By: Tarek Al-Abed
An activist from Aleppo wrote yesterday [Dec. 11] on his Facebook page: “The regime and the opposition have not practiced politics in 40 years.” This statement is probably a true description of the Syrian political opposition, which insists on deviating from the flock.
It is as though the Syrian public is fated to suffer from the weakness and fragmentation of an opposition that seeks to replace the regime, which has the most to gain from a transboundary division of the opposition. This comes at a time when optimism — which prevailed among the opposition masses after the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was created — has seemingly gone with the wind.
The reason for this is that the coalition is a newborn that has inherited all the illnesses of the Syrian National Council (SNC). These signs of illness have become clearer with time, to the point that people have gradually lost all hope in the group. Thus, the coalition has repeated the SNC’s political rhetoric and the way it dealt with the public and with the armed opposition. The latter group delivered a harsh blow to the coalition, through several statements in which they refused to recognize the coalition and emphasized their desire to establish a religious state.
The coalition received a backbreaking blow two days ago when it was forced to recognize the al-Nusra Front as a faction of the armed opposition, despite ongoing Western pressure to exclude extremists.
Confusion has reached a peak regarding the work to form a transitional government, slipping into a Byzantine debate over recognition versus government formation. In the end, weapons have the last word and the newborn coalition is still in the recovery room.
Despite the protests that were held in a show of support for the coalition, it didn’t take the people long to abandon this support as a result of the new political entity’s performance. Refugees continue to flow to into neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. These areas are plagued by disastrous humanitarian conditions, and in addition to internally displaced people, extremist groups are present in some areas, particularly the north. The coalition has proved that it is not interested in any of this.
In contrast, the coalition has repeatedly emphasized and demanded to be internationally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people before anything else. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers have insisted that Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib — head of the coalition — provide a clear road map for the transitional phase and the future political and economic performance, before they grant him full recognition.
However, Khatib has failed so far to meet such conditions and to exert control over the internal scene, at least in “the liberated areas,” where the chaos of weapons has contributed to the emergence of Salafists and other gangs and groups that have dominated by the force of arms.
Salafists had refused to recognize the coalition and declared that they are seeking to establish an Islamic state, which seemed to deliver a clear message to the opposition movement that the last word on the ground is reserved for weapons, not politics. Despite that, the coalition has continued to seek full recognition, with ambitions of seizing the regime’s embassies abroad and its seat at the United Nations. Most of the countries have hesitated so far in this regard, whereas others have required the formation of a transitional government. This comes at a time when news from Cairo — where the coalition’s meetings are held — indicates that sharp disputes are taking place over the allocation of ministerial posts within the opposition.
On the other hand, some say that there are those impeding the formation of a [transitional] government, obstructing the coalition’s work and seeking to undermine it in order to restore power to its predecessor, i.e., the SNC. The latter reluctantly agreed to join the coalition, provided that it had a majority of seats — or what could be called a blocking third — enough seats for veto power. Thus, the SNC would be able to withdraw at any moment and disrupt the work of the opposition entity.
The coalition’s confusion and poor performance may not be limited to seeking recognition and appointing representatives. It may also reach the coalition’s relationship with the public. This comes amid controversy over who will be the sole representative, with the coalition calling on the remaining opposition groups to act under its umbrella. This gives the public — which had obviously learned a lesson from its experience with the SNC — false promises.
Based on that, popular support shifted from the political to the armed opposition, given that the latter has established a presence on the ground, unlike the coalition, which is still keeping its nose clean of any criticism or call for reform or self-evaluation.
In addition, recognizing the al-Nusra Front as a fighting faction — despite the fact that it is excluded from the new military leadership — reflects the coalition’s weakness in the face of the opposition public opinion, which the front has successfully exploited.
Thus, the coalition is following in the footsteps of the SNC, which refrained from criticizing any misconduct among the public. The SNC merely repeated demonstrators’ chants, or even escalated them to a new level. At the military level, it seems to be clear that the gap is widening day after day between the opposition coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which announced the formation of its new unified command from Antalya in Turkey, following mediation by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This took place in the absence of the coalition, which welcomed the step and repeated requests for arms and an air embargo, while complaining about the delay in Arab and international support. At the same time, most of the fighting brigades have declared that they do not need to be affiliated with a given party, or that they have found their own funders, be they individuals, groups or states offering funds and weapons.
Also, this means that any military body which will be subsequently formed by the coalition — and which would include the defense minister of the interim government — will not have any actual authority. This is true as long as money and support are not passing through the opposition movement, which took the final decision that it is the sole representative of the opposition.
As for the rest of the opposition groups, they are either non-existent or puppets of the regime, according to some members of the SNC. Despite the fact that the members of the National Coordinating Committee at home were invited to attend the Doha meetings in preparation for the announcement of the coalition, the invitations were sent on an individual basis (Hassan Abdel Azim was invited as a representative of the Socialist Union, Abdel-Aziz al-Khair as a representative of the Communist Action Party and Aref Dalila as an independent figure).
What prompted them to attend these meetings was Western insistence — and the US and France in particular — on the need for the internal opposition to attend [the Doha meetings] and to join the coalition.
A big issue remains: any decision issued by the coalition (including the SNC) is the decision of the party that formed such a coalition — i.e., the Qataris, French and Turks. Of course, this dilemma was not created by this newborn movement, rather it is a dilemma created by the SNC almost a year ago.
Back then, the SNC sought to internationalize the Syrian issue and called for various forms of interference, such as a no fly zone, a buffer zone or military intervention. This infers the transfer of the proposed solutions to the outside and attaches any SNC resolution to foreign resolutions. It also means accommodating the decisions of these countries, which declared the failure [of the SNC] and said that they no longer believe in it given the very vast distance that separates it from the public and from the remaining opposition groups and militants. These critics argue that the SNC wasted time on useless conferences, media parades and statements.
As the coalition follows in the footsteps of its predecessor in terms of the frequency of its meetings, committees and statements, rapid Syrian developments are taking place, thus making it hard for it to catch up to them. Thus, it has turned into a political entity which plays a minor role in the Syrian scene. Meanwhile, the leading role is now being played by the armed groups, and most importantly those guiding, financing and arming militant groups.