Those who doubt Lakhdar Brahimi’s assessment of the crisis in Syria ought to rethink their position. His ostensibly naïve initiative for a ceasefire over the Eid holidays might have been a brilliant manoeuver that ended the existence of the Syrian National Council, the previously prominent face of the Syrian opposition.
Before proposing an ambitious plan of six or one hundred points like his predecessor, Brahimi wanted to make sure that there are reliable representatives on both sides who can exert influence and control over their subordinates. After visiting Russia and China, he proposed, from Tehran, that both the opposition forces and the government stop fighting for four days.
Apparently, he wanted to test the influence of the backers of the Syrian regime and the political leaders of the opposition (Syrian National Council, or SNC) who accepted the ceasefire. Even the military leaders of the FSA accepted the Eid ceasefire. He was aware that for the ceasefire to hold, the opposition groups must stop fighting. It is one thing to claim control over armed groups by simply supporting their actions, but it is a different level of credible control to actually order these groups to stop fighting and see compliance on the ground. Brahimi wanted actual proof of command and control over armed groups in the form of four days of quiet.
The result was embarrassing for the so-called opposition leaders. During the four-day holidays, more car bombs exploded in crowded cities and more attacks took place on military checkpoints. Worse, some of the FSA groups used the quiet time to attack Kurdish neighbourhoods in Aleppo and other Kurdish majority areas to bring more territory under their control. Deadly fights erupted between FSA fighters and Kurdish neighbourhood protection militias, forcing the FSA groups to retreat.
The message was clear: the Syrian National Council did not have any significant sway over the armed groups inside Syria. That message reached the western backers of the SNC. Bringing armed groups under control became more urgent for the west after human rights organizations released damning reports accusing opposition forces of committing war crimes. The US administration announced that the SNC must expand its base and bring armed groups under control. Two weeks after Secretary Clinton made that comment, the NSC was absorbed into a newly established body, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNCORF, or Syrian National Coalition). Leaders of the new coalition have claimed that they now represent 90% of the Syrian people.
Within days of the establishment of the Coalition, France recognized it as the, “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Several other countries, including the UK, did the same. Some other countries, including the United States, simply recognized it as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The rest of the countries of the world remained neutral.
In reality, many opposition groups, dissidents, and political parties did not take part in the Doha meeting and therefore are not represented in the Coalition. Moreover, the peculiar enthusiasm of former colonizers of the Arab world, like France, for recognizing Syria’s representatives without waiting for the Syrian people to decide through ballots (not bullets), has delegitimized the Coalition in the eyes of many Syrians. That fact was apparently on the mind of some groups affiliated with the FSA, too, who immediately issued a terse but emphatic rejection of the Syrian National Coalition.
Last week, more than 170 religious and political leaders (including some opposition and government representatives) met in Tehran to discuss a non-violent transition to democracy. Other opposition coalitions, like the National Coordinating Committees, boycotted the Tehran and Qatar meetings.
Most recently, a prominent Kurdish leader representing the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Saleh Muslim, insisted that the Coalition does not represent the Syrians. “They're making the same mistakes as the Syrian National Council. They're one colour, a cleric is the ruler. More than 60 percent of the SNC were from the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious groups, and they've made the same mistake with this coalition,” he told Reuters in London, on November 20. He contended that the Coalition “has emerged from obedience to Turkey and Qatar,” and that the Kurds included in the group were not representative of Syria's Kurds and were handpicked by Turkey to follow its agenda.
So here we are again, asking the same questions: who are the Syrian opposition groups?
Apparently, over time, the Syrian regime has rid itself of unreliable elements by allowing military officers to defect. The regime seems to have found its balance by relying on a military that has been purged of suspect elements. The regime’s regional and international backers, few though they may be, are determined to support it, no matter the political cost. The strength of the military institution, the loyalty of religious and ethnic minorities who are threatened by Islamists’ takeover, and the loyalty of the regime’s international allies are allowing it to stay in power.
The opposition on the other hand, is becoming more and more fragmented because of division in the ranks of its regional and international backers. For instance, the new Syrian National Coalition came to existence thanks to the handy work of Qatar and Turkey. These two countries are major supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has always been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and has supported Salafi radicals. The statement by the elements of the FSA who rejected the Syrian National Coalition is a signal that the Saudis are dissatisfied with the growing alliance between Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood. That means that the Saudis will continue to back Salafi and radical Sunni armed groups. This split may also mean that the FSA will be forced to start purging its own ranks if it wants to continue to receive western support. Alternatively, the FSA might be forced to split between different international camps. They might form competing armed coalitions reflecting the ideological, religious, and political agendas of their regional and international backers.
All these developments suggest that the crisis in Syria could become more complicated and long-drawn-out, and that the Syrian National Coalition has a major challenge ahead of it. If leaders of the world community want to stop the bloodshed in Syria, they must support the UN envoy. If they want the UN envoy to succeed in his mission, they must help him find reliable partners among the opposition forces who can control the armed groups - not necessarily all of them, just most of them. Therefore, the Coalition will be called upon to prove that it represents not 90% of the Syrian people (which can only be ascertained by participating in a fair election), but 90% of the FSA armed groups. That was the test that the SNC failed. Ambassador Brahimi will certainly ask the Syrian National Coalition to pass this test, too, if its leaders want to remain relevant.
Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. He is not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.