds from the PDU (it was S. Muslim who was the most influential representative of the movement “on the ground”, and the share of the PDU, which was created in 2003 and had detachments of people’s self-defense units, accounted for about 16% of the erritory) did not justify itself. H. Manaa criticized the plans announced by the PDU to create the so-called “Federation of Rojava”, after which the Kurds left the union. Without representatives of the PDU both the Syrian Democratic Conference and “Qamh” went into a weakened state. At the same time, H. Manaa sought to position [these] structures as independent and refused funds from foreign sponsors — this was invariably indicated in the documents after the conferences held by him [11]. Moreover, he allowed himself to criticize the policies of the West, which, in his opinion, did not analyze the peculiarities of the historical process and the development of socio-political thought in these states [12].

He held several conferences — most in Geneva — both before and after leaving the NCC. The statements, in particular, noted the need to restart the inter-Syrian negotiations on the basis of the Geneva communique of 2012 [13]; involvement in the political process of all segments of the Syrian society [14]; and the importance of ending the violence perpetrated in the SAR on a confessional basis by all parties [15]; the imperative of building a democratic, secular Syria [16] (the “Qamh” principle of the secular nature of the Syrian state promoted was in deep contradiction with the position of the HNC, for which this formulation of the question was unacceptable due to the presence of a powerful Islamist segment in the ideological platform of the Ar-Riyad block). However, without having a serious political and ideological resource and without using foreign finance, the structures headed by H. Manaa were cut off from the political process under the auspices of the UN (joining the inter-Syrian negotiations of certain political forces was lobbied primarily by external sponsors) and were actually doomed to the status of a marginal political opposition “club”. At the same time, the very fact of the presence and activity of such organizations was very important, since their activities supplemented the political and ideological “background” on which events connected with the formation of the opposition spectrum took place.

PFCL, which was also created in 2011, however, included a number of veterans of the opposition movement, it showed more resistance to external temptations. K. Jameel and his colleagues have consistently opposed any foreign intervention and set the goal of carrying out democratic reforms in Syria. The brand PFCL, however, received political “vitality” primarily through cooperation with the authorities. Unlike the NCC, which decided to boycott the elections to the National Assembly in 2012, K. Jameel announced the creation of the party association “Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Changes”, which became the only opposition structure that participated in the election process and won 5 seats in Parliament. K. Jameel himself entered the government as deputy prime minister. After the presidential elections and the creation of a new SAR government in August 2014, another representative of the PFCL, A. Heydar, received the portfolio of the minister for national reconciliation. These appointments made it possible for other oppositionists to blame the PFCL for loyalism and conformism.

If we talk about other political parties, it is necessary to state close cooperation of the lion’s share of their representatives with the SAR government (more precisely, the secret services), which deprived them of legitimacy in the eyes of the “international community”, and therefore did not allow them to claim participation in the UN-led political process. Here it would be possible to mention such organizations as, for example, the “Committee of Patriotic Democratic Action”, created in May 2014. At the head of the movement is M. Marai, who broke away from the NCC, and M. Kreydi. The Committee advocates political dialogue with the authorities, democratic reforms, the formation of a national unity government, the release of political prisoners. In essence, the Committee’s requirements do not conflict with the position of the regime, and therefore many opposition structures, including the NCC, have begun to accuse it of collaborating with the Syrian special services. The Committee, in turn, criticized the NCC and the PFCL for having allegedly “sold themselves to foreign sponsors”, agreeing to interact with the HNC and even enter it (in the case of the NCC). Information about the cooperation of some members of the Committee with the Syrian special services was indeed confirmed. Be that as it may, being a purely domestic political project, the Committee was unable to conquer space for itself. So it was forced to stay on the sidelines.

The same can be said on the whole about the “Movement for building a state” created in September 2011 by L. Hussein, which stands for building a civil democratic society and accelerating political processes in the country. Despite the fact that in 2014 L. Hussein fled the country and then joined the HNC, he did not stay in the High Committee for a long time, leaving it because of the rejection of the Islamist dominant in it. After that, the “Movement for building a state” remained as a “floating island”, mooring either to Russia (L. Hussein repeatedly appealed to the Russian side to help him return to the SAR and legalize there), or to France, or to other foreign forces.

