Syrian Rebels Find Hearts and Minds Elusive

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- As the Syrian civil war nears the two-year mark, the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad and their international backers have failed to win the backing of many government supporters, including minorities, a slice of the population whose help is essential not only to resolve the conflict, but also to keep Syria from becoming a failed state, analysts say.

Syrian opposition leaders in exile have repeatedly offered promises that a future Syria will guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of religion and ethnicity, including members of President Assad's minority Alawite sect, and that government officials without "blood on their hands" will be safe. But that has done little to win the allegiance of a significant bloc of Syrians who are wary of the uprising.

"The opposition is in fact helping to hold the regime together," said Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who meets in Syria with people on all sides of the conflict. "It seems to have no strategy to speak of when it comes to preserving what's left of the state, wooing the Alawites within the regime or reaching out to those who don't know who to hate most, the regime or the opposition."

Analysts with contacts in Syria said that the opposition had failed to spell out how it would handle challenging political issues like the fate of the Baath Party, the army rank and file, and the public sector -- which employs at least 1.2 million Syrians -- or how it would curb sectarian violence and revenge killings. The opposition, critics say, has missed opportunities to split government support from within and has allowed Mr. Assad to portray himself to fence-sitters as the best bet to keep the Syrian state intact.

That vacuum, some analysts say, was the backdrop for Mr. Assad's confident tone in a speech he gave on Jan. 6, when he offered to engage in political dialogue with opponents he considers acceptable.

Mr. Harling said the speech allowed Mr. Assad to try to persuade the undecided that he is still a plausible choice, and reflected a belief in the president's circle -- perhaps mistaken -- that "people will ultimately come back to them, because they offer more of the prospect of a state."

On Sunday, Russia's foreign minister pointedly called on the opposition to offer specific counterproposals for a political solution rather than complain about Mr. Assad's refusal to negotiate. And on Monday, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, chided the United States and Russia for not working harder to bring the sides together, warning that the opposition's insistence that Mr. Assad step down before any negotiations begin is perpetuating a stalemate and risking a descent into chaos.

The concerns come not only from Russia, Mr. Assad's strongest ally, and Mr. Annan, who resigned as international envoy to Syria when his mediation efforts went nowhere. They are shared by a growing chorus of Middle East analysts, Syrian intellectuals and a former Syria adviser to the Obama administration, which has recognized the opposition as the country's legitimate representative.

The former Syria adviser, Frederic C. Hof, wrote last month that although the opposition has offered general assurances to the one-third of Syrians who belong to minority groups, "probably no more than a handful" believe it, especially as jihadist groups grow more prominent on the battlefield and issue videotaped calls for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate.

"And why should they?" he wrote in an article published by the Atlantic Council, a research institute in Washington. "What would weigh heavier on the brain of a non-Sunni Arab (or a Sunni Arab committed to secular governance): the occasional word about the primacy of citizenship, or the televised chanting of hirsute warriors?"

Part of the problem is that the opposition, unlike the government, does not speak with one voice. It is divided among secular and religious members, exiles and those fighting inside Syria, and supporters and opponents of armed struggle. Even after reorganizing under pressure from the West, the coalition has yet to agree on a government in exile.

Yet, the coalition understands the danger, Samir Nachar, a member, said in an interview from Turkey.

"Everyone feels and knows that there is a real dilemma and danger when it comes to the morale of the Syrian citizen," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't have anything on the ground that can truly relieve the fears and the anxieties that are plaguing minorities at this time. Sadly, the Alawite sect has been taken hostage by this regime."

He rejected the criticism of the opposition, saying the radicalization of fighters on the ground is the fault of Mr. Assad for "portraying this as a Sunni revolution," and of the United States and others for failing to support the mainstream armed opposition through military intervention.

"This is the best way to reassure the minorities, by helping the moderate forces on the ground," he added.

The United States has long called for a pluralistic new government that preserves state structures, and seems to be addressing the issue with new urgency. In a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Friday, William J. Burns, a deputy secretary of state, stressed that the exile opposition was reaching out to government technocrats on how to manage "the day after" -- for instance, keeping electricity, security and other infrastructure running.

But Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said time was being wasted as the United States and others indulged the opposition's demand that Mr. Assad resign before talks, adding, "That's not a political solution, that's victory."

Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Center, defended the opposition, arguing that it is hard to change a dynamic that the Assad family worked for decades to create -- stamping out any alternative Alawite leadership or moderate opposition to persuade Alawites and others that their fate is tied to the government's.

The opposition's efforts at reassurance and outreach have been mixed, analysts say. On Dec. 17, the Syrian vice president, Farouk al-Shara, seemed to hint at compromise, suggesting to Lebanon's Al Akhbar newspaper that some in the government, the Baath Party and the army believe "there is no alternative to a political solution, and that there can be no return to the past."

The coalition's only public response was a statement saying that Mr. Sharaa's comments showed "the regime is facing its final days with difficulty and seeks not to die alone."

Protesters in Syria have raised signs calling for a general amnesty "for all supporters of the regime with no blood on their hands," Mr. Harling said -- a statement probably intended to reassure but with the effect of suggesting that mere support for the government is a crime requiring amnesty.

Meanwhile, the government has arguably invested more effort in persuasion. It continues to pay salaries and social benefits in some rebel-held areas. Since Mr. Assad's speech, Syrian state news media have issued a drumbeat of reports on preparations for "national dialogue."

That process may be "placating urban fence-sitters," Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy recently. "It costs him little to inundate this audience with promises of political progress, however meaningless they may be."

Hania Mourtada and Kareem Fahim contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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