by Ayman Ahmed (Background, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 3, Ramadan, 1441)
In an overview published in 2017 as to why Western proxies failed to topple the Syrian government, the US magazine, the Atlantic, wrote: “For a few years, no cause was as celebrated in Western and Arab capitals as Syria’s uprising... Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia delivered thousands of tons of military equipment delivered to Syria from 2012 onward. Sources close to the Qatari regime claim that it donated as much as $3 billion between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, President Barack Obama initiated ‘one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the CIA,’ with one official later estimating that American-backed rebels may have killed and wounded as many as 100,000 Syrian or allied soldiers.”
This is exactly the reason why the so-called “Syrian opposition” failed. It was not an opposition, but a NATO proxy force, from the very beginning. Nevertheless, there are legitimate political opposition groups that are present in Syria which receive almost no Western media coverage in comparison to NATO-sponsored “Syrian opposition” groups.
Who are the non-NATO controlled groups opposed to the Syrian government and what are their objectives? This brief overview will try to highlight some of the more notable ones. Prior to delving deeper, however, we would like to offer a broad analysis of the non-imperialist backed Syrian opposition based on dozens of sources reviewed for this report.
Overall, the legitimate Syrian opposition groups that are not under Nato control are non-violent. They do not receive huge sums from Western or Arabian capitals and most of the information about them is available only in Arabic sources. A broad overview of these groups is presented in order to break the informational blockade on the actual socio-political process in Syria which is taking place outside of NATO’s direct military, political or financial control.
Based on the evaluation of numerous sources, it is clear that the internal opposition has been significantly weakened by groups that are on NATO’s payroll. External powers targeted with a specific purpose many of the second and third tier leadership cadres of the domestic opposition right from the beginning of the proxy-war in Syria. It appears that the second and third level leadership of the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) was lured away from the top leadership and connected to the NATO-backed “opposition” groups, thus undermining the grassroots appeal and influence of the organization. This approach of the Western powers further widened the gap between the Ikhwan’s Saudi educated cadres and the traditional Sufi Islamic members, which constitute the mainstream Islamic trend in Syria.
The case of Moaz al-Khatib, former head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is important to keep in mind. Even though he joined NATO affiliated groups, Moaz al-Khatib resigned from his position once he realized the extent of foreign control over the so-called opposition. Since stepping down as head of the SNC, al-Khatib has advocated “direct negotiations with the regime… We shouldn’t wait for international conferences that are held every couple of months and that cost the Syrian people time and bloodshed. Negotiation is a principle rather than a tactical issue.”
It is important to note that the Syrian branch of the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) and the Sunni Muslim community of Syria is nowhere near having a monolithic approach to the current Syrian crisis. The sectarian narrative of events in Syria does not withstand the basic tests of reality, past and present. In 2015, even the US Foreign Policy magazine had to admit that “many in the country’s majority sect are still fighting for the government.”
It must be remembered that two key Sunni Muslim scholars, Issam al-Attar, one of the founders of the Syrian Muslim brotherhood, and Sheikh Mohammed Saeed Ramadan al-Bouti, did not support the armed uprising against the Syrian government. Both figures have a significant number of influential scholars in Syria that were their students. The so-called “Islamist” trend within the NATO backed opposition is mainly Saudi influenced or comprise Wahhabi-sponsored groups.
Even the pro-Western opposition media outlet, al-monitor, reporting on the so-called Islamic militias in Syria in 2012 pointed out that “in the context of examining Islamist groups involved in the Syrian revolution, it is necessary to point out that the Muslim Brotherhood has no presence in the midst of all this clamor.” In fact, Issam-al Attar’s sister, Dr. Najah al-Attar has been the Vice-President of Syria since 2006. She was Minister of Culture in the 1970s at the height of tensions between the Syrian government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Syria’s internal politics has a lot of uncomfortable realities for those who have swallowed NATO’s sectarian narrative. One of those rough realities is that Col. Rifaat al-Assad (Hafez al-Assad’s brother), and brother-in-law of the Saudi monarch, Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, who led the military assault against the Ikhwan in 1982 in Hama is now part of the external Syrian “opposition” based in Paris.
