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

What Can We Learn from Syria’s Devastating Decade of War?

What Can We Learn from Syria’s Devastating Decade of War?

Monday, March 15, 2021

By: Mona Yacoubian

As the Syrian conflict marks its 10th anniversary, the protest movement from which it emerged stands as perhaps the most consequential of the Arab uprisings. The March 2011 peaceful protests that erupted across Syria have since evolved into the world’s most complex conflict. Equally significant, the conflict’s trajectory provides important insights into the complexity of the challenges that lie ahead in Syria, with significant ramifications for the region and the broader international community.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

What is Russia’s Endgame in Syria?

What is Russia’s Endgame in Syria?

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

By: Mona Yacoubian

Five years into Russia’s military intervention in Syria, understanding Moscow’s endgame could provide critical insights into the decade-long conflict’s trajectory, as well as Russia’s posture in the Middle East and beyond. Although still evolving and subject to internal debates, Moscow’s Syria strategy appears to be centered on a “spheres of influence” model. In this model, Syria is divided into distinct realms under the sway of competing external patrons.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

The Best Hope for Sustained De-escalation in Syria

The Best Hope for Sustained De-escalation in Syria

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

By: Mona Yacoubian

As the conflict in Syria approaches its 10th anniversary, a holistic political settlement encompassing the entirety of the country is unlikely in the near to medium term. More than eight years of diplomatic initiatives have yielded only limited results. The two principal tracks—the Geneva and the Astana/Sochi processes—are running up against the complexity of the conflict and an emboldened Assad regime; neither process is sufficient on its own to generate momentum toward a lasting political settlement for the whole of Syria. However, creatively bridging these two processes could bring greater stability to those areas of Syria still beyond the Assad regime’s control, assuaging the suffering of some Syrians, and potentially serving as a building block for a longer-term settlement.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications