The Syrian political opposition, largely formed and run in exile, consists of more than a dozen disparate groups. The umbrella organization that unites most of them is the Syrian National Coalition. More than 120 countries, including the U.S. and its allies, have recognized the coalition as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. Its members have been criticized as a fractured, squabbling set of would-be leaders, unable to settle on key decisions. In self-defense, they say they haven’t received the steady support they need, particularly from the U.S., to pull themselves together.
Why do they seem to be so weak and feckless? It’s partly a function of Syria’s peculiar politics. Over more than four decades of Assad family rule, political life in Syria has been severely restricted. Opponents of the regime were routinely harassed, jailed, killed or forced into exile. That essentially worked to eliminate Assad’s competition: over time, there were few political figures who could challenge the Assad regime, with popular support on the ground.
So what could come next, beyond the Assad regime? There have been different visions put forward by opposition groups inside and outside the country. The trick will be landing on one and agreeing on who leads it – something that will only become clear when a political transition moves into place and competing interests are reconciled.
There isn’t a total vacuum of potential leaders. There are some figures who capture Syrian minds and hearts, like former coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib. There are also traditional Sunni political families that held power before the Assad regime took over (like the Atassi family from Homs and the Shishakly family from Hama). And there’s a political opposition inside the country, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, though some argue it has limited influence. That all leaves open the possibility that someone could emerge to lead a political transition.
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