Syrian Politics in Doha

The latest attempt to unite Syria's opposition, with US and Qatari support, has led to the creation of a new Syrian coalition. To succeed, they need the buy-in of as many Syrian stakeholders as possible, as well as a concrete mechanism for governing the country and bringing the civil war to an end.

Negotiations in Doha to form a new Syrian opposition finally came to an end after almost of week of diplomatic wrangling. The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Force (SNCORF) is a new body formed with the help of the USA and Qatar, designed to widen the representation that currently exists in the Syrian National Council (SNC). In truth, no one expected much for the SNC which for the past year has been mired in factional infighting, lethargy and ineffectiveness. However, given the renewed sense of urgency from the United States and Qatar in trying to find a credible opposition, the SNC finally agreed to participate in a larger National Coalition.

From Council to Coalition

The problem revolved around the plan by the United States to support an initiative by Riad Seif, an exiled Syrian parliamentarian, known as the Syrian National Initiative (SNI). The initiative effectively sought to replace the Syrian National Council with a new and more comprehensive body of opposition activists; comprising military commanders and groups outside the SNC to provide a more holistic representation of Syrian political life. The principle aims to build a wider united front of Syrians opposing Assad and also to build stronger linkages to the military activities of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which to date have looked to be taking place in a parallel universe far away from Doha's comfortable five star hotels.

The Riad Seif plan initially envisaged fifty seats for a leadership council of which the SNC was to take fifteen. The SNC objected strongly to the move, seeing it as an attempt to dilute their previous hegemony over the Syria issue. Instead they decided to push for more influence in the Initiative, But at the same time the SNC were still disagreeing amongst themselves as to the new make-up of the Council, which has been increasingly been seen by many as being a mouthpiece for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. After finally deciding on a new President (George Sabra, a Christian), the SNC once again entered talks with Seif and his SNI. Seif had suggested on 8 November that a new council would comprise of 60 members of which the SNC would retain between 22 seats, around 40 per cent of the total council. This agreement stuck and has become the foundation stone for the agreement announced on 11 November to form the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces

The coalition will be led by Islamic preacher Maath al-Khatib as President and leading opposition figures Riad Seif and Suheir Atassi were elected vice presidents with Mustafa Sabbagh voted the coalition's secretary-general.

Khatib: A Uniting Leader?

The election of Khatib is an interesting move, and is sure to provoke some questions; he is certainly well respected in Syria having been jailed numerous times for opposing Bashar Al-Assad in recent years, the last occasion as recently as April 2012. He has a wide following amongst religious Sunnis, particularly in the capital, having preached at numerous respected institutions around Damascus and was Imam of the Ummayad mosque, the fourth holiest place in Islam. He has consistently claimed to be an independent activist not representing any faction in the coalition, and has made it clear that he abhors sectarianism.[1] However, his links to the Muslim Brotherhood have long been suspected, although the exact nature of the ties is subject to disagreement amongst observers. He is a frequent visitor to Doha, indeed those who spend time at Doha's Sheraton Hotel have gotten to know his face very well in the past few months. He has Qatar's backing or at least is subject to their oversight, and as a result will ensure that Qatari and US interest in the coalition is maintained, whilst building a bridge to more religious Sunni Syrians distrustful of western intentions. Though many outside this group will struggle to trust in him and may look to Riad Seif and particularly Suheir Atassi to counterbalance Khatib's Islamic credentials as more secular figures without such a defined and potentially polarising agenda.

Confidence in this new body is neither high nor low; there is certainly the feeling that the SNCORF is a step forward from the defunct SNC and a step closer to forming a credible alternative government. But there is a healthy dose of scepticism that the SNCORF can remain political and organisationally coherent given the internal divisions so prevalent amongst the opposition and huge amount of diplomatic pressure that was required to make them come together. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has said that claims of divisions among the opposition  'are over now'; there are few who believe him. 

However, at this point Khatib has sounded the right notes, which superficially at least bode well for an inclusive coalition. His demand for 'freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people' is certainly a warming sentiment. Whether these words are truly meant is of course another matter but the key for the Coalition will be in the delivery, not the rhetoric.

Funding and Firepower

Previously, upon his election to the head of the SNC, George Sabra immediately demanded more weapons and money. It was a brash manoeuvre that has certainly caused some irritation with Western states. The Syrian National Council according to diplomatic sources has received $40.2m dollars in funding in the past year, and it is no secret that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying the rebels with arms. However the SNC's ability to co-ordinate with FSA forces and rebels groups has been largely a failure.

Both the SNC and now the larger SNCORF have demanded that they be the sole conduit for funnelling logistical and financial support into Syria, and following the 11 November agreement the SNCORF has portrayed itself to be the sole body responsible for such matters.

But Western states are reluctant to up the funding until it can be ascertained that there is anything like the type of co-ordination and contact needed with armed forces on the ground. Why, given all the money previously invested in the opposition - which after one year produced no concrete steps in either moving toward a unified political position or in hastening the demise of Bashar - should Western nations keep funnelling in more cash and resources?

This resulted in paralysis, with the opposition resisting reorganising without international guarantees of aid, yet no guarantees were promised until the coalition agreement was reached. Although there is now an agreement, the burden of proof is still upon the SNCORF to show Western countries that it can deliver and use its expanded mandate to reach out to all armed groups in Syria.

It is unclear how this will be done, and what mechanisms the Coalition will use to enforce the delivery of aid to the right groups and ensure that adequate follow up checking is done to avoid either theft or illegal sales to jihadists. There is now a military council in the Coalition responsible for such issues. But this cannot solve the underlying problem, in a recent piece I expressed 'doubt that those fighting street battles in Idlib really have much to say to Syrian exiles enjoying free lunches and dinners at Qatar's expense.' Once again the burden of proof is upon the Coalition to show that they have the loyalty and goodwill of Syria's disparate bands of fighters and can work to bring them under political control. To date there has been little evidence of such loyalty.

Therefore the SNCORF will also need to present a concrete mechanism for governing the country, and also for bringing the war to an end, presumably by removing Al-Assad. The conflict on the ground is becoming more violent by the day as a bloody stalemate between regime and rebel forces sets in, and unless the SNCORF can play a tangible role in working to swing it in the rebels' favour, or work out a peace deal then there is little faith that the Coalition will last.

However Assad has not shown much sign of giving up, on 8 November and, fully aware of the Doha talks, he boldly asserted that he would 'live and die in Syria'; hardly the rhetoric of a defeated man. The President still has 450,000 troops at his command, four largely intact intelligence services and a stable supply of resources from his allies to keep paying and supplying his army indefinitely. It remains to be seen whether SNCORF will be able to defeat the regime -given Assad's ability to deploy substantial military force against FSA.

Despite the re-election of US President Obama, Western nations are still reluctant to intervene militarily or send weapons of any kind, and will be for the foreseeable future. This places the onus on Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the SNCORF to lead the fight for change in Syria. Furthermore the UN under Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is seeking a different plan which does not seek to remove Bashar's regime completely but instead manage a transition with key members of the ruling house. The Russians will do little to help the nascent opposition coalition, and may try to break it in favour of its preferred UN plan. The Arab League has cautiously supported the new Coalition, but this does not translate into real legitimacy, certainly in the Security Council -the one body that really matters -Russian politicking will ensure that the SNCORF will be granted no support.

For now the jury is out, and we must wait to see what can be delivered from this new body before passing judgement. Let us hope the fragile faith placed upon it is not misplaced.




[1]  Speech of Sheik Moaz Al Khatib, head of the newly established Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces in Qatar 11 November 2012


Michael Stephens

Associate Fellow

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