- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2013

The Syrian opposition coalition favored by the U.S. and its allies is in no position to fill a political vacuum that could be created if an anticipated U.S.-led military strike hastens the downfall of President Bashar Assad.

There are also questions about the opposition’s ability to keep terrorist groups, some with ties to al Qaeda, from taking advantage of the chaos that would follow the defeat of Mr. Assad’s regime after nearly 2½ years of a civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The U.S. is considering punitive airstrikes against Mr. Assad’s regime after accusing it of killing civilians with chemical weapons. But the White House says it has no intention of toppling Mr. Assad.

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Opposition officials and activists argue that any action that leaves Mr. Assad in power would be pointless and even invite stronger retaliation from the regime.

Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes the opposition as “a bunch of disparate groups.”

The Syrian opposition is splintered politically and militarily. Several factions came together in the Qatari capital Doha in November to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. The coalition replaced the Syrian National Council, which was widely viewed as ineffective. Its military wing is the Free Syrian Army, comprised mostly of Syrian army defectors.

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The opposition coalition “does not control events on the ground to any significant degree, so there is no [cohesive opposition] to keep [Islamist groups] from occupying space, and we see that on the ground all the time,” said Mr. Shapiro.

The Obama administration and other Western governments recognize the opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Problems persist

“The opposition remains disorganized,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.

“If Assad fell, it is not clear what would fill the vacuum. It would probably be a mix of everything [since] no single group is strong enough. So fighting would continue, with radicals on all sides gaining strength.”

The Obama administration is weighing options for a punitive military strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. That attack left between 300 and 1,300 dead.

Syrian opposition officials and activists oppose a military response that leaves the Assad regime intact.

That “would not be a good outcome from our point of view,” said Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian opposition coalition’s special representative to the United States.

“If the regime is able to continue, we should expect even more retaliation from them. We have seen this regime stops at nothing, … and this should be in the minds of those who are contemplating [military] action.”

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