Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC)
Nine months after its inception, SNC is still rocked by frequent defections and recently Burhan Ghalioun offered to resign over accusations of political and organisational failure. © Khaled Desouki - AFP/File
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC)
Philipp Trösser
Last updated: June 2, 2012

The value of a credible Syrian opposition

International military action against Syria’s Assad regime remains elusive as long as the Syrian National Council can’t get its act together, writes Philipp Trösser in an analysis.

Has Assad gone too far? In the light of events such as the tragic Houla killings of May 25thor the 2012 army crackdown on Homs, many may hope that now robust international action is imminent. In such times, the future of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is hotly debated, but this may be a sign mainly for its demise. Clearly, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has lost all legitimacy, as according to the most recent UN figures about 10,000 people have been killed in the regime’s violent campaign to suppress dissent.

The international community is indignant, but agrees that there is no easy solution. Sectarianism is bordering on civil war and the opposition is weak and divided. Anyway you turn it, Syria is promising to be a real quagmire when it comes to re-establishing security and rebuilding the country. If the recent Iraq war taught us one lesson, then it is that you do not invade a country without having an exit strategy. Out of mere self-preservation it would therefore make sense for any government with non-existential stakes in the Syria conflict to desist from any kind of action that might be understood as shouldering the task of bringing Syria back to stability.

Disposing of Assad is not necessarily the real problem; the subsequent state-building is. Assad has been fuelling sectarianism in Syria for the last 14 months, and today the country is in a shadowy zone between wide-scale insurgency and civil war. So far, there is no unified opposition group which could claim the legitimacy to take over power after Assad’s fall and lead the country’s transition to democracy. The Syrian National Council (SNC), modelled on Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) and with a similar intention, has been plagued by deep internal divisions right from the start. Nine months after its inception, it is still rocked by frequent defections and recently Burhan Ghalioun, the group’s figurehead offered to resign over accusations of political and organisational failure – two days after his re-election as the SNC’s leader.

A major issue weakening the unity of the SNC is the reproach that Sunnis (about 75% of the population) hold too much power, while ethnic or sectarian minorities are underrepresented. Nonetheless, this deeply divided body of questionable legitimacy would appear as the next best choice to lead the country after Assad’s downfall. Its capacity to provide the leadership necessary to move beyond sectarianism and build a Syria where everyone has equal rights must be doubted, especially given Syria’s total lack of democratic experience within recent history. In this light, it might be best if Syria was put under U.N. administration until fair elections can be held, but then the Syrian people are likely to vehemently object to any further delay to administering their own country.

It thus comes as no surprise that so far we have seen no robust action to stop the killing in Syria. You may disagree with professor Colin Gray, who suggested that “moral outrage is a feeling, not a policy”; but at least temporary hesitation to engage in such a complicated conflict probably is a necessary matter of caution. In the end, governments are accountable to their citizens first and a solid contingency plan must be devised. If the U.S. was standing again before the decision to invade Iraq and defeat Saddam Hussein; would they do it (equally hot-headed)?

Largely, the Arab League Plan and the presently failing Annan Plan, Obama’s strategy of leading from behind give the impression that the international community is talking the talk, but not walking the walk. While caution in itself is not a bad thing, Syria’s prospects of returning to stability are worsening by the day.

The length of the crisis and the prolonged absence of international assistance will change the Syrian people and only consolidate instability. The obvious aspect is sectarianism, but a second aspect to be worried about is radical Islam and terrorism. In the face of apparent indifference from sides of the international community, Syrians are likely to increasingly seek refuge in religion. The more individual hardship is escalated, the more likely they will embrace radical Islam.

As foreign assistance fails to appear, many Syrians may put their hopes on groups which do assist them in their struggle. These may include the an-Nusrah front, a jihadist group which entered the spotlight in January 2012 and has claimed responsibility for many of the recent bombings in Syria. As yet, the group has not acknowledged links to al-Qaeda but similarities in ideology, rhetoric, tactics and communication channels are discernible. Only in February, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had urged Muslims in the region to take up arms in support of the Syrian resistance. The aim clearly is to indoctrinate ordinary Muslims with Salafi Islamist doctrine.

The logical outcome of this is that the longer the Syrian crisis is allowed to run its course, the easier radical Islam will establish itself in the country. Will Syria be allowed to become a second Iraq or even Yemen?

A merit easily overlooked of thrusts such as the Annan Plan is that they set the stage for the eventual diplomatic battle which will determine a robust course of action on Syria. While the presence of U.N. observers in Syria has not halted the bloodshed, it is collecting further evidence against the Assad regime. The effect is that slowly international outrage against Assad and his allies rises and thereby erodes his international base of support.

This is very important, as a plethora of external actors has very different and sometimes irreconcilable stakes in Syria. Syria is a crucial ally to Iran as it is the geographical link between Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. To weaken Assad therefore is to weaken Iran and provides the Western block and the Sunni Arab states an opportunity to pressure Iran over its nuclear programme and moreover check the spreading of Shi’a Islam. In addition to that, geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and Russia is complicating matters. Syria is Russia’s last ally in the region and the Syrian coastal city of Tartous hosts the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean.

In this context, taking decisive military action would mean to raise the profile of these underlying conflicts to dangerous levels and calling several bluffs – and all this for the sake of subsequently being held responsible for the political mess Syria is very likely to be. In a time of financial woes plaguing the western world, realpolitik thus is likely to prevent any stronger commitment to the Syrian crisis as long as crucial factors such as the nature and unity of the Syrian opposition do not improve. Moreover, aside from issues of legitimacy, there is a concern over Sunni Islamist sway within the Syrian resistance and, potentially in a future Syrian government. Especially Russia and Iran have vested interests in preventing the rise of Sunni power in Syria, but the U.S. and Israel certainly would not be comfortable with this either.

In the meantime, the conflict is allowed to simmer in the hope that it will just go away without any significant outside influence. A bonus certainly is that on the way it may drain Iranian resources and shorten the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. A solution will probably be found when the international community can no longer ignore the rise of radical Islam in Syria and when the SNC or a more functional body has more solid claims to legitimately represent the Syrian people as the new governing body of Syria. Let us hope that more humanist concerns and the rising death toll also are factors in the equation. A certain window of opportunity already has been created over Syrian violations of the Turkish border. Time for the SNC to get their act together.

The views in this article are the author's and do not neccessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

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