Last updated: April 29, 2013
Gian Marco Liuni: The new coalition for Syria – time to trust?

“The inclusion of many local councils is already an important step that should result in an opening towards the coalition”

Interviewed at a rally against the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, a member of the Islamic Action Front strongly pushed for foreigners to arm the Syrian resistance. Wishing to remain anonymous he commented on the upcoming meeting in Doha, “whatever project orchestrated from abroad that does not include the Generals on the ground is fated to fail. The international community should focus on implementing a no-fly zone and to supply weapons to the rebel army.”

But it is on 'who' such an opposition is that the international community is stuck. Hillary Clinton, fed up with the Syrian National Council, which fails to implement directives on the ground, requested a more 'monolithic' interlocutor, inclusive of the Syrian reality. The long series of attacks started in July, when the headquarters of mukhabarat – Al-Assad's secret police – was bombed, forcing the US to reconsider their unconditional support. As the attacks were claimed by jihadi groups such as Jubhat al-Nusra, who do not recognise any alternative to an Islamic state, the West asked for increased control over Turkish and Gulf funds, which might end up in Salafi hands.

The truth is that this reassessment is useful to the opposition alike, or better, the oppositions. Self-proclaimed as “the only voice of the Syrian people”, the SNC realised that its internecine struggle turned the group of expatriates into nothing more than a coalition of “fund-raisers,” with no effective implementation powers. In these 20 months personalities like Burhan Ghalioun and Abdulbaset Sieda offered themselves as intermediaries between, in particular, the Gulf and the Free Syrian Army. The problem is that the 'leader' himself of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad, admits he can only issue “general instructions” from Turkey; the local military councils retain veto power. The inefficiency and the subsequent reduction of diplomatic backing forced the organisation to realise that in order to be credible it could not remain a foreign organism.

Thus the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) was born. The SNC's apparent attempt to defy the US was a due formality for the media. Analysing the composition of this body, it is easy to understand that the Doha-line has prevailed: of the 60 seats, 22 are reserved to the intransigent SNC; 14 for the Local Revolutionary Councils; 2 to the Kurdish National Council; 3 to the Turkmen community; 9 to non-specified relevant personalities within the opposition and 9 to further non-specified organisations.

The executive consists of a President, Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib, assisted by three deputies, Riad Seif, Suhair al-Atassi, and a third position reserved to a Kurd that remains vacant. On the basis of the Geneva agreement of June, the NCSROF will form an interim government, sided by a military council and a legislative committee: this will result in a transitional government charged with organising the elections, and revise the Constitution.

Considering the alternative to Bashar al-Assad presented in Doha, is it time to grant full trust to the opposition?

There are many positive steps forward. Finally some of the Local Councils are represented. "We will urge the international community to channel both humanitarian aid and military aid through this body. This will dry out or at least dwindle the informal funding,” al-Atassi told Al-Jazeera. After the Kurdish Sieda, the SNC elected the Christian George Sabra at its leadership, trying to shrug off accusations of being a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated body. Most importantly, the NCSROF tried to inaugurate the Libyan model: regroup the rebels under a unitary body, and prepare them to be the future interim government.

Nevertheless, the missed election of the third vice-president, and of as many as 18 seats, reduced its credibility. It gives the idea that this effort was only to calm Washington by including some representatives from the ground. Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib brought everyone back to caution: elected president for his inter-sectarian narrative, voices which depict him as a Sunni exclusivist and a staunch opponent of Israel are multiplying daily. Although these have all yet to be confirmed, they reveal it is better to inquire before giving the full backing.

Within the new coalition, the SNC remains by far the favoured entity, making up more than a third of the body, due to its intransigence towards al-Assad, which brings it in total sympathy with Riyadh and Doha. The agreement even places the requisite of non-negotiation with the Assad regime on top of the list.

This delays every possibility for a settlement in the short-term. Syria is not Libya: 30% of the Syrians are more afraid of the alternative than of the regime itself. It is not Egypt either, as the opposition is fragmented in dozens of small parties, each one clinging to the insignificant difference vis-à-vis the others but which keeps them alive. For these reasons, its decision not to open to figures from the current regime might result in a backlash.

Tehran vainly attempted to organise a counter-conference in the same days as Doha's, inviting its selected opposition. The “National Coordination Body for Democratic Change” includes too many figures from the current parliamentary opposition, which undermines the legitimacy of such an option from the grassroots. The abuse from Iran and Syria of the term “terrorists”, used to topple even genuine requests for change, handed to the Gulf and the Turkish coalition the responsibility to find a solution to the crisis.

Charged with so many expectations the question is whether the 'new' opposition will survive the internal divisions, which crippled its predecessor. For sure, the US and Europe are not willing to treat legitimacy as a given anymore: this will be granted to NCSROF depending on its capacity to create symbiosis between 'head' and the 'arm' within Syria.

Rami G. Khouri has better than anyone else synthesised the key points on which it has to work: coordinate military activities; create a credible governance in the liberated areas; convince minorities that the new Syria is not going to resemble Iraq; manage the increasing influx of funds in an efficient manner and free of corruption. This is a monumental job, which basically means the body will have to re-build a new state as the areas starting from the North are freed.

For this reason al-Khatib, Seif and al-Atassi have undertaken a journey to Europe. The trio has to convince the West that the opposition 'has done its homework', and now it is time to grant full political, and financial backing. Earning the hesitant support of Westminster, the EU added itself to those who more or less recognised the coalition, together with the Arab League and the Gulf. The morale is so high that France is actively pushing to start supplying 'defensive weapons'.

However, the international community has two concerns: Syria ending up being governed by a Mohamed Morsi, and the impossibility to disarm Al-Qaeda inspired groups once the state-building phase is complete. There are yet few indications pointing in the direction of the first option, whilst the second unfortunately is a certainty. Syria has been doomed to destabilising attacks by the decision to shake its order already twenty months ago.

But this is exactly the reason why this is the moment to give trust. By creating a solid government it is still possible to defuse the groups for which the Islamic state is not top priority. As soon as Brussels granted recognition, brigades such as Liwaa al-Tawhid retracted a previous statement with which they opposed any collaboration with the NCSROF. The inclusion of many local councils is already an important step that should result in an opening towards the coalition.

In the meanwhile the NCSROF established headquarters in Cairo, planning its showdown into Syria within the next two weeks. Nevertheless, the challenges of the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces go beyond the mere establishment of an alternative government. It remains to be seen whether the many fragments of the opposition will be included in the democratic channel, and if they will manage to dialog without compromising the post-Assad order.

But one thing at a time: in the Middle East, unfortunately, there is always time to make war.

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