Inside Syria

The changing face of Syria’s opposition

As the Syrian National Council regroups in Doha, we ask if the US is dictating who should lead the opposition.

This week in Doha, members of Syria’s opposition will gather to discuss one of the most significant changes in strategy since the conflict began almost two years ago.

There is no particular reason the SNC should accept dictation from Hillary Clinton, but frankly I don’t think the United States has a coherent policy for dealing with the Syrian opposition, they don’t have a coherent Syria policy and I personally think in fact the whole effort to create a unified opposition is doomed to fail.

–  Flynt Leverett, Penn State University

The US state department has decided that the Syrian National Council (SNC), is no longer able to represent the opponents of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and wants a new council to lead the opposition.

As it stands, there is no main unified rebel body – the fighters are made up of many different groups, with different allegiances and this is causing concern in Washington where recent talk focused on the lack of an inclusive and cohesive political body to represent the revolution and manage its ties with the outside world.

“We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard,” said Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

The remarks on Thursday provoked complaints within the SNC as well as criticism of the US role from the outset.

Yes, we need the US’ support, we need the Russian’s support, we need everyone’s support – but we need one support to reach one solution. We dont need them to become godfathers of a new puppet regime. I think the equation that the US is trying to reach is impossible – they are trying to find a body that represents the whole opposition and at the same time they are looking for puppets, for an alternative regime, they are looking for a new government that will never escape the control of the US and that is impossible because so many democratic forces inside Syria or outside, so many parts of the opposition, will refuse utterly to become puppets to the Americans.

–   Rim Turkmani, a member of Building up the Syrian State

In response to those reactions the US took a small step back, signaling probably that the SNC still has a chance.

“This is not a matter of dictating” a state department statement said, “or an attempt to control the make-up of the next leadership. It was simply seeking to ensure that more voices were heard … to see a broader spectrum of communities in the opposition leadership, including not only the Sunni population but the Alawis, the Druze, the Christians, the Kurds, any other minority groups, [and] women.”

The Doha meeting plans to prepare for new elections and perhaps to try to make a final bid for other groups to join, but it is not the first time they tried, and it comes as the UN accuses Syrian rebels of possible war crimes, after a video emerged showing opposition fighters executing some government soldiers.

Last June, the council appointed a Kurd as its chairman instead of a Sunni in order to project an image of inclusiveness and yet only one of three major Kurdish parties is part of the SNC.

Other groups are still considered underrepresented, including the Alawis where al-Assad and his family hails from. 

The SNC has not only to unite the political opposition but it also has to win the support of the many different rebel groups fighting on the ground – a task which will be extremely difficult.

Inside Syria, with presenter Teymoor Nabili, speaks to Rim Turkmani, a member of Building up the Syrian State; Flynt Leverett, a professor of International Affairs at Penn State University and the author of Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire; and Osama Kadi, a member of the Syrian National Council and the president of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.


Opposition groups in Syria have been unable to agree on how to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – but a few have tried to form coalitions to gain international help and recognition. These are the most prominent groups currently at war with the regime:

  • The largest outside Syria is the Syrian National Council. It includes exiled Muslim Brotherhood and dissidents, the revolutionary youth and Kurdish factions. The current president is Abdelbaset Sayda, a Kurd who has lived in exile in Sweden for a number of years.
  • The council’s primacy has been challenged by the National Co-ordination Committee or NCC – an opposition bloc that still functions within Syria. The NCC is made up of left-leaning and Kurdish political parties, youth activists and is led by Hassan Abdel Azim another longstanding dissident. The group wants the withdrawal of the military and is opposed to any form of foreign intervention.
  • The Free Syrian Army is the main armed opposition group in Syria consisting of army defectors. Their leader, Colonel Riad al-As’aad, said the group does not want any political interference with the SNC and has its own military strategy.
  • A most recent opposition faction to emerge is the Syrian Patriotic Group. Headed by Haitham al-Maleh, it is made up of a splinter group of former Syrian National Council members.