Even if the emphasis is placed on the opposition’s mistakes since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, this does not mean that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is innocent or cannot be replaced.
Criticising the opposition also does not mean criticising the revolution, since the opposition and the revolution must be kept separate.
The Syrian opposition made the mistake of thinking that a regime that had ruled for five decades could be removed quickly and easily. Convinced that it would fall, it rushed forward without medium or long-term plans, relying on populist rhetoric rather than taking up the reins of power itself.
The revolutions that had taken place in some other Arab countries and promises from overseas helped to create an early atmosphere of euphoria, even as the traditional opposition remained outside events. Local communities were relied upon for coordination at the expense of national sentiment.
The opposition counted more on the outside than the inside, ignoring the possibility of strikes and civil disobedience. This detracted from the ability of those within to shape the revolution in the ways they wanted, rejoicing when the opposition took up arms and turned a blind eye to warlords who ignored the goal of the revolution to bring about a democratic civilian state.
It was forgotten that the Syrian people wanted to be rid of military rule, and too much was done to facilitate Political Islam, even though the Islamists did their best to transform revolution into “jihad”.
Too great an emphasis was placed on foreign funds, making the opposition indebted to other countries and hostage to their conditions. Independent decisions must be rooted in independent funding; politics cannot be about playing to all sides.
National values were too often ignored, and those with political experience, especially those who had defected from the regime, were marginalised.
The opposition did not do enough to reach out to the mass of the Syrian population, even as there was a crying need to close ranks, reject obsolete beliefs and ideologies, and emphasise the values of common citizenship. Too often, the opposition failed to embrace others or accommodate diverse views.
Some Syrians who opposed the regime refused to link to opposition figures, saying that its members were not a true alternative to the regime. The revolution’s goal was never to hand over power to the opposition or appoint it as a replacement of the regime.
Instead, it was to achieve the rule of law, justice and good governance, and to remove an oppressive and corrupt regime.
On 1 September 2011, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) was created in Istanbul, which included five political groups identified as its “legitimate representatives”.
The SNC earned global recognition with the support of more than 100 countries in the Friends of Syrian group at that year’s Tunis Conference.
However, the SNC became swamped in issues that were not part of its mandate, including relief and medical aid. The US, unhappy with the composition of the SNC, pushed for overhauling it and thus emerged the Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces at the Doha Conference on 11 November 2012.
But the coalition made similar mistakes and consumed its energy in activities outside Syria. The military path of the revolution veered further from the political track, especially after the emergence of other armed groups at the expense of the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA). After the Vienna II Conference, the coalition also lost power.
The countries involved in the Syria crisis then recognised the Higher Negotiations Commission (HNC) that emerged from the Riyadh Meeting on 8 December 2015.
This was expected to lead the negotiations with the regime on the Geneva track, but soon it came under pressure to expand and include neutral parties and others close to Moscow.
The HNC’s positions became diluted, and it too lost the trust of the Syrian people.
The countries involved in the crisis then tried to make the Syrian conflict an international issue as a way of steering events. This led to deep rifts and the retreat of inclusive Syrian nationalism and the spread of subnational identities.
Opposition delegations began visiting Moscow, Tehran, Beijing and the Gulf capitals under the pretext of discussing opposition affairs. Conferences were held in Moscow, Astana, Vienna, Brussels, Istanbul and others on the Syrian crisis, but none produced anything positive for the Syrian opposition at a time when it was in dire need of genuine leadership.
The defeat of the revolution became expected when Russia and Iran sided with the regime even as the friends of the opposition abandoned it and hindered the delivery of effective weapons.
They created a climate in which most armed opposition factions were transformed into tribal or regional militias.
While the armed revolution has ended in Syria, the revolution itself is not over. The country is still ruled by a military regime that has no qualms about destroying cities, killing citizens, undermining coexistence, demolishing schools and hospitals, and using exploding barrel bombs.
It has learned nothing from the past and has made deals with allies who have commandeered military, political and economic decisions.
Yet, the idea of revolution in Syria, at least, will continue because of the scale of the regime’s crimes. The Syrian people have stated their preconditions for peace, notably the need to respect their demands.
Transitional justice should hold criminals on all sides to account and create the foundations for a plural and democratic civilian state based on the principle of the rotation of power and eliminating the totalitarian and security state.
For the past eight years, the Syrian opposition has not had clear strategic goals. It let the street decide its tactics, and its leaders did not mobilise social and grassroots tools, causing the revolution to falter and blaming outside forces.
Following clear tactics that serve a clear strategy will require the formation of revolutionary leaders who can take an inventory of friends and foes. This is the first step that now must be taken if Syria is to become a modern state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The failure of the Syrian Revolution