Syria's grassroots protest movement has thus organized itself into national coalitions with political platforms. Local activists have the ability to develop practices that work best within their local and regional environments. This decentralization has also ensured these organizations retain mass support from diverse demographics, as they are responsive to the needs of their specific constituencies, including Islamists, moderate Islamists, and secular figures.
This complex, opaque system has made it difficult for U.S. officials to conceive of ways to help the Syrian opposition as a whole. There is no mailbox to send correspondence to all of them, and there is no Istanbul hotel to meet them in. Although this has frustrated U.S. policymakers, it is actually a sign of political health in Syria. By adopting a decentralized leadership system, the Syrian opposition has succeeded in creating the foundations for greater political pluralism. For almost half a century, Syria suffered under the de facto one-party rule of the Baath Party. Ultimately, these organizations may reverse that destructive legacy, becoming fully functional political movements capable of creating the type of multiparty system necessary for a successful democratic transition.
That, of course, is a long way off, and in the meantime the positive influence of these grassroots movements is increasingly under threat. As the uprising drags on, activists have become increasingly desperate to receive direct aid and support. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and global jihadi networks linked to al Qaeda are manipulating this growing desperation, providing material support to those groups that promise to support their foreign agendas.
The proliferation of money and weapons may have accelerated the revolution, but it has not supported the development of political structures inside Syria. These foreign sponsors risk dividing and radicalizing the opposition. Rebel leaders have already reported that in some cases, receiving foreign aid comes with implicit conditions, forcing them to act in ways contrary to their desired direction. In a leaked email, rebel commander Abu Majd wrote, "The basis of the crisis in the city [Homs] today is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation." Moreover, in areas where Assad's crackdown has been harshest, including in the cities of Homs and Rastan, hard-line Salafi groups have gained a foothold within the opposition. In early April, following the regime's offensive against Homs, for instance, accusations emerged that the rebels' Farouq Battalion had begun collecting jizya, a tax on non-Muslims, in areas of Homs province.
To reverse this dangerous trend, the United States should take the lead in coordinating international support with the aim of reinforcing the grassroots political structures already operating inside Syria. U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that they are vetting the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels to ensure they do not fall into the hands of al Qaeda militants. This policy is a step forward, but it comes with risks. Facilitating weapon transfers to certain groups could empower militias at the expense of the grassroots political opposition. One key condition for future arms transfers should be that groups receiving weapons agree to submit to civilian command structures.
The Syrian grassroots opposition has protested and fought the Assad regime for more than a year now, largely without tangible support from abroad. In areas that have effectively fallen from Assad's control, these local and provincial committees have already become the de facto government. These committee leaders could very well be Syria's future power brokers, and U.S. officials must get to know them now. If U.S. officials do not, they may find this promising new generation of Syrian leaders destroyed by both the Assad regime and radical Islamist movements, who will only carry Syria into a bloody and catastrophic civil war.