Syrian Opposition Groups Must Unite in Order to Oust Assad

You can't trust the validity of any war report emerging from Syria, but one thing is clear: The opposition needs to come together if it wants to bring down the regime.

The Free Syrian Army is said to be in control of most of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and its economic capital. Representatives of the Syrian opposition, who announced this development on Tuesday, added that President Bashar Assad's army no longer has a ground presence in the northwestern city, though attacks from the air are continuing. The next day, in fact, there were reports that an aerial bombing had left dozens dead.

If the opposition's claim regarding Aleppo is true, this would represent an unprecedented achievement in the campaign against Assad and his supporters. Fielding combined forces and showing a certain degree of cooperation between them, the rebels were able to force the Syrian army to withdraw from the city (which is second in importance only to the capital, Damascus, in terms of Assad's rule in the country ).

If true, the capture of Aleppo is a landmark event in the collapse of Assad's control and the ongoing weakening of the regular army, whose numbers still considerably exceed those of the Free Syrian Army. On the surface, at least, this is a far greater accomplishment than the assassination of key members of the military leadership on July 18, when a large bomb was detonated in the headquarters of the national security council in Damascus.

Whereas the killing of three members of the president's inner circle was a classic guerrilla operation (Assad labeled it a terrorist act ), the battle for Aleppo was a full-fledged military campaign. An opposition victory there would likely shorten the path to Damascus.

However, an outside observer finds it difficult to know whom to believe. The opposition consists of a great many disparate groups, each acting in the name of its own idea or to further a particular interest. There have been too many occasions when announcements issued by a particular group in a particular city - under the name of the Free Syrian Army - have been inconsistent with the claims of a different armed group, which operated in the same city and the same neighborhood, and even called itself by the same name.

In fact, it is impossible to believe any of the numerous rebel groups. The opposition has published numberless reports which quickly turned out to be incorrect, to say the least. But it is equally impossible to believe the regime. While Assad tries to convince the international community and his subjects that more than 25,000 people have been killed by force majeure, and not by his troops, the opposition is straining to explain why the government is about to fall.

On Monday, for example, a Syrian army general claimed that the regime would regain control of Aleppo within 10 days. In this regard, the subsequent opposition announcement is probably closer to the truth.

At any moment a booby-trapped car or an assassin could put an end to Assad's life, or at least toll his death knell. However, until that happens he will likely go on massacring his people. Assad's army shows no signs of collapse. At most, it is undergoing a slow and prolonged disintegration.

Searching for unity

In an effort to deal with the divisions among its ranks, the opposition announced on Wednesday the creation of a new body - the Syrian National Army - which is supposed to unite all the different armed forces fighting against the Assad regime. The man appointed to head this new military organization is General Mohammed Hussein al-Haj Ali, who will act as chief-of-staff of the anti-regime fighters. In an interview he gave to an Arab newspaper yesterday, he said that the unification under one commander of the fighting forces in exile and in Syria is aimed at preventing civil war, or war between different ethnic populations, which may erupt following the fall of the regime. But even this "historical unification" might not overcome the gaps, arguments and differences among the divided Syrian opposition groups.

One of the commanders of the opposition army, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, confirmed in an interview with an Arab satellite channel this week that opponents of the regime within Syria are in a process of uniting, although fragmentation is meanwhile increasing among the rebel groups outside the country. Every such group is promoting a different agenda, he said. In contrast, the opposition forces inside the country are coming together behind a solid national vision.

Al-Sheikh described himself in the interview as the commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army. Until a few months ago, he was considered a rival to Col. Riad al-Asaad, who also holds the title of commander-in-chief of the FSA. A few months ago, a historic union between the two appeared to have been achieved. However, it soon became apparent that the dispute over the leadership of the FSA remained unresolved.

Al-Sheikh has already shown that the world needs to take his declarations and analyses with more than a grain of salt. Last February, in an interview to the British Daily Telegraph newspaper, he predicted that the Syrian army would collapse within a month. Still, the disunity among opposition militias remains unchanged.

On Monday, the day before the Al-Sheikh interview, Col. Fatih Hasoon, also from the FSA, announced that a revolutionary military council had been formed in Homs. The new body, he said, would act to unite all the brigades operating in that city under the FSA name. Last month, members of the FSA issued a statement that a revolutionary transition council had been formed in Aleppo, which was supposed to unite the activity of all the armed groups in the city. However, unity was not achieved in Aleppo and is not likely to be achieved in Homs, either.

In fact, the disunity within the opposition is far greater than what the media reports intimate. A senior member of the Syrian opposition who lives in Europe tells Haaretz, by phone, that the rivalry between the array of anti-Assad groups is preventing the opposition from bringing about the president's fall more quickly.

"There are many reasons for this," he says. "Many foreign interests are involved in the struggle in Syria and are influencing the opposition. Take France, for example. It is not clear whether Paris supports the armed opposition or is against it. Some countries back the FSA, others are boycotting it.

"Nevertheless," he continues, "I promise you that the Syrian people will be victorious. The revolution will come, even if the price is that the whole nation becomes crippled and executions take place on an even larger scale."

Until recently, this opposition figure had close ties with the FSA's Col. Al-Asaad. He argues that the disagreements between Al-Asaad and the Syrian National Council - the ostensible political body that is under the opposition's leadership - has neutralized the commander-in-chief.

"At present, Al-Asaad has no real ability to influence developments," the opposition figure claims. "The Syrian National Council acted against him from the first minute. They did not like the idea of an armed opposition and therefore accused him, and even me, of treason. Afterward, they brought in Al-Sheikh in order to weaken Al-Asaad. That had a dramatic effect on the FSA's ability. Take the situation in Homs, for example: There are at least four battalions there, each operating separately from the others, and there is no command umbrella under which they all come together."

According to the opposition figure, Burhan Ghalioun - who headed the Syrian National Council before stepping down in May - continues to control it: "He has 20 seats in the council's leadership, while all the other groups have 20 seats between them. He does not represent anyone, only himself. That is why the council is unable to wield influence."

The rivalries between the opposition groups have been compounded by the activity of another faction that has joined the opponents of Assad in recent months: Al-Qaida-style extreme Islamists. Thousands of them are now fighting against the Syrian army, some in coordination with various FSA units. Their very presence is generating a lot of tension among the regime's opponents, some of whom vehemently reject the idea of integrating the Al-Qaida militants into the battles against Assad's forces.

Asked to comment on Israel's stance in regard to the developments in Syria, the opposition figure adopts a cautious tone.

"Your approach is not clear," he says. "You need to decide whether you are for the human rights activists in Syria and everywhere else, or for the despots. The Syrian nation has no problem living in peace with Israel, if you return the Golan Heights. We are not looking for war, and therefore a peace agreement can be attained. We understand how the region's dictators and rulers have exploited the conflict with Israel, in order to stay in power and curtail the people's rights. But at the end of the day you have to respect us and our needs."

A scene in Aleppo this week.