My latest article for Foreign Policy: Zombie Versus Frankenstein
Published: 15th November
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.
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 his deputy.
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 discernible 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.