Posts Tagged ‘Syrian opposition’

Glorified Middlemen: My take on the Syrian National Coalition


Published: June 11, 2013

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is a peculiar creature. It can be classed neither as a revolutionary organization—it is no Palestine Liberation Organization or African National Congress—nor as a true opposition umbrella group, like the Alliance for Change that toppled Milošević. Its purpose is similarly perplexing. It claims to represent the aims and aspirations of the Syrian people, yet it has no presence on the ground and little say over what people do there. It promises international intervention—or at the very least the arming of the Free Syrian Army—yet NATO has explicitly ruled out becoming involved. And while the SNC makes a big fuss about its humanitarian work, what little money that reaches the deserving is often marked by corruption. If the SNC is not an effective leadership body, a relief organization, or a particularly good lobby group, what exactly is it?

This question did not seem to have perturbed the minds of the hundred or so oppositionists who gathered in Istanbul last month to debate widening the group’s membership. At the end of nine tortuous days of horse-trading punctuated by haranguing from foreign ambassadors, they eventually settled on a list of 114 members, up from a mere sixty. There are now more liberals, FSA officers and representatives of local councils in the internationally recognized and supported body. “The coalition has succeeded in undergoing the expansion,” declared acting president George Sabra. He is right. The coalition did succeed in Istanbul, but only in the same way as Hezbollah triumphed in Qusayr: at great cost.

But unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s oppositionists are not new to loss of prestige. They have been the butt of newsroom jokes for years, well before the popular uprising exposed their incompetence to all and sundry. The problem is that this time, their squabbling risks disturbing that last fig leaf of credibility: that they, despite their obvious faults, represent an alternative vision of politics to that of the Assad regime.

That claim is becoming increasingly harder to sustain. Take, for instance, the way that SNC members are chosen. Elections are out; in are the much-favored muhasasa (share-allocation) and tawafuk (consensus) methods, in which seats are dispensed by a committee of apparatchiks in a manner that aims to keep rival factions of (mostly exiled) oppositionists happy. When faced with criticisms over the ineffectiveness of the body, the usual answer is to expand membership to co-opt those complaining from the sidelines. The exact criteria for membership is kept conveniently elastic; that is how Ghassan Hitto, an unknown businessman who was an expatriate in Texas for thirty years and who has no experience of opposition politics, can end up as interim prime minister. Indeed, that is how Sabra himself—having failed to win a minimum number of votes in the Syrian National Council election last November—was handpicked by a shadowy inner circle to become first the head of the council (the largest bloc within the coalition), and then the coalition’s acting president.

Take also the delicate matter of “foreign interference.” Days into the Istanbul meeting, SNC figures began talking of “external pressures” being applied to accept resolutions that have been cooked up by Russia and the West. “A strong media campaign is underway against the SNC because it refused to submit to pressures,” tweeted Abdulkarim Bakkar, an SNC member. “The coalition fought for independent national decision-making and got most of what it wanted,” he added.

While all this sounds terribly heroic, the reality is that the SNC is heavily mortgaged to the Qatar–Turkey axis and is as much “independent” of the two as Assad is of the Iranians. Now, internal disputes within the SNC have to be settled by the group’s regional backers and the resolution of the conflict rests in the hands of US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact is that the SNC owes its legitimacy not to the backing of ordinary Syrians, but to the willingness of the West and Arab states to do business with it. This is precisely the sort of legitimacy that Assad enjoyed before the uprising, and which the SNC oppositionists hope will propel them to power.

The SNC also suffers from a lack of achievement, a corporatist mindset, disdain for the ordinary man, aversion to institutional transparency and accountability, and a disinclination to anything resembling intellectual honesty. What is the SNC? Well, it is a collection of self-interested individuals who see themselves as intermediaries between foreign powers and local communities in a strategically important part of the Middle East. They are essentially glorified middlemen who, quite naturally, spend most of their time in luxury hotels conceiving plots, striking deals, arranging payments, and every so often appearing on TV to condemn whatever crime Assad is committing.

