A leading Syrian opposition group has “broadened its ranks to accommodate more activists and political groups from inside the country,” AP reports, “in an apparent nod to international demands for a more representative and cohesive leadership.”
U.S.-based Syrian academic Radwan Ziadeh* proposed convening a 300-member national conference in rebel-controlled Syrian territory close to Turkey (above). The conference, representing SNC members, military commanders, technocrats and local council leaders in equal measure, would form a transitional government to administer the rebel-run areas, he said.
The SNC has received significant support from the Gulf states, but the bulk of assistance has come from a more surprising source.
“The top financier of the Syrian opposition is no Arabian Peninsula oil kingdom or cloak-and-dagger western spy outfit, but struggling, war-ravaged Libya, which is itself recovering from a devastating civil conflict,” writes the FT’s Borzou Daragahi:
According to a budget released by the Syrian National Council and posted to its website late on Sunday, the Libyan government contributed $20.3m of the $40.4m that the opposition umbrella group has amassed since its creation in August 2011.
Qatar gave $15m while the United Arab Emirates contributed $5m, according to the document. Unlike Qatar and the UAE, which are absolute monarchies, Libya has embarked on a rocky path towards democracy and shares an ideological vision with Syrian revolutionaries.
The SNC began a four-day conference in Qatar on Sunday in an effort to overhaul its structure and rebut charges that it is unrepresentative of the broader opposition. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the U.S. no longer considered the group to be the opposition’s “visible leader” and said the administration had “recommended names and organizations which we believe should be included in any leadership structure.”
“The SNC is in an existential struggle right now,” said Salman Shaikh, a Doha-based Brookings analyst. The group is striving to come up with an alternative to a US-backed initiative from the celebrated dissident Riad Seif:
“The initiative is not a substitute for the Syrian National Council, but the S.N.C. should be an important part of it,” Seif told reporters. “To bring down the regime, we need 1,000 national councils.”
Many Syrian opposition figures and foreign governments have grown disenchanted with the Syrian National Council. They say that its leaders have been consumed by infighting rather than forging a strategy to topple the government, that military commanders fighting on the ground have made it irrelevant, and that it is basically a tool of the Muslim Brotherhood. …..The main initial aim of the Americans and others who back the change is to create a stronger link between the commanders leading the fight in Syria and the exile groups. There is growing concern in Western capitals that as the fighting drags into its 20th month, radical jihadists are hijacking what started as a peaceful protest movement.
Members of the S.N.C. counter that Western powers are at fault because the jihadists’ Persian Gulf Arab backers provide the kind of money and weapons that Western countries have refused to offer to the opposition.
“I will stick to helping form a political leadership which will satisfy the Syrian people and the world,” he said.
“The demise of the SNC is a result of self-inflicted wounds,” says Randa Slim, an analyst with the New America Foundation. Syrians are “fed up” with the SNC… “Their intuitive reaction is mistrust.”
A veteran dissident and proponent of the pro-democracy Damascus Declaration, Seif appreciates that a new generation of activists has wrested the political initiative and credibility from the largely older exiles associated with the SNC.
Tabler believes that activists from the provincial and revolutionary councils in Syria should have been given leadership positions a long time ago. Tabler also cautions that opposition politics are splintered in Syria and that won’t change any time soon. …..The U.S. has been giving non-lethal aid to the opposition, including training programs conducted in Istanbul and in southern Turkey, a $6 million program geared for activists coming out of Syria.
The first group included 36 activists, members of revolutionary councils from the northern province of Aleppo. Later groups came from Idlib, in the northwest and Deir el Zour, a rebel held area near the Iraqi border. The intense course work focused on helping the Syrian opposition set up administrations in towns and villages. For the first time, U.S. officials met face-to-face with young activists creating grass-roots representative bodies that provide humanitarian services and a fledgling judiciary. The French government has gone even further by directly distributing cash to revolutionary councils under rebel control.
The Qatar forum is unrepresentative of the rebels on the ground within Syria, says Tabler. ”That’s an important thing that’s missing,” he says. “The big problem in this is not engaging armed groups directly. Those taking the shots will be calling the shots, at least in the interim.”
According to the document, the SNC still has about $10.7m in the bank. The report breaks down expenditures by both category and geography. According to the six-page document, 11 per cent of the money collected has been spent on overheads, with the rest devoted to aiding Syrians inside the country or refugees in neighbouring states.
Roughly 7 per cent of the funds, or about $2.8m, has been allocated to the Free Syrian Army. About $290,000 has been spent on hotels for SNC representatives during travels abroad. The organisation spent about $160,000 on relief efforts for the two mostly ethnic Kurdish provinces of northwest Syria.
The political maneuvering within opposition ranks should not distract energy and resources from the need to secure a breakthrough in the 20-month long struggle against the Baathist regime of President Bashar Assad, say activists.
“You need a game changer, either military or political, and hope it will break the stalemate,” says Amr Azm, a Syrian-born professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
*A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.