Dr. Jonathan Spyer, GLORIA Center senior fellow, has just returned from Syria where he met with oppositionists, members of the Free Syrian Army, and local inhabitants. Here’s his first interview on his experiences and observations.
Barry Rubin: Dr. Spyer, please tell us about your visit to Syria, what you saw and your impressions.
Jonathan Spyer: Well, I spent a week in Idleb province, traveling between a number of different towns. The most striking aspect was the extent of de facto control that the opposition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) have in this area. A number of towns are now entirely under their control, with FSA roadblocks at the entrance and the rebel flag flying everywhere. At the same time, it’s of course clear that the government still has intelligence networks inside the “liberated” towns, and will reconquer them if possible at a later date.
Barry Rubin: Many observers claim that the Bashar al-Assad regime will fall soon. What do the opposition activists think and what is your view?
Jonathan Spyer: The many opposition activists and fighters that I spoke to seem to be rather torn in their attitude. On the one hand, I heard none of the facile optimism that one heard among some analysts in the first months of the uprising, describing Bashar’s fall as imminent. The opposition activists understand that with the support of Iran, Russia, China and Hizballah, the regime can continue for some time to come, even if it is bleeding resources and losing manpower to the rebel army. The opposition is acutely aware of its own international isolation compared to the regime, and repeat endlessly the call for a buffer zone, and for the beginnings of Western support for arming the FSA.
At the same time, looking more broadly, the oppositionists are optimistic that they will ultimately prevail, but a number of them told me that without international assistance to their side to balance and offset the international coalition behind Assad, the situation could drag on for months or even years.
Barry Rubin: How important are revolutionary Islamists in the opposition? Can you explain about the larger — perhaps largest — group, traditional Sunnis?
Jonathan Spyer: In Idleb province, where I was, there was an undoubted presence of Salafi Islamists among the FSA fighters. But they were not a majority, and I certainly had no indication at all of the presence of foreign Islamist fighters. These were clearly local men. The regime, of course, has been keen to say that the opposition to it consists of al-Qaida. I would advise skepticism toward any claims made by the Assad regime.
However, Idleb province is a very traditional, religious Sunni area. There is undoubtedly a strong sectarian element to the fury and hatred that people have toward the Assad regime. People stress that this does not extend to ordinary Alawi or Shia Syrians, but I would counsel caution regarding this. So I don’t think Salafi Islamism is dominating the revolt, even in very traditional and religious places like Idleb. But at the same time, there is a strong religious and sectarian motivation among the rebels. You won’t be surprised to learn that the number of secular humanists in Idleb province is rather small.