Eighteen months into the revolution, many still look to international powers to find a diplomatic solution to end the conflict in Syria. These people however, fail to realize there is only one way forward, and it is not grounded in securing Iranian, Russian or, for that matter, the West’s diplomatic approvals.
Rather, the resolution lies in supporting the Syrian people who started and maintain this revolution – this is the only way to accelerate the demise of the Assad regime and to ensure an end to the slaughter.
The way forward is grounded in a simple formula to ensure a “Syrian-centric” outcome:
Civil Resistance + Free Syrian Army (FSA) + Outside Support
Fall of the Assad Regime
In other words, mass mobilization, grass roots militarization and real external support for the resistance will ensure the fall of Assad.
This is a revolution after all – a sustained uprising over 18 months by masses of Syrians, from every walk of life, every corner of the country with the collective aim of overthrowing a family mafia that has ruled for over 40 years.
So, what are the three variables in this formula? While books will be written to appropriately delve into the complexities of each, below is a starting place to begin to understand them.
1) Civil Resistance.
Civil resistance is the heart and soul of the revolution. For roughly the first six months of the uprising, the popular response to the Assad regime manifested itself almost exclusively through public protest, acts of civil disobedience, and strikes aimed at disrupting the state’s ability to rule. The ‘organizing engine’ of these efforts is driven by Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) – networks of grassroots activists who connect across villages, towns and cities.
The regime had spent decades deconstructing independent civil society institutions to ensure that any resistance would be fragmented. Additionally, through a media blackout, it controlled discourse and narrative throughout the country. The LCCs, as a decentralized network, broke the regime monopoly on organized structures and, just as importantly, ensured that every aspect of this revolution is independently documented (as many have said: “No YouTube, it didn’t happen”).
Many of the grass-roots activists are unknown to the international community giving the false impression that this is a leaderless revolution. This supposed facelessness has been driven by security needs (activists have been mercilessly hunted by the regime), but also by the need to contrast the ‘cult of personality’ that has shaped Syria’s political history under the Assad family rule. Additionally, in a truly democratic manner, many of these local networks rotate leadership every few months to ensure collective representation and shared ownership over the direction of their locale.
The work of the LCCs and grass roots activists has been overshadowed recently by the evolution of the militarized resistance (i.e. Free Syrian Army (FSA)). However, they are core to the revolution and often partner with the FSA to fill the vacuum left behind by the receding state (e.g., services, relief efforts) while still coordinating popular protests (for example, LCCs documented 390 protest points this past Friday).
The revolution is awakening all aspects of society and thrusting Syrians into leadership roles that only a year and half ago would have been unimaginable. The LCCs have been at the forefront to redefine the connection between the people of Syria and the future of the country – creating mechanisms where ordinary Syrians can, for the first time, contribute to the development of a new country that represents them, not a family-run colony.
2) The Free Syrian Army.
While initially made up of defectors from the mass conscript army, the ranks of the militarized resistance (mostly under the umbrella banner of the FSA) are now filled with ordinary Syrians who see an armed response as the means to defend their neighborhoods and accelerate the demise of the regime.
The overwhelming majority of militarized elements of the revolution are homegrown – ordinary Syrians who have picked up arms to resist the regime. This is not to say there are no “foreign fighters” who have entered the country, however it is important to note that not all foreign fighters are problematic – some truly support the revolution, while others may have a separate agenda and will be marginalized by revolutionary forces. Regardless, their numbers are tiny in comparison to the 70,000-100,000 FSA fighters.
The FSA is by no means one organization. They are rather a collective of provincial Military Councils (MCs) and local brigades who have, in essence adopted the ‘franchise’ name. While the MCs are symbolically connected to FSA officers in Turkey, they operate through local, provincial and regional coordination (not through a tops-down hierarchy driven by officers in exile).
With the growth of the FSA, its operations have shifted from purely defensive (i.e., protecting protestors and villages, etc.) to bringing the battle to Assad’s doorstep. Operation ‘Damascus Volcano’ in mid-July 2012 stunned the regime and even supporters of the FSA with their ability to: 1) target top leaders of the regime’s crises cell; and 2) showcase more cohesion and tactical command by targeting multiple sensitive spots around the capital. Followed by the battle for Aleppo and the creation of ‘Free’ zones in the Idleb province, the FSA is trying to split the country in two, thus solidifying its gains, and isolating Assad in Damascus.
As Assad has utilized his air force to suppress the FSA’s advance, there are continuous FSA attacks on air force bases in an attempt to ground Assad’s jets and helicopters and neutralize this tactical advantage.
An important development is the ability of the FSA, as a loose umbrella of groups to strive to ‘self-correct’. An example of this is the ‘code of conduct’ signed last month in response to human rights violations against captured Assad regime forces. Additionally, there are efforts underway to expose fringe groups who are using the security vacuum in the country & impersonating the FSA to conduct criminal actions (looting, kidnapping for ransom etc.). It will be critical moving forward for the FSA to make serious progress on these matters in order to maintain popular support and to gain more international support.
As time passes, the FSA is also structurally evolving to solidify command control, coordination across MCs and supply routes. It remains to be seen whether current efforts to transform the FSA into the Syrian National Army under a more unified command will bear fruit immediately. However, the FSA’s development into a national military institution is slowly becoming reality.
The LCCs and FSA are two sides of the resistance coin – both organic and uniquely Syrian, both essential to success of the revolution. The ‘code of conduct’ announced last month is a clear example of groups working together. There is even a joint campaign underway to focus on the principles and goals of the revolution, with support from dozens of committees and battalions.
