Syria’s fractious opposition has elected a moderate imam to lead a new broad-based coalition in a move designed to form the nucleus of a transitional government following the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was established after four days of heated deliberations in Qatar. Its president will be Moaz al-Khatib (left, center), a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who is reportedly independent of any Islamist group, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
“Alkhatib is a dynamic, progressive Islamist, popular in Damascus and the rest of Syria,” said Mazen Adi, a prominent Syrian human rights defender. “He is not a trigger-happy jihadist, and he can play a role in containing the extremist groups.”
The opposition leadership is now more representative of the opposition movement inside Syria, observers suggest.
“Appointing a preacher represents a qualitative change that will most likely resonate among many people because it provides religious legitimation,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “This also shifts the balance in power in the opposition. The reality is that, while there are many secular voices, the opposition on the ground has become more and more religious.”
The new body was fiercely resisted by the Syrian National Council, but its former leader welcomed the initiative, based on a proposal from veteran dissident Riad Seif. Seif and female activist Suhair al-Attasi, organizer of a celebrated dissident forum, were elected vice presidents of the new group.
“Unlike the SNC, which has been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the likes of Mr al-Khateeb, Mr Seif, Ms Atassi and Mr Sabra are a reminder of the multifaceted nature of the opposition to the Syrian regime,” says The Economist.
“We signed a 12-point agreement to establish a coalition,” said Seif:
In a copy of the document obtained by AFP, the parties “agree to work for the fall of the regime and of all its symbols and pillars,” and rule out any dialogue with Assad’s government. They agreed to unify the fighting forces under a supreme military council and to set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas. A provisional government would be formed after the coalition gains international recognition, and a transitional government after the regime has fallen.
Former Syrian premier Riad Hijab who defected in August hailed the agreement as “an advanced step towards toppling the regime.”
The deal came after the SNC, previously seen as the main opposition group, heeded Arab and Western pressure to embrace groups that had been unwilling to join its ranks.
Khatib, the imam of the central Umayyad mosque in Damascus before he was arrested for supporting the uprising, is seen as an independent as he is not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist party. His deputies also hail from mixed backgrounds, with Seif reportedly backed by Washington and Atassi belonging to a Homs family active in the secular opposition. A third vice president post will remain vacant for a Kurd.
“I think the difference will start to show right away on the ground as the people will feel that there is a political power that represents them, and one body that unites its opposition,” said Burhan Ghalioun, a former head of the old Syrian National Council. “We expect international recognition in regional and international forums.”
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council today recognized the new group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people
“A big reason foreign supporters want a more streamlined opposition, better connected to rebels in Syria, is that they fear the emergence of separate warlords and jihadi fiefs if the opposition staggers on with only limited coordination,” The New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar reports.
But “it remains to be seen whether the Coalition can succeed where the exiled SNC failed in overcoming mutual suspicion and in-fighting that weakened the opposition,” Reuters reports.
Rima Fleihan, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition, told the BBC that the opposition was “one party now”, adding: “This will give us hope, give the Syrian people hope and this will be an answer for the international community that all the time asks us to be one party.”
The opposition’s backers in the West and the Arab world hope the new umbrella group will provide a conduit that will allow funds – and possibly military aid – to be funneled to the rebels fighting on the ground rather than exiled groups.
“Opposition activists claim the Doha agreement will pave the way for a flood of heavier weapons and international protection of safe havens, writes Roula Khalaf. “But they could well be disappointed.”
“Expectations are sky high so we need to manage them down,” says a western diplomatic source.
Western governments are discussing mostly non-lethal assistance which they expect will become more effective if channelled centrally through the national coalition. It remains to be seen, moreover, if Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two main weapons suppliers, will now unify their efforts instead of favouring different rebel groups.
“The Syrian opposition elements are under pressure from the Western powers to give them the cover they need to ensure Assad falls,” said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy studies at City University, London. “[The West and much of the Arab world] are not prepared to live with long-term containment of the Syrian conflict — It’s got to be regime change and in order to increase the chances (of that), they need to get arms to Assad’s opponents and (therefore) they need the opposition to change.”
The new body will better represent grassroots activists within Syria and provide an organizational nexus to link the civilian opposition with rebel fighters.
“The most important components are those coming from inside Syria, and they’re fully on board,” said Yaser Tabbara, a founding member of the Syrian National Council who helped shape the initiative to form the new coalition.
Provisions also have been made to include minorities in the new organization.
The new coalition will function as a sort of parliament rather than a government, according to participants in the discussions, and will be responsible for the creation of a legal committee, a military council and a temporary government.
The formation of the military council, which will include representatives from the Free Syrian Army as well as local militias and defectors, may be the most important step for the new coalition.
The distribution of military aid to armed groups in Syria has been chaotic and led to infighting among various factions. Now, the countries giving military aid, which include Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have decided to channel the weapons through a central body that could establish some control over the process.
“The whole point of establishing this political umbrella .?.?. is to act as that civic point of authority for the military people,” Tabbara said.
According to The New York Times: The hope among Western countries is that the new coalition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, can give local opposition councils the legitimacy to bring fighters under their authority. That would give an important counter-voice to the well-armed jihadist commanders who in many places have set the pace of the fighting and created worries that Islamists will gain a permanent hold.
