Syrian opposition bodies need to embrace their grassroots

Anisa Abeytia 2017-01-31 15:28:00

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Examining the organizational structures of the Syrian opposition, two apparent features can be noted: fractured leadership that is disconnected from the grassroots and a failure to encourage participation. 

The Syrian National Council seeks only to establish an executive branch, but a singular focus on the establishment of an executive office hints at inability to inspire participation. There is no room for anyone else but the chief.

This style of leadership encourages isolation from the very population a people’s government should seek to represent. This top-down approach is a model that appoints a head rather than electing one, a model familiar to Syrians, but it is not what they revolted for.  

Leaders need to earn their positions not through appointments but through rising the ranks of local government, earning trust through service and true representation.  

A functioning legislative branch is able to remain connected with members of the community, creating spaces for civic engagement. Additionally, it serves as an incubator for cultivating emerging leaders for a future government to draw from. This form of governance allows for mechanisms of communication between federal and local bodies that is critical to a healthy democracy. Syrian opposition local councils are currently functioning in this capacity to an extent, but have no formal position in a national government. 

The disconnection between opposition groups and Syrians inside and out stems from an inability to provide a mechanism of communication.  

While working in the United States with the Syrian community, there was a great deal of frustration with opposition groups due to failure in addressing their concerns or in inviting collaboration. It is a critique shared by many Syrians, not just in the U.S. As a result, support for these organizations withered. 

There were small efforts to communicate. Shortly before the Syrian National Council ceased operating in the U.S., they instituted monthly calls with the Syrian community, as did other groups at various times. Yet despite being an effective means of communication these programs were not sustained. 

During an annual meeting with a Syrian-American organization, I posed a question to the group: "What do Syrian-Americans want?  What projects will they get behind?" I was met with blank stares. I continued: "Have you ever asked them what kinds of policies they want to support?" No one had asked and they were not going to.  So I asked a different question: “What policies and campaigns do you want them to get behind and what are you going to do get them involved?” They had no reply. 

The Syrian people clearly want a larger voice in the governing process, but have not yet been given the opportunity. An initiative as simple as establishing a congress/parliament like entity comprised of representatives from inside Syria, and the refugee diaspora would be both a concrete and symbolic gesture on the part of the Syrian opposition to encourage participation. It would also be a move that could unify leadership. Also, retaining and solidifying ties with the diaspora through a congress will be critical in encouraging them to remain connected to Syria so they will return, rebuild and invest. 

The success of opposition groups is vital as the bright future of Syria depends on them.


Anisa Abeytia is a freelance writer who contributes to a good number of media outlets. Abeytia is actively engaged in advocating for the Syrian cause since 2012 and more recently for refugee rights. She produced/directed three documentaries on Syrian refugees. Abeytia is a graduate of Stanford University with an MA in Post-Colonial and Feminists Theory.