As the Syrian revolution approaches another anniversary, Syria’s political opposition is showing signs of failure. Without a new approach, especially from America, the lack of a credible opposition will render a political settlement unreachable, making it harder to set Syria on the course toward a stable future.
Hoping for a more representative body than the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, President Obama and other world leaders recognized, in December, a new opposition coalition formed in Doha, Qatar. But that 71-member coalition, which includes many S.N.C. members, isn’t willing to negotiate with the Syrian government, nor is it remotely prepared to assume power. It is facing the prospect of defections and, worse, disintegration. Narrow interests are taking precedence; Islamists are overpowering secularists; exiles are eclipsing insiders; and very few members seem to have credibility on the ground back home.
Some observers argue that if President Bashar al-Assad dies or leaves Syria, the opposition will be able to lead a somewhat smooth transition, as was initially the case in Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But given Syria’s demographics and divisions, violence is unlikely to subside during a transition, especially without a popularly backed interim government able to control armed groups. Libya has six million people, who live mainly along the coastline of a country larger than Alaska. Syria has one-tenth the area of Libya with four times as many people, who are divided along sectarian lines and surrounded by regional powers vying for influence. Syria has also been mired in a far longer and bloodier civil war. Fear and revenge are more likely to play a major role in post-Assad Syria than post-Qaddafi Libya. Indeed, Syria is more likely to look like Iraq.
“The U.S. is empowering the Ahmad Chalabis of Syria,” argued one prominent dissident, referring to the Iraqi expatriate who presented himself, before the 2003 American invasion, as a leader with the political legitimacy to take over from Saddam Hussein. Many of Syria’s opposition leaders are acting like Chalabists: frustrating practical negotiations out of opportunism rather than principle, in the hopes of securing the spoils that will come when the Assad regime falls.
The coalition’s president, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, has emerged as a symbolic figurehead. A former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Mr. Khatib lacks the experience to play the jarring game of opposition politics. And Riad Seif, a key American ally and longstanding dissident in Syria, is being marginalized. Both leaders have been sidelined by the expatriate businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, whose moneyed Syrian Business Forum is suspected of being a Qatari front group. Mr. Sabbagh is virtually unknown to most Syrians because he has long been based outside Syria and lacks the respect of veteran dissidents.
Syria’s minorities are also underrepresented. Syria’s Kurdish parties have not joined the coalition, and only three Christians are members. Two represent the Assyrians, but have spent decades in Europe; the other, the S.N.C.’s president, George Sabra, is viewed first and foremost as a communist. The majority of Syria’s 2.5 million Christians, who are ethnic Syriacs, aren’t represented at all. Bassam Ishak, a prominent Syriac, was barred from joining it. Mr. Ishak’s résumé didn’t include loyalty to the S.N.C., which has practically become a prerequisite for membership.
Only three women are members of the coalition. In December, Rima Flihan, who fled Syria in 2011, was removed as the head of the media committee. Her replacement was an S.N.C. member who lived outside Syria his entire adult life.
To make matters worse, the coalition’s bylaws are littered with provisions that emanate from the S.N.C., including one that prohibits negotiations with the Assad regime’s upper echelons — leaving peace efforts devoid of a critical ingredient. The recent signal by Mr. Khatib that he was willing to negotiate was promptly declared his personal opinion, revealing the coalition’s refusal to pursue reconciliation.
Early mistakes in transitions tend to have enduring effects. But the solution is not to form more umbrella groups, adding layers of vested interests that favor competition over cooperation.
The United States must make recognition of the opposition strictly conditional on the coalition being genuinely representative of the Syrian people, with clear punishment for noncompliance. And contact between the American government and opposition leaders must not be limited to the ambassador and his staffers; Americans often seem oblivious to the power that personal relationships can have across the Arab world. Finally, America must empower secular, moderate and independent political forces that promote compromise and moderation.
The best hope for Syria’s future is a political settlement, not armed victory. But without a truly representative opposition, that hope will remain elusive.
Ramzy Mardini is a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation and a former State Department official.