“If Syrians ever get a chance to build a democracy, they should have an advantage over their Arab Spring brethren,” one observer notes.
After 17 months, Mr. Assad has escalated the conflict in Syria, sending fighter planes as well as helicopters to pummel the insurgency. The end is nowhere in sight. But, then again, as recent history has proven, dictatorships can crumble with unexpected speed, leaving the opposition unprepared for the aftermath.
But today’s resignation of Basma Kodmani (right), a prominent member of the Syrian National Council, is raising further questions about the opposition’s capacity to unify and prepare for government.
The Day After Project: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria, drafted during a series of meetings in Berlin, establishes a robust consensus on several fundamental issues required to promote post-conflict reconciliation and facilitate democratic transition, including respect for human rights and rule of the law as the guiding principles for rebuilding the state and drafting a new constitution.
“The project aims to be a response, in helping the Syrians, empowering them to take their destiny back into their hands, back from the rule of arms and terror, into the rule of law and democracy,” said political scientist Afra Jalabi, a member of the project’s executive committee.
The project was initiated by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace in partnership with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen,” said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives at the USIP…
….. instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.
While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving “a Wild West quality” to help for the underdog rebels.
But the credibility of the Syrian National Council took a blow today with the resignation of Basma Kodmani (above), one of the few women in the SNC leadership and head of its foreign affairs bureau.
“While the political role of the SNC is important, the credibility and legitimacy of a coalition of an opposition is related to its effectiveness,” she said.
“My sense was that the SNC was not up to facing the increasing challenges on the ground and was not up to the performance I would have liked it to be,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview from Paris. “I joined the council to support a revolution and not play partisan politics,” Kodmani said.
“The groups inside the council did not all behave as one in promoting one national project,” Kodmani said. “Some have given too much attention to their own partisan agendas, some to their personal agendas sometimes. That resulted in a major weakness in connecting closely with the groups on the ground and providing the needed support in all forms.”
With fighting reaching the capital Damascus and commercial center Aleppo, Western countries are increasingly anxious for the disparate opposition factions to agree on a credible plan for a transitional government to succeed Assad. The SNC was formed in Istanbul last year as an umbrella organization to guide a democratic transition if Assad fell but has been accused by some of being dominated by Islamists.
Another former SNC member, Randa Kassis, said on August 23 she had been driven out of the group after expressing fear about Islamist domination.
The U.S. State Department downplayed the role of the SNC, highlighting the growing consensus on the need for a democratic transition.
“We’ve said from the beginning that we see them as a legitimate representative, but we never embraced them as the sole representative because Syrians themselves had a number of other groups,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“What’s most important is not what group folks label themselves as being affiliated with, but that increasingly the opposition inside Syria and outside Syria are all talking about the same kind of democratic future.”
But Washington shares analysts’ and activists’ concern that democratic forces are being eclipsed by radical Islamists.
“The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process,” said Charles Ries, head of RAND’s Center for Middle East Public Policy. “But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence.”
A democratic government could eventually succeed the Assad regime, said Amr al-Azm, a US-based history professor who served on the Day After committee, if sectarian approaches give way to pluralism.
“The transitional government must be inclusive, and reflect the diverse forces” in the country, he said. “I expect sometime in the near future there will be a transitional government.”
But international assistance will play a large part in shaping the country’s political future.
“Whilst we are grateful and we appreciate everything the international community has so far provided us, I still think there is more to be done,” said Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee State University. “Those who are struggling for their lives need to be given the necessary tools, beyond just words, to help bring down the regime.”
While Islamist groups have been bolstered by financial, logistical and military assistance from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other sources, say analysts, Syria’s democrats have been relatively underfunded and marginalized:
Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts’ concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be “ill-advised,” he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn’t broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.
“This administration is nowhere near doing that,” Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership. That said, initiatives like “The Day After” are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.