Indicative from the point of view of testing the potential of the internal Syrian opposition was Russia’s initiative to create a bloc of moderate opponents of B. Assad to participate in the inter-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the UN — the so-called “Khmeimim” group. The corresponding idea was proposed by the Ministry of Defense of Russia in 2016. The Russian military, by the result of difficult negotiations with leaders of various public associations, activists and heads of small opposition organizations, managed to assemble a group, which was then planned to be promoted during the political process in the SAR. The “Khmeimim” bloc was headed by I. Masaad. Among the members was M. Kreydi. Russian diplomats obtained from S. de Mistura the participation of the group in the inter-Syrian negotiations. However, the result was disappointing — the “Khmeimim” group demonstrated an inability to take a consolidated approach. Russian motives can be understood — from the members of a group in Moscow they hoped to “educate” future leaders “on the ground” — mayors, governors, activists, after having led them through the crucible of the UN-led political process. However, the weakness shown by the “Khmeimim” platform during the rounds [of negotiations] forced Russia to abandon this project. At the same time, Moscow maintained relations with some of the members of the “Khmeimim” group, including I. Masaad himself, who came up with very useful initiatives in the field of political settlement in the SAR.

One of the factors that seriously complicated the formation of the opposition in the SAR, besides the objectively tough political model, was an ideological crisis. As part of the traditional confrontation between secular regimes prone to authoritarianism, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other, the so-called internal opposition did not have much political and ideological space. In fact, they had to fill the only vacuum and naturally drift towards the liberal ideology (which in principle corresponded to the initial orientation of their struggle for the liberalization and democratization of political life in the SAR). However, this political philosophy did not have support among the broad masses (except for the taken up by the young people of slogans, poorly understood by them themselves), who were accustomed to living in the framework of a rigid, virtually one-party system. There was no tradition of political competition in the country, and therefore the corresponding forces, marginalized for decades, did not have the necessary resources and experience to quickly gain any serious political space for themselves. The regime, with its political-party mechanisms that permeated all social strata in the territories under its control, left virtually no chance for the internal moderate opposition for this. Its very weak calls for stopping the supply of arms to all parties to the conflict and appealing to the dictatorial essence of the B. Assad regime without demanding its change [17], as well as denying any external interference in Syrian affairs [18], were not supported either by the ordinary people or among the emigrant structures.

As an example of the line that Damascus has pursued with regard to the internal opposition, one can cite the complicated procedure for the return of Syrian oppositionists to the country, in which Russia provided them with assistance. Such appeals were considered by the top leadership of the SAR (after the “verification”, the head of the National Security Bureau, A. Mamluk, reported on the situation to B. Assad personally, then the decision was made). Petitions of Russia, despite the allied relations between Moscow and Damascus, did not always lead to positive outcomes. The Syrian leadership showed marked obstinacy even in relatively “simple” issues, such as the return of one oppositionist, for example. Thus, Russia managed to get an agreement on the “status settlement” of M. Habbo living in Sweden (having received the President’s good, the National Security Service prepared written instructions addressed to the heads of the four main special services, as well as to the Ministers of the Interior, Justice and Finance). With reference to the “state interests”, the heads of these departments were instructed to stop all actions to search and arrest M. Habbo, as well as to remove the seized arrest of his movables and real estate. But Moscow could not help another Syrian human rights activist from Sweden N. al-Ghazali. An illustrative example of the reaction of the Syrian authorities to the Russian attempts to “solicit” for the local opposition is the story of the escape from Syria of the leader of the “Movement for the Syrian State” L. Hussein. In 2015, this figure, who was under investigation on charges of committing anti-state crimes, was released from prison and then from home custody under personal guarantee of the Russian ambassador to the SAR. Shortly thereafter, being under a written undertaking not to leave the town (the trial of his case continued), he illegally left the country. “Sediment” in the Russian-Syrian relations on this issue remained — after all, Moscow convinced Damascus that L. Hussein intended to engage in legal political activities within the legal field. The phobias of the Syrian leadership and its suspicions of Russia of intending to engage in “social engineering”, right up to directly imposing on Damascus an unacceptable deep political reform scheme through the development of a new constitution only intensified. Russia, in turn, “cooled down” in the question of facilitating the return of certain oppositionists, since the political “price” of such troubles could be too high and lead to the degradation of Russian-Syrian relations and deepening the distrust of some Syrian leaders to Moscow.

