Case Analysis 11 December, 2012

The Syrian National Coalition: Motivations for its Formation and Building Blocks of Success


Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

The diverse forces within the Syrian opposition that took part in an advisory meeting in Doha (from November 8 to November 11, 2012) came to an agreement that united them in a single political entity called "The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces". The 63-member council forms the political body of the Coalition and includes members of most Syrian opposition blocs, with the exception of the National Coordination Committee. The council also includes members of revolutionary movements and provincial local councils (new bodies whose features have yet to be solidified), as well as a number of prominent personalities and a representative of the politicians who defected from the Syrian regime. With this composition, the Council has come to be the broadest political entity unifying Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces.

This paper evaluates the process that has led to the Coalition's formation, and attempts to answer the following question: Does this new coalition provide for a qualitative change in the way the Syrian revolution is politically represented?

The Path Leading to the Coalition

In many aspects, the Syrian revolution has presented a model that differs from those of other Arab revolutions that have broken out since 2011. One such difference is related to the activities and political effectiveness of the opposition, particularly since most political figures in the opposition reside outside Syria.

This particularity of the Syrian revolution developed due to the convergence of various factors, particularly in the way the Syrian regime has tightly controlled political life, leaving no margin for political activity. The political opposition within Syria has, therefore, been besieged and isolated through repression and terror, and its influence restricted even before the outbreak of the revolution. The opposition's influence has been marginal, limited only to certain societal sectors with which it was in direct contact and which came to form a sub-culture of sorts.

In light of the absence of effective political opposition forces, Syrians have been forced to revitalize the few extant political organizations, while working, parallel to the course of the revolution, toward establishing centers of political leadership and frameworks that would represent the revolution. It goes without saying that the youth and the grassroots supporters of the traditional political parties played a significant role at the beginning of the revolutionary civil movement. However, it is also true that most of these political activists and leaders have sought refuge abroad, either to escape the regime's repression, or to find a margin of freedom enabling them to adopt and express more explicit, unequivocal political positions in the midst of a revolution.

As a result of ideological, intellectual, and political differences-in addition to personal agendas, individualism, and personal competition-the forces of the political opposition did not, at first, succeed in forming a unified structural coalition to lead the revolution. The lifting of the lid on tyranny revealed that the society had been suffering for decades from a number of inherent societal defects. Aspects of this repressive culture have, in fact, become apparent in the behavior of opposition figures.

Founded in October 2011, six months into the revolution, the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was the first genuine attempt to form a unifying body that could become the political representative of the revolution and gain international recognition. However, the mechanism for the Council's operation, based on consensus, balance of powers, and quotas for its various political blocs (including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, signatories of the Damascus Declaration, the National Action Group for Syria, and other independent figures) frustrated its efforts, hindered the Council's expansion, and hampered any effective coordination with other opposition factions.

The Council was unable to keep pace with the accelerating changes that were occurring along the path of the revolution. This was particularly true after the revolution became militarized, as the Council was not capable of meeting the needs-both military and relief requirements-that had arisen from these developments. This led to a chasm between the leadership of the SNC and developments within Syria. The same countries that had called upon the Syrian opposition to unify its ranks had also worked to foil the Council and obstruct the unity of the opposition by insisting on directly contacting the revolutionary groups on the ground, without going through any kind of leadership body. This approach intensified when the revolution became an armed struggle, as foreign forces began to liaise directly with the armed groups fighting in Syria, which in practice prevented the formation of any kind of nation-wide hierarchical political leadership that could oversee the revolutionary forces' actions.

Equally, the various forces within the opposition have erred when defining their strategy, having based their analyses on wishful thinking and populist pronouncements, and not on a realistic analysis of reality. A bloc within the political opposition had, at first, supported the idea of dialogue with the regime. Such a dialogue would not be undertaken "at any cost," but was predicated on change in the regime. The belief was that dialogue would be the path to changing the regime. Another bloc within the opposition had essentially thrown its lot in with the idea of foreign intervention. Both camps failed to understand the situation, and realized this only once the civic revolution had, without any prior intention of doing so, become an armed struggle facing unprecedented repression. Extant political forces made up of religious extremists have exploited this unorganized transformation to violence, imposing their own, outdated and well-known agenda, which could never have succeeded in leading a revolution in Syria. This group of religious extremists continues to be a minority among the Syrian public.

