MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis |919|January 14, 2013
Syrian Opposition Forms Political Coalition, Joint Military Council
Following Foreign Pressure
By: L. Barkan
The recent months have seen a reorganization of the Syrian opposition – both
its political bodies and its military forces. Two new bodies have been
formed: The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces
(henceforth: the National Coalition), and the Supreme Military Council,
which is officially operating on behalf of the National Council.
This reorganization was carried out with the active involvement of Arab,
Muslim and Western countries – chief among them Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan,
Turkey, the US, France and Britain – and was perceived as a necessary move
towards reaching an agreed-upon political solution to the Syrian crisis that
does not involve foreign military intervention. Taking a lesson from the
case of Libya, where foreign military intervention resulted in anarchy and
in ongoing internal conflict, and following intense criticism directed at
the former main bodies of the Syrian opposition – namely the National Syrian
Council (NSC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – by elements inside and
outside Syria, these Western and Muslim countries acted to establish a
well-organized and united leadership for the political and military Syrian
opposition. This was in an effort to lay a foundation for a secure and
stable post-Assad Syria, free of internecine fighting and jihadi insurgency.
The main reasons for replacing the NSC was that it had failed to unite all
the opposition forces in Syria and abroad and to represent all the forces
fighting on the ground, that it was dominated by the Syrian Muslim
Brotherhood (MB), and that it had not cooperated with the efforts of
international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to reach a political solution in Syria.
The National Coalition, then, is meant to unite opposition, distance the MB
from positions of power, and facilitate Brahimi's mission. It has also been
tasked with forming an interim government.
However, two months after the establishment of the National Coalition, it is
difficult to identify any significant change in the political makeup or
views of the opposition. The National Coalition does include a broader
spectrum of opposition forces than does the NSC, but like the NSC it does
not incorporate all the opposition elements. Moreover, the NSC itself has a
large representation in it – about a third of the seats – and the MB has
managed to gain an effective majority in it. In addition, like the NSC, it
is imposing conditions that impede Brahimi's mission (though it should be
mentioned that Brahimi himself has drawn closer to the opposition's views in
the last few days). Nor has the National Coalition managed to form an
interim government. Its main achievement so far lies in gaining the
recognition of numerous countries and bodies as a representative of the
Syrian people, or even as their sole representative. It has even dispatched
representatives to some of these countries.
On the military level, the main problems facing the Syrian opposition up to
this point were a lack of coordination among the forces in the field; lack
of communication between the FSA high command in Turkey and the
organization's forces in Syria; and the infiltration of jihadi elements into
the ranks of the opposition. These factors compromised the military efforts
and were also a source of Western reluctance to fund and arm the Syrian
rebels. The Supreme Military Council is meant to solve these problems by
uniting the fighting forces into a well-organized and coordinated body,
thereby preventing anarchy today and after Assad's ouster, while also
distancing jihadi elements and preventing them from taking over power
centers in the country.
So far, these only some of these goals have been achieved. The Supreme
Military Council, which was elected by several hundred field commanders and
officers, does indeed comprise local figures, while the FSA commanders based
in Turkey have been excluded from it. The main jihad organization active in
Syria – Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) – has likewise been excluded. However, when the
U.S. designated JN a terror organization a few weeks ago, the Syrian
opposition rallied to its defense, which sparked apprehension in the West
and increased its reluctance to arm the opposition.
This report reviews the efforts to unite the Syrian opposition, and assesses
I. Arab And International Effort To Establish New Coalition Of Opposition
Establishment of the National Coalition in Doha, November 11, 2012
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, formed
following efforts by Arab and Western countries, was officially launched in
Doha, Qatar on November 11, 2012. The coalition comprises 63 members
representing various Syrian oppositionist forces operating inside and
outside Syria, including the opposition's main political body – the Syrian
National Council (SNC). It was decided that the National Coalition's
headquarters would be located in Cairo, and that it would establish an
interim government at a later stage. The president of the new coalition is
Ahmad Mu'az Al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and
the grandson of former Syrian president (1941-43) Taj Al-Din Al-Hasani.
Al-Khatib's three deputies are former Syrian MP Riad Seif, who left Syria
last summer and who initiated the establishment of the new coalition; SNC
president George Sabra; and opposition activist Suhair Al-Atassi.
The agreement signed in Doha states that the goals of the National Coalition
are "to oust the current regime and its symbols, disband its security
apparatuses, and work to bring to justice those responsible for [spilling]
the blood of the Syrian people"; to "unite and support the military
councils, the groups and regiments, and all Syrian revolutionary military
organizations, and to establish a high military command under which all the
aforementioned bodies will unite"; and to establish an aid fund for the
Syrian people. The agreement states further that the coalition will refuse
to engage in dialogue with the existing regime and strive to receive
international recognition as "a legitimate representative of the Syrian
people." It calls to hold a general national conference once the Syrian
regime is ousted, after which the National Coalition and interim government
will be dispersed and a transitional government will be established.
