- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Conclusively proving that you can find anything on the Internet, there’s a great, nerdy blog out there called It’s Raining Mensheviks. The conceit is simple: The site takes old pictures of early Soviet leaders, and splices them together with quotes from the Lindsay Lohan’s movie about high school cliques, Mean Girls. Weirdly enough, it works. It perfectly encapsulates the nature of opposition politics, particularly when conducted in secretive organizations and among ideologically motivated groups. The most important figures form factions that engage in petty, backstabbing behavior over seemingly minor issues — but what they’re really fighting over is power.
The modern-day mean girls are, ironically, the predominantly male Syrian opposition. The opposition’s coalition is growing more fractured by the day: On Sunday, coalition head Moaz al-Khatib resigned his post, saying that his move had been precipitated by the crossing of certain, unspecified "red lines."
Most observers believe that Khatib’s resignation was the result of his increasing marginalization by his rivals within the coalition, and their foreign patrons. Namely, coalition Secretary General Mustafa Sabbagh and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in establishing an "interim government," which is intended to fill the political vacuum in the rebel-held areas. This was a blow to Khatib for two reasons: First, it undermined his initiative to open negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Second, his relationship with the new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, was never defined, putting Khatib at risk of being a third wheel.
The Arab League will convene on Tuesday in Qatar, the sponsor of Khatib’s political antagonists. Qatar invited Hitto to address the summit, and the Arab League also plans to hand over Syria’s seat in the organization to the opposition — steps that could contribute to sidelining Khatib. Now Khatib has announced he will also address the summit, though what he will say, or in what capacity he will speak, remains a mystery.
That’s just the beginning of the divisions within the anti-Assad front. Secular leaders were furious over the selection of Hitto, who they see as beholden to the Islamists. Vice President Suheir Atassi and another 11 coalition members temporarily suspended their membership in protest and publicly condemned Qatar for engineering Hitto’s election.
The leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), meanwhile, also backed Khatib over the interim government. In a statement coinciding with Khatib’s resignation, the FSA said that it did not recognize Hitto as prime minister. If Hitto can’t repair his ties to the armed opposition, his efforts to establish effective institutions in the rebel-held areas will be dead in the water.
And finally, there’s the wild card of the Salafist groups, such as the Syrian Islamic Front and the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. These groups have seized large swathes of territory in northern Syria — including most of the northern province of Raqqa — and want to forge an Islamic state. They don’t give a hoot whether Khatib or Hitto emerges on top.
The factions in the opposition coalition seem to think their feuds will determine who rules Syria, but they’re in fact only determining whether the coalition will play any role at all in the country’s future. And unlike high school, of course, how power is wielded in post-Assad Syria is a matter of life or death.