Understanding the new Syrian National Coalition
Syria’s New Opposition Body Must Prove its Worth
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“The regime fears most that the Opposition unifies. I know that. I was part of that regime.” -Riyad Hijab, former Prime Minister of Syria The Washington Post, November 11, 2012
Syrian opposition representatives meeting in Doha have formed a new political body to represent the country’s revolutionary movement. The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was born after hard-fought negotiations in Qatar’s capital, as the Syrian National Council (SNC) initially resisted the formation of the Western-encouraged initiative for fear of being permanently sidelined in the fight against the Assad regime.
The new Coalition resembles a parliamentary body, with 60 total seats to be filled with representatives from Syria’s provinces, national figures, independent figures of the political and armed opposition, and representatives of the country’s ethnic communities. The following visual depicts the Coalition’s outline:
Of these 60 seats, 22 will be filled by the SNC, the original body of representatives for Syria’s revolution now based in Istanbul. 14 seats are reserved for “Local Revolutionary Councils,” or representatives for each of Syria’s 14 provinces. 6 total seats will be filled by representatives of each of the two largest minority groups in the country, the Kurds and the Turkmen, while the final 18 seats will be divided between major opposition figures and miscellaneous groups.
Respect for the Istanbul-based SNC has dwindled over the past few months amongst Syrians on the ground, who, along with the international community, accused the body of being disconnected from civilians and fighters in the provinces. The new National Coalition is seen as a more legitimate attempt to organize and incorporate opposition forces and Syrian civilians. However, many remain skeptical of the Coalition’s potency. A primary concern is the group’s leadership. As Amr al-Azm, associate professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University notes,
“The most critical challenge of all is the clear lack of an agenda or any strategy and planning for the next steps by the new coalition and its leadership. This is further exacerbated by the lack of any real political experience at the international and domestic levels by those heading the coalition.”
-Syria Comment, November 13, 2012
Indeed, President Moaz Al-Khatib, a former engineer, has no identifiable political background. His candidacy for the position was promoted by those who cited his history as a well-respected, tolerant, and religiously moderate imam from the outskirts of Damascus. However, the background of Riad Seif, one of the Coalition’s two vice presidents, paints a more reassuring picture. A former parliamentarian and leader of an intellectual political reformation group during the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” the 66-year-old Seif was originally pushed by the US as the number one man for the Coalition’s leadership. Aged and ill with cancer, however, Seif was appointed to a lesser—though still influential—role. Alongside his co-vice president, the female political reformer Suhair Al-Atassi, Seif will play an important role in forming the Coalition’s political design and establishing its goals.
The most important—and most daunting—task for the new Coalition will be twofold: electing respected and capable representatives to fill the Local Council seats, and uniting the Free Syrian Army and the other numerous armed factions fighting as part of the opposition forces. Already civilians within Syria’s embattled provinces have expressed their grievances with the Local Councils; they claim they are not being consulted for the election of their representatives, and therefore may not recognize their respective province’s seat. The ability of the Local Councils to obtain recognition from their provincial “constituents” will be the linchpin of legitimacy for the new Coalition as a whole. Without establishing connection and respect with fighters and civilians on the ground, the body will likely garner little or no additional support from the US, which has made clear that aid will not come before internal recognition is granted.
To unite the armed factions, the Coalition has plans to develop a Revolutionary Military Council. Ideally, this council will be formed by respected and capable Free Syrian Army commanders already leading the nine provincial Military Councils that have declared their commitment to the Proclamation of Principles. By drawing in and organizing the splintered groups that are not already aligned under FSA’s banner, this Revolutionary Military Council would become the figurehead of military representation and legitimacy that Western countries need in order to feel comfortable providing military aid.
Syrian Support Group is committed to supporting the Free Syrian Army, through all legal means, to facilitate the establishment of a free, independent, and democratic Syria.