This “go-betweener” role, which involves a great deal of clientelism and conspiracy, has been a constant function of the Syrian political elite. In the 1950s, it was split along pro-Hashemite and pro-Saudi/Egyptian lines until Hafez Al-Assad eliminated elite infighting by imposing himself as supreme middleman. What has changed is that now there are two political elites in conflict, and the difference between them is subtler than they can comfortably admit.

The SNC cannot shape its own destiny: it is the vehicle by which others shape theirs. So is the Assad regime. It is with this growing realization on the part of ordinary Syrians that both parties now weigh the costs and benefits of negotiating in Geneva.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My op-ed for Syria Deeply: Talking About My Generation

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Published: 18 Fمحمود_الجوابرةebruary 2013

It is said that the Arab revolutions are the revolutions of the young. Statistically at least, this is true.

The first martyr in Syria, Mahmud Qteish al-Jawabra [left], was a teenager, and the symbol of the revolution, Hamza al-Khatib, was a 13-year old tortured to death. According to this database, 70 percent of the revolution’s martyrs are under the age of 30.

Whether it be citizen journalism phenomena, or tansiqiyat protest-organizing committees, or massive online campaigns, these were all made by young people.

What al-Jawabra and al-Khatib stand for is not only the revolution itself, but also for the demographic that made it happen. So why is it that when it comes to political leadership of the revolution, it is left to middle-aged men in bad suits?

The median age of a member of the SNC executive committee is 56, more than quarter of a century shy of the median age of the fighters and activists who are carrying out the revolution on the ground.

While the term “Arab Spring” denotes something new and fresh, revolutionary leadership in Syria has seen the return of many of the old faces: Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, assorted Salafists and ex-Communists and a sprinkling of balding generals.

Perhaps this is to be expected in a paternalistic society where young people are expected to remain reverential, and where matters of importance are decided by a family’s older members.

Given the level of physical and moral sacrifice made by the young, however, this is no time to submit to tradition.

Revolution is about challenging hierarchies of power, wealth and authority. It’s not just about writing slogans and posting YouTube videos. Setting up a human rights abuse documentation center or helping out in the relief effort does not equate to a political program.

Too often, Syria’s youth have mistaken day-to-day activism for revolutionary politics. This has led to an atomized movement that lacks clear intellectual direction.

In order for Syria’s youth to take back ownership of the “their” revolution, they need to change the way they view themselves.

More energy should be focused on promoting “demographic consciousness,” an understanding of Syrian politics that regards the 18-35 age bracket as a distinct political constituency that is above sect, ethnicity and class.

While the politicians are busy jockeying for position, there is now an opportunity for the youth to formulate an agenda of their own – one that puts their interests above all others.

Young martyrs have talked about the pent-up frustrations that led so many of Syria’s young people to take a stand against the existing regime.

Why then are the sources of these frustrations not being addressed? Where is the guaranteed funding pledge for education? Where is the commitment to investment in the IT and new media industries, at which younger Syrians excel?

Why are there no demands for a minimum wage for young workers face exploitation? Why has no one addressed the problem of military conscription? And why is there no talk of a guaranteed quota for young people in a future parliament?

The lack of young political leaders to give voice is worrying.

The focus should be on the future, and what it will look like depends much on the youth who will set to inherit political power in the decades to come.

They will have an opportunity to shape their country in their own image rather than that of their parents, but for that to happen they should begin to entertain collective political ambition.

Categories: Uncategorized

My latest article for Foreign Policy: Zombie Versus Frankenstein

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Open Democracy: Syria, the activists grow up

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 14th November 2012
The course of Syria’s revolution since its idealistic early days has been a painful learning experience for many young activists, says Malik al-Abdeh.

The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.

Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.

What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.

The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.

Against the odds

The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.

The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.

What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”

But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”

Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”

Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”

Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.

In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).

The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.

Between dream and reality

This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.

The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.

Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.

Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.

This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.

The day after

Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.

The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.

In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.

To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”

In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Foreign Policy: SNC is a gang that can’t shoot straight

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Foreign Policy have kindly allowed me to express my strong feelings about the opposition Syrian National Council on their website. The result was a well-received article published yesterday (7th September) entitled  “The Gang That Cant Shoot Straight.” The title was not chosen by me, but I wholeheartedly approve.

