Syria Alternatives (II): No Homegrown Solutions

Radwan Mortada

Originally posted on Al-Akhbar English, 13 June 2012

Opposition leaders inside Syria are increasingly at odds with exile groups over the future course of the revolution and the need for a UN-mediated solution to stem the bloodshed.

Syrian opposition sources concur that the three largest armed rebel formations active in the country are the Rijal Allah (Men of God) Brigade, the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Battalion, and the al-Farouq Battalion.

They each have different orientations and outlooks. The Khalid Ibn al-Walid Battalion is loyal to and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the al-Farouq Battalion’s members are Salafis, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia. Both of these groups are at odds with Rijal Allah and other factions, such as the Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb Brigade, which accuse them of pursuing foreign agendas.

Rijal Allah takes its political lead from al-Radeef al-Thawri (The Revolutionary Reserve), a movement active in the Damascus countryside, the capital itself, and in and around al-Rastam, Aleppo and Latakia, according to its secretary-general , known as Abu Abd al-Rahman. He says the movement has some 6,200 men under arms. Each member is registered by name, along with the weapons they possess. But they are prepared to put these down in return for political gains under United Nations protection.

The Rijal Allah Brigade used to be led by Amjad al-Hameed, a charismatic former Syrian army captain who defected after its crackdown in al-Rastam and became a rebel commander. He was assassinated some months ago, apparently by hardline Islamists, after he spoke out against their growing influence in the insurgency and their engagement in sectarian killings. He was succeeded by another army defector, Captain Hudhaifa al-Qasem.Within this grouping – and others too, including the Umar al-Khattab, Ali Ibn bi-Taleb and Abu Bakr al-Siddiq brigades (the latter commanded respectively by former first lieutenants Fayez al-Abdallah and Uqba Saadeddin) – opposition sources say there is alarm at the emergence and behavior of hardline Takfiri rebel groups. They accuse them of undermining the revolution, and say there have been an increasing number of clashes between these and other opposition factions for control on the ground in various areas.

The commander of one group of fighters, the Reef Dimashq (Damascus Countryside) Martyrs Brigade, voices dismay at the current state of the armed revolt. Ibn al-Sham al-Thaer, as he is known, blames the false expectations and perceptions created by high media-profile spokesmen such as colonels Mustafa al-Sheikh, Riyadh al-Asad and Qasem Saadeddin. He says that their constant public bluster is never matched by actions the ground, and this has undermined many people’s trust in the Free Syria Army (FSA).

Ibn al-Sham – who says he takes his political lead from al-Radeef as he shares its convictions and goals – stresses the need for divisions between opposition factions to be overcome in order to arrive at a solution that spares the Syrian people’s blood. He warns of imminent massacres, and urges friends of the Syrian people to launch some initiative aimed at averting further killing.

The attitude of Ibn al-Sham, who operates inside Syria, is sharply at odds with that of many other commanders, some of whom have turned out to be based abroad. The Saudi-based rebel brigade commander known as Alaa al-Sheikh, for example, speaks of victory being around the corner, and of high morale among the revolutionaries, who “see paradise from the gun-barrel, as they are fighting with faith.”

UN Responsibility

In contrast, al-Radeef and others believe “there is no question of the regime being overthrown by force given the weapons available to the revolutionaries,” says the movement’s secretary-general. “We support overthrowing the regime within the terms of the Annan plan,” he explains.“There are those who say: ‘Let the country go to ruin for 10 or 15 years; afterwards it will recover.’ But we say we went a plan that spares us bloodshed and anarchy,” he says.

The plan sought by Abd al-Rahman does not actually exist, at least not yet. But he says that the formulation of a political “roadmap” is essential given the fragmentation of opposition groups. He warns that “the anarchy of arms” risks undermining support for the opposition fighters, and the priority should therefore be to unify rebel ranks.

“We in al-Radeef have the capacity to bring together the different factions that have control on the ground,” he elaborates. He proposes that the UN provide protection for their representatives to meet and formulate a common position, as a basis for pursuing the Annan plan – “unless these nations do not want this plan to succeed.” But he says attempts by al-Radeef leaders to contact the UN have received no response so far.

“We can lead the dialogue. We want protection from Kofi Annan so we can meet and say what we want,” he affirms.

Abu Abd al-Rahman takes issue with the “no dialogue” stance of the Syrian National Council (SNC). “Where else does that lead us?” he remarks. He adds that most of the opposition figures based outside the country “do not represent the Syrian people.”

Many opposition leaders and defecting former army officers are similarly at odds with the SNC over the future course of the “revolution”. The armed rebellion’s inability either to topple the regime, or to sustain itself indefinitely without achieving results, poses dilemmas. They fear that once the Annan plan is pronounced a failure, the regime will unleash a devastating no-holds barred crackdown.

Such groups are trying hard to develop political solutions that can halt further bloodshed. They are also aware that rebel control on the ground is precarious so long as it is not translated into political gains. But they have gone little further than putting forward the idea of the UN providing protection while the armed factions agree a unified position

One impediment to such an agreement is that while many opposition leaders and defecting officers privately concede that the regime cannot be brought down by force of arms, they are reluctant to say so openly as they would be branded as traitors.

“They would accuse us selling out the blood of the fallen martyrs,” says one such figure. To which another retorts: “We preserve the martyrs’ blood if we spare our people from massacres and do not lead them to perdition.”The solution they propose is seen as providing an opportunity for the revolution to develop a political framework. They argue that this is vital if the regime is to be removed or political gains are to be made.

Until recently, many pinned their hopes on one of two things: foreign military intervention; or a coup led by an officer who could appeal to the support of the people and armed factions. They no longer expect the former, and there has been no trace of anyone who could carry out the latter, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Many opposition supporters are thus reaching the conclusion that the choice is narrowing down: either dialogue, or the downfall of Syria.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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