But there's another problem that's been largely overlooked in the news reports, and it's one that could threaten to hobble the opposition movement in the critical months ahead. The much-criticized SNC has been sidelined by the establishment of the National Coalition -- but it continues to exist. Just two days prior to the start of the unity talks between the SNC and other opposition representatives that effectively created the National Coalition, the SNC held a low-key "restructuring" conference, also in the Qatari capital, under the watchful guise of the country's foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani. The purported aim was to elect a new leadership. Why the SNC, widely believed to be defunct, should bother with holding an election when a new opposition coalition was due to be created just days later, is no mystery. The reason has a great deal to do with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC leadership election resulted in defeat for the leading figures of the group's liberal wing -- people like Washington-based politician Radwan Ziadeh. Ex-SNC President Burhan Ghalioun did not bother to contest the election, while another liberal figurehead, Basma Kodmani, resigned from the SNC in August. Needless to say, no woman and no Alawite made it to the general secretariat. The Muslim Brotherhood marshaled their votes and did what their opponents expected least: it booted them out of the SNC by democratic means.
In the end, the Brotherhood was left
controlling some 75 percent of the members of the general secretariat. The
picture is even more stark in the Executive Committee, the highest body in the
organization: seven out of eleven members elected are either Brotherhood
members or affiliates. Having failed to win a seat in the general secretariat,
the leftist Christian, George Sabra, was chosen by the Brotherhood to head the
SNC as a figurehead, but only after he accepted MB hardliner Faruk Tayfur as
But why go to all the trouble when the same
effort could have been focused on building up the NC, the supposedly
new-and-improved formula for opposition unity? "The NC was the idea of Riad
Seif and Ambassador Robert Ford," says long-time SNC member Abdulrahman Al-Haj.
"The SNC came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accept their plan, but
we could not simply abandon the SNC without knowing that the NC is going to
work." That the SNC, refurbished under Muslim
Brotherhood guidance, should still be regarded as a useful contingency by a
significant swath of Syria's opposition suggests that they lack commitment to making the NC work.
As a result, there are now two opposition
coalitions, the NC and the SNC, that are meant to do the same job. In theory,
members of the SNC have been given 40 percent of the seats in the new
organization, but the group is allowed to maintain its independent structure
and policy-making. What's more, the SNC is now dominated by the Muslim
Brotherhood, which condemns the NC plan as a U.S.-inspired plot to force the
opposition to the negotiating table. And yet, the MB's top brass sit at the head
of the table in the NC. This was not
the result that Ambassador Ford was hoping for, and may well explain why
President Obama appeared so far unconvinced by the new body.