Another example is the ban on members of opposition organizations leaving the country. For example, in the list of representatives of the NCC, which the authorities forbade to leave the SAR, transferred to the Russia’s permanent mission to the UN in Geneva in May 2013, seventeen names appeared [19]. And this is only one structure of B. Assad’s opponents.

Thus, years after the legalization of opposition activities, “a characteristic feature of the internal opposition in Syria remains insufficient consolidation, an excessive sense of self-importance, as well as extreme heterogeneity and the absence of undisputed leaders capable of realistically formulating demands and, accordingly, conducting substantive dialogue with representatives of the authorities” [20].

Assessing the UN potential in the analysis of the political intra Syrian scenario as very modest, the author, nevertheless, cannot fail to quote an excerpt from the report of the Political Department of the UN Secretariat “Trends in the Syrian Conflict” from 2013, which attempts to determine the place of the internal organizations of the Syrian opposition in political settlement of the conflict in the SAR. It is noteworthy that the respective movements of Damascus opponents were placed in the same category with civil society, which is an indicator of the perception of domestic political movements as “lower in status” — it is noteworthy against this background that the opposition emigrant National Coalition is given a separate section in the report. Analyzing the place and role of the internal opposition in resolving the Syrian crisis, UN officials note that many “reject its existence, believing that it is either recognized by the regime or ineffective because many of its leaders left the country or were arrested” [21].

We have to agree with the analysis of UN experts of the situation for 2013, which has changed little by 2017. In the near future, it is unlikely that internal opposition groups will be able to overcome differences and speak with one voice, or push forward an ideologically developed joint program platform. The key problem remains the lack of practical experience of political activity among the majority of the opposition, which cannot be acquired without participation in the actual domestic political process. The rigid political system of the SAR, which did not provide space for opposition activities, was designed in such a way that it did not allow the sprouts of independent anti-government activities to develop — even if it did not formally go beyond the existing legal framework.

Another factor that prevented the opposition from overcoming contradictions and uniting on some generally acceptable platform is a rift along an ethno-confessional line. The most characteristic example, in our opinion, in this sense could be the Christian community of Syria, which the West tried to bet on at the beginning of the crisis in the SAR. The latter sought allies among minorities, trying to attract Christians to various opposition forums and structures. This community was divided into three groups: opposition (M. Kilo, J. Sabra, F. Sara and others), pro-government (Arabs — Christians of Western Syria) and Christian Assyrians, who had their own armed formations and trended to Kurds. In this context, it is worth mentioning the fact that the “Social Contract” — the main document of the autonomous region “Rojava” [22] — spoke about Assyrians, Armenians (as well as Turkomans and Chechens) as the main peoples living in this region, promises them fair representation in the authorities and declares Assyrian, along with Kurdish and Arabic, the official language [23].

As a result, in the struggle between the “liberal” and “Islamic” oppositions, the latter turned out to be stronger due to its cohesion (although the first one also already at the initial stage enjoyed the support of sponsors). This provided an opportunity for the Gulf States and Turkey to take the appropriate structures under their care.

Here it is worthwhile to say a few words about the history of the “Islamist underground” (the core is the “Muslim Brotherhood”) in Syria, which dates back to the 1930s. In the 1960s, it launched political-religious propaganda against the Ba’athist regime as “Alawite-Christian” [24]. In the late 1970s, the “Brotherhood” was marked by terror against representatives of the majority of secular parties, as well as the Alawite community, which provoked a harsh response from H. Assad. In 1982, the “Brotherhood” carried out a major operation in Hama, killing two hundred military and government officials, forcing H. Assad to use an army against them. After 1982, the activity of the Syrian Islamists sharply declined. Researcher R.G. Landa connects this with a combination of military suppression and intelligence actions with propaganda efforts by the media and a focused struggle to eliminate the “bottom” of Syrian cities, as well as the contact established by Ba’athists with Sunnis in capital, who benefited from economic liberalization policies in the 1970s and the appointment of Sunnis to important government posts [25]. The forecasts of R.G. Landa, who in 2005 noted that the regeneration of Islamism is possible under certain external and internal conditions, were confirmed [26]. Indeed, the combination of internal negative dynamics and massive external intervention contributed to the Islamization of the Syrian opposition — both its armed element (most of the anti-government groups, whose ideology was pronounced Islamist) and the political emigrant wing. In the latter, over time, figures close to the “Muslim Brotherhood” began to prevail (for example, the head of the High Negotiating Committee R. Hijab).

