The two-year-old conflict in Syria escalated in recent weeks with the direct engagement of Hezbollah in the fight for Qusair, Israeli missile strikes near Damascus, and bombings in Turkey. A renewed U.S.-Russian effort to convene an international conference in June is threatened by the deep divisions within the Syrian opposition over participation in the Geneva peace talks. 
Rafaël LeFèvre, an expert on the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, joined the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Paul Salem and Yezid Sayigh and Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitri Trenin to discuss the changing dynamics of the Syrian crisis in a special event held in Beirut. 

Syria’s Battle Ground

  • Significance of Qusair: Sayigh argued that the fight for the rebel-held city of Qusair had become a defining battle in the course of the conflict. While prior to this victory the warring factions maintained a strategic balance, he argued that a tipping point is approaching.
  • Opposition Leadership: The opposition’s defeat in Qusair is due to its inability to unite under one cohesive leadership, Sayigh said. The Syrian National Council had become a reactor instead of a shaper in areas such as diplomacy and militarization. 
  • Adaptation and Resilience: The Syrian regime has ‘sub-contracted’ the war by allowing people to fight in and around their hometowns, essentially diminishing the cost of mobilization, Sayigh explained. He implied that these developments, coupled with the regime’s resilient strategy, may lead to the determination of a victor by the year’s end. 

Local Opposition Faction

LeFèvre highlighted three major trends that have emerged recently and are currently influencing the political strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria:

  • Cooperation with Opposing Groups: Although Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood have a history of mistrust, they have both come to the realization that they need to cooperate in order to try and topple President Bashar al-Assad. 
  • Political Solution: A political solution will be needed at some point in order to stop the bloodshed. This realization came after the brutal defeat of the rebels in the battle of Qusair and the acknowledgment of the regime’s military resilience, LeFèvre added. 
  • Global Actors: The shift from a regional to a seemingly global war, involving not only Russia and the United States but also the United Kingdom and France, has placed the exiled opposition under increased foreign influence.

LeFèvre further explained that dissatisfaction with internal opposition politics may cause the Brotherhood to freeze its membership from the coalition or even withdraw completely. Although risky, this would solidify its base and grant further autonomy. LeFèvre concluded by predicting an increased fragmentation within the exiled opposition before the Geneva II convention. 

Regional Friction and Development

Salem shared insight into the broader political view for the region and Lebanon in particular.

  • Regional Order: Salem declared that the Levant was ‘broken’ at the state and national level. States are failing even as they manage to survive, he explained, and with these failures come the fracture of national identities, a project in the making since the establishment of most of these regimes in the 1950s.
  • International Relations: Salem also lamented the end of the business-first approach to international relations, as exemplified by Turkey and Qatar’s foreign policy agenda prior to the ‘Arab Spring’. Governments have been siding with or against the Assad regime at the expense of this ‘third way’ in settling foreign affairs. 
  • Repercussions in Lebanon: The conflict has polarized opinions since the outset, Salem remarked. For a while, relative calm persisted, due in part to the Mikati government’s dissociation policy and the previous lack of Islamist factions. However, the collapse of the government, Hezbollah’s increased involvement, and threats made by Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra are all signs that the conflict’s spillover in Lebanon is gradually becoming a threat to national cohesion and security, Salem concluded.

The Contrasting Perspective

Trenin examined the motivations behind the Russian approach to the Syrian crisis:

  • World Order Policy: Moscow holds that the use of force should be mandated and directed through the United Nations charter. Additionally, the Russian government adheres to a strict interpretation of respect for state sovereignty and non-intervention. As a result, it strongly opposes any meddling in Syria’s internal affairs. 
  • Assessing the Arab Spring: As the Arab Spring is considered first and foremost an Islamist revolution in Russia, Moscow is very concerned about its own domestic Chechen population. Trenin added that the Libyan experience, which left Russia out in terms of trade agreements, is still vividly remembered by the Kremlin. 
  • The Kremlin’s Interests: Trenin noted that the Kremlin views some of the rebel groups as a potential ‘enemy-in-the-making’ and is more than ready to assist in undermining them. However, he concluded on a positive note, stating that the Russians were making a comeback on the diplomatic scene, with the United States recently hinting at a joint effort to find a political solution to the conflict.