The National Coalition was established after lengthy talks among opposition
groups and following intense pressure by Arab, Muslim and Western elements.
In the West, the U.S. was the main actor pushing for and working to form a
new leadership for the Syrian opposition. The multitude of reports on
efforts in this direction by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford (who left
after the outbreak of the violence) and by Syrian oppositionist Riad Seif
even led the media to dub their initiative "The Seif-Ford Initiative." There
were also reports on British and French involvement in the initiative. U.S.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that this was an attempt by
the U.S. to form a new leadership for the Syrian opposition after being
disappointed by the SNC. The Syrian opposition itself denied any U.S.
involvement in the unification efforts.
On the Arab and Muslim side, it was Qatar that hosted talks between the
opposition forces and worked towards their success, Jordan that hosted a
preliminary meeting before the signing of the Doha agreement, and the Arab
League that was active during the Doha talks. It was also determined that
the agreement would be kept at the Arab League secretariat.
Egypt initially had reservations regarding the initiative, but later changed
its tune and was even chosen as the seat of the National Coalition. Turkey,
which is known as a main supporter of the SNC and is hosting its leadership,
defended the SNC from the criticism against it, but also encouraged it to
talk to other opposition forces and to remain the leader of the opposition's
actions. According to reports, Turkey also participated in the Doha talks
for the establishment of the National Coalition.
The new body was welcomed by many in the Arab world and the West. It has
been recognized as the representative or sole representative of the Syrian
people by several countries and organizations, including France, Britain,
the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the E.U.
Some of these countries and organizations even asked the National Coalition
to send them an ambassador or representative.
However, it seems that the international community has yet to formulate a
unified position on the Syrian crisis, and that many countries are still
reluctant to recognize the National Coalition as a legitimate representative
of the Syrian opposition. This was evident at a conference held in Morocco
on December 12, 2012, about one month after the establishment of the
National Coalition, by the "Friends of Syria" group – over 100 countries and
organizations that support the opposition – and which was attended by
National Coalition President Mu'az Al-Khatib. The closing statement of the
conference did say that participants recognized the National Coalition as a
legitimate representative of the Syrian people. However, Egypt and Algeria
did not sign the statement, while Sweden announced that it was not even
close to recognizing the National Coalition. Further dispute was sparked
after the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, Sa'd Al-Din
Al-'Othmani, said at a news conference that "full recognition of the
National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people" had been
achieved at the conference. The Austrian foreign ministry clarified in
response that Al-'Othmani's statements reflected Morocco's position alone,
not that of all the conference participants. Moreover, a diplomatic source
at the U.N. said that the recognition of the National Coalition was
meaningless without the approval of the Security Council, and that such
approval was likely to be blocked by Russia and China. Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov indeed said that Russia did not recognize the
National Coalition but was willing to engage with it, as with any other
Internally, it seems that the National Coalition, like the NSC, experienced
some disagreements, at least at the outset. Reuters reported that, during
its first gathering in Cairo, which dealt with establishing the interim
government and various professional committees, there were many disputes
between members. One of the results of these disagreements is that, today,
about two months after the formation of the National Coalition, the interim
government has yet to be established.
The National Coalition – A Substitute For The Failed SNC
One of the reasons to establish the National Coalition was to replace the
SNC. Since its establishment in Istanbul in October, 2011, the SNC has been
considered the main representative body of the Syrian opposition, and in
April 2012, the "Friends of Syria" group recognized it as "a legitimate
representative of all Syrians." The notion of replacing it came following
harsh criticism from the international community, chiefly from U.S.
officials, regarding its dysfunction and failure to unite the opposition and
maintain contact with the forces on the ground, despite the diplomatic and
financial support it had received from the international community. Several
SNC members even withdrew from it in the past year, claiming that it had
failed to defend the Syrians and to justify the trust they had placed in it,
and that it did not operate transparently. The SNC's foreign relations
director, Basma Qadmani, who withdrew from it in August 2012, said that it
was unable to work well with other opposition groups and to meet the
increasing challenges in the field. According to Qadmani, the various
organizations within the SNC do not act as one body with one national plan,
and some place too much focus on partisan affairs, which hampers efforts to
form ties with groups in the field and to extend the necessary aid to the
people. Haitham Al-Maleh, who withdrew from the SNC in March 2012, said
several months later that the SNC had failed to fulfill its role, acted with
no transparency and marginalized others.
