Assertions and opinions in this publication are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy

In a notable shift from early December prognostications of a protracted conflict in Syria, some now suggest the Assad regime may be approaching its end.  Such opinions often cite the opposition military gains around Damascus and Aleppo, the regime’s desperate resort to the use of Scud missiles, and the earlier indications it was considering unleashing its chemical arsenal against its own people, a charge vehemently denied by Assad’s government.  Opposition advances notwithstanding, however, the regime continues to control large arsenals of heavy weaponry in strategic sites near major cities, and to date has not relinquished control of any major city. 

Syria-watchers in Washington and elsewhere have offered plausible fragmentation scenarios for any transition period, whether involving current opposition members or potential others. But whatever scenario materializes, a fundamental issue must be addressed to both facilitate the transition and mitigate its disruptive potential, and that is the relationship between Syria’s civilian opposition leaders and those now undertaking military action against the regime. This relationship, which remains unclear even following the December 12 “Friends of Syria” meeting in Marrakech, will be pivotal to any transition scenario.  The international community should make clear to the parties the necessity of establishing a unified, integrated and coordinated chain of command, ideally one in which military force is seen as an asset and projection of civilian interest.  This is critical to the overthrow of the Assad regime while minimizing the trauma associated with transition and any spillover effect or external interference in a new Syria’s domestic affairs.  In practical terms, this requires that the newly-formed Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the military command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) reach agreement on establishing a mechanism for cooperation, coordination and chain of command. 

As it supports the development of a truly unified and integrated Syrian opposition, the international community should be guided by the following considerations:

-- Relations between the civilian opposition and military elements, i.e. the SOC and the recently unified military command including FSA groups, will determine the direction of any post-Assad governing authority.   The July 3 Cairo transition plan, whose efficacy remains unclear, stipulated that the National Security Council be headed by the chairman of the Executive Council, which some took to signal the primacy of civilian control in any transitional government. Reportedly some SOC members have sought to clarify this understanding with FSA leaders subsequent to last November’s meetings in Doha, but if so we have seen no results, whether because of an unwillingness to admit publicly that SOC members must negotiate with the militias or because militia leaders find it difficult to accept civilian control after the very real sacrifices they have made so far in the uprising.  Both attitudes are understandable, but the international community must be united in persuading both sides that civil-military cooperation is indispensable to maximizing Syrian national interests in the longer run;

-- The degree of present and future humanitarian and economic assistance from the international community to the opposition body, the SOC, increasingly recognized by the international community as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the conference of Friends of Syria in Marrakech on December 12th, will be largely dependent on the degree to which donors believe there is a strong element of civil-military coordination and even civilian, i.e. SOC, control of the militias. If the future Syrian transition government is charged with overseeing all governmental tasks, to include security, then it would seem logical to begin to involve the newly recognized SOC in the transparent oversight and metrics of international military assistance.  This oversight and coordination would serve to mitigate donor concerns regarding the inadvertent provision of lethal assistance to groups such as the recently designated Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah, and allow for a consolidated effort that would change the military balance on the ground to the extent the regime might seriously consider coming to the negotiating table. 

-- The highly laudable efforts already begun by local coordination committees and revolutionary military councils require further coordination according to a clearly defined system of priorities.  Opposition efforts will not end once Assad is ousted; they will then be responsible for taking the lead in governing Syria, responsible from Day One for implementing efficient public services related to security, health, other basic social services, and reconstruction efforts.  This will require consolidating Syria’s economic base. As we have witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transitional government’s success in accomplishing this will largely determine their ability to secure popular support to evolve into a full-fledged stable government.  While, at present, military actions seem more crucial for confronting the regime’s daily attacks, administrative management, including the provision of social services and financial management, are also indispensable for the success of any transitional government.  The international community has the necessary technical expertise for assisting in the restructuring, consolidation and empowerment of central and local governments and will be more readily able to offer this assistance if requested by a unified SOC with clear civilian control.

-- Opposition militias must organize themselves and adopt an internal unified “command and control,” or C2, structure.  As the future guarantors of “state security” they must establish a monopoly over the state’s employment of military force.  A unified C2 structure will both contribute to greater efficiency in the conduct of current military operations and greater efficacy in responding to civilian control.  Otherwise, maverick militias and foreign-assisted (and possibly directed) military groups will remain active in the transitional period, potentially disrupting the security objectives of any future transitional government.  The recent December 9 efforts in Antalya by the FSA and other opposition military groups to unify their command structure was a big step forward, though this coordination and cohesiveness remains to be tested, as does its cooperation with the SOC.  Inclusiveness will also be key to the success of any transitional government, which should explicitly seek the participation of minority groups such as Kurds, Christians, Druze and, most importantly, Alawites.

-- Finally, notwithstanding the unique nature of the various national uprisings over the past year and a half, all share the goal of democratization for expanding political and economic inclusiveness, which in the longer run maximizes political and economic stability and protects the interests of the country from foreign intervention in internal affairs.  Thus, those who would oppose and deny individual political, economic and religious rights cannot be part of a successful transition process. The SOC and the FSA, as well as the people of Syria, must take steps to protect against and prevent the prevalence of jihadist extremist groups in Syria. Obviously, only a shared sense of national purpose and tolerance will prevent the rise of jihadist-extremist currents in Syrian society, but the more capable a unified and integrated transition government, pluralistic in its composition and efficient in the delivery of social services, the less able extremist networks will be to gain a toehold by exploiting community demands for support.  A strong military body that is under democratic and pluralistic civilian control, in this case that of the SOC, which increasingly is recognized internationally, will be indispensable to transitional capability and legitimacy.

If a transitional government is unable to successfully implement a “national” project, putting aside sectarian and ethnic differences, and finding common ground for establishing a democratic, inclusive, modern nation-state of Syria, we risk having another dictatorial regime replace the current one, and the irredentist fragmentation of the Syrian state by sectarian warlords.

Do the SOC and the recently unified opposition military command, the FSA, share this assessment?  Have they developed a clear approach for dealing with the fundamental issue, i.e. the principle of civilian control over the military in democratic societies?  And has the SOC initiated serious discussions in this regard with the FSA and other non-aligned military opposition groups on the ground?

Their answers will determine whether the Syrian revolution will follow its original course as an uprising of democratic, pluralist and national voices against the Assad regime, or whether it will be diverted and hijacked by those who have intervened in Syria now for their own narrow sectarian and ethnic interests, or worse, as coldly calculating foreign interests manipulating their proxy wars on Syrian soil, soaked with Syrian blood.