The Syrian National Council (SNC) is the biggest and most significant Syrian opposition grouping in exile, and the main point of reference for outside countries that support the opposition. But its continuing splits and schisms have impeded its constant efforts to win international recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, or as a government in exile.
On April 1, 2012, the Friends of Syria group of nations recognized the SNC as “the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering,” but only as “a” legitimate representative of the Syrians. International wariness stemmed from the fragmented nature of the SNC and its failure so far to unite the major opposition factions behind a clear program and strategy.
Abdul Basit Sida: chairman
Burhan Ghalioun: former chairman (until June 10, 2012)
Muhammad Farouk Tayfour: member of the Executive Committee and head of the Relief & Development Projects Bureau
Ahmad Ramadan: spokesperson
George Sabra: spokesperson
Who Are the Members Of the SNC?
Secular intellectuals: This is the old school of Syrian opposition politics. Mostly exiled liberals, such as the SNC’s first chairman, Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun, and life-long activists for a democratic and secular Syria.
Islamists: Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized group in the SNC, believed to have good links in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Many secular members feel uneasy about its influence.
Kurds: The Kurdish minority is itself divided between different groups and individuals, only some of whom have joined the SNC. Others doubt SNC’s commitment to awarding Kurds more cultural and political rights in post-Assad Syria.
Activists inside Syria: The grassroots organizations behind anti-Assad protests, such as the Local Coordination Committees, are formally part of the SNC, but they continue to work independently.
Does SNC Lead the Syrian uprising?
The answer is an emphatic no. SNC is run by exiles, based mostly in Turkey and France, with little actual control over the events on the ground in Syria. SNC has managed to position itself as the first point of contact for the US government, but it doesn’t direct the protests, nor does it command the armed struggle against the regime.
Moreover, some of the other opposition groups do not trust the SNC and its foreign connections, and many activists inside Syria have been disappointed with the lack of support from the body and what it has achieved on the diplomatic front.
Read this investigative report by Charlie Skelton on the links between SNC and US establishment, published by The Guardian.
What Exactly Does SNC Want?
The Creation of the Syrian National Council
The SNC was announced in Istanbul on October 2, 2011. This followed an earlier attempt to form a unified umbrella framework with the other principal opposition grouping in Syria, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which had been established in June. The “National Coalition” was announced in Doha in September 2011 but later failed to materialize. Instead, the SNC was set up by a coalition of groups and individuals, including signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005), the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, various Kurdish factions, representatives of the Local Coordination Committees, other political parties or platforms including Damascus Spring and the National Bloc, representatives of the Alawi and Assyrian communities, and some independent figures. By March 2012, the SNC claimed it comprised 90 percent of the opposition parties and movements, although this claim has been challenged by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and others.
The SNC contains a large Islamist component, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and a second Islamist bloc consisting of the “Group of 74,” mostly former Brotherhood members including many businessmen. With nearly one-quarter of the council’s 310 seats, the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly the largest and most coherent faction within the SNC, prompting some critics to argue that it wields excessive influence over decisionmaking and policymaking. In an effort to allay fears of Islamist domination, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a new “pledge and charter” on March 25, 2012, setting out its commitment to a civil constitution, full democracy, equality irrespective of ethnicity, religion, or gender, and freedoms of opinion and belief.
This subject has proven even thornier. Relations between Kurdish opposition parties and activists and the SNC have been strained from the outset, as both the SNC and the influential Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have resisted Kurdish demands for federalism or “political decentralization,” which would grant Kurdish autonomy within Syria. Kurdish spokespeople have accused the SNC of succumbing to pressure from Turkey and also suspect hostility on the part of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, given its warm relations with the Justice and Development Party government in Turkey.
The SNC sought to mend this rift by publishing the National Charter: the Kurdish Issue in Syria on April 2, recognizing “the national rights of the Kurdish people.” This document fell short, however, of meeting Kurdish demands and prompted the Kurdish National Council to break with the SNC. Kurdish representation in the SNC is now limited to Executive Committee member Abdul Basit Sida and the Future Party.
The SNC’s unity and cohesion have also been strained by disagreements over how to respond to the regime’s increased resorting to violence and to the council’s initial reluctance to back armed resistance, arm rebels inside Syria, or support demands for outside intervention to protect civilians.
On March 12, 2012, the SNC announced a clear position, demanding the establishment and protection of humanitarian corridors and the imposition of a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria. It also said it was setting up a coordination bureau to channel arms from unspecified foreign governments to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Regardless, the SNC’s relations with the Free Syrian Army have never been smooth, and the FSA’s commander, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, has often been outspoken in his criticism of the council. There is no sign that the SNC’s call for arming the opposition or the decision announced after the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on April 1, 2012, to channel funds from the Gulf Cooperation Council to finance the salaries of deserting soldiers signing up with the Free Syrian Army have been particularly effective in producing a unified political and military front. What they have done is exacerbate differences between the SNC and some of the other opposition factions, in particular the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, along with other individuals and groups opposed to armed resistance and outside interference.