The origin of this term appears to be a 1971 comedy called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” about a New York mafia gang that uses a lion to blackmail a rival gang’s “clients.” It doesn’t appear to be a very good film but the term entered American English idiom. Before anyone takes offence, I’d like to stress that it does not imply that the SNC is a gang; it is simply a popular expression in the US to denote an incompetent group of people, which SNC politicians undoubtedly are.

Much of what I know about the Syrian opposition comes from first-hand experience. I have been a known Syrian opposition activist for at least the past six years, in other words, when it was highly unfashionable to be so. I have known the leaders of the opposition before and after they became of interest on the world stage. My involvement in the creation and running of opposition TV channel Barada TV gave me inside access into how and why the Syrian opposition makes the decisions that it does, and what consequences these carry on the political game. This insight is often missing in journalistic analysis about Syria, much to the detriment of the reader.

Special thanks to Arab commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi and The Guardian’s Ian Black for helping to spread the word about this article on Twitter and their kind words about it. Special thanks also to my friend and fellow SOAS alumni Ed Husain for describing the piece as “astute, courageous and visionary.” I think he was just being polite.


The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight

The Syrian National Council has failed to galvanize international support for the rebellion — and it has only itself to blame.


Last week, the Syrian opposition columnist Ghassan Muflih, writing  in the online newspaper Elaph , informed his readers who was to blame for the failure to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. “The West is supportive of the demands of the Syrian people [to live in] freedom and dignity but does not encourage the success of the revolution,” he wrote. “The reasons are related to the Israeli desire to see the destruction of Syria at the hands of the Assad gangs. The Western position is justified by flimsy arguments, for example, when they speak of Islamist militants or the unity of the opposition. However, the essence of the western position remains: Give Assad more time to kill.”

It’s understandable that some try to hold the West accountable for the continuing horrors in Syria. Last month was the deadliest so far, with the overall death toll surpassing 20,000 and the number of refugees  that have fled the fighting exceeding 150,000. (The photo above shows a street scene in Aleppo earlier this week.) All UN attempts to end the bloodshed have so far come to nothing — a dismal failure underscored by the resignation  last month of UN-AL special envoy Kofi Annan. The prospects for his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi , are poor. Air support from the countries of the West would probably be far more effective when it comes to loosening Assad’s grip – but the prospects for that appear remote.

But while the West recognizes the inadequacy of the international response and has clashed with Russia and China over the matter, the Syrian opposition appears to be blissfully unaware of its own role in prolonging the conflict. By failing to create a credible alternative that appeals to Syrians, as well as to the international community, the opposition has consistently put a damper on any plan for western military intervention. Their division and incompetence are now the main lifeline for a beleaguered Assad.

The Syrian National Council  claims to be the largest, the best-financed, and the most well-organized of all the various Syrian opposition coalitions. According to its own books, it has received over $25 million from Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention assistance from the U.S. and the UK in the form of “non-lethal aid.”

Last week, SNC President Abdulbaset Sieda  lashed out at U.S. officials for saying that it was premature to speak about a transitional Syrian government. He described the many differences within the SNC as “normal.” Normality is a relative concept, but in suggesting that the SNC’s performance during the past year could in any way be considered “normal” in a country crying out for alternative leadership is as breathtakingly insulting as it is naïve.

SNC members like to cite the Western intervention in Libya as the sort of thing that needs to happen in Syria now. But the West’s involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country. A respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, was elected to head an executive team tasked with implementing a clear-headed strategy to bring down Qaddafi at all costs.

The SNC has done nothing of the sort. Its control over the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups remains tenuous, sustained only by payments of cash but little else. Repeated attempts to bring the armed opposition under its political wing have failed because there is little trust in the SNC as a representative body. The resultant void in leadership has been filled by radical jihadist groups that have emerged as powerful challengers to the SNC.

Despite its claims to “serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian Revolution in the international arena,” the SNC has yet to appoint a single delegate or spokesperson in any of the world’s major capitals.

