Rebels Without a Clue

Why can't the Syrian opposition get its act together?


ISTANBUL — Omar Muqdad can usually be found smoking and drinking coffee all night in an empty room in Istanbul or Ankara. As a longtime Syrian activist, he can access senior Syrian opposition leaders, as well as their network of supporters around the world, with a phone call. He enjoys a sterling reputation among the activists and defected soldiers who risk their lives daily along the Turkey-Syria border.

But over the months, Muqdad’s frustration with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the body intended to serve as the political representation of the Syrian opposition, has grown. He has diligently traveled around Turkey, arranging coverage of the Syrian uprising by major media outlets, holding meetings in Western embassies, and coordinating with activists inside the country. In the meantime, he has come to see the SNC as disorganized, disconnected from the Syrians on the ground, and out of step with the broad spectrum of Syrian society.

"We know it is impossible to be 100 percent representative of the nation or the opposition," Muqdad told me. "[But the SNC] does not know the principles of running the opposition."

Last weekend, defected soldiers belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) waged fierce battles with the Syrian military in the suburbs of Damascus, stirring activists’ hopes that the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is closer than had been expected. The U.N. Security Council is also meeting this week to consider a new resolution that could condemn the regime for the violence and possibly endorse an Arab League plan that would lay out a blueprint for the transition of power. Even as Syria’s revolution gains speed, though, the SNC’s struggles may hinder international action against the Syrian regime.

It’s not only Muqdad whose initial optimism regarding Syria’s organized opposition has faded. A wide range of activists and diplomats are voicing concerns with the SNC, criticizing its lack of cohesion and effectiveness. While the majority of them have not given up on the council, they paint a picture of an organization out of touch with the protesters on the ground and dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

"No one from the SNC has influence inside Syria. Most members of the SNC are jumping on a train that started from the street," says Ammar Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist, arguing that SNC leaders are trying to use the momentum of the demonstrations to take political power. Qurabi refuses to work with the SNC and plans to launch his own opposition group in early February.

The SNC is composed of a nine-person executive committee, sitting on top of an approximately 250-person body. The organization’s leadership is primarily made up of Sunni Arabs, and though it has made an effort to include members of other sects and ethnicities, few are present on the council.

Qurabi notes that the SNC has been particularly negligent in incorporating members of Assad’s Alawite sect. "No Alawite on the executive council — that is a scandal," he says. "Especially when we fight Assad, who says, ‘I am Alawite. I protect Alawites’?"

Diplomats have also criticized the SNC for focusing too much on building support for foreign intervention and neglecting ties with the grassroots movements that have driven the revolt. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drove home this message after meeting with SNC leaders on Dec. 6, saying that a transition in Syria "is more than removing the Assad regime" and must include the establishment of the rule of law and protection of minority rights.

"Syrians will have to use their own hands," says an Ankara-based Western diplomat. While Western governments have provided the Syrian opposition with some political training and technical support, such as communications equipment, the diplomat said that military intervention from the United States, Turkey, or Arab states remains unlikely in the next six months.

Indeed, the SNC’s difficulty winning over Syria’s minority groups has decreased the chance of foreign intervention. More aggressive action would likely only be possible, the diplomat told me, after Western countries recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people — a step that is currently impossible given the fractious state of the opposition.

The latest spasm of violence has also raised questions about whether — if the conflict is increasingly defined as a guerrilla war — Syrian military defectors will usurp the role played by the SNC.

"The Free Syrian Army could leave them in the dust unless the SNC can do something for the FSA," the diplomat worries.

Admittedly, many of the difficulties that have plagued the SNC have been beyond its control. Its mission has been badly hampered by 40 years of repression by the Assad regime, which fractured Syria’s political forces and created an atmosphere of mutual distrust. According to Samir Nashar, a member of the SNC’s executive committee, the process of bridging these divides has been slowed by a lack of funds. "We mostly depend on our pockets and some donations," he says.

The Syrian regime’s domestic repression is also the reason that the SNC leadership lives in exile and why the council has had difficulty building connections to those on the ground. "Very few would go back and have popular support," says Enana Bisan, a Christian member of the SNC living in Turkey. Bisan told me she "just woke one day" to find herself part of the council, because of its need for minorities.

