Alwaght- With the eruption of the crisis in the country, the Syrian opposition groups found ground to challenge the Damascus government politically, and also militarily. Ideologically, the Syrian oppositions are made of three major spectrums of the Islamists, nationalists, and pan-Arabists. The Islamists themselves can be broken into followers of Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafism. The nationalists include the patriotic and leftist groups.
Despite having the common aim of overthrowing the government of the President Bashar al-Assad, the opposition are scattered by deep and abundant gaps mainly deriving from politoco-ideological differences, field rivalry, and also their links to foreign supporters. In fact, each and every one of them claims to be the real owner of the “revolution” and even fights others for its own interests.
Part of the opposition in 2011, the year the crisis began, launched their political body in Turkey after a meeting there, calling it Syrian National Council, headed by Burhan Ghalioun. The SNC, largely containing the foreign-based Syrian figures, also has on board the Muslim Brotherhood, the home-based National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and also the Free Syrian Army, as the military wing of the opposition.
In November 11, 2012, a foreign-supervised and more inclusive opposition body was founded in Doha, Qatar by the opponents of President Assad, this time branded National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The coalition covered nearly 63 opposition factions, with major and minor ones playing their own role. Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was picked to lead the alliance. Some 18 foreign countries including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey recognized the group and vowed support for its leadership.
This was not the last one in the line of Syrian opposition organizations. A new body came to existence in late 2015, dubbed High Negotiations Committee, meant to lead the opposition forces at the negotiating table with the central government. The HNC later developed into three branches: Riyadh Platform, Cairo Platform, and Moscow Platform. They are named as such because these countries helped them develop.
First branch was helped by Saudi Arabia and involved the National Coalition. On the other side, Russia and Egypt sought to push in the peace talks the moderate Syrian opposition. The Riyadh Platform is led by Riyad Hijab, the defected Syrian prime minister. Hijab was represented by Nasr al-Hariri, a spokesman for the platform, at the negotiations. Qadri Jamil, a top leader at the People’s Will Party, is heading the Moscow Platform. And the Cairo Platform is chaired by Jihad Makdissi, a former spokesperson to the Syrian foreign ministry.
The Russian and Egypt entry to the organization of the opposition created a kind of political balance between various opponents of the Syrian president. The arrangement came to frustration of Saudi Arabia that formed the HNC by gathering together the extremist figures and groups, and even terrorist factions. But Cairo and Moscow pushed for moderates who could reach understanding with the Syrian government in the dialogue process.
The three groups met in Riyadh in August 21, to unite their efforts for the upcoming talks with the government. However, they failed to form a cohesive team of negotiators to represent all in next round of Geneva talks, and so allowed the conference to conclude without a consensus. Sources familiar with the meeting blamed stark contrasts and Saudi Platform's insistence on past stances as the spoiler of the opposition gathering.
The division even widened as representatives of such terrorist groups as Jaysh al-Islam attended the meeting under pressures from Riyadh. The discord became deep to a degree that the Moscow Platform disparaged Riyadh Platform's Hijab and called on him to step down. Hijab announced the Geneva talks to have reached an impasse, recommended opposition to cease more efforts towards national reconciliation, and called it a “Russian trap.”
Assad fate in future Syria was also topic to discussion and a sticking point in the Riyadh meeting. Saudi-backed group rejected any role for the incumbent president in a prospective Syria, but the other two approved of his role in a transitional period. The Moscow faction called on maintaining the 2012 constitution with only some fine-tuning, an idea Riyadh-sponsored body strongly challenged.
Staffan de Mistura, UN envoy for the Syrian crisis, before the Riyadh conference had urged the opposition to form a united and realistic team of negotiators to avoid more negotiation impasse as it has been the case with the past seven rounds.
What distances the opposition from convergence is their strategic gaps in dealing with the country’s current conditions and the ways out of the crisis. Some want President Assad ousted at any expense even if it takes urging foreign military intervention. Others stick to internal solutions, including reforms. The government's overt policy of support for the anti-Israeli Axis of Resistance, disagreement on foreign policy, especially the way of dealing with the Resistance camp in the region that includes Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also stumbling blocks ahead of opposition cohesion.
Failed to make any advance in their agenda including toppling the government during the past six years, the opposition now look more confused than ever. More confusion is brought about by broadened divides and domination of an atmosphere of distrust in the anti-Damascus body.
Many analysts see this as an expected issue. After all, the government, backed by allies, is making daily advances, stabilizing its position, and forcing decline of the opposition groups. The battlefield progression gives the president a precious bargaining chip, practical in helping him gain an upper hand in negotiations. The last Geneva and Astana talks very clearly echoed the government and its allies' taking the initiative, with the opposition left behind in weakness and passiveness.
On the other side, some factions like Riyadh Platform that expected help from backers is now falling into despair as foreign support stumbles. Recent developments in Syria has meaningfully tiped the balance in favor of Syrian government, making the anti-Syrian camp recalculate, something naturally resulting in scaled down– and later perhaps severed– backing for the Syrian opposition.