Competing factionalism within the SNC means that ponderous and ineffective delegations of twenty or more fly around the world at great expense because none of the constituent parties trust each other to sit with foreign governments alone. It should come as little surprise that no country apart from Libya recognizes the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Among the Syrian revolution’s rank-and-file, the SNC appears distant and increasingly irrelevant. Despite access to at least seven satellite television channels and dozens of websites and YouTube channels, the SNC was neither able to appeal to its own core constituency (Sunni Arabs) or to develop sophisticated messages to engage with the minority groups on whose continued support Assad relies.

To this day, the SNC does not have a discernible media strategy. It failed to understand that the key to winning the media war is not credibility but consistent messaging. Opposition activists have become obsessed with reporting details while the regime media machine keeps its eye on the big picture. “People don’t have to believe what is being broadcast,” says Nadim Shehadi, Syria specialist at Chatham House, “but the overall message [of the regime’s propaganda] is ‘we’re here and here to stay,’ which is quite strong.”

Leadership in the SNC is very much “by committee,” and this precludes the emergence of a strong and popular leader. The SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists. What this means in practice is that decisions, more often than not, are compromises.

The SNC’s first president, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, was just such a compromise, and it showed. A Paris-based academic with no prior experience in front-line politics, his nine months at the head of the organization were marked by dithering and confusion over policy towards militarization and foreign intervention. Under his watch, the initial goodwill that was extended by the international community steadily ebbed away. His successor, a Stockholm-based Kurdish academic, did nothing to dispel the air of the exiles’ elitist disconnect from the street.

Perhaps the most damning failure of the SNC was its inability to frame the struggle in Syria in its own terms. In what can only be described as a shameful case of intellectual cowardice, little attempt was made to define the revolution using the language of politics. Where is the list of specific grievances and demands? Where are the revolutionary slogans and symbols? Where are the thinkers that are shaping the way that Syrians understand their act of rebellion? What the revolution is about and what it aims to achieve are questions that invariably draw vague and emotional responses from SNC politicians — responses that, though playing well to Al-Jazeera’s audience, have left western observers feeling confused and underwhelmed.

The conflict exposed a series of ruptures within Syrian society — be it sectarian, ethnic, class-based, or ideological — which the SNC was expected to address head-on as part of a compelling new vision. The adoption by protesters of the pre-Ba’ath Party, green-white-black tricolor known as the Flag of Independence, a symbol around which Syrians rallied in their struggle against the French mandate, should have been enough to convince the SNC that they needed to seek legitimacy not in Doha or Paris but in Syria’s “golden age.” The post-independence liberal democracy (1946-58) is a reference point from which the SNC could have launched a progressive political program based on freedom, equality, and national reconciliation. What they actually came up with was an uninspiring four-page document called the National Covenant for a New Syria. It is doubtful whether any Syrian inside the country has heard of it, let alone knows what it says.

The regime, meanwhile, has been able to frame the conflict in terms favorable to itself: a struggle between secular urban sophistication and religious tolerance versus Islamist country bumpkins fuelled by petro-dollars and jihadist ideology. While this is not a wholly accurate portrayal, the SNC’s failure to offer an alternative that allows for the role of rural religious conservatives and absorbs them into a broader liberal-national narrative, has allowed the regime to claim, not without sympathy from some in the West, that it is on front lines of the war on terror. The SNC’s fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.

The SNC claims to draw legitimacy from the Syrian people. In reality, it sources of legitimacy are external: Arab money and western recognition. For now, Arab money still flows into its coffers but the West has grown impatient and is looking for alternatives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month; she opted to meet with independent activists instead. Recent diplomatic activity points to an incipient consensus in London, Washington, and Paris that encouraging a credible alternative to Assad based around the SNC is a policy that has failed. And, that in turn, has prompted criticisms of the West from the SNC leadership.

But so what? Blaming the West has always been a useful crutch for failed political institutions in the Arab world. In this case, the SNC has concluded that it cannot afford to lose contact with the U.S. As a direct result of the recent snubs, the SNC announced on September 1 a restructuring of the organization that would see the group’s general assembly grow from 300 to 400 members and each opposition group to be represented by at least 20 members. The idea is to make the SNC more representative.

