The uprisings in Syria that started in March have sparked international condemnation and concern over human rights abuses by the Assad regime. USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the state of Syria’s opposition and why the U.S. may be hesitant to recognize an emerging opposition.

September 20, 2011

The uprisings in Syria that started in March have sparked international condemnation and concern over human rights abuses by the Assad regime. The United Nations estimates that at least 2,700 people have died from the regime’s crackdown on protesters over the last six months. However, the opposition has yet to present a united front and form a single leadership with which Western governments can engage.

USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the state of Syria’s opposition and why the U.S. may be hesitant to recognize an emerging opposition.

What is the current status of Syria’s opposition?

For months, the Syrian opposition has struggled to overcome internal divisions and develop a unified leadership structure. It has confronted growing pressure, both from protest leaders inside Syria and from Western governments, to establish a framework that would provide more coherent leadership for Syria’s uprising and give the international community a single, legitimate counterpart with which to engage.

On September 15, following a number of false starts, a coalition of Syrian opposition leaders announced the formation of a Syrian National Council (SNC). The Council includes 140 members, with about 85 selected from the internal leadership of the Syrian uprising and 55 from the external leadership. The SNC released a National Consensus Charter affirming the peaceful, inclusive and non-sectarian character of the Syrian uprising, and committing the SNC to the establishment of a “modern civil state in which its constitution guarantees: equal rights among its citizens, the peaceful transfer of power, independence of the judiciary, rule of law, respect of human rights, freedom of the press, and political, cultural, religious, and personal rights for all components of Syrian society, within a context of national unity.”

Back to top

With the formation of the SNC, what are the next steps for the Syrian opposition?

The SNC is viewed by many in the Syrian opposition as a step forward. It has been welcomed by many of the internal and external leaders of Syria’s uprising. Yet the SNC confronts a number of significant challenges. Most immediately, it will need to develop mechanisms for decision making, for representation of the internal opposition, and for the selection of an SNC leadership, that are widely seen within the opposition itself as inclusive, transparent, and fair.

The membership of the SNC is not entirely clear: only the names of some 73 members were released, including many opposition leaders who have become internationally prominent since the start of the uprising in March. However, the known members of the SNC also include a significant proportion of opposition figures associated with Islamist movements or trends—about half of the 73 names released—only a handful of women, and uneven representation from minorities. Some major opposition leaders, notably the leadership of the “Antalya Grouping,” have expressed concern about the Islamist profile of the SNC, and remain wary of associating with it. Ensuring that the SNC has broad-based and representative support, including from secularists, women, and minorities, will improve its long-term prospects. So will quick action to define how leaders are selected and decisions made. At present, and however promising the SNC’s formation might be, it is too soon to consider it as having consolidated its standing as the sole representative body of the Syrian uprising.

Back to top

How has the international community responded to the formation of the SNC?

Reactions to the formation of the SNC have varied. France and Britain have issued statements expressing support for the formation of the SNC. The U.S. has not formally reacted to its creation. No Western government has, as yet, recognized the SNC’s leadership of the Syrian uprising.

For the U.S., there are several obstacles that could impede movement toward recognition. The first is the U.S.’s unease with the prominent role of Islamists in the SNC, despite the group’s commitment to pluralism. A second is its concern with Turkey’s growing influence over important elements of the opposition’s leadership, and perceptions among U.S. diplomats that Turkey seeks a Syrian opposition similar to Turkey’s own ruling party, the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party. Whether the SNC is able to secure U.S. and international recognition will be heavily influenced by its response to these concerns, and its success—or failure—in securing the support of as broad a range of Syria’s opposition and Syrian society as possible.

Back to top

Explore Further

Related Publications

A Month After U.S. Withdrawal, What is the State of Play in Syria?

A Month After U.S. Withdrawal, What is the State of Play in Syria?

Thursday, November 7, 2019

By: Mona Yacoubian

In the month since President Trump’s October 6 phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and the announced U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria, the picture on the ground has changed immensely. Moscow has emerged as the key power broker in Syria. The Kurds, looking for protection from Turkish forces, are in Russian-brokered talks with the Assad government. These discussions could pave the way for an expanded Syrian government presence in the northeast for the first time in years. Successive agreements with Turkey negotiated first by the United States (October 17) and then by Russia (October 22) to halt Ankara’s fighting with the Kurds have been marred by violations.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Sarhang Hamasaeed on Iraq, Syria and ISIS

Sarhang Hamasaeed on Iraq, Syria and ISIS

Thursday, October 31, 2019

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

Several major developments have rattled the region in recent weeks, including Iraq’s ongoing protests, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says his death is a major blow to the terrorist group, but “the fact remains that … the enabling environment that gave rise to ISIS” is still present.

Type: Podcast

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism

In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal is a Game Changer on the Ground

In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal is a Game Changer on the Ground

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By: Mona Yacoubian

A chain reaction of events over the past two weeks in Syria have effectively reordered the conflict’s balance of power. Russia has emerged as the key power broker in Syria. Meanwhile, both the Assad regime and Turkey have achieved important gains, while the Kurds have suffered a significant loss. A 10-point deal negotiated between Russia and Turkey—if implemented successfully—will fulfill Turkey’s long-held demand that Kurdish forces be pushed approximately 20 miles off the Syrian-Turkish border. Following a U.S. decision to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria, the deal also cedes control over significant portions of northeast Syria to the Assad regime and Russia. USIP’s Mona Yacoubian looks at the elements of the Russian-Turkish deal and its implications for Syria and the broader region.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications