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Syrians in the Sheraton; a lesson in time wasting

Riad Seif is quietly impressive, and will no doubt play a positive role in a post-war Syria. But he exudes none of the characteristics of a leader everyone can unite behind.

Two days last week, I put my journalism hat on and stalked out the Sheraton Hotel in Doha. The Syrian National Council were flitting between there and the Ritz Hotel in an attempt to come up with a deal which would cement the world’s good will (read the United States and Qatar) and forge a new pathway for unified opposition which would lead the political fight against Bashar al Assad. It was a depressing experience.

The life of a journalist is not altogether glorious; much time is spent waiting around, exchanging rumours and gossip, hunched over laptops in uncomfortable seats waiting for someone important to come out and say something. Trouble was, I got the distinct impression that half the people we waited around for weren’t actually that important.

The SNC are a drab bunch, consisting of middle-aged men of various shapes and sizes - former politicians, spiritual leaders and community heads from the various different regions around Syria. Some wear the independence flag of Syria on their lapels, while one gentleman particularly keen to talk to the press sported a rather fetching sash to show off his nationalist credentials. Leadership material? The vast collection of tatty suits looked like they hadn’t seen an ironing board in the past thirty years. Love or hate Assad, at least he could do his tie up straight.

The SNC came to Doha apparently unable to reach an agreement on both the composition of their party and their engagement with the plan of Mr Riad Seif and his Syrian National Initiative (SNI) which drew up a comprehensive alternative council composed of a wider coalition of 60 seats of which the SNC would be granted 40%. Not surprisingly the SNC came under huge pressure from the Qataris to reach an agreement, but they kept stalling for time, and so we waited, and we waited, and we waited.

Every so often one of the aforementioned drab individuals would emerge to tell us all was well and that progress had been made. It became a rather familiar ritual, and well before the end of each day journalists filed their stories and diplomats went home because there was simply nothing to report.

Finally on Sunday, November 11, an agreement was reached and the 60 seat Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was formed, which will then form a ten member transitional government. Quite how this body differs from the SNI is anyone’s guess, but this is a supposedly unified organisation that will work for the good of the country. If we give them money, and of course weapons.

So what can we read from this whole saga? The short answer is that the SNC are being side-lined, and they know it, and this is why they played for time. The Riad Seif initiative was a threat to their previous hegemonic control over the Syrian opposition, and they have fought for every inch they can to maintain as much of a foothold as possible in the new plan. Backed heavily by Qatar and the USA, the SNI is the only realistic plan forward at this current point. It brings together military personnel with politicians and other exiles to try and forge a coalition that can speak for Syria’s beleaguered people.

In truth it may already be too late for the Syrian National Coalition. The UN plan to bring elements of the FSA and politicians into direct negotiations with the Assad regime to induce a regime inclusive transition is a credible counterweight to efforts in Doha, though unlikely to work given Assad’s continued intransigence. There is also the inescapable problem of fighting on the ground bearing no relation to the politicking going on outside it. The five star luxury of the Sheraton is hardly comparable to the destroyed and broken cities and towns that are now home to Syrians unable to flee from the unending violence. I doubt those fighting street battles in Idlib really have much to say to Syrian exiles enjoying free lunches and dinners at Qatar’s expense.

As for Seif himself, he is quietly impressive, clearly intelligent and a hard worker, and will no doubt play a positive role in a post-war Syria. But he exudes none of the characteristics of a leader, and until one can be found that everyone can unite behind, and who can show strength and gravitas there is little chance that Syria can begin to heal.

About the author

Michael Stephens is Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf

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