The Syrian Opposition: Whither to?

July 6, 2022

Context and rationale

Today, Syria is a de facto divided country in which Syrian stakeholders are dependent on their respective external backers to preserve power and remain relevant. This is particularly the case with the recognised opposition, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), that represents the mainstream anti-Assad movement on the international stage and administers territory in north and northwest Syria.

To meet the twin challenges of engaging with the international community and the UN-led political process, and administrating large swaths of northern Syria, the SOC dominates two main institutions. The first, the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), is the body that represents the broader opposition with the SOC playing a leading and guiding role alongside other opposition platforms. The second, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), has a governance role on the ground with its Defense Ministry serving as a point of reference for armed groups that have gathered under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA).

These opposition institutions face the challenge of meeting the interests of their external backers and, at the same time, those of their supporters and constituents inside the country. In order to survive as an essential component in the Syrian political landscape, the SOC and its institutions need to balance internal and external interests in such a way that it maximises leverage and enhances it resources and capacity. However, the relationship between opposition institutions is not always smooth let alone efficient or even properly understood. On top of growing unpopularity from the ground and shrinking pool of external allies, the opposition faces an existential crisis.

The disappearance of the opposition as a political actor would be a setback for peace in Syria. There is a case to make that the survival of the SOC and SNC is vital insofar as the UN peace process, and with it the legally binding UNSCR 2254, demands there be an opposition as a partner in political talks. In addition, the necessary measures to alleviate the economic and humanitarian crisis require international recognition, networks and the structures on the ground that under the circumstances only the SOC and SIG can provide. Thus the survival (and strengthening) of the opposition is of a vital interest to conflict resolution efforts in Syria as well as in the interest of the roughly two million civilians living under opposition administration.

The question is: how can the opposition continue to survive given the territorial division of Syria and the frozen nature of the conflict that is likely to last for at least the short to medium term?

Proposed structure of paper (max 12 pages):

  1. Introduction: On the state of the conflict and the different strands of the Syrian opposition, i.e. what falls under the term “Syrian opposition” (including groups that are not SOC/SNC). Basically: What is the opposition in 2022?
  2. Technical section on the SOC/SNC/SIG: Dataset plus graphic that illustrates the relationship between the institutions. We explain what they are, how they are composed, and what they do.
  3. Power dynamics: Analysis of conflict lines within the SOC/SNC/SIG and between the opposition and external backers (this includes criticism). Why is this “machine” performing poorly?
  4. Challenges and raison d’être: Elaboration on why the opposition has an important function in light of the challenges that Syria faces. What is the function of the opposition going forward?
  5. Looking forward: How the opposition can make use of the room of maneuver it has to alleviate the suffering of civilians and help reviving the political process. What are the changes that need to happen?