But other wounds have been self-inflicted. One particularly damaging stumble occurred when SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun signed a draft agreement with the National Coordination Committee, a Syrian opposition group largely based inside the country, in an attempt to unite the two groups. The agreement rejected foreign military intervention and called for dialogue with the regime, conditions that infuriated many Syrian activists. In the face of widespread opposition, Ghalioun backed away from the agreement.

"They lost a lot of prestige [because of the deal]," says Malik Al-Abdeh, editor of the London-based opposition channel Barada TV. "[That] hurt the SNC big time."

The most divisive issue surrounding the SNC, however, clearly remains the prominent role played by the Muslim Brotherhood. "The Muslim Brotherhood is the only party in town," says the Ankara-based Western diplomat.

The Brothers have been exiled from Syria for 30 years after losing a bitter armed conflict with the regime in the 1980s, and some activists distrust its outlook on democracy and the future composition of a post-Assad government. Muqdad’s initial optimism about the SNC faded, he says, when he realized the extent of the Brotherhood’s dominance. While he has been in close touch with Western diplomats, he thinks that non-SNC members have been blocked from speaking publicly and that the SNC takes credit for activities that it was not involved in.

"We have no problem with [the Brotherhood] as a political party," explains Muqdad, a Sunni Muslim who joined the opposition in 1999 and claims to have spent years living underground. "[But] they are using the wrong ways to lead."

Muqdad notes that the SNC has taken some positive steps recently, such as including the well-known Christian opposition politician George Sabra in its ranks. He fears, however, that the revolution for which thousands of Syrians have died would fail if an unrepresentative government took power in the post-Assad era.

"It happened to us one time before. That’s how the regime came to be in power in Syria," he says. "We don’t want to go back to the same story and the same game. The people paid in a lot of blood, and we will not allow that to happen again. It’s a simple way: Just come and sit with the people, all the opposition, as equals."

The Brotherhood’s prominence has also opened old wounds with former members of the Syrian military, who had counted the Islamist movement as its primary domestic foe before the current revolt. A defected Syrian soldier in the Free Officers Movement, which is aligned with the Free Syrian Army but does not take orders from it, describes the Brotherhood as "malignant."

"[The Free Officers Movement] has a limited relation with the SNC because they are controlled by the Muslim Brothers," he told me.

The officer, a Sunni, said that the Brotherhood’s presence was particularly problematic in Syria due to the large number of minorities in the country. It would be difficult to convince minorities, especially the Alawites, that their rights would be guaranteed with the Muslim Brotherhood steering the political opposition, he says.

Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, the deputy secretary-general of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, insists that his movement will cooperate fairly with other opposition groups.

"The Muslim Brotherhood throughout history always worked with others," he told me. He gave examples such as the 1947 parliamentary elections, in which the Brothers ran on electoral lists with a range of candidates, and described how some Christians hid Muslim Brothers in their homes during Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 massacre in Hama.

The SNC is also well aware of these hurdles, and its leadership says that it is taking steps to improve. Nashar, the SNC executive committee member, says that he first met the Brotherhood’s political leadership in September and that all parties are willing to make concessions so that all the elements within the SNC can work together. "I believe I can build bridges with a large number of Islamists," Nashar insists. "The SNC is increasingly united."

Despite its flaws, the council derives its legitimacy as protesters’ lifeline to the outside world. Most activists continue to see it as the only opposition body that has managed to make their fundamental demands — the complete removal of the Assad regime and support for some sort of foreign intervention to make that possible — heard at high levels in the international arena.

"We have what we call in Arabic saqf al-matalib, the ceiling of demands. The SNC is the only opposition that has managed to reach the highest level of demands [of activists]," says Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist who often goes by the pseudonym Alexander Page.

But for the exhausted corps of Syrian activists, who have spent the past 10 months risking their lives for the revolution, there is still a long way to go. The increasing violence in Syria and the uncertainty of outside help mean the SNC needs to get its act together. Only then will Syria avoid a potential bloodbath when Assad falls — and can activists get some much-deserved rest.

"All Syrians have the mentality that they want to be president," Muqdad says. "Except me. I want to be on Miami Beach."

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