The U.N. Security Council today witnessed “a rare moment of global unity [that] dealt a serious diplomatic blow to President Bashar al-Assad,” when Russia and China endorsed Kofi Annan’s initiative to end the conflict in Syria.
But the Syrian opposition remains bedeviled by political rivalries and allegations of a covert Islamist agenda, which will be addressed by an April 1 conference hosted by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
“Prominent liberals and independent Islamists have grown wary of the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood” within the opposition Syrian National Council, reports suggest.
The Kofi Annan peace plan, unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Security Council today, calls for
- both regime forces and armed rebel groups to accept a U.N.-supervised cease-fire;
- daily pauses for humanitarian assistance;
- the release of political prisoners;
- freedom of access for media;
- freedom of assembly for peaceful protest; and for
- ”the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy [Annan] towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis” through “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”.
But the plan “may pose an even greater dilemma for the Syrian opposition than it does for the regime,” notes one observer:
That’s because while it demands a halt to the regime’s military operations against opposition strongholds, it also retreats from the previous insistence by Western and Arab countries — and the Syrian opposition — that Assad immediately step down and hand power to a unity government as the starting point of a political solution to the year-long uprising.
“The reason that mass defections have not destroyed the regime,” he says,” is that “sectarian anxieties prevent Alawite defections, and the regime turns out to be more sectarian than many thought; and class anxieties are more important as well.”
The regime has also been helped by political fissures within the opposition, including rifts between internal and exiled groups, and between secular and Islamist elements.
Several leading members of the SNC, the exiled umbrella coalition, recently resigned from the group, complaining of Muslim Brotherhood influence. They have since formed a rival Syrian Patriotic Group.
The council is “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident.
He accused Brotherhood members the opposition of “monopolizing funding and military support,” the New York Times reports:
The 270-member council has been plagued by internal disagreements. A member of its executive committee, Samir Nachar, played down the latest frictions, saying the members had not submitted formal resignations and were simply frustrated at their exclusion from a meeting with the United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan.
But this time the departing members include some well-known members with deep credibility among Syrians both inside and outside the country, including Mr. Labwani and Haitham Maleh, an executive committee member and lawyer in his 80s who served many years in prison after defending Syrian dissidents, including Muslim Brotherhood members.
The April 1 forum in Turkey will be an opportunity to forge opposition unity and demonstrate its ability to offer a strategic vision and alternative.
”Turkey has proposed safe areas to protect civilians, but is frustrated by the opposition and is pressuring them to hold this conference,” an SNC official told Reuters. “The opposition has to show Erdogan and the rest of the world that it is a responsible political player.”
The official from the SNC, which is trying to coordinate the gathering, said all schools of thought would be admitted.
“The conference will exclude no one,” he said. “It will not resolve the difference within the opposition, but it will come out with a vision for a post-Bashar era and assure the revolution inside the country that there are Syrians working for them.”
Islamist influence within the SNC “has led to doubts and suspicions among the more secular factions in Syria about the post-Assad period,” says Khalaf Dahowd, an activist with the opposition National Coordination Body.
Opposition activists are reluctant to talk about any Islamist role because Assad’s regime depicts their movement as solely a campaign by terrorists and Islamic radicals. Such rhetoric is highly effective in scaring religious minorities and moderate Sunnis away from supporting the uprising.
A video posted on YouTube last week showed a former Syrian Brotherhood leader, Ali Sadr el-Din Bayanouni, admitting the Brotherhood nominated Ghalioun as council leader merely as a “front” more easily accepted by the West.
“We did not want the Syrian regime to take advantage of the fact that Islamists are leading the SNC,” Bayanouni says in the video.
A London-based Brotherhood spokesman, Zuhair Salem, denied the group was trying to dominate. “We joined the revolution to bolster it, not to control it,” he said.
But, according to Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, the Brotherhood is “lying low, waiting to see how events unfold and reap the fruits of the fight.”
The crisis has proven to be so protracted, SyriaComment’s Landis says, because of the opposition’s strategic naivety.
“In the first year of the Syrian uprising, the opposition naively believed that the entire Syrian population would embrace it and abandon the regime or that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power… [and that] a ‘Tahrir Square moment’ would arrive within months of the uprising’s start,” he argues.
The international community and Syrian opposition must prepare for the likelihood that the regime’s collapse may trigger state failure, the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Byman writes in Foreign Affairs.
“The Syrian state will not fail automatically or overnight, but planning to prevent that from happening or to mitigate the consequences should begin immediately. [and] go hand in hand with efforts to oust Assad,” he contends:
Money and arms should be used as an incentive to push the opposition to unite and work together. They should also be used to strengthen more pro-Western elements of the opposition and get them ready to take power in the postwar state. Indeed, empowering the right leaders today is essential for ensuring that revenge killings are rare in a post-Assad Syria and that a new government follows a moderate foreign policy.
Rather than oppose the inevitable, the United States must try to manage the militarization to increase the chances that it will not degenerate into thuggery and radicalization. …Arming the opposition might boost the chances of the regime falling, but the economic shock and escalating domestic and regional violence that would accompany it also increases the likelihood that Syria will become a failed state.
“Although continued bloodshed makes the announcement of a new Syrian government unrealistic,” Byman notes, “it would be useful to have a framework for such a government in place so that diplomats can move quickly should an opportunity arise.”
“It would also be helpful to start encouraging the opposition to build a vision of a future Syria that could unify people against the regime and reassure loyalists, particularly Alawis, that they will not be completely excluded from power,” he concludes.