Can the National Coalition Lead Syria?

24, 2012 – Yezid Sayigh – Senior Associate – Middle East Center – Carnegie Endowment

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is now the widely recognized representative of the Syrian people. But whether the National Coalition will prove any more effective than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council (SNC), at providing the Syrian opposition with genuine political leadership is altogether unclear.

The opposition urgently needs capable leadership as signs multiply that the balance is tipping decisively against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And it must recognize its need for an effective political strategy capable of splitting the regime from within, bringing the Syrian crisis to a definitive resolution, and building a stable post-Assad Syria.

A Disorganized Coalition

By annointing the National Coalition the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” the Friends of Syria group hoped to tie the majority of opposition activists, military and civilian councils, and armed rebels inside Syria to the new body. The idea was that by awarding the National Coalition this level of recognition, pledging increased financial support for humanitarian relief, and promising to make it the principal channel for external funds, opposition forces would coalesce.This move certainly raised the coalition’s international profile substantially and gave it a strong boost among opposition groups and structures inside Syria. But it also put the coalition in the awkward position of being dependent on the Friends of Syria in order to secure and maintain acceptance among Syrians.

For now, at least, the National Coalition represents the Syrian opposition to the international community and lobbies on behalf of the Syrian people. But despite considerable hype, it differs little in structure and political program from the SNC. Whether the coalition is substantially more representative of the opposition as a whole—especially inside Syria—than the SNC is moot. It is as dependent operationally and organizationally on the SNC, which is now part of the National Coalition, as the SNC was—and remains—dependent on its Muslim Brotherhood backbone.

A rapid collapse of the regime will only increase the opposition’s challenges, both in the final phases of the armed conflict and in its immediate aftermath. The National Coalition faces the very real prospect of being overtaken by events on the ground in Syria. No less seriously, it may also find itself undercut by new diplomatic initiatives as the United States and Russia finally approach a meaningful convergence in their assessment of the regime’s prospects and their own strategic priorities.

Signs of a Political Solution

There are signs that some prominent members of the Syrian regime may be ready for political compromise. But the National Coalition has thus far maintained its stance against dialogue with Damascus.

In a remarkable interview published by the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar on December 17, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa gave a hint of what is to come. He stated that although Assad remains determined to achieve “a military decision in order to attain final victory, before conducting a political dialogue, . . . many in the [Baath] Party and the [governing National] Front and armed forces have believed from the start of the crisis, and still do, that there is no alternative to a political solution, and that there can be no return to the past.”

Sharaa was clearly expressing his own preference. He based this on his stated conviction that neither regime forces nor opposition rebels are able to end the crisis on their own terms. Buoyed by rebel successes against regime forces around Aleppo, in the northeast, and increasingly around Damascus since November, the National Coalition does not share Sharaa’s assessment. Its only official comment was to refer to his interview in passing as one among many indications that “the regime is facing its final days with difficulty and seeks not to die alone.” This is in line with the coalition’s vow “not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime.”

Presumably, the National Coalition also disagrees with Sharaa’s call for a “historic compromise” starting with the “cessation of violence in parallel with the formation of a national unity government with broad powers.” But the coalition may now come under pressure to modify its position as the Syrian crisis appears to be rapidly approaching its endgame.

Reviving the Geneva Communiqué

The international community has also been feeling pressure to readjust as a result of events on the ground. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who left Damascus in early 2012, reiterated on November 29 that the U.S. priority remains a political deal between the opposition and members of the government who “do not have blood on their hands.” “We think that a military solution is not the best way for Syria,” adding that “efforts to win this by conquering one side or another will simply prolong the violence and aggravate an already terrible humanitarian situation.”

These statements point directly to a political arrangement like the one anticipated in the Geneva communiqué, which the United States and Russia, among others, signed on June 30. This called for the “establishment of a transitional governing body” formed with the mutual consent of members of the current Syrian government as well as opposition and other groups.

American officials have insisted that forging such a political solution will only be possible after the Assad regime falls. Such statements are oxymoronic. A regime collapse is a condition of total victory, not a political solution. Still, at the time, the Geneva agreement foundered on the issue of whether Assad would remain in office, with Moscow in particular insisting he could not be precluded from being part of negotiations.

