Last week, the leaders of
the fractured Syrian opposition movement met in the Qatari capital, vowing to
put aside petty squabbling and create a more inclusive body that would better
represent the country's democratic aspirations. The new organization, the brainchild
of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and liberal opposition politician Riad Seif, was
rather awkwardly dubbed "the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and
Revolutionary Forces" -- or "National Coalition" (NC) for short. Its purpose is
to attract the sort of international recognition and support that has eluded
the now discredited Syrian National Council (SNC) -- and thus to boost the
opposition's chances of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On the surface, there are grounds for optimism.
In stark contrast to the SNC, which was dominated by exile politicians, the new
group has reserved a majority of seats for Syrians closely linked with the
rebel movement -- including delegates from the revolutionary councils formed in
liberated parts of the country. This week President François Hollande of France
held an impromptu press conference to announce his country's recognition of the
NC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This followed a
collective decision taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms to
extend a similar level of recognition, coupled with promises of hundreds of
millions of dollars of aid to the opposition.
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The NC's leadership too appears to be a step
away from the old politics, with moderate Muslim cleric Muaz Al-Kahattib as
president along with Riad Seif and female activist Suheir Al-Attasi as his
deputies. All three of them left Syria recently and are largely untainted by
the infighting that appears to have sunk the SNC, or any overt association with the Muslim
Brotherhood (MB) that will alarm Washington. "The ball now is in the international community's court," Attasi
said in Doha. "There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how
efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we
put them to the test."
So it must have been a terrible disappointment
when U.S. President Barack Obama declined to oblige. "We are not yet prepared
to recognize them as some sort of government in exile, but we do think that it
is a broad-based representative group," he said of the new coalition soon after
his reelection last week. "One of the questions that we are going to continue
to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic
Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria." In other words, the NC has yet to
prove itself before seeing any tangible rewards.
Obama was not alone in his cautiousness. Arab
League ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday urged regional and international
organizations to recognize the new body as "a legitimate representative for the
aspirations of the Syrian people" but stopped well short of a full recognition.
This may in part be due to Saudi reservations about the NC, which it views with
suspicion given the prominent role played by Qatar and Turkey in its creation,
and what it perceives to be the exclusion of pro-Saudi opposition figures from
the unity talks. While Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings
in Doha, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya looked distinctly uninterested. The Russians
too are not happy; not only were their Syrian opposition friends in the
National Coordination Body (NCB) not invited to Doha, but the NC's blank
refusal to negotiate with Assad cuts against the grain of Russian thinking on
how to resolve the conflict. The picture is a mixed one at best.