Syria: anatomy of the opposition
Winning international headlines July 20 was the seizure by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of Albu Kamal, one of the three major crossings on the border with Iraq, after a brief battle. (Al-Arabiya, July 21) The FSA is linked to the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), whose leaders this week visited the United Nations in a bid for international support. (World Policy blog, July 19) The SNC is clearly being groomed by the West, and is generally portrayed in the media as the sole leadership of the Syrian revolution. However the SNC/FSA is but one of several coalitions struggling to bring down the Assad regime.
As the FSA seized the Albu Kama crossing, Kurdish opposition groups seized the Amude and Efrin crossings on the Turkish border—winning virtually no mainstream media attention. The two major Kurdish opposition organizations in Syria, long mutually hostile, have been cooperating since July 12, when Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, brokered a pact between them at a meeting in his capital, Erbil. One of the two groups is the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has traditionally been backed by Barzani, and whose leaders were received at the White House earlier this year. The other is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the insurgent army in eastern Turkey. While the two groups have established a joint council to run territory they liberate, the PKK flag has reportedly been raised over several buildings in Amude and Efrin. The PYD also barred FSA forces from entering the city of Kabani, which their fighters seized in Aleppo governorate. The PYD has declared a People's Assembly of Western Kurdistan, viewed as an embryonic government of Syrian Kurdistan. (Rudaw, July 20; Rudaw, July 17; US State Department press release, May 11)
Kurds have long been denied citizenship rights in Syria. Earlier this year Kurdish opposition parties that had been in talks with the SNC in Istanbul walked out—accusing the SNC of succumbing to Turkish pressure to marginalize Kurdish demands and leadership.
The SNC even now officially espouses peaceful civil struggle, even as it has established a "Military Bureau" to coordinate with the FSA—ostensibly in the name of "civilian protection." The SNC claims to represent some 80% of the opposition, encompassing groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to secular "local coordination committees." However, the existence of other major coalitions even within Syria's Arab majority suggests the 80% claim could be inflated.
The second biggest opposition alliance is the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), made up of several left-wing groups, Kurdish organizations, and independent activists. Unlike the SNC, the NCC is based within Syria, and includes both Arabs and Kurds in its leadership. Also unlike the SNC, the NCC says it is willing to engage the regime in dialogue, on condition that the repression is halted and Assad agree to step down. The secular NCC has been especially critical of Saudi sway over the SNC.
Finally, there are numerous Sunni militant factions which, more extreme than the Muslim Brotherhood, have not sought alliance with the SNC, and seek to impose a sharia state. (DW, July 21; Syria Revolts [NCC-linked website], SNC website)
Two major ethno-religious minorities in Syria, the Alawites and the Druze, have largely remained aloof from the rebellion. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who is a bitter opponent of Assad, has publicly appealed for Druze and Alawites in Syria to join the uprising, praising three young Syrian Druze militants whose deaths were reported by opposition websites. (Daily Star, Lebanon, July 20)