But Russia appears to have finally accepted that Assad’s days are numbered. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov acknowledged on December 13 that the Syrian opposition might achieve an outright victory—in effect by military means. Five days later, the Russian navy confirmed that it had dispatched ships to Syria “for possible participation in the evacuation of Russian citizens.”

The convergence of views was reflected in a statement issued on December 9 by Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi following discussions in Geneva with Bogdanov and his U.S. counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The statement confirmed that “a political process to end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible” and should be based on the core elements of the Geneva communiqué.

Military developments may preempt this sort of diplomatic resolution, but it could also gain traction as the Assad regime starts to unravel. This is likely to discomfit the National Coalition, which will struggle to reach an internal consensus on any form of interim power sharing in Syria, even if Assad is excluded. But it cannot indefinitely avoid responding to what may be a window of opportunity to end the bloodshed and ensure a more secure transition.

Immediate Tasks for the Coalition

Dealing with diplomatic opportunities—or threats—is by no means the National Coalition’s biggest political challenge. As the Syrian crisis enters its most critical and, almost certainly, complex phase, the coalition’s immediate task is to assert overall command of the battle being waged throughout the country. It must make strategic decisions on the manner and timing of the battle for Damascus—and indeed on whether to have one at all. This is a fundamentally political matter.

The precedents are not reassuring. It has consistently been local rebel groups that have made the decision to take the battle into major cities. The Islamist Tawhid Brigade, for instance, took the fight to Aleppo against the preference of the city’s Free Syrian Army commander and Military Council head Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi. It was the al-Nusra Front—designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States on December 11—along with fellow jihadist group Ghuraba al-Sham and the Farouq Brigade that extended military operations into Raqqa Province. These groups, along with the Asifat al-Shamal Brigade, also entered areas held by Kurdish militias, triggering clashes.

The ongoing battle for Damascus was started by local rebels, primarily the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, described by one expert as “Syria’s largest network of homegrown jihadis.” A plethora of other groups loosely affiliated to the Free Syrian Army, most of them reportedly Salafist or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, direct the fight in most outlying areas. But it was the grassroots Local Coordination Committees, rather than the National Coalition, that called on opposition fighters on December 13 to ensure that the capital is spared the fate of “all other Syrian cities.”

The National Coalition has also been slow to take visible, concrete steps to address the growing humanitarian crisis. It must find ways to help the UN deliver aid to the estimated 4 million people in need inside Syria, some 2 million of whom are internally displaced. The Friends of Syria welcomed the establishment of an Assistance Coordination Unit by the National Coalition to coordinate the delivery of relief and pledged increased funding for its activities. But the group also recognized the need to build the coalition’s institutional capacity to carry out these tasks on any significant scale, which is time consuming.

On December 19, coalition chairman Mouaz al-Khatib called on the Free Syrian Army to provide secure corridors for international humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the coalition’s ability to ensure the flow of assistance remains in doubt. Much depends on its formation of a provisional government inside Syria to undertake the administration and provision of basic services and supplies in liberated areas, which is contingent on securing funding. Coalition members are privately doubtful that the Friends of Syria will actually place external funds under the coalition’s direct control, raising serious questions about this future government’s likely impact.

These questions will not go away if the opposition takes Damascus. Should that happen, the National Coalition will have to decide whether and how to respond if Assad and regime remnants retreat into the coastal zone around Latakia and Tartus and retrench there, as many observers expect them to do. And should the regime hold on to its current position until spring 2013, the coalition may then find that both its popular support domestically and its standing with the Friends of Syria hinge increasingly on its ability to provide effective administration and to address the basic humanitarian needs of people inside Syria.

The Third-Force Challenge

It is tempting for the opposition simply to allow events to unfold on the ground, since it is confident that the complete demise of the Assad regime is inevitable. But whatever the manner and timing of Syria’s endgame, it will certainly lead to a highly fluid and complex aftermath that the National Coalition will be hard put to contain.

The National Coalition boasts the support of the likes of former prime minister Riyad Hijab and Brigadier Manaf Tlass, who defected last summer. But with some 1.2–1.5 million civilian employees in Syria’s public sector—in addition to the armed forces and those security agencies that do not come under the Ministry of Interior—and a large establishment of Baath Party cadres at all levels of the bureaucracy, there will certainly be other contenders for power. Loyalist officials and officers who did not individually defect to the coalition will credibly claim that they are capable of wrangling the state apparatus, military and security establishment, and Baath Party as well as bridging the yawning divide with the country’s Alawis.