Returning to the liberal organizations of the internal opposition, it is worth noting that they also could not express themselves on the issue of national reconciliation, the process of which was launched in the summer of 2017 on the initiative of the Russian military in the de-escalation zones of East Ghouta, Hama-Homs, South of the SAR. The ideas for liberalizing and democratizing the political life of the SAR, promoted by these [opposition] movements, were not relevant for representatives of armed groups and civil society oriented towards them “on the ground”, primarily concerned with the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and the restoration of economic ties damaged by military operations. The lack of access to armed groups by the majority of internal [opposition] organizations made them “far from the people” and unnecessary in the process of national reconciliation.

All this contributed to the fact that the internal Syrian opposition movements and organizations played a very small role in the Syrian settlement, and the effectiveness of their use for the purposes of the foreign policy of a particular state was low. The weakness of the internal Syrian organizations, their limited experience of participation in real political processes, small potential and ideological “friability” — all this led to a situation when the West and the countries of the Persian Gulf found it expedient to rely on external, emigrant structures. The latter, firstly, had more room for maneuver (since they were out of control of the Syrian special services), and secondly, they were more open to ideological treatment than internal organizations that had political views (of varying degrees of elaboration) and were also proud of their “patriotic attitude” (for example, all the organizations of the internal opposition strongly opposed external force intervention in the SAR, condemned the relevant US plans in 2013 after the use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta, as well as US missile strikes on SAR in 2017 and 2018). The fact that the external opposition was elected as a “conductor of interests” of the anti-Assad camp provided external forces with more opportunities to influence the course and development of the Syrian crisis, including the political process of its settlement, and strengthened the aspect associated with the massive involvement of foreign states in the Syrian “dossier”. On the other hand, this led to an even greater marginalization of the internal opposition, its ousting from the Syrian political space. By choosing external opposition as a tool for achieving political goals, the West and its allies from among the countries of the region paradoxically contributed to stopping the liberalization of political life in Syria (although they promoted liberal politicians, including representatives of ethno-confessional minorities). Raising the emigrant political structures, as well as supporting the armed anti-government groups, they contributed to a number of phenomena that adversely affected the internal political life of the SAR. First, they radically narrowed the political space for moderate political groups, which were literally “squeezed out” from the stage of political settlement. It should be noted that the position of the UN, more precisely, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, who, in an attempt to win support for opposition sponsors, allowed an exclusively emigrant National Coalition (later — the High Negotiating Committee) before the inter-Syrian dialogue in Geneva, also played its role. Secondly, by supporting the emigrant structures, the West forcedly went on an alliance (on this issue) with the countries of the Persian Gulf and Turkey, which relied on the Islamists. Liberally-minded opposition inside [the country] had practically no chance to politically “outweigh” the representatives of political Islam who were motivated, well-organized, generously funded by the Gulf countries and Turkey, and who have links with armed groups “on the ground”. The result  — further ideological “stratification” of internal political movements, their inability to effectively defend their views. Third, the reliance of external forces on highly radical elements, moreover, linked to armed groups, gave the B. Assad regime a “carte blanche” to actively play the thesis on “foreign conspiracy against Syria” and “dependence of the emigrant opposition on external sponsors”. In this formulation of the question was not only a propaganda component, designed for an internal audience. Active fueling of the opposition by the anti-Assad camp, including the internal [opposition] unions at the initial stages, led to an even greater tightening of Damascus’s approaches to opponents, most of whom the government saw as “foreign spies”, and thus postponed the prospects for liberalization and democratization of political life in the SAR. Thus, the methods by which the West and some countries in the region attempted to achieve the goal of overthrowing B. Assad’s regime led to an even greater tightening of Damascus’s approaches to the issue of “limits” of reforming a political system in the SAR. The internal political opposition was, oddly enough, the loser from the policies of the West and the regionals in terms of regime change in the SAR, from which the same opposition suffered in its time. In parallel with the development of the Syrian crisis, the position of the regime with regard to political reforms became increasingly intransigent, and the internal opposition organizations actually lost the opportunity to play any serious role in resolving the Syrian conflict.


