Syria: New Opposition Group May Herald Change

6 MINS READNov 14, 2012 | 11:00 GMT
Syria: New Opposition Group May Herald Change
National Coalition Co-Vice President Suhair al-Atassi (L), President Moaz al-Khatib (C) and Co-Vice President Riad Seif

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a new alliance of Syrian opposition groups formed Nov. 11 in Qatar, is unprecedented in many ways. How it was formed, the composition of its membership and its litany of supporters make the group uniquely suited to accomplish what its predecessors could not: delivering resources, financial support and weaponry necessary to bring down Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. However, the coalition's success is not guaranteed. 

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, several groups have attempted to form a unified and cohesive opposition. The ultimate purpose of these groups was to expedite the fall of al Assad by aggregating the opposition, organizing anti-regime forces inside Syria and gaining international legitimacy, which was essential for acquiring resources otherwise unavailable to them. Such coalitions also meant to eventually create a provisional government in exile, where it could more easily create a new government and assist the political transition if al Assad were removed. However, most of these organizations failed because they did not represent the wide array of opposition groups, particularly those fighting inside Syria.

In light of these failures, the United States and other Western countries were hesitant to support any one group. But the newly formed National Coalition is different. In fact, several distinguishing characteristics could earn it the international recognition that has eluded its peers.  

An Available Option

Unlike other groups, the National Coalition was formed at the behest of and with oversight from Western nations and Gulf Cooperation Council states. In fact, the West did not become active in the Syrian National Council, which was created in late 2011 after a series of meetings in Turkey, until after its formation. As a result, Western directives were difficult to incorporate and follow. For its part, the National Coalition was formed with clear guidelines as to how it could gain international recognition. 

Also distinguishing the National Coalition is its broad representation. Given Syria's diverse population, any successful opposition group would need to speak for a variety of religious, ethnic and political factions. Whereas previous groups failed to do so, the new coalition already has been praised by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said it reflects the full diversity of the Syrian people. The fact that an ostensibly inclusive new coalition has received this kind of recognition so quickly indicates its potential to achieve relevancy more quickly than previous groups.

The involvement of credible, traditional opposition figures with good reputations only adds to the perception of the group's inclusivity. Among those who facilitated meetings that led to the group's founding was Syrian opposition activist and former member of the Syrian National Council Riad Seif (who was later elected co-vice president of the new coalition). A Sunni who resided in Syria until June 2012, Seif is a long-time activist and original signatory of the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity that criticized the al Assad regime. He has been arrested on several occasions, and in the 1990s he served two terms in parliament. Notably, he also has broad appeal. The United States worked with Seif to help unite the opposition, and Stratfor has received indications that even Iran and Russia would cooperate with a coalition that involved Seif. 

In addition to Seif, the National Coalition hosts several other important opposition figures with ties to Syria. Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib, who reportedly left Syria for Qatar three months ago, previously served as the Imam of the Umayyad Mosque, one of the major Sunni mosques in Damascus. He does not belong to any one opposition faction, making him an ideal opposition figure for the West. That he has been arrested several times since 2011 speaks to his credibility: Unlike other activists, he had spoken against the regime until his recent departure.

Moreover, Suhair al-Atassi, who was also a member of the Syrian National Council, was elected co-vice president of the coalition. The co-founder of a grassroots organization, she led other activist groups in Syria from 2000 to 2005. The patriarchs of her family served as presidents of Syria from the 1930s through the 1960s, before the Baath Party came to power. Following death threats against her in 2011, al-Atassi fled to Europe, where she runs her groups in exile.

Perhaps more important, the National Coalition is the first Syrian opposition group to be recognized officially by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and most recently, the first such group recognized by France. This is a key difference and an indicator of the group's potential to be recognized as the official representative by other Western nations. Already the West has expressed a great deal of support for the group; with France's official support, it may only be a matter of time before other Western countries follow suit. Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Jones said Washington wants to cooperate with the new coalition. A U.S. State Department spokesman echoed that sentiment, saying the United States looks forward to supporting the group, and Turkey lauded the creation of the coalition as a positive step forward.

If it receives broader recognition, the National Coalition plans to form a provisional government in exile. This will take a while to achieve, but this is the first instance where such an option has been available.

Obstacles Ahead

Despite the National Coalition's achievements thus far, it is important to remember that it could succumb to the problems, such as infighting, that hindered previous groups' progress. So far, there have been no signs of infighting. In fact, many Syrian National Council members, including council head George Sabra, have expressed their support for the new group. The coalition hosts 60 seats, 22 of which are occupied by the Syrian National Council, and no one faction dominates the others.

While the coalition includes representation from the rebel Free Syrian Army — a relationship necessary to help distribute resources to the rebels — there are some rebel groups that have said they would not recognize any coalition based outside Syria. The ability of the National Coalition to coordinate or provide additional funding and weapons will be a test of the group's aptitude. If accomplished it will prove helpful in gaining the trust and loyalty of the rebels inside Syria.

As the National Coalition continues to bolster its reputation and improve ties with Western nations, it is likely that the rebels and opposition inside Syria may begin to see more funding, supplies and possibly arms — the first step in in the coalition's pursuit of establishing a provisional government outside the country.

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