In reality the SNC needed to slim down, not pile on weight. More members means more contenders jostling for position, more avenues for corruption and waste, and less chance for consensus-building and thoughtful policy formulation. It also means more meaningless posts, adding to the noxious mix of ego, ambition and incompetence that has stifled the SNC from its inception. It is a solution worthy of a committee of Arab bureaucrats.

Last week a key founder of the SNC resigned. Dr Bassma Kodmani had been involved in a tug-of-war with the Islamists for months, who reacted decisively by voting her out of the all-powerful executive committee. Her exit signals the end of the liberal-Islamist concord that established the SNC as a cross-party coalition. Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are firmly in the driver’s seat.

The Syrian National Council has presided over a catastrophic failure of leadership. The West is right to seek an alternative, but in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood. Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria. Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.

Sidelining the SNC means sidelining the Brotherhood, a task that poses considerable problems. Brotherhood leaders are well-versed in the arts of prevarication and backroom dealing, and they will try to smother any rival organization that attempts to compete with the SNC for money and international recognition. In the meantime, one can be sure that anti-western rhetoric will get louder.

It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator’s manual. West-bashing will not save the SNC or the Syrian revolution. Only by demonstrating a modicum of effective leadership can the Syrian opposition hope to convince the international community that it is a credible alternative and worthy of a Libya-type investment in men, materiel, and political will.

A British diplomat summed it up nicely at a meeting with SNC representatives in April: “Spend less time communicating with us and more time communicating with your own people.” The irony is that the SNC is now doing neither.

Categories: Syrian uprising

George Sabra: A man for all seasons?

April 9, 2012 39 comments

George Sabra is being increasingly touted as a future leader of the Syrian opposition, and potentially, of Syria itself. In this interview, I get to meet the real George Sabra, the fiery left-wing politician who has gained the confidence of diplomats and activists alike.

When he was twelve, George Sabra had an experience that would shape him personally and politically for the rest of his life. It was 1959 and Syria had become part of the United Arabic Republic headed by President Nasser. As part of the terms of the union demanded by Nasser, all political parties in Syria were disbanded, Syria’s parliament was merged with that of Egypt and a Nasserite stooge was placed as head of military intelligence in what became known as “the northern province.” It was not a happy marriage, and its impact was felt more keenly than most by the Sabra family.

“My father was sacked from his government job during the Union [with Egypt] under the false charge that he was a Communist,” Sabra says, “this was the way that the Second Bureau [military intelligence] oppressed people at that time.” Sabra’s mother was forced to enter domestic service in the homes of wealthy Damascenes, and baked bread which she sold for one piaster each. “If she sold one hundred loaves, she would earn one Syrian pound a day. It was a time of hardship and deprivation for us.”

George Sabra

Many factors have shaped the forceful yet understated politician that is George Sabra: disillusionment, as for so many other Syrians communists, with the Soviet brand that forced itself onto them and against which they rebelled; a work ethic that saw him distinguished as a primary school teacher then a Geography student at university, and which, by 1985, made him a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 38; perseverance, having spent two years in solitary detention, and almost a lifetime in a country where, up until very recently, the prospects for democratic change appeared very slim indeed.

As the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising fast approaches, Sabra sits in his Parisian exile feeling increasingly confident about the future, even when that future grows more bloody and uncertain by the day. Perhaps he needs to be – he is being tipped as a future leader of the Syrian National Council, the opposition body working to topple President Bashar Al-Assad. It’s the latest challenge for the working-class Christian boy made good.

The Syrian boiler

On 18th March 2011 a demonstration took place in the southern city of Daraa to protest against the unlawful detention of minors who had scribbled anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. The heavy-handed response of Assad’s security forces left scores dead, and within days demonstrations broke out in a number of other cities in solidarity with Daraa’s residents.