From the very start of the uprising, it was the external opposition which pushed Syria into the abyss of senseless violence. A report by al-monitor in 2012 highlighted how militias infested by foreign takfiri fighters are much better funded than local Syrian militants. Quoting a local FSA commander “Hasan Abdul Rizak, the leader of Mustafa Abdul Rizak’s brigade in Atarab — a brigade under the direct control of the FSA and its commander, Riad al-Asaad — said that since the fighting began nearly a year ago his fighters have received only a single payment from the Syrian National Council (SNC).”
In 2019, a hybrid Syrian political platform known as Council of the Syrian Charter (CSC) was formed. The CSC combines influential Syrians inside and outside Syria. The report by the British regime’s TV channel, the BBC, on CSC’s meeting in Berlin in January of this year, states that “they are all leaders in Syrian society who have come here to fight the narrative, spread by both the Assad government and the armed opposition, that ethnic or religious divides are insurmountable. Many of them are close to the Syrian government - and have flown straight from Damascus - but do not necessarily fully support it (Emphasis added). Others come from communities that are suffering under President Bashar al-Assad but do not back the armed opposition. Some have fled the war and are based in Germany. This is the silent majority that simply wants peace.”
The BBC’s confirmation that there are internally operating opposition figures in Syria is a rare admission by the Western corporate media of the factor of non-NATO connected opposition groups. This has been the reality of Syria for many years but Western sources only now feel comfortable to give them some coverage in the mainstream, because it has become evident that NATO’s “Syrian opposition” has no chances of overthrowing the government in Damascus.
Prior to presenting further information on the non-NATO controlled opposition organizations of Syria, it is important to mention two other semi-autonomous socio-political entities in Syria, namely the Sufi Islamic Jamaats and Palestinian refugees. Our research shows that while most people in the two segments support the Syrian government, they are not under its direct control. Both groups also have their differences with the Syrian government, which we will not delve into here. Nevertheless, the Palestinians and the Sufi Islamic circles play an important role in Syria’s internal dynamics and they should not be ignored if one wants to have a broader idea as to why NATO’s project in Syria failed.
Sufi Islam is an established mainstream Islamic trend in Syria. One of the obvious manifestations of this Islamic inclination that it is on the opposite side of the “revolution” was the desecration of graves of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) companions by the externally backed Salafi militias. The case of Hujr ibn Adi’s (ra) grave was the most widely reported. By desecrating the graves of the companions and prominent Islamic scholars, the Salafis were expressing their hatred of Sufi Islamic circles which did not lend support to the so-called “revolution.”
Examining the stance of Sufi Islamic jamaats, Dr. Vladimir Akhmedov, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, highlights how many of the Sufi Islamic jamaats did not join the “revolution” project. Dr. Akhmedov points out that prominent Syrian Sufi jamaats like the ones led by Sheikha Munira al-Qubaysi, Mahmud Okam and some notable student circles of Sheikh Ahmed Keftaro and of the al-Rifai brothers chose not to side with the destabilization project in Syria. Many other Sufi Islamic scholars like Wahba al-Zuhayli and Dr. Mohammad al-Habash while not openly supportive of the Syrian government, also did not support NATO’s destabilization policy of the country.
The US think-tank Carnegie also identifies other prominent Islamic scholars like Sheikh Mohammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed and Sheikh Ahmad Bardreddin Hassoun as staunch supporters of the Syrian government.
Due to the low-profile tariqa structure of Sufi jamaats, close students of prominent Islamic Sufi scholars, who are not known publicly, have their own study circles and grassroots following. Their grassroot followers did not join the armed destabilization project of Syria either. This explains why the majority Sunni Syrian Arab army did not switch sides.