The Cairo Conference on Syria, held July 2-3, 2012, under the auspices of the Arab League, was a sincere effort to overcome the troubled situation. Through it, the Syrian opposition (with the exception of the Kurdish National Council in Syria) was able to unify its vision of the political future by adopting the "National Covenant" and approving the features of the "Transitional Phase". A follow-up committee tasked with coordinating the efforts of the Syrian opposition was also formed, but it had a quota mindset. Attempts to secure the greatest possible political gains for political parties have come at the expense of collective national efforts; in addition, the monopolization of legitimacy and representation by particular forces within the opposition has consolidated the schism among opposition groups.

Such divisions have created a dilemma for the various forces in the opposition, while simultaneously the chaos inherent in armed struggle has prevented the forces on the ground from exerting real pressure on the political opposition to unify its ranks. Fragmentation of the opposition inside Syria has enhanced the political and organizational divisions abroad, and vice versa. This situation has led to the emergence of various political initiatives aimed at unifying the opposition, launched in the past few months.

The most prominent of these efforts was Dr. Burhan Ghaliyoun's initiative to establish a national initiative committee composed of individuals agreeable to all opposition factions that would appoint an interim government to avoid any political void. Discussions around the formation of an interim government, and the way to form it, began to take up all of the opposition's time. While some had suggested that it should be formed by the Syrian National Council, former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident Riyad Saif proposed the formation of the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) to supplant the Council. The latter proposal followed explicit criticisms of the Syrian National Council by the US Administration, which had announced its support of a plan to forge a "broader Syrian coalition" that would bring together the forces represented within the Council as well as other opposition groups. The aim would be to overcome the problems arising from the way in which the Council, which had thus far monopolized representation of the Syrian opposition, blocked consensus in previous rounds of negotiations.

This proposed new body, later known as the "Syrian National Initiative," formed the basis for joint efforts among Qatar, other Arab, and Turkish to bring together all of the Syrian opposition factions within a new coalition. During the preceding deliberations and negotiations that took place in Qatar, however, the structure of the National Initiative changed drastically. In the revised proposals, which eventually led to the formation of the Coalition, the body was expanded to the point where it could serve as a kind of parliament and form an interim government-a judicial committee and a Supreme Military Council were created, though neither had been included in the original proposal.

Popular demands from within Syria calling on the opposition to unite were parallel to wider regional and global pressure that also aimed for the unification of the Syrian opposition. Numerous factors have driven countries with influence in Syrian affairs to give priority to this question, including:

1) The increasing capabilities of the Free Syrian Army, and the attrition suffered by the regime's military, both of which have led to an expansion of the area of liberated zones.

2) The necessity of creating a political alternative to the regime in case of its collapse.

3) The need to create a government that could manage the revolution's affairs, speak formally on its behalf, one that could take command of the country immediately after the revolution and before the formation of a transitional government.

4) Traditional Western fears surrounding the chaos of militarization and the increasing power of religious extremists and fundamentalists.

5) The belief of those taking part in the Initiative-as well as some Arab states and regional powers present in the Syrian crisis-that the US would play a more effective role following Obama's re-election. Such a role would break the international deadlock surrounding the Syrian crisis, as the US is, thus far, the most reticent Western power in terms of supporting the Syrian revolution and abandoning the regime.

All of these are the primarily reasons behind the Syrian opposition's desire to overcome their internal differences and unite under the banner of the new Coalition. Despite the significance of these reasons, the birth of the Coalition was not a smooth affair. In fact, it emerged after extensive deliberations and discussions between opposition groups that the Syrian National Council, which held a primary position among them, had at first feared that the new body would deprive it of its role and "gains" as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Council also feared that the new body was merely the expression of US statements calling for its own disbandment, and the formation of a new, more inclusive council freed from the Syrian National Council's structures.

