When asked to explain why they aren't providing greater support to the Syrian opposition, U.S. officials have repeatedly fallen back on the excuse that the rebels are deeply fragmented and leaderless. The opposition in Libya, by contrast, "had a face," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a House panel this March: "We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions." In his own testimony, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed Clinton's worries, saying, "There has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed, or contacted."
These statements, however, get the dynamics of the Syrian uprising all wrong. It is not a "leaderless" revolution, as U.S. officials have claimed. And the United States and its international allies should no longer use such arguments as an excuse for inaction.
U.S. policymakers have failed to recognize the difference between a decentralized leadership and a fragmented -- or absent -- leadership. In travels to Lebanon, which many Syrian dissidents use as a base to organize, I have seen firsthand how the indigenous political opposition has produced strong leaders who have developed viable political structures on the ground. Despite their anonymity to international audiences, these leaders are well known inside Syria, are recognized by different opposition groups, and coordinate together to advance their shared goal of toppling President Bashar al-Assad's regime. They are decentralized out of necessity, to ensure the continuity of the uprising amid Assad's brutal crackdown.
The Assad regime's repression has actually made the opposition's political structures more resilient, as its leaders have been forced to create networks that will function beyond their life span. And because Assad's security forces retain significant control in many areas, it is unsurprising that the opposition has been reluctant to reveal the details of its leadership. Individual leaders have been forced to remain underground or risk being targeted by the Syrian government. When one leader is killed, as frequently occurs, another steps in to take his place. The grassroots political opposition has thus avoided becoming dependent on a single leader.
Homs is a powerful example of this system of leadership. During Assad's relentless shelling of the city in February, many of the Homs Revolutionary Council's leaders were killed. Yet the fluidity of leadership allowed the council to continue to function and provide invaluable services throughout the offensive. As one activist working in the council put it to me, "We are like the legendary hydra -- Assad kills one of us, and 10 more pop up in their place."
These local networks -- not the exiled opposition -- are truly guiding Syria's revolution. The network of nascent political structures begins in villages and city neighborhoods, where activists working in coordinating committees mobilize support for demonstrations. At the district and city levels, Revolutionary Councils and Revolution Command Councils coordinate the activities of the local committees and interface with armed opposition groups. These councils have largely coalesced behind three national organizations inside Syria -- namely, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution (SCSR), and the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). These organizations serve as the main media conduits for the grassroots opposition, and they coordinate the activities of the regional councils.
These three national coalitions serve different constituencies and are divided by the demands of those they represent. Each organization has espoused a different vision for the revolution and a post-Assad future. The SRGC has adopted an aggressive platform for Assad's removal, actively supporting armed rebels through provincial military councils. The organization refuses to cooperate with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group that operates from exile, due to disillusionment with the SNC's endless internal power squabbles. The more moderate LCCs favor a political solution, proposing a plan for a peaceful transition of power in order to avert a violent collapse of the government. To achieve this objective, they have opted to cooperate with the SNC and have participated in numerous national conferences with the council.
The SCSR, which caters to young protesters, falls between these two. It has set the outlines for a political solution while also recognizing the importance of armed struggle. Although it has sent representatives to SNC meetings, it is not formally a member. Local activist networks and revolutionary councils meet to decide which national platform best represents their outlook and then align with it. The three groups' visions and approaches to the revolution differ, but all adhere to a system that grants local groups representation in the national organizations.