Most importantly, in towns and villages liberated from the regime, there is close collaboration to run the municipal duties and provide security resulting in effective ‘self-rule.’
3) Outside Support.
The international community has a critical role to counter the heavy military, financial and diplomatic support provided by Iran and Russia – both who have a trusted, decades-long relationship with the Assad regime.
Sadly however, while Iran and Russia have done everything possible to prop up the Assad regime against the uprising, the “West” and so-called “Friends of Syria” have been slow to or even unwilling to support the revolution.
The Russians have been steadfast in their support for Assad, from sending military ships, to blocking UNSC resolutions condemning regime crimes, all in an attempt to maintain Russian prominence on the international political scene. A famous protest sign from Kafranbel, Idleb, sums up the revolutionary response to this: “You are betting on the Wrong horse; nothing will save your Assad from being beheaded”.
On the Iranian side, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard admitted last May that his nation’s special forces were on the ground (something all Syrians knew before the revolution even began). Ensuring that the Assad regime dominates Syria is obviously core to Iran’s regional interests, and there is evidence that Iranian drones are in use over Syria, along with the acceleration of Iranian military aid as the Assad regime becomes more untenable.
While the United States, Europe and Gulf states have been very forthcoming over the past year in providing condemnations, their actions have had very little bite. We all remember US Secretary of State Clinton suggesting Assad was a “different leader” (in other words ‘a reformer’) and it took Obama until Mid-August 2011 – after more than 5 months of slaughter to finally call on Assad to step down. The US position can be summed up as follows: delayed reaction, economic sanctions, limited (mostly verbal) support for external political opposition and some non-lethal aid.
Despite all the buzz in the media about the US, EU and Gulf countries ‘arming and aiding the rebels’, the FSA denies receiving any substantial support and weapons are still received through traditional smuggling routes and from the regime directly.
Once recent Friday ‘day of protest’ in Syria was even titled, “Arm the FSA with anti-aircraft Weapons” in a plea to the outside world to provide the military tools for Syrians to combat the Assad onslaught. Despite such calls, evidence is mounting that the US is blocking access to the necessary weapons – even communication aid promised months ago to activists is ‘not forthcoming’. The French, another vocal ‘supporter’ of the revolution has also made it clear they “do not intend, neither today nor tomorrow, to send weapons to the Syrian opposition.”
Emboldened by this apparent lack of military support for the revolution, the regime is relying more on air power to collectively punish the population and is even dropping leaflets highlighting how the resistance is alone in the world. While some estimates suggest the revolution holds seventy percent of the ground, Assad controls the skies without impunity; the lack of heavy weapons is delaying the inevitable outcome of this revolution.
While Syrian expatriate activities are not the focus of this piece, it is also important to note that many in the Syrian expatriate community (numbering well over 10 million) have mobilized to support the revolution. Millions of dollars in humanitarian aid have been raised, and political umbrella groups (i.e., external-based opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council) are working (not always successfully or effectively) to push the revolutions agenda. More recently, in the US, a group (the Syrian Support Group) has formed to legally raise money for the FSA. Additionally, a collective of Syrians from the internal resistance and external opposition have met over the past 6 months in Germany to create the Day After Project – an important set of recommendations for a post-Assad Syria transition, “… written by Syrians, and…owned by Syrians.”
Not in the Formula
Most Syrians involved in the revolution have rejected calls for dialogue. Given the regime’s record of insincerity in this regard, any such efforts are perceived as a way to maintain the regime’s grip on the nation and to undercut the popular demands for genuine change. Too many Syrians have seen first hand the brutality of this regime’s “reforms” in action. Since March 15, 2011, more than 30,000 Syrians have been murdered (most believe the number is much higher), hundreds of thousands detained and/or missing, and 2 million displaced.
Additionally, UN efforts have proven impotent – the most recent example being the pathetic meeting a few weeks ago of the United Nation’s Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. There is also little confidence that new international peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi will succeed in his mission. As I wrote months ago, “the diplomatic scurrying, posturing and theater creates the illusion that anything meaningful could come out of the diplomatic process – in essence attempting to push the revolutionary aspirations to the side to wait for the outcome.”
Some commentators have even suggested bringing Iran and Russia to the negotiation table to ensure their “interests” in the country are secured. There could not be a more perverse and insulting suggestion made to the millions of Syrians who are suffering at the hands of the regime. Not only does it discount the fact that both nations have been crucial in propping up the Assad regime since the start of the revolution, but it also shows a true disconnect with the desires, aspirations and growing strength of the Syrian revolution.
Ultimately, the revolution will succeed; it is just a matter of time and how much blood Assad is allowed to spill. The regime strategy is clear – grounded in killing and collective punishment, they understand it is an all or nothing struggle and a war of attrition against the population.
The Syrian people are heroically doing all they can to overthrow this mafia regime. They have shown the world true sacrifice, resilience and persistence to achieve the goals of establishing a nation grounded on pluralism and dignity – after all, Syrian martyrs, in the tens of thousands, will not be allowed to die in vain. It is also clear, as witnessed throughout liberated towns and villages across Syria, that the sooner Assad is removed the sooner order can be restored.
The real question is not whether the revolution will succeed, but rather how long and at what human cost. Sadly, the third variable in the formula, Outside Support, has been morally deficient through their inaction and even criminally negligent by blocking much needed support. Syrians, and, one day, the world at large, will not forget who came to the aid of Syrians in their time of need, and who stood by to watch them suffer.
The way forward and the formula to end the slaughter is clear – support the revolution.