[1] Statement by 99 Syrian Intellectuals // Al-Hayat. 2000.

https://www.meforum.org/meib/articles/0010_sdoc0927.htm

[2] A statement signed by a thousand Syrian intellectuals. The founding document of the committees to revitalize civil society. Damascus, 2001.

http://www.mokarabat.com/mo2-12.htm (cached version — here)

[3] Damascus Declaration for Democratic Transformation. Damascus, 2005.

[4] Organization is banned in Russia.

[5] Final Statement of the National Conference on the Salvation of Syria. In Damascus, a conference of oppositional democratic Syrian forces was convened from within, which brought together numerous parties. July 22-23, 2012.

http://mfa.gov.il/MFAAR/InformationaboutIsrael/DemocracyAndPluralism/Pages/democracy%20during%20wartime.aspx

[6] Preparatory Committee for the Conference on the Salvation of Syria. July 22-23, 2012.

[7] The final statement of the conference of the Syrian opposition, convened under the auspices of the Arab League. July 3, 2012.

http://www.asharqalarabi.org.uk/barq/b-qiraat-296.htm

[8] The main provisions of the draft of the unified national vision of the Syrian democratic opposition forces. Syrian National Democratic Patriotic Conference. Geneva, April 15-17, 2017.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book)

[9] Restoration, reform and development of the Syrian economy. Working paper prepared for the conference «For the sake of a democratic and secular
Syria». Geneva, January 28-29, 2013.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[10] Qamh and Geneva Talks. Official Statement. 4 April 2016.

[11] Syrian Patriotic Democratic Conference. New political movement. Geneva, April 2017.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[12] Manaa H. Salafi, «Muslim Brotherhood» and human rights / H. Manaa. Publishing House «Evrabiya». 2014. P. 43.

[13] Final statement on the results of the international conference on Syria in Geneva. January 29, 2013.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[14] For the sake of a free, united, democratic Syria. Final statement of the Syrian Patriotic Democratic Conference. Geneva, April 15-17, 2017.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[15] The main provisions of the draft of the unified national vision of the Syrian democratic opposition forces. Syrian National Democratic Patriotic Conference. Geneva, April 15-17, 2017.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[16] Preparatory Committee. Syrian Patriotic Democratic Conference. For the sake of a free, united, democratic Syria. March 6, 2017.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[17] National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change. Statement for the media. Executive committee. Damascus. 24.06.2013.

https://syrianncb.com

[18] National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change. Statement for the media. Executive committee. Damascus. 12.05.2013.

link (text in Arabic — photo from the book).

[19] National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change. List of persons prohibited from leaving the SAR. Damascus. 16.05.2013.

[20] Information «On the Syrian internal opposition». February 22, 2016. // The Center for Rapid Response to violations of the cessation of hostilities (Geneva).

[21] Trends in the Syrian Conflict. July-December 2013. United Nations Department of Political Affairs. P. 15.

[22] Charter of the Social Contract. Provided by the Democratic Union Party. PYD. P. 2.

[23] Charter of the Social Contract. Provided by the Democratic Union Party. PYD. P. 5.

[24] Landa R.G. Political Islam: Preliminary Results / R.G. Landa. M.: Institute of the Middle East, 2005. P. 120.

Download book (in Russian)

[25] Landa R.G. Political Islam: Preliminary Results / R.G. Landa. M.: Institute of the Middle East, 2005. pp. 122-123.

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[26] Landa R.G. Political Islam: Preliminary Results / R.G. Landa. M.: Institute of the Middle East, 2005. P. 125.

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