With the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria now seen as inevitable, what happens after is suddenly a pressing question. The rebel forces currently fighting the regime are fragmented and prone to infighting. Given their growing differences, once Assad is gone, the object that unifies them will be removed, increasing the chances for civil war, as LIGNET explains.
The rebel Free Syrian Army yesterday announced a draft proposal outlining a plan for a post-Assad government. The proposal calls for military and civilian officials to jointly govern the country as the first step to eventually establishing a democracy. Ominously, however, it also warned another rebel group, the Syrian National Council, against interfering in its plans.
After 17 months of fighting between government and rebel forces, there are now signs that the Assad government is faltering. Over the last month, four high-level defections have rocked the regime, signaling an end to the unified political support that has helped Assad stay in power.
The Syrian rebels are launching stronger, more coordinated military efforts, forcing more violent retaliation by the government that is further degrading its already dismal reputation in the international community. The regime’s ongoing assault on Aleppo is destroying an important commercial center, which will further undercut the economy and hurt the government’s ability to fund its military program.
Although the Syrian opposition agrees on a common goal of ousting Assad, the numerous groups that fill its ranks are fragmented and diverse. There is no single group recognized as the best alternative to Assad, no strong leader, no government-in-waiting, and no real mechanism to establish a government if Assad leaves or is removed. The groups are independent from each other and often squabble, disagreeing over tactics and the chain of command.
Of all the groups opposing Assad’s regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has recently received the most attention because of its attacks in Damascus and its operation to seize control of Aleppo. Although the regime flushed rebel fighters out of Damascus last week and is in the process of doing so in Aleppo, rebel operations in these cities dealt the regime a major psychological setback because they demonstrated the growing strength of the Syrian rebels and forced the regime to use heavy weapons on major Syrian cities.
Although it officially operates under the command of Colonel Riad al-Assad, who founded the group and is now based in Turkey, the FSA has numerous factions that operate independently and with little coordination. Some FSA commanders dismiss Riad al-Assad’s leadership as illegitimate because he is removed from the actual fighting.
Further complicating matters, the FSA inside Syria announced this month the formation of the Military Council Joint Command, headquartered in Homs to oversee operations. Headed by Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, it now makes unified statements for the FSA and claims to coordinate FSA groups under a single umbrella.
Yesterday, Saadeddine’s group announced a transition plan to help create a new government after Assad’s departure. It calls for a presidential council to appoint six military and civilian leaders who will function as a transitional government before a permanent democratic one is established.
Wary of other groups that might challenge its authority, the FSA plan says that “any government that is created anywhere . . . that lacks national and revolutionary legitimacy, that does not fully meet all the demands of the revolution, and that lacks the approval of the Joint Command and all the revolutionary forces on the ground, will not see the light.”
This warning appeared to be aimed at the Syrian National Council (SNC)’s recent announcement that it also plans to form a transitional Syrian government. The SNC is the most prominent Syrian opposition group outside of Syria made up mostly of expatriate and exiled Syrians.
The SNC and FSA have had an unsteady alliance for several months, with the SNC reportedly helping channel foreign financial support to the FSA. However, the SNC does not command the FSA and has not always supported its call to use violence to overthrow the Assad regime.
The FSA boycotted talks in Cairo earlier this month with the SNC and the Arab League because of its contention that the international community has taken no serious steps to aid its struggle to oust the Assad regime, such as establishing humanitarian buffer zones, no-fly zones, or openly agreeing to fund and arm the Syrian rebels. (Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be covertly arming and funding the FSA.)
While the SNC had backed a call by UN Syria peace envoy Kofi Annan earlier this month to try to resume peace negotiations, it reversed itself after the dramatic FSA attacks in Damascus and Aleppo over the last week. The SNC also changed its approach this week by callling on the international community to provide heavy arms for the Syrian rebels, an appeal that may have been an effort to make it look relevant at a time when the international media has been focusing on the battle between the regime and the FSA.
The SNC has struggled to bring together the various opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish dissidents, the Assyrian Democratic Organization and dozens of others. However, it is filled with internal dissension and has come to be seen as weak and impotent. Numerous leaders have resigned from the SNC in protest of various positions, only to return later. Last month, the group created an outline of a constitution to help govern Syria after Assad leaves office, but it came a day after the assembly devolved into fist-fights over Kurdish demands.
Muddying the waters even more, radical Islamists also make up part of the rebel forces. Although Islamist extremists are believed to comprise a small minority of the Syrian rebels, there is growing effort by some rebels to couch their fight against the Assad regime in Islamist terms to recruit fighters and to win foreign military and financial assistance, according to France 24.
The Assad regime long had a marriage of convenience with al Qaeda, allowing its members to pass through the country to stage attacks in Iraq. But al Qaeda has now turned on its former patron. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has expressed support for the Syrian uprising and urged his followers to join the fight against Assad. Analysts say the introduction of suicide bombings into the repertoire of the rebels further suggests al Qaeda presence in the country.
The fall of the Assad regime could trigger a violent conflict within the country as numerous disparate opposition groups struggle for control. Not only will various rebel groups continue to squabble after that event, there are also likely to be deadly reprisals against those who aided and benefited from Assad’s authoritarian rule.
Right now, no single opposition group or leader has the strength or credibility to maintain order after the fall of Assad. Opposition groups are severely divided and do not trust each other. While some opposition coalitions are holding together in their effort to oust Assad, many will break away from each other after Assad and his government surrender power.
The last few weeks have seen new cracks between the SNC and the FSA due to the FSA’s successful attacks against the regime and the SNC’s maneuvering to remain relevant in the face of the higher profile the FSA has earned due to these attacks. The FSA clearly is not on board with SNC leadership and negotiating strategy and appears to oppose its competing plan to form a transitional government.
NC-FSA squabbling poses significant problems for a post-Assad Syria because the FSA’s support is key to the SNC’s credibility for Syrians living in the country. The SNC, unlike the FSA, has substantial foreign support and diplomatic contacts. The FSA is likely to win credit from most Syrians who oppose the Assad regime for its eventual overthrow. Without the FSA’s support, the SNC may be seen by ordinary Syrians as a group of elite Syrian expatriates swooping in from abroad to seize power.
The presence of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups is another threat to stability and democracy in a post-Assad Syria. While radical Islamists are probably a small minority of Syrian rebel fighters, they reportedly have raised the level of violence and were behind several major bombings against the regime. Al Qaeda leaders probably believe they are unlikely to take control of the country but may hope to bring about a destabilized, anarchic Syria that could serve as a future al Qaeda base of operations in the region.
As noted in yesterday’s LIGNET analysis Syria WMD Fears Grow as Aleppo Fighting Continues, although the fall of the Assad regime may be on the horizon, if Assad steps down, his government may fight on for some time. Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, the former head of the UN Syrian observer mission said on July 27 that while it is “just a matter of time” before Assad loses power, the Assad government has the military resources to fight on for months or even years.
Intelligence source believes the post-Assad period in Syria looks likely to be marked by civil war, with various factions fighting for control of territory and an impotent central government unable to stop the violence. Such an outcome could be growing more likely due to infighting within the SNC and what may be its growing differences with the FSA.