Syria‘s new opposition leadership structure announced in Qatar on Sunday could mark a turning point in the stalemated 20-month old rebellion against the Assad regime. But it could just as easily prove to be another chimerical Western attempt to stand up a friendly regime for an Arab country in transition. That’s because the impetus for the new National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition has come from foreign powers rather than from the grassroots of the rebellion, and its authority on the ground, particularly with the hundreds of autonomous militia groups, is more of an aspiration than an established fact at this stage.
“It’s obviously a great step forward for the West and the Syrian opposition,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “This group has great purchase among upper-class urban Sunnis, particularly those who have spent a lot of time in the West. But the key question will be whether or not it is able to unify rebel military groups on the ground, which haven’t been particularly involved in this process.”
The National Coalition is a product of Western and Arab backers — exasperated by the failure of their previous favorite, the Syrian National Council, to overcome crippling factional disputes, much less establish any traction on the ground — twisting the arms of exile-based opposition groups to accept a new, more representative leadership structure as the condition for continued foreign backing. The Gulf Cooperation Council, representing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and four of their neighbors, on Monday recognized the new group as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” The new opposition group, which includes leadership spots reserved for minorities and for representatives of provincial revolutionary committees on the ground, expects immediate recognition as the legitimate government of Syria, and also military assistance to rebel fighters. But before the U.S. and other Western powers follow the lead of the Saudis and Qataris, they may expect the new group to provide credible evidence of its authority on the ground. And that may be the tricky part of the second phase of the plan to reorganize the Syrian opposition.
Recognizing the National Coalition as a government-in-exile could be used as a means of putting pressure on Assad’s foreign backers, chiefly Russia, to allow more U.N. pressure on Assad. Moscow has argued that the rebellion represents chaos and that there’s no legitimate alternative to dealing with Assad. It would also become the basis for a ramped up aid effort, particularly in parts of Syria already in rebel hands. And a “provisional government” would in theory become the sole channel through which military aid would be channeled to rebel fighters — until now, different foreign backers tend to direct such resources to their preferred Syrian allies, and even then, not of qualitatively or quantitatively sufficient measure to tip the military balance against Assad.
The U.S. has, however, firmly resisted calls to supply the rebels with surface-to-air missiles and antitank weapons, fearing that many of those doing the fighting on the ground are ultimately hostile to U.S. interests. And Ambassador Robert Ford reportedly made clear to groups negotiating in Doha that they should not expect U.S. military aid even if they did forge a single leadership, urging them instead to focus on a political strategy to topple Assad. But should a Syrian opposition entity be recognized by key U.S. allies as Syria’s new government, pressure would also grow on Washington to abandon its reluctance to provide sophisticated weaponry — particularly since both France and Britain appear to be leaning towards advocating military support.
A spokesman for the new Syrian leadership coalition claimed Monday that the group had already been led to expect military support from the West. “We have assuaged a lot of the concerns and fulfilled a lot of preconditions on the Syrian armed opposition in terms of accountability and unity,” Yaser Tabbara told the Guardian, “and I believe the international community is ready to invest in the opposition both militarily and politically. That is the sense we got in Doha.”
The problem, however, is that precisely because of the foreign provenance of the new Coalition, its prospects for winning recognition on the ground as the national leadership of the rebellion may depend heavily on it becoming the sole conduit for foreign political and military aid. A cart-or-horse dilemma for Western policy makers, then, as well as for the rebels: “We are in a Catch 22,” Tabbara told the Guardian. “We are told we will get the serious support once we have operational structures in place but we in the middle know things are more complex. In order to build a government with full authority inside the country, we need support and political recognition.”
The new leadership appears to have been assembled with an eye on reassuring Western governments and publics anxious over extremist influence among Syrian insurgents. Its leader, Moaz al Khatib, former Imam of the famous Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, is considered a moderate, as are his two deputies, businessman Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, an anti-Assad activist whose appointment also signals the new group’s willingness to put women in leadership roles. “The leadership of the new Coalition seems straight out of Central Casting,” warns Landis. “Many of those on the ground know that this is a foreign-massaged operation. It looks great, but there’s a danger of this initiative falling apart because it’s too obviously stage-managed.” Western powers may have learned some painful lessons from their failed attempts to pick the leadership of a post-Saddam Iraq, but the dangers posed by a protracted civil war that has already spilled across Syria’s borders appears to have prompted a new willingness to roll the dice.