On June 9, 2012, SNC elected Kurdish activist Abdelbasset Sida as its leader at a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, a council statement said. Sida, who has been living in exile in Sweden for many years, was the only candidate for the three-month presidency of the SNC at a meeting of 33 members of the councils' general secretariat. The 56-year-old succeeds Burhan Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had presided over the council since it was formed in August of last year.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential player in the council, had initially indicated it wanted Ghalioun to remain president, but then opted to support Sida after opposition activists inside Syria raised objections to Ghalioun following a third renewal of his term last month.
On August 28, 2012, Basma Kodmani, a prominent figure in the (SNC) resigned, the latest of several senior members to leave the leading Syrian opposition group this year.
“Today we stand without protection against horrific massacres from Houla to Daraya and the blood of the people flowing in the streets of our towns and villages,” said Basma Kodmani, based in Paris and one of few women in the council.
“The council did not win the needed credibility and did not preserve the confidence that was given to it by the people when it was formed, it has diverted from the path that we wanted for it when we formed it,” she said in a statement.
Formation of the SNC
A team of experts, technocrats, and political figures worked collaboratively to formulate a new mechanism by which they could establish a council that includes competent national figures while considering the diversity that reflects Syrian society within the following steps:
Mapping Syrian political groups that support the Revolution and preparing lists of national and effective figures for nomination.
Determining the qualifications required for membership to the SNC depending on their duties.
Establishing standards for representing the Syrian people on the Council in a manner that reflects the diverse nature of Syria socially, ideologically, and politically, with reasonable ratios.
Proposing the formation of the Council based on the outlined specifications and criteria that achieve diversity.
SNC Political Program
After sustained efforts by the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was founded in response to the urgent need for a political framework that represents revolutionary work being done on the ground since March 15, 2011 to overthrow the regime and its operatives. Seven months after the beginning of the revolution, a consensus was reached on establishing the Council, which was officially announced in Istanbul on October 2, 2011.
The SNC is a political institution that represents most political opposition forces, blocs, and groups, as well as revolutionary movement committees. The SNC works as a national, general, and temporary umbrella organization that reflects the will of the people for revolution and change. The goal of the SNC is to build a democratic, pluralistic, and civil state by the following means:
Breaking down the existing regime, including all of its operatives and symbols.
Preserving, protecting, and enhancing the peaceful nature of the popular revolution.
Uniting the efforts by the revolutionary movement and the political opposition.
Garnering Arab and international support at the individual, public opinion, and official levels.
Focusing efforts to support the peaceful revolution; continuing and increasing acts of civil disobedience.
Mobilizing both the Arab and international societies to increase pressure on the regime by all possible means.
Diversifying the means and methods of the revolutionary movement to include demonstrations, general strikes, and civil disobedience.
Working to secure international protection for civilians and supporting joint Arab and international means to secure its implementation within international agencies in the shortest amount of time possible.
Communicating with committees and action groups participating in the revolution to further mobilize the population and extend the reach of the SNC.
Enhancing communication and encouraging initiatives and activities among professional groups, business community, intellectuals, and others.
Maintaining a positive and flexible outlook towards all political opposition forces that are not part of the SNC, and working with them towards joining the SNC – if they approve the founding declaration documents – or, at minimum, coordinating efforts and establishing protocols for collaboration.
Giving the diversity of Syrian society the appropriate focus by providing clear programs, thoughtful analysis, and political activism, while intensifying efforts to communicate among committees, groups, and members and emphasizing the concept that their participation is the best guarantee for their concerns to be addressed.
Pursuing the official recognition of the SNC by Arab and foreign states.
The SNC will take responsibility, with the military apparatus, to manage the transitional period and guarantee the security and unity of the country once the regime falls.
The SNC will form a transitional government to manage the affairs of the state.
The SNC will call for a national and all-inclusive convention with the theme of "democratic change" to implement a program and outline for the transitional period with representatives from all segments of Syrian society whose hands have not been stained with blood or theft of national wealth from among the regime's officials.
The transitional government is responsible for creating the appropriate conditions for organizing political life in the country as well as providing conditions to promote the flourishing of civil society through various institutions, including trade unions.
Within one year at most, the interim government will organize free elections with Arab and international observers to elect a Constitutional Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country that is then voted on by the people in a referendum.
Free parliamentary elections shall be held within six months, in accordance with the new constitution.
The SNC will continue to implement its founding declaration concerning the preservation of state institutions, especially the military institution, throughout the transitional period. These institutions belonged to the people long before the authoritarian regime encroached upon them and stole them from the people. This does not contradict the need to end all expressions and symbols of totalitarianism.
Releasing detainees and prisoners; investigating the fate of those who are missing; ensuring the safe return of refugees and those in exile; and compensating the families of fallen heroes, the injured, and all those who were victimized.