An important change in the new agreement is that revolutionary councils from 14 Syrian provinces now each have a representative, though not all live in Syria. The hope is that will bind the coalition to those inside the country.
Perhaps the most important body the new group is expected to form is a Revolutionary Military Council to oversee the splintered fighting organizations and to funnel both lethal and nonlethal military aid to the rebels.
“We have crossed the Rubicon,” said Jon Wilks, the British envoy to the Syrian opposition.
Independent analysts believe the new body will make the opposition more representative and effective, after the SNC came under criticism for being sectarian, dysfunctional and covertly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is a significant step forward, because they finally seem to be forging a more broadly-based platform that includes the SNC but without the SNC taking the lion’s share,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Brookings Center think tank.
“Overall, the coalition broadens the opposition’s base, with officials saying it represents about 90 percent of opposition groups, up from an estimated 70 percent behind the old council,” the Times reports:
It is to include an assembly of up to 60 members, with major opposition figures filling at least nine seats. Up to five are reserved for Alawites, a crucial constituency because they are from the same Shiite Muslim minority as President Assad and the core of the military. The Muslim Brotherhood officially has only one seat.
Those who helped negotiate the agreement said that they were keenly aware of the failings of the Syrian National Council, and that the reality of Syria would make this experience different.
“There is a realization that the situation inside Syria is reaching a point of no return,” said Yaser Tabbara, a Chicago lawyer who helped negotiate the coalition agreement. “This whole situation of controlled chaos cannot be sustained.”
The new coalition was formed in the face of fierce opposition from the SNC, the Istanbul based group, which has been subject to withering criticism from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the international community “increasingly exasperated with the council’s dysfunction and irrelevance because its members are all exiles with little feel for the combat raging in their home country.”
The SNC has been reluctant to see its power diluted, however, and the principles agreed under intense international pressure on Sunday still leave the opposition some steps away from the transitional government that western and regional powers would like to see. According to SNC members, exact details of the now 60-member coalition’s composition are yet to be determined, although one said the SNC would have a third of seats.
The body will also create a military committee to supervise and unify actions on the ground. It is not clear whether the coalition will succeed in establishing authority over the disparate rebel groups, or indeed if it will even hold, given the centrifugal nature of Syrian opposition politics.
But Molham al-Droubi, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the SNC, described it as “a good step forward”.
The SNC attempted to head off a restructuring of the opposition through a series of cosmetic changes that failed to convince most observers and the international community.
On Friday, the group selected George Sabra, a veteran opposition activist and a Christian who is considered part of the SNC old guard, as its new leader. And on Wednesday, an election to choose a 41-member general secretariat also produced a somewhat predictable lineup.
“It was a joke,” said Mutasem Syoufi, a 31-year-old activist who has supported the initiative to form a new opposition group. “There were no women and no minorities.”
Sabra was dismissive of efforts to unify the opposition and called on foreign states to provide arms without linking aid to a change of leadership.
The Syrian opposition has many foreign friends, he told The Associated Press, “but unfortunately we get nothing from them, except some statements, some encouragement.” The regime “has few friends, but these friends give the regime everything,” he added.
The choice “could help counter Western concerns about the influence of Islamists in the group,” AP suggested, although Mohammed Farouk Taifour, a leading Brotherhood official, was chosen as Sabra’s deputy.
“The council’s vote for a new president and new executive committee caused its own problems, with at least one organization and various independent members quitting over the outcome,” The NY Times reports. “Those leaving the council said that the election process had been meant to introduce reforms that added diversity to the group, but that instead it had reinforced the control of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.”
“I don’t think his election will do anything to persuade the detractors of the SNC that it has become more attractive and democratic,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center. Sabra is an SNC insider, and “his election is part of continuity, not change,” he added.
“The main criticism of the S.N.C. has been that it is riven by internal bickering and has failed to attract a wide variety of groups,” The New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar reports: It lacks a significant presence of Alawites, the minority sect of Mr. Assad that controls Syria, as well as other minorities, tribal and religious elders and business leaders…..The council has put up various smoke screens in trying to avoid the formation of the new umbrella group. It has proposed that a grand conference of opposition activists should be held inside opposition-held territory in Syria to create an interim government, for example, even though current security fears make that unlikely. Only then, council members said, should the S.N.C. be dissolved.
In promoting the idea, Radwan Zeyada, another council member, said there was no guarantee that a larger group would not be plagued by the same problems that had dogged the S.N.C. Many activists backing unity are disaffected council members.
“If they met inside Syria, they will feel the heat, the urgency to do something quick for the Syrian people,” Mr. Zeyada said. “They won’t be sitting around in a five-star hotel.”
But other activists believe that the new opposition coalition will be more inclusive and representative of the diverse opposition, in marked contrast to the SNC which was reportedly dominated by the Brotherhood.
“The council has been one color, which defies logic,” said Rima Fleihan, a member in exile of the Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad group that has sought to document casualties. “The institution has failed to deliver what it promised in terms of fixing its internal problems.”
While the opposition’s overhaul is to be welcomed, say analysts, it is only the first step towards effecting a post-Assad transition.
“To be sure, Syria’s opposition will have to prove that the new national coalition can be an inclusive and effective platform. But that will not be enough,” writes the FT’s Khalaf. “To impose itself on the ground, the national coalition will also have to demonstrate to Syrians that it can hasten the demise of the regime.”