Syrian Opposition Forms Political Coalition, Joint Military Council Following Foreign Pressure

By: L.  BARKAN –  Introduction – MEMRI  – 14.1.2013 – 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 their success.

I. Arab And International Effort To Establish New Coalition Of Opposition Forces

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 opposition group.

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 three deputies.

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 security apparatuses.”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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