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.
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.
Meanwhile, the SNC is still alive and kicking,
and thanks to its recent re-structuring, it has swelled its ranks so that even
those wishing to by-pass it will struggle to find the manpower to create a
credible alternative. With the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm and Qatar
continuing to bankroll its operations, it will survive where many "credible
alternatives" will fall at the wayside. Whether any of this helps the Syrian
revolution defeat Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely.
None of this is what the NC leaders were hoping for almost a week after they had signed the draft agreement on Saturday to great fanfare. A tone of desperation was clearly discernable in a statement issued by the new NC president Muaz Al-Khattib earlier this week, when he urged Syrians inside the country to hold up placards reassuring the U.S. president of their support for the new group. Khattib's move may have been naïve, but it shows that he understands one thing quite well: If the NC does not pick up momentum early on, including that vital recognition from the U.S., it may go the way of the SNC. Or worse.