U.S. officials also expressed disappointment regarding the SNC's
functioning. They criticized it for failing to unite the political
opposition forces under its banner and for holding no influence with the
revolutionary forces fighting inside Syria, and called to establish a new
opposition leadership that would meet these criteria. One U.S. official told
the London daily Al-Hayat that the NSC's real problem was that most of its
members were outside Syria, while the facts were determined inside the
country; hence, any new body would have to first of all receive support
inside Syria. Even harsher criticism was expressed by U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, on October 31, 2012: "We've made it clear that the
SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They
can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people
from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be
heard." U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that the
goal is to establish a body that would receive support inside Syria and
maintain contact with the various political groups in the country,
especially the minorities, to ensure that their rights are preserved.
In response to these statements, SNC members attacked the "Friends of Syria"
group and especially the US. Former SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun said that
the SNC had been wrong to trust "the friendly supporting states," which he
said were responsible for the loss of the SNC and for the fate of the Syrian
campaign. According to Ghalioun, "the Americans are looking for a scapegoat
to cover for their feebleness and helplessness." The oppositionist website
Sooryoon, which supports the SNC, attacked the U.S. in an editorial. In
addition, it was reported that anger over Clinton's statement about the SNC
had been expressed in Friday protests in Syria.
Friends of Syria Conference in Morocco, December 12, 2012
SNC members indeed objected to the establishment of an opposition body to
replace them, but promised to participate in efforts to unite the opposition
while maintaining the SNC as the main opposition body. Burhan Ghalioun said
prior to the meetings in Doha: "The council refuses to take part in an
[initiative] seeking to eliminate and kill it. We will strive to turn the
[Doha] conference from one intended to kill the SNC into one intended to
complete the job that [the SNC] started."
The SNC continued to oppose the initiative during the Doha talks themselves,
despite reported threats from Qatar to stop funding it, and despite
assurances by various elements that its status would not be harmed.
Eventually a compromise was reached, and the SNC agreed to join the new
body, which ostensibly does not supplant the SNC, but is a coalition of
various forces, as its name suggests.
The SNC thus managed to block the attempt to distance it from the new
leadership of the opposition, and received respectable representation in the
National Coalition – over one third of the seats. Some of its other demands
were met as well. In addition, about one month after the National Coalition
was established, SNC head George Sabra was appointed as one of Al-Khatib's
Attempt To Weaken The Muslim Brotherhood Within The Syrian Opposition
Another goal in establishing the National Coalition was, apparently, to
weaken the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the opposition and in the future
Syrian regime, after claims were made in the past year that the MB controls
the SNC. The MB itself claimed that there was a Western attempt to exclude
it from the opposition. Several weeks after the establishment of the
National Coalition, MB General Supervisor Riad Al-Shaqfa accused Western
countries of attempting to achieve this. He stressed that these attempts had
failed, that the MB enjoyed popular support, and that the people and
political forces in Syria eagerly awaited the return of its members to the
country, from which they had been banished in the 1980s.
It seems that the MB indeed wields considerable influence in the National
Coalition. Coalition member Kamal Al-Labwani claimed that, even though the
MB is a minority in this body, it has the support of coalition members who
are not in the MB, which guarantees this movement a majority in votes.
According to Al-Labwani, all the committees formed by the coalition are
pro-MB. It is possible that the involvement of Qatar, a major MB sponsor,
has helped to maintain its power in the opposition.
Despite the attempts to weaken it, the MB, along with the SNC, has
maintained its power and even grown stronger in morale. This is evident from
two conferences recently held in Turkey, both of them the first of their
kind: a conference of commanders representing over 100 military
organizations in Syria, which was attended by Riad Al-Shaqfa and his deputy
'Ali Al-Bayanouni, and a conference of MB youths, which was attended by
Al-Bayanouni and officials from Arab MB movements (The Egyptian MB, the
Tunisian Al-Nahda movement and Hamas). Al-Bayanouni even visited Syria and
met with revolutionary elements in the field.
It should be mentioned that, according to reports, the Supreme Military
Council that was established approximately one month after the National
Coalition also has a majority of members associated with the MB.
Attempt To Reach Diplomatic Solution In Syria Brokered By International
Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
Yet another motivation for establishing the National Coalition was a Western
desire to promote a political solution in Syria that would be acceptable
both to the opposition and to the regime, with the help of international
envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, after the SNC questioned his mission and stressed
that any solution must include Assad stepping down.