The formation of an independent judicial commission whose task is to receive citizens' grievances and investigate crimes committed against the people, and punishing those found guilty.
The formation of a national reconciliation commission in collaboration with civil society organizations, human rights groups, and volunteers to cleanse all residue from the era of corruption and tyranny.
Criminalizing all forms of oppression, exclusionary policies, and discrimination on the basis of ethnic or religious background, or gender.
The New Syria – General Principles
The new Syria is a democratic, pluralistic, and civil state; a parliamentary republic with sovereignty of the people based on the principles of equal citizenship with separation of powers, smooth transfer of power, the rule of law, and the protection and guarantee of the rights of minorities.
The new Syria guarantees for all its citizens what is declared by international laws in terms of human rights and basic freedom of belief, opinion, expression, assembly, the press, and other rights. In addition, all of its inhabitants will enjoy equal rights and duties without any discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender.
The government is committed to ambitious plans for economic and human development.
The new Syria is committed to combating poverty and focusing on developing disadvantaged areas. It regards achieving justice and equal opportunity among all citizens to be a national duty.
To achieve equity in the distribution of national wealth, since national resources belong to all Syrians in the context of good governance, and directing benefits from development to raising the capabilities and standard of living of all sectors of society and all regions, particularly the most disadvantaged.
The new Syria is committed to eradicating illiteracy and providing factual information to the general population.
The new Syria, with its civil and democratic system and constitution, provides the best assurance to all Syrians from all ethnic, religious, and sectarian backgrounds.
The constitution guarantees national rights for the Kurdish people and a resolution to the Kurdish question in a democratic and fair manner within the framework of the unity of Syrian territory and people, as well as the exercise of rights and responsibilities of equal citizenship among all citizens.
The constitution guarantees national rights for the Assyrian people and a resolution to the Assyrian Syriac question in a democratic and fair manner within the framework of the unity of Syrian territory and people, as well as the exercise of rights and responsibilities of equal citizenship among all citizens.
The new Syria guarantees full rights of women, including ensuring their effective participation in political life and all other sectors.
The new Syrian state will have a positive role and impact on the stability of the Arab and regional system as well as on the international level.
The new Syria will work to restore its sovereignty in the occupied Golan Heights on the basis of relevant and legitimate international laws and resolutions.
The new Syria will support the full and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
The new Syria will promote Arab and regional solidarity and cooperation, and will build relations with other states on the basis of mutual respect and national interests.
SNC Military Bureau
The SNC Military Bureau was formed on March 1st, 2012 to serve as a Ministry of Defense for the Office of the President with military and civilian members. The Bureau serves both as a liason with the different armed opposition groups including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and to plan an overall strategy for armed resistance that best serves the Syrian Revolution.
The Military Bureau will liase with armed opposition groups, organize and unify their ranks under one central command, define their defense missions, place them under the political supervision of the SNC, and coordinate their activities in accordance with the overall strategy of the Revolution.
In forming the Military Bureau, the SNC reiterates its full support for the FSA, armed opposition groups, civilian protection commissions, and other independent honorable defectors from the Assad army.The SNC also emphasizes its commitment to the demands of the great Syrian people and their heroic revolutionaries, particularly its demand for foreign intervention to prevent further bloodshed. All forms of intervention are on the table, and the SNC is conducting continuous talks with several countries regarding the different intervention models; political, military, or humanitarian – to bring down the Assad regime and peacefully transition to a free and democratic rule.
The Military Bureau will promote compliance of armed groups with internaitonal humanitarian laws. It will also work on maintaining peace and stability after the fall of the Assad regime in order to safeguard the nation against chaos and infiltrators who attempt to cause instability.
A study issued by the Strategic Research and Communication Center entitled "Safe Area for Syria: an Assessment of Legality, Logistics, and Hazards" lays out the different forms of intervention with the risks and logistical elements that need to be considered. The SNC has been working with military experts, academic professionals, public policy experts, and strategic advisors to formulate the most accurate approach for civilian protection and to achieve the goal of ending the regime of Assad.
The SNC submitted official requests to the Arab League and the United Nation to exercise the "Responsibility to Protect" and save the innocent lives being killed and tortured in Syria. The UN Security Council failed several times to issue a condemnation due to the veto by Russia and China. However, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission both issued condemnation resolutions. The Arab League issued historic resolutions and imposed sanctions against the Assad regime.
What should be realized is that global politics and shifts in regional and global allignments takes time to persuade and change. The SNC has been working deligently on several courses of action to rally international support for the idea of humanitarian corrdiors, safe zone, official recognition of SNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, humanitarian assistance and political support in addition to supporting the Free Syrian Army in a planned and coordinated fashion. To this effect the SNC followed several leads with the UN, International Criminal Court, Arab League, Organization of Islamic Conferences, as well as individual visits to different governments.
Sources: The Syrian Observer, SNC official Website, Source: Carnegie Middle, Middle East Issues