Both the Friends of Syria and Russia—and possibly also Iran—set a premium on avoiding state failure in Syria, preserving the army, and securing chemical weapons. They are likely to turn to this “third force,” should it emerge, to run the country and stabilize the transition.

Steps by the National Coalition to compete for the bureaucracy’s loyalty seem woefully inadequate. On December 14, Hijab announced the creation of the National Assembly of Workers in State Institutions, which he will head from offices in Doha, Qatar. Only 26 defectors—mostly the ambassadors, judges, and members of parliament whose defections had already been advertised over the preceding year—attended the inaugural meeting in Amman. The fact that only one seat out of 70 on the coalition’s General Assembly, its policymaking body, has been designated to represent civilian defectors also speaks volumes about their status within the organization.

It is unprepared for the new power brokers that will inevitably appear throughout the country. Some will be directly affiliated with the opposition—revolutionary activists, armed rebels, and local strongmen who wielded social and economic influence even under the Assad regime, such as clan leaders, recruiters in Syria’s large migratory labor market, and heads of smuggling networks. Others may emerge from the Baath Party and state apparatus, especially at the provincial level, and even from the military and security establishment.

The National Coalition’s own ranks will not be immune from the rapidly evolving environment of multiple realignments that will prompt new and unpredictable alliances across the present lines of conflict. This does not mean that the regime will somehow survive but rather that Syria’s political landscape could change in less time than it took to cobble together the National Coalition.

Power Sharing Is Not a Dirty Word

In order to break the regime decisively, the National Coalition must split its ranks politically. This means persuading the Alawis, as well as Syria’s other smaller communities and potentially large numbers of the urban population, that interlocutors they trust will represent them in negotiating a new system. But the National Coalition has reiterated its intention to start the transition by purging the regime and those associated with it from the state apparatus and army, dismantling the security agencies, and dissolving the 2.5 million strong Baath Party.This is entirely legitimate, but these are also the principal institutional vehicles through which those communities that now fear for their futures have articulated and negotiated their interests in the past. As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s politburo objected to the author in late October, “but who said anything about dissolving the Baath Party?” The fact that he had to be reminded that this was contained in the first article of the Joint Political Vision approved by a broad opposition gathering in Cairo on July 3 and reaffirmed by the National Coalition on November 11 is a worrying sign of political blindness.

U.S. Ambassador Ford said the Syrian opposition needs “to work with the Alawis and to help them understand that they do have a place in the future Syria, and a place where . . . they can live with safety and to enjoy the rights [of] all other Syrians.” Senior opposition figures have repeatedly responded to this need by stating that they have privately reached out over many months to “dozens” of Alawis to engage them in dialogue and reassure them. But this only highlights the opposition’s unwillingness to present a public platform containing frank offers and tangible reassurances.

If the opposition will not do so now, why should Alawis—or any others—trust it to show any more determination and courage in protecting them and openly defending their rights in the transitional period, let alone in a future Syria? Airy assurances that they will enjoy full equality in a democratic system under the rule of law have clearly proved insufficient.

Changing this picture is the opposition’s political responsibility. The opposition will have to bite the bullet sooner or later and propose a formula for the participation of credible interlocutors on behalf of the principal institutional and communal actors so far arrayed against it. These actors must have a say in designing interim confidence-building measures and establishing meaningful guarantees of their security for the post-Assad Syrian state.

This is the opposition’s toughest challenge, and ultimately its most important, because power sharing is not just about accelerating regime collapse. It is also about ensuring that the state apparatus, army core, former party cadres, union officials, and many others will cooperate with new governing authorities. The opposition seems to see this as unproblematic, assuming that the state machinery will implement its designs for a new Syria after it takes power because it is confident that a large majority of Syrians support it. But this is implausible, as every instance of transition in the “Arab Spring” has shown.

Unless the opposition adopts this kind of political approach to defeat the regime, its plans for the “day after”—achieving transitional justice, speedy compensation for victims of violence, restoring public services, and reconstructing the economy and infrastructure—could stall, taking Syria back into violence and institutional breakdown.