As Assad Hangs Tough, Syria's Opposition Seeks Unity — and a Viable Strategy

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An image grab taken from footage posted on YouTube on July 15 shows Syrian antigovernment protesters running from security forces in Douma, a suburb of Damascus

Hopes that the Syrian uprising might be ended through stable democratic reforms under the stewardship of President Bashar Assad appear increasingly remote amid a hardening polarization and a dangerous impasse.

After 19 weeks and some 1,800 deaths — including those of over 350 members of the security forces — mainly unarmed protesters continue to challenge the state's fearsome security forces despite the near certainty of a violent response, while Assad steadfastly refuses to relinquish power. (The opposition insists that the security forces' dead were killed by fellow soldiers for refusing to fire on demonstrators, while the regime blames armed Sunni extremists.) Assad promises vast reforms but has yet to deliver, and has played on deep-seated fears by suggesting that his secular regime is all that stands in the way of sectarian chaos.

Assad blames the unrest on Sunni militants, "armed gangs" and "64,000 outlaws," suggesting that these elements are now pervasive in a state long cowed and controlled by an army of not-so-secret police deployed on every corner and in every café. Even as his security forces mete out bloody punishment to those who dare to protest, Assad has sought to engage elements of this opposition — most recently in a national-dialogue conference boycotted by most opposition elements, who derided the initiative as disingenuous while tanks remain in the streets. The increasingly dangerous stalemate has polarized the situation between pro- and antiregime elements, thinning the once sizable middle ground and with it, the prospects of stable political reform.

The opposition — a disparate group of aging intellectuals, exiled Islamists and the youths driving the protests — is trying to create a united front to present a viable alternative to the Baathist regime; but its divisions are many and varied, not least of which is the split between longtime exiles and those now shedding their blood in Syria's streets. Those differences were on display at a conference attended by some 350 Syrian dissidents last weekend in Istanbul.

The assembly had intended to elect 50 members from inside Syria and 25 exiles to serve on a National Salvation Council, but the Damascus gathering (which was to be held simultaneously) was called off after security forces targeted the venue ahead of the event. Instead, the Istanbul meeting elected the 25 exiles, but there was discord, according to Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, who attended the Istanbul gathering and declined appointment to a position on the board of exiles. A group of Kurdish delegates walked out, he said, angered by the use of the term Syrian Arab Republic, which they felt failed to acknowledge the country's long-marginalized ethnic Kurdish population. Tribal representatives also left the meeting.

Even if the opposition does get its act together, its plans to unseat the regime are unclear. Right now it appears to be relying on street protests and waiting for the sputtering economy to collapse, a danger of which even Assad has warned. "The opposition is counting on the economy causing elite members to defect and the country to fall out of government control progressively," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "So long as the military and state elites stick together to fight the opposition, it will be very difficult to bring down the regime."

Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says waiting for the economy to bring down Assad will be too slow to guarantee success. Instead, he advocates economic siege tactics by the U.S. and its allies, like targeting Syrian oil and natural-gas exports, which account for about a third of state revenue. Damascus needs the vital foreign-exchange earnings to help fund its security forces, "maintain market subsidies and deliver payoffs to patronage networks," Tabler told a U.S. House of Representatives committee last week. Choking energy exports would also force the regime "to borrow more from the Damascene and Aleppine business elite that support it, which in turn could lead to elite defections as the cost and risk of doing business with the Assad regime dramatically increases," he said. (Iran has reportedly offered Damascus $5.8 billion in aid to help bolster its economy, according to French reports last week.)

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