It is also important to note that most Western sources tend to downplay Sufi Islamic trends and scholars which sided with the Syrian government. Instead, they promote Salafi minded and Saudi educated scholars.
At the beginning of the destabilization plot in 2011, the Syrian government released some prominent Wahhabi prisoners, like Zahran Alloush, in order to easy tensions with the Salafi trend within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This policy backfired and created some tensions between the Syrian government and the Sufi Islamic jamaats which were not pleased with the move. The Western media has spun this failed approach as Bashar al-Assad’s deliberate attempt to empower the radicals.
One of the key internal players in the Syrian conflict are the half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria. Throughout the war, the external proxies of NATO invested a lot of financial and political capital to win the Palestinians over to their side. Being mostly Sunni, the objective to pull Palestinians to their side has been a very important political goal for NATO backed groups to legitimize their poisonous sectarian narrative of events in Syria. Winning the Palestinians over to the side of NATO’s project in Syria would have also greatly undermined Islamic Iran’s strategic alliance with Palestinian resistance groups. This co-option tactic did not materialize as the Syrian government managed to establish a semi-autonomous Palestinian military infrastructure taking on the takfiris, known as Liwa al-Quds. The inability to win over the Palestinians in Syria who have been politically and economically marginalized, is an important indicator that the “opposition” has always been politically bankrupt.
NCB is largest Damascus-based opposition organization which is not under NATO’s direct military, political or financial control. In 2013, NCB’s leader stated that it “will not take part in a national dialogue before violence stops. Any negotiation—not just a national dialogue—must be held under the aegis of the UN-Arab League envoy (Lakhdar Brahimi), there won’t be direct negotiations or dialogue with the regime. Assad had to make such proposals at the start of the conflict, in April or May 2011, but he refused and opted for the security solution.”
According to Carnegie Middle East, “the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change is a coalition of non-armed opposition parties and figures based in Syria. The National Coordination Body was established in June 2011 to unite the demands of the opposition and organize political dialogue and peaceful anti-regime protests.”
Its founding document called for peaceful protests to secure basic demands before the opposition would engage in any dialogue with the government: release of political prisoners, withdrawal of the army from cities, annulment of Article 8 of the constitution (ending the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power and allowing other parties to compete freely for public office), lifting the state of emergency, allowing foreign journalists to enter Syria, and prosecuting those responsible for violence.
Members of the National Coordination Body are committed to three principles: “No” to foreign military intervention, “No” to religious and sectarian instigation, and “No” to violence and the militarization of the revolution.
The National Coordination Body encompassed opposition figures and parties including the National Democratic Rally. The Rally itself comprised five parties, notably the Democratic Arab Socialist Union headed by Hassan Abdul Azim, the official spokesperson for the National Democratic Rally and chairman of the National Coordination Body.
The Rally also included the Arab Revolutionary Workers’ Party, represented by Hazem Nahar; the Communist Labor Party, represented by Abdul-Aziz al-Khair; the Arab Socialist Movement, represented by Munir al-Bitar; the Syriac Union Party; and the Democratic People’s Party, which has not been represented in the Executive Bureau of the National Coordination Body. The National Coordination Body also included parties with Marxist leanings; the ‘Together for a Free Democratic Syria movement’, founded by Mounzer Khaddam; and independent, civil society neighborhood committees.
The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change is led by Hassan Abdul Azim. In Abdul Azim’s opinion, Turkey and Qatar are taking advantage of the mistakes and aloofness of the Syrian regime. He believes Russia and China might be able to convince the regime to stop violence. The National Coordination Body also called on Iran to encourage the Syrian regime to stop the killing and release prisoners. Abdul Azim saw the Arab initiative as the best peace initiative and supported the intervention of Arab peacekeeping forces. He also welcomed Kofi Annan’s mission and the Arab League’s support, saying it was in line with the Russian initiative.”
