The Syrian National Coalition will meet in Istanbul on July 4 and 5 to elect a new leadership, and to formulate a unified position towards the negotiation process proposed by the United States and Russia.
Both of these tasks will be a formidable challenge for the opposition body, beset as it is by chronic internal divisions, and an international impasse caused by continuing disagreements over Syria between the two great powers, on the one hand, and between the U.S. and its regional allies, on the other.
But why has the Syrian opposition become a minefield in the first place? Are the fault lines the same as the ones in other Arab countries, pitting secularists and Islamists against one another? News reports have often presented the story in those ideological terms, but unsurprisingly, the truth is more nuanced than has been reported.
Before the formation of the National Coalition, now simply known among Syrians as al-Itilaf (‘coalition’), a strong alliance between moderate Islamists and secularists was already in place. It brought together the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that had been outside Syria since 1982, and the Damascus Declaration group, which, though smaller in size, enjoyed the prestige of having many of its members inside the country, including the ex-political prisoner and veteran Leftist Riad Al-Turk.
The alliance between the Brotherhood and al-Turk has its origins in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was cemented after the uprising with the formation of the Syrian National Council – known in Arabic as Al-Majlis Al-Watani – which also included other liberals and Islamists, and several representatives of the grassroots movement known as the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).
Al-Majlis suffered from many defects, but its main problem is its inflated expectations of the United States. It was formed for the sole purpose of building an international coalition that could either intervene directly in Syria, similar to the way NATO intervened in Libya, or provide rigorous military support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). What happened instead was that the West decided to pursue a ‘political solution’, while sponsors of the FSA in the Gulf completely bypassed the political opposition in Istanbul.
As a result, the council’s initial enthusiasm for Western intervention turned to deep suspicion of any American or Western attempt to expand or restructure the Syrian opposition. The first initiative of this kind came in the late summer 2012, when American ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevalier led the efforts to create what will become the Syrian National Coalition. Leaders of the council accepted to join al-Itilaf, but in a rare interview in December, Riad Al-Turk openly expressed his qualms about the new body: “I fear that the real purpose of the coalition is to drag the Syrian opposition, through some of its ‘tamed members’, into a negotiated settlement with the regime… The revolution will bring down any such attempt.”
From the very beginning, then, the national coalition was divided between council members who perceived the others as easily manipulated by the Great Powers, and the others who looked at the council members as power hungry. After the resignation of Moaz Al-Khatib, the first president of the coalition, another battle ensued over the addition of a bloc of 25 new members headed by Michel Kilo. Here again, the old guards of the council perceived the addition as an attempt to tilt the balance in favor of a negotiated settlement with the regime (one that might not ensure the departure of Assad), while the new members presented themselves as liberals who could challenge the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood over the opposition.
After much international pressure, all 25 members were accepted on board. The new bloc gathered in Cairo last month, and filed a formal request for the coalition’s general assembly to convene on 4 – 5 July. It also nominated members Ahmad Assi Al-Jarba and Kamal Labawani for president and vice-president of the coalition respectively. Both men are known to be strong allies of Saudi Arabia, but Al-Jarba is a largely unknown figure and will most likely face strong opposition from Al-Majlis.
Much will depend on the ability of Michel Kilo and the old guards of the council to reach a clear agreement on Geneva 2, which in turn will allow them to divide the leadership of the coalition among their two blocs (the coalition is headed by a president, two vice-presidents, and a secretary-general). Kilo has previously expressed his support for a political solution, but his recent rapprochement with the Saudis could signal a more cautious position on his part, i.e. a position closer to the council’s. The coming days will tell.