For Sabra, that was Syria’s “Bouazizi’s moment”, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but he claims that the signs of popular resentment had always been there. In a swipe at those in the west who foolishly proclaimed the regime’s immunity from the Arab Spring, he says that “the boiler from inside was at breaking point but from the outside you could hardly see the signs.” He would know; he only left Syria in October last year following a brief spell in detention. He admits though that it was easy to lose heart. “More than half a century of totalitarian dictatorship and repression left a very deep scar in the conscience of Syrians and in their collective memory, so that some people thought that the spirit of the people had died and that there is no hope.” The Egyptian uprising, however, proved decisive. “When the Egyptians came out onto Tahrir Square the road to revolution in Damascus was opened.”

For Sabra, the Syrian uprising began for many of the same legitimate reasons that drove other Arabs to take to the streets. “The repressive and totalitarian regime in Syria created an authoritarian state that left no free space in the state or in society for ordinary Syrians. People felt that they were outsiders.” He argues passionately that it is this alienation of the people, the feeling that Assad’s Syria is not theirs, that is the underlying cause of the uprising, and which drives the people to make unparalleled sacrifices.

A golden age: the Syrian parliament in 1950s

The great fear of course is that for all the good intentions, Syria may end up a broken country, an Iraq circa 2005, or even an Afghanistan run by religious extremists and warlords. It is a risk that Sabra recognizes but he is adamant that the vision of Syria that the fires the revolutionaries’ imagination is that of modern Syria’s so-called “golden age”. “Syrians fall back on the democratic experience of 1954-58 whose taste they still find sweet after all these years,” Sabra claims, “they feel nostalgic for that era.” In fairness, it was also an era of weak and unstable coalition governments, of politicians on the make and of regional and superpower meddling, but there were free and fair elections, a multi-party system, a free press and the mukhabarat secret police had not yet made an appearance. After decades of being ruled by the Assads, Syrians may well choose to take a little republican corruption along with a little republican freedom.

Dreaming of Faris Al-Khoury

It has become something of a cliché to talk about a divided Syrian opposition. George Sabra doesn’t argue the case. “The weakness of the opposition explains its pale performance during the revolution.” But equally clichéd, he blames the regime. “Because political life was criminalized in Syria, there emerged two types of politicians: the opportunist, who was bribed into silence by the regime, and the principled, who invariably found himself in prison or in exile.” Sabra undoubtedly is of the latter school, having been incarcerated for a total of eight years.

Nevertheless, can’t the opposition get its act together at this momentous time? On the issue, Sabra is his trademark honest self. “When the street moved, there was a need for a parallel movement on the political level that was not provided by the political parties. Opposition politics became an arena for individual ambition and personal rivalries, even when these individuals lacked capability and genuine intention.”

Could he possibly be referring to Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, the current president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), who is being blamed by activists for much of the opposition’s woes? Sabra is too much of a seasoned politician to begin mud-slinging, but in a meeting in February, he did throw his name into the ring as a replacement for Ghalioun, only one of two other people to do so. Ghalioun survived with a two-month extension to his term (that runs out on 15th April 2012), allegedly with the help of Qatari lobbying, but little can hide the frustration felt by the experienced hands in the Syrian opposition at the relative newcomers who lack the experience to manage broad-based political coalitions yet, for better or for worse, find themselves in the driving seat.

Managing broad-based political coalitions is what George Sabra has been doing for the past seven years. He is a founder-member of the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, which first attempted to create a national council in 2008 to unite the opposition around a pro-democracy agenda. True to form however, Assad jailed its key leaders and the organization as a whole stagnated. The SNC took the Damascus Declaration model and expanded it to a wider membership, yet the same problems persist: policy and personality differences, lack of strategic communication and an inability to keep pace with events. “How can old politics and ageing politicians keep up with a revolution this deep, this fundamental and with this level of sacrifice?” He can ask the question, but does he have an answer?

Sabra is by no means a spring chicken, but he does appear to enjoy the support of the younger crowd. In May 2011 he addressed a gathering of mourners at a funeral of an activist in his home town of Qatana (30km south west of Damascus) which stands as one of the finest pieces of oratory made by any opposition politician that anyone can remember (Watch YouTube video above.) His appearances on television are similarly impressive for their clarity of ideas and forthright views.