The negotiations succeeded in arriving at a blueprint for the Coalition. This Coalition did not lead to the merging of the forces within Syria's political opposition; rather-as the full name clearly suggests-it is an expression of a sort of alliance between the Syrian National Council, with all of its constituents (who received the lion's share of seats within the Coalition, at 40 percent), and the remaining factions within the opposition that had not been part of the Syrian National Council. The Coalition, then, brought together the Syrian National Council with bodies that had been outside of it, some of which had previously withdrawn from the Council after being under its umbrella. The challenge ahead of the new Coalition is either to become a semi-parliament where decisions are arrived at by majority vote, or else face the same fate as the Council, together with the same flaws, such as political quotas to predetermined players.

The Makings of Effectiveness and Success

The declaration of the Coalition's birth undoubtedly ushers in a new era for the Syrian opposition movement and for the Syrian revolution more widely. This new era shall differ from the past in that it provides for a unified political leadership that aspires to form a democratic political alternative that can take charge of the revolution and the transitional phase, while the leadership enjoys the conditional support of a public who supports the revolution within Syria and its organizational structures. This alternative has also been welcomed by a majority of the military factions, and has gained regional and international recognition from the Arab League, the European Union, and the United States as a "legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people". The Coalition has also been recognized by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as France, Italy, Turkey, and the UK, as "the sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

International recognition and the welcoming of the new Coalition by Syrians inside the country do not constitute sufficient components for its success. International recognition does not in and of itself represent any substantive change: after all, world powers and regional power brokers played a crucial role in the birth of the Coalition to begin with. This international recognition will remain symbolic unless it can be translated into the following:

a) Recognition of the national, sovereign character of the Coalition, thereby preventing a foreign meddling in the Coalition's affairs.

b) The provision of practical and meaningful support for the Coalition, which would make it both an influential player in the progress of the Syrian revolution within the borders of the country, and a crucial party to any regional or global initiatives to impose a political solution to the Syrian regime.

Up to this point, international relations have been a source of weakness, not strength, for the forces within the Syrian opposition. The multiplicity of communication channels with foreign powers had prevented the formation of an over-arching national umbrella that brought all of the groups together. It also provided safe havens for those opposition groups who were unhappy with their share of power, providing them with the chance to enjoy, for example, media appearances or the necessary support to form their own body apart from the mainstream opposition. Most importantly, these relations prevented the consolidation of efforts in support of the revolution, in some cases leading different groups within the opposition to adopt contradictory positions for the benefit of one international group or another.

Part of the weakness of the new Coalition stems from the fact that the US and the EU played roles, albeit limited ones, in the formation of the Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Nonetheless, the mediation efforts that led to the Coalition's birth were, in the main, Arab (and not foreign). The fact that a clear majority of the Coalition's members are well-known, credible Syrian patriots who reject foreign meddling has led to the patriotic behavior of the Coalition. This patriotic attitude and the Coalition's respect for Syrian sovereignty will allow the new organization to overcome the deficiency brought about by US and EU involvement. The patriotic majority will thus have the ability to behave responsibly as concerns questions of democratic governance in Syria, and to address other Syrian domestic and regional concerns.

Such will not be possible unless a distinction is made between the democratic and the sectarian discourse-even if both are against the same regime. Similarly, revolutionary and criminal forms of violence must also be separated. Another important factor is that while maintaining the Arabness of Syria, the rights of non-Arab citizens must be preserved. The alternative to Syria's Arab identity, which is an expression of its strategic role in the region, would be that the Arabs within the country divide along sectarian lines.

The opposition must make it clear in its behavior that the protection of the rights of all Syrians, and opposition to any sectarianism or national chauvinism, is an expression of Syrian patriotism and guarantees the country's interests, and is not a submission to foreign pressures. It is demeaning to Syrians, and undemocratic for any Syrian national leadership to listen to the advice-or, rather, the conditions-of the British Foreign Secretary in this regard, as if it were a question of minorities living in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century.

On the domestic Syrian front, the success of any body opposed to the regime and formed outside of the country, is contingent upon its ability to effect a qualitative change in the path of the Syrian revolution. Despite the fact that the balance of military powers inside the country determines the progress of the revolution, the present reality indicates that the Coalition may be involved in assuming a number of tasks that allow it to gain legitimacy as a representative of the Syrian people.