Following the unification of the opposition, Brahimi began accelerated
diplomatic activity along with the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia
(each of which supports a different side in the Syrian conflict), in an
attempt to reach such a political solution. However, the National Coalition
and Supreme Military Council reiterated the SNC's demand that Assad's ouster
be part of any political solution. Several days after Brahimi's appointment,
National Coalition President Mu'az Al-Khatib said that he would not
negotiate with the regime: "I will not go to Tehran or Moscow, or negotiate
with the regime. [Even] if the coalition unanimously votes to do so, I will
vote against it." At the same time, Al-Khatib said: "The man [Brahimi]
represents an international body – the U.N. – and he says that he wants to
help. His mission and statements might not be well received on the street,
but I think we should let him try, and the [public on] the street can decide
[on it]." Al-Khatib also met with Brahimi several weeks later.
Statements by other opposition officials were less tolerant. Ahead of
Brahimi's visit to Damascus in late December, SNC official Monzer Makhous,
who is also the spokesman of the National Coalition and its ambassador in
France, said that he had no expectations from Brahimi's visit to Damascus
and that the time for political solutions was over, considering the extent
of Assad's crimes. Haitham Al-Maleh, head of the National Coalition legal
committee, said: "This is not a crisis that can be solved politically, as
Brahimi desires. Syria is the site of a war of extermination by Assad's gang
against the Syria people, and it will inevitably end either with Assad's
death or with his arrest and prosecution." Salim Idris, chief of the Supreme
Military, said that political solutions had been possible in the early
stages of the revolution, but now "we have no [choice] but to fight."
Following Brahimi's call for Syria to establish a transitional government
with full authority, National Coalition spokesman Walid Al-Bunni said that
the coalition would agree to any solution that did not include the Assad
family, and that the first condition was that the Assad family and regime
officials leave Syria. According to Al-Bunni, the only concession that the
opposition is willing to make is to let Assad leave the country without
standing trial. The clearest condemnation of Brahimi's efforts came from
Haitham Al-Maleh. Following Assad's January 6, 2013 speech in Damascus, in
which he proposed a political solution that the opposition unanimously
declined, Al-Maleh called on Brahimi to submit a report to the UN Security
Council admitting the total failure of his mission.
It should be mentioned that in the last few days there appears to be a shift
in Brahimi's position. In Western media interviews, he attacked the
political solution proposed by Assad in his Damascus speech, condemned the
Assad family for holding on to the reins of power for 40 years, and called
for a real change in Syria as soon as possible. He also said that Assad
would not be part of the future transitional government. His statements were
welcomed by the National Coalition, and Al-Khatib said that the coalition
would accept an initiative involving Assad's ouster and the formation of a
transitional government with elements that "have no blood on their hands."
The regime, on the other hand, attacked Brahimi, claiming that he had
overstepped the boundaries of his mission and supported the position of
elements conspiring against Syria, though it clarified that it would
continue cooperating with him in an attempt to find a solution that conforms
to the "Syrian perception." This response makes a solution acceptable to
both sides seem unlikely.
II. Establishing "The Supreme Military Council": Strengthening The Influence
Of The Forces Fighting In Syria
Alongside the unification of the political opposition, attempts were made to
unite those fighting against Assad on the ground. On December 8, 2012, about
a month after the establishment of the National Coalition, the Supreme
Military Council, a joint high command of the forces fighting against Assad,
was established in Turkey. The council was elected by 550 commanders of
military and revolutionary councils and brigades who convened in Antalya. It
includes 30 military and civilian personnel representing most of the armed
groups in Syria, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to reports,
two thirds of them are associated with the MB, and a few others with the
Salafis. Salim Idris, a Syrian officer who defected, was appointed as the
council's chief of staff.
The meeting in Turkey at which the council was launched was attended by
security officials from the US, Britain, France, the Gulf and Jordan.
According to the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir, the meeting was led by
the head of Saudi intelligence, Emir Bandar bin Sultan, and Qatari State
Minister for Foreign Affairs 'Abd Al-Rahman Aal Al-'Attiyah.
The relations between the Supreme Military Council and the National
Coalition are still unclear. Officially, the Supreme Military Council is
part of the National Coalition, and its establishment is consistent with the
Doha agreement, which called for the coalition to establish a high military
command for all military forces acting in Syria. On December 19, 2012, after
the establishment of the Supreme Military Council, National Coalition
President Mu'az Al-Khatib met with the Supreme Military Council chief of
staff Salim Idris, and the two signed a document determining that "the goal
is the ouster of the regime and its symbols, and the dismantling of its
In his speech to the Friends of Syria in Morocco, Al-Khatib said: "A joint
command of the military forces has been established, led by talented and
loyal [figures]. We congratulate them for their efforts to defend [the
Syrian] people, [and they] shall become the nucleus of the future national
army." Another statement, more indicative of the close cooperation between
the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council, was made by
National Coalition Secretary-General Mustafa Al-Sabbagh, who said that the
coalition will have sole responsibility for transferring material aid to the
council. It is unclear whether this is actually being implemented.
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