Division within Syrian opposition propagates violence despite new coalition

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Forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime continue to face challenges despite forming a coalition organization officially recognized by the European Union, six Persian Gulf countries and the United Kingdom. The Assad regime has denied its citizens civil liberties and forced imprisonment, torture and death on those speaking out against government. Over the last few months, the international community has urged the disparate factions of Syrians demanding democratic reform and Assad’s resignation to unite for an end to the latest conflict, which began in March 2011 and has since become one of the region’s most bloody conflicts.

The coalition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, gained official recognition from members of the international community shortly after its formation on Nov. 11.  The Canadian government has held off declaring official recognition, citing concerns that religious minorities are not represented under the new organization.

Even with the international support the coalition has received, there are still many non-affiliated factions acting as anti-Assad forces. One of the most prominent opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is still operational but has lost legitimacy with many Syrians.

“There is no such thing as Free Syrian Army now — it’s just a hundred different militias all with different agendas and goals, fighting in different ways, all kind of loosely aligned under one name,” says a 23-year-old Canadian woman who asked not to be named and who now lives in Damascus, the capital city of Syria. She says her neighbourhood is the safest in Damascus, but because the community is mostly pro-government, the security checkpoint there is frequently attacked by opposition forces. “Some of [the FSA forces] I’m sure conduct themselves properly, but for the most part, the general opinion these days is that the FSA has destroyed Syria . . . the divides in society are way too deep now to be fixed any time soon.”

She also says that many Syrians do not care who wins, so long as the violence ends.

Sanctions, including asset freezes and dealings prohibitions, have been imposed on entities associated with Assad’s regime by Canada and other countries.

“The economy is crashing pretty fast. The sanctions are impacting everyone’s lives, and everyone is tied into this conflict in some way nowadays. They’ve lost someone they know, or their house, or someone they know lost someone they know,” she says.

The question remains whether the establishment of an opposition government would end the violence.

UVic humanities professor Andrew Wender spoke at a panel for Amnesty International in early October as a specialist in Syrian history and politics. “I think that this could go on for a very long time,” he says.  “And even if Assad falls, perhaps especially when and if Assad falls, the kind of civil conflict that would follow as the different forces in Syria jockey for a position in a new government could see the conflict deepen and spiral in unforeseen ways.”

The violence in the Syria civil conflict has escalated in recent months. More than 40 000 people have been killed since the conflict began 20 months ago. The number of displaced persons pouring into neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq tripled between June and October this year. More than 311 500 Syrian refugees were registered with the UN Refugee Agency as of Oct. 2.

Assad’s forces continue to carry out a brutal crackdown on those who oppose the regime, calling protestors “foreign-backed terrorists” and “saboteurs.” Assad justifies his regime’s participation in the conflict as aiming to restore peace to Syria by fighting terrorists in the country. Assad has been Syria’s president since 2000, following his father’s 29-year reign.

“As brutal as he is, that is Assad’s whole argument. He argues that he is the one bastion of, as he put it, secularism and stability in the region,” says Wender. “And this is one of the main ways the Assad regime has sold its legitimacy for a long time, which is saying that, ‘It is us or chaos.’ ”

Assad also aligns his regime with a union called the Axis of Resistance, which represents itself as standing up against Western imperialism (such as American- and UN-led intervention — military or otherwise) and includes Iran and Lebanon.

Russia historically shares this aversion to Western intervention and in its capacity as a Security Council member has repeatedly vetoed any UN-sanctioned intervention (as has China). Syria represents Russia’s closest Middle Eastern ally.

Countries from the West, Turkey and several Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though they’ve taken different steps to address the Syria situation, are alike in their condemnation of civilian massacres led by the Assad regime.

“Canada calls on all members of the UN Security Council to join in condemning these actions,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird in a statement in July, “including those members who have previously supported the regime, and to adopt a strong resolution that contains binding sanctions against the Assad regime.”

Canada has enacted a cautious response to the Syria situation; it has imposed sanctions of increasing scope and severity since May 2011 and lent vocal support to Syrian opposition rather than recognizing the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces or supporting a recent proposal by Turkey to place missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The sheer array of domestic and international actors and each of their interests in the Syria conflict has complicated prospects of a resolution.

“The problem now is the cycle of violence has gone on so far,” says Wender, “and there’s such deep hatred and hard feelings within the country now that it can be very difficult to see how you are going to bring about a resolution to this which is going to satisfy and bring peace to a meaningful number of people.”

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