Faris Al-Khoury (1877-1962)

On a more subtle and perhaps more significant level, his popularity stems from the fact that he is “George”. Sabra may have a point about nostalgia for Syria of the 1950s; one of its enduring icons was Faris Al-Khoury, a Presbyterian who served as prime minister in several cabinets and was Syria’s representative at the inauguration of the United Nations. Al-Khoury’s political success is hailed by Sunni Muslims as proof of their willingness to accept members of religious minorities as equal citizens; certainly there is something satisfying about a Christian heading up the opposition at a time when Assad is stoking up fears of sectarian civil war. True to his secularist credentials however, Sabra plays down his Christian background, which, ironically, may prove to be an asset as Syrians dream of a new Faris Al-Khoury to unite the opposition and heal confessional wounds.


Dilemma of the Left

To understand Sabra is to understand the dilemma of the left-wing Arab intellectual. He grew up as a leftist “because of class affiliation and the life of poverty”, indeed, he joined the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 23 and rapidly became one of its rising stars. After Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, was he still a communist? Sabra is unequivocal: “I stopped being a communist since I left prison in 1995, and the party too left communism following its sixth congress in 2005.”

The party that he belongs to was formed after a significant number of members led by veteran left-winger Riad Al-Turk broke away from the Communist Party of Syria in protest at its slavish dependence on Moscow. It is now no longer called the Communist Party – Political Bureau but the People’s Democratic Party, and Sabra now firmly identifies himself as a social democrat. It is a trend happening across the Arab world as leftists have, to their credit, re-branded and re-adjusted.

The challenge now facing “the Left” in the Arab world is daunting. It has to remain relevant and keep the flag of secularism and modernity flying at a time when power seems to be increasingly in the hands of Islamists. Sabra is unfazed. “There will always be a meaning to being a leftist today, and every day. How else would you explain the success of the Left in Sweden, Switzerland and other advanced European countries?”

Perhaps. But Syria is not Sweden or Switzerland, and the Left was not entirely at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Was there not a risk that it will become marginalized at the ballot box? “The Left is not all the same” replies Sabra, “those who have fought for democracy for more than four decades, and who have joined the ranks of the revolution from day one will not feel alien to what is happening now or what will happen in the future. Those who have sowed the seeds will see the rewards in the future.”

It is in his outlook on the future that Sabra displays an unassuming pragmatism and an aversion to dogma and ideology that can rarely be found among members of his generation. He is very much a secularist progressive, but in a nod to Islam he says he “respects the culture of the Arab nation and its belief and history.”

He is a leading member of the Syrian National Council but is quite forthright about its future prospects. “Most likely the [SNC] coalition will end when the regime falls and a democratic transition takes place.” He expects some parties to die out and new coalitions to be formed, but warns against parties based on cults of personality that he expects will make their presence felt on the Syrian political scene.

What does Sabra think of the Free Syrian Army and its potential role in bringing down Assad through force of arms? He is matter-of-fact about the “militarization of the revolution”, regarding it as a natural consequence of the regime’s brutal crackdown. Crucially, he does not feel threatened by the boys with Kalashnikovs. “When the military solution takes centre stage there will need to be political solutions to accompany it. Guns eventually will fall silent and will be put aside while politics continues.” Guerilla fighters may join the ranks of the unemployed but never the politicians.

It is not difficult to pin down the appeal of George Sabra. With his thick-framed glasses, full head of white hair and owlish countenance he does not come across as sinister or threatening as many politicians do. Beyond the physical, he encapsulates in his words and deeds the spirit of the Syrian uprising: liberal, pro-democratic, non-sectarian and manifestly rural and working class. Above all, he reflects a vision of Syrian identity that is far more compelling than the card-board cut out offered by the Assads. It’s a vision deeply-rooted in history; the essence of what it is to be a Syrian.

“You are talking about Syria which is the cradle of civilization for the past six thousand years,” Sabra tells me, “it is the pathway of religions to the world, the country where the first letter was written, the capital of the word “Read.” It is Damascus, which sleeps but will never die.”

Categories: Syrian uprising
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