Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Self-defeating opposition

One reason the Syrian conflict has dragged on is that the opposition blocked viable candidates from taking the lead, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is easy to blame the international community for the failure to resolve the Syrian crisis. True, the international community dragged its feet on arming the opposition, in taking coancerted action to remove the current regime from power, in passing UN decisions detailing the shape of a solution and enforcing it. But the international community is not only to blame.

The biggest failure of the Syrian opposition to date is that it failed to bring to the fore powerful figures, trustworthy ones with no history of bloodshed and corruption, men with viable connections inside the country and outside it. There were no shortage of such people, but the opposition was too quick to dismiss them.

Eager to defend its privileges, desperate to grab a share in future power, the opposition has done the unthinkable. It has shot down viable figures that could have rallied the international community behind a regime change while reuniting the nation behind viable goals.

One of the reasons the international community hesitated in overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad, even when he crossed all the red lines, including that of using chemical weapons against civilians, is that it didn’t want to see a power vacuum developing in the country.

Foreign diplomats wanted to have a clear vision of a post-Al-Assad phase, and this vision was hard to come by in the absence of a credible opposition figure at the helm. In the absence of such a figure, the international community dithered, postponed decisive action and bided its time.

The assumption was that if Al-Assad were to be removed from power in the absence of an alternative, the Syrian state might totally collapse, making the rebuilding process harder to manage.

Major countries made it clear to the opposition that they wanted a credible alternative to Al-Assad before action was taken against his regime. Six months into the revolution, the Americans told opposition figures that they were willing to do what it took to change the regime, but only if an alternative to Al-Assad was found.

But the opposition, new to the game of freedom, failed to understand what it needed to do. Instead of coming up with centrist figures who are trusted at home and abroad, it came up with alternatives who didn’t seem credible enough in the eyes of the international community.

At times, the opposition thought that the best alternative was an opposition body, one to be selected through consensus and that, once vetted by the West, could be placed in power. Working under this assumption, Syrian opposition figures and groups jostled each other for position, hoping to become part of the interim regime, the one that would lead the country into the future.

A game of one-upmanship surfaced, with each group trying to discredit credible rivals, and perfectly suitable candidates were dismissed from the scene. This is the reason that the opposition has failed to make any breakthrough for so long. As the tragedy unfolded in the country, the opposition blocked credible opponents and alienated possible allies at home and abroad.

One of the top candidates to replace Al-Assad was former vice president Farouk Al-Sharaa, a man who commanded the respect of the international community for shunning the regime and who has the respect of many in Syria because of his knowledge of how the regime works and his domestic and international connections.

When Al-Sharaa’s name came up, Borhan Ghalyun, chairman of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group at the time, lent his support to the idea. “The state is very big. It has many employees and military officials and administrators who must be involved in drawing the country’s future, all of which gives credence to Al-Sharaa in leading the interim phase,” Ghalyun said.

But other opposition figures disagreed. Haytham Al-Maleh, who has strong ties with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, undertook a public campaign against Al-Sharaa. “No one who cooperated with Al-Assad [can be] trusted,” he said. It wasn’t long before the Muslim Brotherhood and others used their media to bury the idea for good.

Another candidate was Abdel Aziz Al-Khayyer, an Alawite opposition figure and former political prisoner prized not only for his exceptional intellect and cool mind, but also for coming from a family that is respected by Alawites and Sunnis alike.

Well connected with the opposition, Al-Khayyer had close ties with Alawite army officers and security officials who refused to take part in the killing. He also maintained good relations with the armed opposition battalions. But none of that was enough.

Once again, the Muslim Brotherhood used all its might to smear him. Shortly afterward, Al-Khayyer was picked up at a regime roadblock and disappeared. He had become too popular for the regime to allow to wander freely.

A third figure then surfaced. Dissident Brigadier General Manaf Tlass has the support of a large contingent of dissident officers, which is a major advantage in a country seeking to keep a centre of military gravity during the transition period. Tlass, 51, is well respected, capable and should have no trouble gaining the support of Alawites, Kurds and other clans.

He is also secular, which makes him ideal for fighting terror and extremism. Tlass has strong connections in the region and abroad and is one of the most qualified candidates for leading the country into a smooth transition.

But that wasn’t good enough for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), which used its powerful media machine to derail the idea. The argument they used is that his father served as defence minister under Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Many in the Syrian opposition are aware that the choice of any of the above men as an alternative to Al-Assad would have accelerated the collapse of the regime, while also supporting the process of healing at home and reassuring the international community of a steady hand at the helm.

The three men all have experience, centrist views and impeccable connections that make them viable candidates to lead the transition. But their potential rise to power, while potentially good for the country, was bad news to the half-wits who had risen so high in the opposition’s ranks, to the incompetent and inexperienced, to the hopeless and hapless who are not about to give up their narrow interests to preserve those of the nation at large.

Mohamed Habash, a co-founder of Third Current, a Syrian opposition group, said that the opposition is too divided to pick a suitable leader. “The meetings of the opposition didn’t produce a leader or even half a leader,” he said. “Every time a figure fit to be a leader of the opposition emerges, he is mauled by predators in the regime and opposition ranks.”

Reem Torkumani, a prominent academic, believes that NCSROF is incapable of producing any viable programmes. “The NCSROF is not a political body. Aside from holding international diplomatic meetings and appearing in the media, it is incapable of getting anything done. It is impotent and incapable of implementing any political programme,” she said.

Syrian opposition writer Hazem Nahar shares this view. “With every sign of international action, the bazaar of the Syrian opposition springs into life, churning lists of names produced by shameless opposition members. Absent from these lists are any viable opposition members who are capable of finding a solution,” he said.

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