The objective reality suggests that the main driving force behind the Syrian revolution today is the armed aspect of the revolution, including militarized brigades and the regiments of the Free Syrian Army. In spite of the local victories these groups have attained and their control of wide swathes of Syrian territory, they continue to suffer from a lack of internal coordination and communication. Furthermore, they are unable to form unified military strategies, lacking even a unitary strategic vision. This serves to heighten their dependence on foreign sources of funding and support, which is itself attached to the directives and interests of regional and global actors in Syria. Dispensing with foreign support is impossible at present, yet such support needs to be governed by the mutual recognition of sovereignty between a unified Syrian national leadership and other states.

The Coalition cannot be expected to represent the Syrian revolution unless it becomes the main-if not the sole-financier and supplier to the opposition's armed groups and factions. The welcoming of the National Coalition's efforts by most of these armed groups must be converted from a recognition in principle to a dependence on the Coalition. Needless to say, this point is based on more than the wishes and capabilities of the National Coalition, its leadership, and its internal structures; it is related to the political will of the regional and global powers who now have a foothold inside Syria, and whose support for the armed factions and brigades of the Free Syrian Army must be channeled through the Coalition. The regional and global powers whose will was instrumental in the rise of the Coalition must now translate that willpower into practice by channeling their logistical and financial support for the Syrian revolution exclusively through the Coalition. Otherwise, the supporters of the Coalition would have sealed its fate, harming the sovereignty of a future Syria along the way.

Likewise, the drafting of a unified military strategy will not be possible while high-ranking defectors from the regime's forces remain unconvinced of the need to join the revolutionary armed groups and to work toward coordinating with them. Such defectors need to understand that there are no benefits to their remaining outside of Syrian territory. Here, the National Coalition needs to persuade these high-ranking defectors into a battlefield command that can coordinate between the armed groups taking part in the revolution.

The public within Syria also expects the Coalition, alongside its involvement in the armed struggle, to play a fundamental role in relief efforts. Daily military confrontations, which have gone on for more than a year, have taken a huge toll on Syrian citizens and their ability to provide for themselves. This situation has led to a full-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian crisis that is worsening due to the continuation and expansion of the military confrontations, as well as the intensification of those conflicts. Hence, the creation of a comprehensive relief strategy must be a top priority for the National Coalition.

There is a need also for a set of practical steps, beginning with the establishment of a relief agency stretching throughout various areas in Syria, and the formation of another body that can coordinate all efforts among those relief agencies already operating in Syria. The Coalition could then be the provider to these relief bodies, becoming the main overarching structure for the coordination of relief efforts.

The formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is a positive turning point in the progress of the Syrian revolution, placing a limit as it does on the fragmentation and internal divisions within the Syrian opposition. This may also pave the way for the formation of a legitimate alternative to the ruling regime, one that lays the foundation for a rational political discourse and a realistic plan for democratic transition, which preserves the unity of the Syrian people and achieves its ambitions and aspirations. Thus far, the Coalition has been met with popular approval among advocates of the revolution.

It remains true, however, that the model used for the formation of this Coalition includes elements that might lead to a replication of past experiences, and will add a further authority without achieving any substantive results or having any influence. The Coalition must overcome the quota system, its attendant mechanisms, and the rationale of counterbalances between component factions. It must also refrain from prioritizing its regional and global relations over the national goal of the Syrian revolution. While the National Coalition was formed out of a series of conciliations between Syrian opposition groups, it must now become an institutional framework larger than the narrow visions and political interests of its constituent bodies. The only guarantee that the Coalition will prevail will be its domestic success, as well as its ability to define a strategy for the fall of the regime, its capacity to manage Syrian society, its affairs in light of the revolution, and its drafting of a plan for the transitional phase to follow the revolution. In order for all of this to be achieved, a dedicated apparatus comprised of the most capable and patriotic Syrians, both within the country and abroad, needs to be formed. Unless an executive national body is created that takes in charge media, relief work, and political responsibilities; is held accountable by the political leadership; and forms a link with forces on the ground, the role of the leadership will be limited to holding meetings and making pronouncements that are never enacted.