Just because Clinton and others have beatified the Syrian National Council, that doesn’t make it legit.
The situation in Syria is messy. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorial regime is collapsing, but, fortified by huge military strength, it continues to cling on with relative ease. Its opponents are fighting back, but, disparate, politically incoherent and militarily weak, they are making little headway. An increasingly intractable civil war beckons.
But none of that complexity seems to matter to Western leaders and their media cheerleaders. In the absence of a popular movement in Syria, they have decided to conjure one up. They are trying to turn the internal collapse of Assad’s regime and its messy aftermath into its opposite: the insurgence of the Western-approved good guys. And here’s the tragedy: in doing so, they encourage opponents of Assad to look less to the Syrian people for support than to the ostentatious do-gooders in the EU and the UN.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at last month’s Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia. Attended by over 60 world leaders, not to mention an assortment of Western NGOs, the once-Great Powers seemed to be falling over themselves to anoint a group known as the Syrian National Council, established last September in Istanbul, as Assad’s principal successors-in-waiting. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the SNC ‘a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change’ and an ‘effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organisations’. British foreign secretary William Hague used virtually the same words, and then, a few days later, the EU fell into line, calling the SNC ‘a legitimate representative of the Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change’.
Yet political legitimacy, indeed democratic legitimacy, is not something that can be conferred upon a group of people by Western leaders as it has been done here. Legitimacy needs to be won from within, by gaining the support of the very Syrian people the group claims to represent.
The 300-strong Syrian National Council, however, seems to have very little to do with the Syrian people. If the number of conferences its leaders attend is any indication, it seems more concerned with international networking than with what is going on in Syria. And little wonder. A quick look at the make-up of its executive committee shows that its principal figures, imprisoned and exiled they may have been, are now firmly entrenched in the West. In fact, it looks less like the political vanguard of the Syrian people than the editorial board of a Middle Eastern academic journal. Its general secretary is Burhan Ghalioun, a professor of political sociology and director of the Centre of Contemporary Eastern Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Then there’s Abdulbaset Sieda, a philosophy lecturer based in Sweden; Bassma Kodmani, a professor of international relations at the Université de Paris; Haitham Al-Maleh, a judge and human-rights activist; and several more, all based in Europe. There are two people on the executive committee who are based in Syria, but they are left unnamed for security purposes.
It is hardly surprising that the SNC is already splintering. Personal allegiances and bitter recriminations become important in the absence of any popular political movement to impel and cohere the group. As one council member reported of the interminable internal wranglings: ‘It has sometimes been reduced to shouts about who betrayed whose father to whom in the regime.’ For instance, in early February, at least 20 members of the SNC left to form a new organisation dubbed the Syrian Patriotic Group.
Another sign of the SNC’s estrangement from the actual armed struggle in Syria is its dysfunctional relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main armed opposition to Assad in Syria. So in February, with the defeat of the UN resolution calling for the removal of Assad fresh on the SNC’s minds, the council turned its attentions once more towards the FSA. As the Financial Times reported, Yaser Tabbara, adviser to the SNC’s chairman, declared that Syrians would have to fight Assad themselves. ‘And if the Free Syrian Army’, he concluded, ‘is a major element of that self-defence, the Syrian National Council will definitely be cooperating and supporting by all means necessary’. Unfortunately, the Free Syrian Army’s own putative leader, Riyad al-Asaad, promptly ruled out working with the SNC. A leader of one of the FSA’s brigades in the besieged city of Homs was positively disdainful towards the SNC. ‘With all due respect, Ghalioun is a professor, not a politician’, said Abu Omar: ‘He understands politics but he has not practised it. On the ground, we are organising ourselves, not waiting for the SNC to end their disagreements.’
Despite the best Western attempts to confer ‘legitimacy’ and a ‘representative’ role upon the SNC, the SNC’s increasingly apparent impotence has led to some pro-interventionists turning their admiring gazes towards the FSA instead. This, after all, is what Time magazine called ‘the main actor in a revolution that is growing nastier by the day’. All the West has to do is to replace the FSA’s limited supply of handguns with bigger and better weaponry, it is assumed, and Assad will fall. This was the argument of US senator John McCain a few weeks ago. He has since been joined by former US foreign-policy adviser, Elliott Abrams: ‘Directly or indirectly’, he wrote in the National Review, ‘the next step is to provide plenty of money and arms, training, and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army and other opponents of the Assads’.
Again, this is the political equivalent of alchemy. In their desire to simplify the Syrian situation, to turn it into a stage on which to appear to be doing something right and good, Western politicians and commentators are now transforming the FSA into something it is not: an organised, centralised fighting force with coherent objectives.
Set up in Turkey in July last year as a refuge for defectors from the Syrian army, its leader - former Syrian airforce colonel Riyad al-Asaad - has tried to paint it as a powerful, organised 40,000-strong fighting force. The reality is somewhat different, though. It is not so much a centrally controlled, organised army as a franchise in which various small groups of fighters, armed largely with handguns, fight guerrilla battles with Assad’s well-equipped, 200,000-strong armed forces. As Mark Lynch put it in Foreign Policy: ‘The “Free Syrian Army” remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganised collection of local fighting groups.’
So while certain commentators and politicians in Europe and the US can talk blithely of providing the Syrian opposition, in particular the FSA, with weapons and training, the actuality of who is to be armed and trained remains as nebulous as the composition of the FSA. Indeed, one report presents the FSA-branded opposition as a barely affiliated mish-mash of people potentially opposed to one another: ‘Some are career, many are young conscripts, others simply civilians who know how to handle a gun. Some are secular liberals, a few are hardline Islamists who fought parallel, if not alongside, al-Qaeda in neighbouring Iraq.’ One such post-Iraq fighter, a local Sunni Salafist leader known as Abu Annas al-Homsi, reckoned that Colonel Asaad represented just 20 per cent of the so-called FSA fighters on the ground. Moreover, the sheer diversity of those fighting under the seeming banner of the FSA, from the secular to jihadist, shows just how politically incoherent the FSA is. What unites these fighters beyond the FSA name and a desire to get rid of Bashar al-Assad is unclear.
What is clear however is that if the opposition to the Syrian government is to develop into a genuinely popular force, with a definite political ambition, it will do so in spite of Western interference, not because of it. Opposition to Assad must arise from within Syria, not from without.