Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition

The Syria National Coalition (SNC), much like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, has never enjoyed much legitimacy or influence within Syria. Their only meaningful link to events on the ground has been the Supreme Military Council (SMC), headed up by the military defectors who initially called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ostensibly reports to the Coalition as its civilian leadership. Unfortunately, the SMC has not enjoyed much more credibility than its “government-in-exile:”

Many of the most significant rebel militias have explicitly and unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of both the SNC and the SMC, decrying them as exogenous tools (despite the massive and growing role of foreign money, supplies and fighters these very groups also rely on)—forming the so-called “Islamic Front” as an alternative umbrella group.  Since then, relations between various armed factions have devolved into an open civil war (within the larger civil war) for Northern Syria.

Dr. Salim Idriss has gone so far as referring to the idea of a unified Free National Army as a “pipe dream”—words which seem prescient in light of the most recent developments:

Following the close of the second round of Geneva II talks, the SNC made the surprise announcement that it was relieving Dr. Idriss from his duties as the SMC’s Chief of Staff, replacing him with Brigadier General Abdullah al-Bashir—thereafter making renewed calls for sophisticated weaponry. It appears as though these efforts will bear fruit, despite the SMC’s proven inability to control the resources already being provided.

Dr. Idriss has refused to recognize this decision on the part of the government-in-exile—and actually now refuses to recognize said government at all, severing all ties with the SNC and those forces which remain loyal to it. And he is not alone in going rogue: a number of the key SMC commanders have joined with him. In essence, there are now two Supreme Military Councils, each of whom refuses to recognize or coordinate with the other, and neither of whom exert much leverage on the ground.

One critical effect of this development is that the already-marginal influence of the SNC within Syria (via the SMC) has been dramatically reduced. This has important implications:

First, it suggests a military intervention in Syria would be disastrous, as it would be unlikely to favorably  “change President al-Asad’s calculus” and there is absolutely no chance that the so-called “good rebels” would be able to seize, wield or maintain power/legitimacy in the aftermath. Instead, such a move would likely launch an even more grievous phase of the civil war.

Second, if a deal is reached, the SNC will not be able to implement or enforce its side of the agreement given that they have little credibility among the Syrian people and exert no meaningful authority in the Syrian theater.

During the Geneva talks, the credible indigenous political Syrian opposition groups were marginalized in favor of the Western and Saudi-backed figures (in defiance of calls from the government for a more inclusive approach). With regards to the armed opposition, the head of the Islamic Front rejected altogether the notion of a negotiated settlement and endorsed putting a bounty on the heads of those who participate. That is, none of the players with clout are even participating in the talks…yet.  But if these more substantial actors were to take part in subsequent dialogues, the SNC will be rendered more-or-less superfluous.

Third, the SNC has little to offer in any negotiations. They do not even have the ability to enforce ceasefires (a chronic problem throughout the crisis which has only grown worse over time). This means that subsequent negotiations with the Coalition would basically entail the government making concessions and getting nothing in return.

Accordingly, the regime has decided that a better way forward is to orchestrate truces and ceasefires at the local and regional level, bypassing entirely the “government-in-exile” which has been hitherto unable to coalesce into a legitimate interlocutor for the state, with a coherent vision or set of demands (let alone having the know-how or means to realize its objectives).


Where does this leave the peacemaking process?

According to the official narrative, President al-Asad has lost “all credibility” with the Syrian people.  Unfortunately, despite the confidence with which these proclamations are made, there is little empirical evidence which would substantiate them. If one pays attention, beyond empty rhetoric and shallow anecdotes, evidence is never offered.

In fact, it seems as though most of the Syrian population supports the government over the armed opposition, and these popular dynamics are only growing stronger as the opposition implodes. But for those who find this too difficult to swallow, as has been argued elsewhere, it almost doesn’t matter how people feel about the regime precisely because it is the default—it will remain in power unless and until a sufficient portion of the population actively sides with the opposition (barring direct foreign military intervention).

That is, what really matters is how the Syrian people feel about the rebels. And apparently, the only ones who seem to recognize the SNC as having any legitimacy are their foreign backers in the United States and the KSA. But this recognition is non-trivial:

The Geneva Communique and subsequent talks were never about forging an agreement between the Syrian government and the political and armed opposition so much as getting certain members of the international community to stop perpetuating and escalating the conflict in order for a Syria-driven peace process to become viable.

Accordingly, the one thing the SNC can provide to the Syrian government through negotiations is their explicit endorsement of a transition roadmap which the regime finds acceptable. While such an agreement would have little significance to most of the militias fighting on the ground, it would make it difficult for America or its regional allies to justify continuing to provision, train or fund said militias in pursuit of their own geopolitical ends—which would have a dramatic effect in helping wind down the conflict.

In an attempt to play this one card remaining to them, the SNC has finally put forward a transition plan which, compliant with the terms of the Geneva Communique, does not bar President al-Asad from the transitional government or subsequent elections and would keep much of the government more-or-less intact.

Here’s to hoping the regime will know when to take “yes” for an answer.


Published 2/28/2014 by Al-Jazeera America

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