He is a Syrian opposition leader who lives in Paris. He was born in 1951 in the village of Umm al-Mayadhin in Daraa, southern Syria. It was in Daraa that the proxy-war on Syria was launched under the cover of a “revolution”.
Dr. Manna as well as his family have long opposed the current Syrian government. His brother Maan al-Awdat, a union organizer was killed by Syrian government forces in Daraa in August 2011.
Since the early days of the Syrian crisis, Dr. Manna has opposed militarization of the internal struggle and categorically rejected any foreign involvement in Syria. According to al-monitor, in an interview with Al-Hayat in 2012, Dr. Manna stated: “Western countries are out of sync with one another as a result of diverging views that have reached the point of wanting to transition from “militarizing the revolution to militarizing the political approach.”
Since the early months of the revolution, Dr. Manna has openly taken anti-imperialist position and was openly exposing the inconsistencies in Western narrative on Syria. He is a non-office-holding member of the Arab Committee for Human Rights and a leader in the National Coordinating Body, serving as Vice General Coordinator.
Even though Dr. Manna resides in Paris, he is an influential member of Syria’s anti-Baathist intellectual segment of the Syrian society. Many non-NATO connected Syrian opposition figures view him in a positive light.
He is a Syrian journalist and activist who has been opposed to the ruling Baath party in Syria since the 1980s. He is co-founder of the Syrian Democratic Platform. Kilo is of Christian background and has publicly called out the inconsistencies of the “opposition” financed and promoted by Western governments.
In a 2012 article for al-monitor, Kilo stated that “Syrians have been exposed to risks far beyond their control, including widespread foreign intervention and a lurking civil war. As a result, an enormous segment of Syrian society has started to feel confused, fearful and remorseful. According to this segment, the revolution’s original direction — that which they had hoped would lead to freedom, justice and equality — has been forgotten.”
Throughout the proxy war in Syria, Kilo categorically rejected the Western push for the creation of a semi-independent Kurdish state entity carved out of the Syrian territory. This was one of the main points of contention between Kilo and organizations linked to NATO backed Syrian “opposition.”
Michele Kilo also refused to be part of Syrian Coalition of Secular and Democratic Forces which called for Western intervention in Syria and never supported the idea of a no-fly zone.
He is an anti-Baathist communist intellectual who coordinated his opposition to the Syrian government with the NCB. He was the head of the Communist Action Party. Al-Kheir is a founding member of the Marxist Leftist Assembly which was established in 2007. He was member of the Damascus Declaration (DD) initiative which called for an electoral and multi-party political process in Syria. After eruption of the 2011 crisis, he continued his political activities in Syria and rejected the militarization of the conflict and adherence to the Western military and political line on Syria.
Al-Kheir and his son disappeared in 2012 within the territory formally under the control of the Syrian government, after returning from a meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing. While there have been reports of his death in 2013 in a Syrian government prison, no certain or corroborated confirmation on this can be found in English sources.
His wife, Fadwa Mahmoud co-founded the organization, Families for Freedom, which is a Berlin-based NGO advocating for the release of prisoners and the missing by both sides in the Syrian conflict.
There are other smaller opposition groups in Syria which like their large counterparts, do not get exposure in the Western corporate media. Here is a brief list: General Committee of the National Democratic Work Committee, the National Coordinating Committee (NCC), the State-Building Current, the Popular Front for Change and Liberation.
According to al-monitor.com’s report in 2014, General Committee of the National Democratic Work Committee’s position on the conflict has been to hold “negotiations between the regime and opposition delegation, which consists of [currents] at home and abroad, with social and economic figures, under the sponsorship of the United Nations and in the presence of international guarantees to reach a political process through the transitional phase; and to agree on a declaration of constitutional principles that define the new political system for the state and that organize the transitional phase represented by forming a transitional government of national unity that will work toward a cease-fire and to prepare new legislative and presidential elections.”