Andrew Rathmell’s view – Syria: how to build a coherent opposition?

One of the reasons why the Syrian civil war has dragged on so long and bloodily under the noses of the international community is that the opposition has been fractured, quarrelsome and struggled to organise itself.  The weakness of the opposition is not surprising given the brutally effective repression exercised by the Asad regime ever since it obliterated Muslim Brotherhood opponents in Hama in 1982.  Nonetheless, without better organisation, tight connections between the “inside” and the “outside”, and the ability to deliver tangible assistance to besieged communities in liberated areas, then the opposition will be unable to prevail in the fight and will be unprepared to pull Syria out of its current death spin.

My task therefore has been to find ways to help build the capability of opposition groups.  Our Syria assignments have focused on working with a range of local councils from across Syria’s “liberated” areas and with Syrian NGOs, some of whom can operate from regime held areas.  The job is to use detailed research to identify the most credible players, to build trusted relationships, and to help them develop plans and strategies through which they can deliver assistance more effectively on the ground to embattled communities.  In anonymous meeting rooms in Turkey and in smoke-filled cafes in Arab capitals, the process of bringing together opposition activists can lead to surprising results.  The “loyal opposition” activists looking for a compromise solution may at first not be accepted by the Sunni Islamist activists who arrive with fresh tales of horror from the front; but with expert facilitation and empathy, they can find some common ground.

These small efforts are hardly even a sticking plaster on the conscience of the West which is strong on rhetoric concerning Syria but weak on delivery. Nonetheless, clear thinking, facilitation and good planning can go some way to helping Syrian activists seeking a way out of this spiralling tragedy to become more effective.

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