The situation in Syria is the gravest it has been since peaceful protests began in March 2011. Civil resistance has been reduced to relief operations and humanitarian assistance, and the efforts of Syria’s democratic forces are now scattered and fragmented. Foreign support for the Syrian National Coalition and superimpose it as the legitimate representative of the people has weakened democratic civilian organisations’ relationships with a number of western countries. Meanwhile, the military capacity of jihadi groups has increased.
The SNC is fragile, and more likely to implode than become institutionalised. This is highlighted by three issues: the political initiative of its then president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, in proposing talks with the regime; the decision in Istanbul to form a Syrian government in exile; and the fact that Syria’s seat in the Arab League was handed over to the SNC at the recent meeting in Doha.
These three events revealed an alliance between hardline Islamists and Qatar, and demonstrated that the SNC has no ideology, no common vision and no real independence. However, the governments who make up the Friends of Syria are now trying to reform the SNC by giving seats to sectarian groups (Christian, Alawite, and so on) and some secular democratic groups, in order to reduce the Islamists’ influence.
In this critical situation, it is clear the dictatorship is not serious in calling for a negotiated political solution. Bashar al-Assad is confident that the opposition’s political forces no longer represent real power, neither in the arena of military confrontation nor in the eyes of most Syrians. All regional and international attempts to unify the military factions have failed to create a command with a defined political programme. Qatari and Turkish actions – in forming an interim government and giving Syria’s Arab League seat to the SNC – have produced a major rift between the Saudi and Qatari positions, and this is reflected in the military field. The Saudis, ironically, support the more secular forces, while the Qataris support the Islamists.
Al-Qaida has not missed the opportunity to declare its relationship with the Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group and its affiliates. Britain and France can no longer put their heads in the sand. On the ground the Syrian regime is adopting the same tactic used by the Algerians in the 90s: dealing with Islamist groups by creating paramilitary units. This will prolong the conflict by allowing the regime to denigrate the armed opposition and present itself as the protector of security and Syria’s territorial integrity. Not counting remote areas which are being disputed between Jabhat al-Nusra and other fighting groups, Syrian citizens increasingly associate the rise in displacement, murder and destruction with the presence of the armed opposition.
Three questions arise: will Jabhat al-Nusra succeed in preventing any unity emerging between the opposition fighters? Will supporters of the military security solution inside the regime have a monopoly on key decisions in Damascus? And can the democratic civilian opposition continue to act as the prime defenders of a political solution based on last year’s Geneva declaration?
It is tragic that the Friends of Syria is still trying to restructure the SNC when that tactic has evidently failed. It is unlikely that any group in the Free Syrian Army could confront hardline Islamist armed groups unless the opposition were backed by democratic political parties. Foreign involvement will be an obstacle to progress unless there is a broad front that can give the mission of the UN peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, practical meaning and produce a reconciliation between the two strongest powers, Russia and the US.
Will the regional contradictions that we are witnessing today strengthen this option or will they cause increased violence and destruction? We must adhere to a negotiated political solution in this difficult phase so as to give every Syrian a chance to see the end of destruction.