Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

A new beginning

Under Arab auspices and with US support, the Syrian opposition has decided to form a new bloc to lead the country’s transition, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arab League invited the Syrian opposition to an expanded meeting in the Qatari capital Doha this week, in order to create a leadership body that would serve as an umbrella for all existing opposition blocs. This would then serve as a new and all-inclusive political front that would work on accomplishing the goals of the Syrian revolution.
The invitation coincided with statements by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the effect that the Syrian National Council (SNC) had failed to achieve its goals one year after its creation. Composed of opposition figures abroad who have supported the idea of international intervention in Syria, the SNC was described by Clinton as part of the opposition but not its leader.
Clinton called on the Syrian opposition to form an opposition bloc “worthy of trust” and to expand representation to include “those on the front lines who fight and die every day for the sake of freedom”.
She added that the new entity should be capable of confronting “attempts by extremists to hijack the Syrian Revolution,” and the US is proposing specific names and organisations that should join any future leadership structure.
The goal of this week’s Arab initiative is to form a new opposition bloc under the name of the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) to oversee the formation of a transitional government temporarily based in Jordan.
This entity would have just over 50 members representing most opposition forces and currents inside and outside Syria, including 15 from the SNC, 14 from the opposition inside the country, three from the Kurdish National Council, and 22 from other political forces.
It is likely that the SNI will be strongly supported by Washington because it complies with US criteria and plans.
The SNC will remain intact, but it will no longer be seen as representative of the entire opposition and will be replaced by the SNI of which it will control only 30 per cent of the members.
The new bloc will serve as a Syrian constituent assembly that will set up an executive body to serve as a transitional government made up of ten technocrats from outside its membership. These will oversee the progress of the transition and foreign relations and might eventually negotiate with the present Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad.
Informed sources revealed that US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford was in charge of this plan, which could be the start of supporting the goals of the Revolution while at the same time lowering its demands to pave the way for negotiations with the existing regime.
On the other hand, it could be a leap towards toppling the regime, as the US increasingly loses patience with the events in Syria. One question now is whether the US will support the armed opposition with advanced weapons in order to shorten the fighting and block the spread of jihadists, or whether it will push towards dialogue with the regime as the opposition suspects it may.
Russia, the Syrian regime’s most important ally, believes that the US call for forming a Syrian government in exile “encourages the opposition to continue moving towards overthrowing the regime in Damascus.”
Moscow has asserted that Washington does not intend to wait until Russia and China change their positions on the Syrian crisis and that it wants to resolve the issue on its own terms.
Russia protested that the US position contradicted the Geneva Agreement that the major powers agreed on last June.
The SNI includes several prominent opposition figures, including former MP and political prisoner Riad Seif from Damascus, former prime minister Riad Hijab, a defector from the regime, human rights activist Haitham Al-Mallah, and liberal figure Kamal Al-Labwani, among others.
All of these figures have denied that dialogue with the Al-Assad regime will take place before the president’s deposition, denying that this is part of US intentions.
Overseeing the SNI is 66-year-old Seif, a respected figure among his peers. At the beginning of the uprising in Syria 19 months ago, Seif participated in demonstrations demanding the overthrow of the regime and suffered as a result, earning him the respect of the popular movements.
Seif defended the SNI, saying that it would guarantee there was not a political vacuum when the regime collapses. He said that no political solution could be acceptable that did not involve Al-Assad and his cronies stepping down from power and those responsible for the killings being brought to justice.
He said that the principles of the SNI were to uphold the country’s sovereignty and unity, as well as to guarantee the creation of a pluralist and democratic state.
The umbrella organisation has also been put in charge of creating a relief fund and further fund to assist the armed opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). It will administer liberated territories, plan the transitional phase, and be responsible for the creation of a constituent assembly and interim government.
Borhan Ghalioun, former chair of the SNC, admitted that the group had failed to achieve its goals, blaming the domination of some political forces on the Council.
He said that he suspected there was a reason behind the present willingness to create another body more willing to hold dialogue with the regime, and he said that this could be a further source of dispute within opposition ranks.
Ghalioun urged that the new body represent the genuine outcome of dialogue among the opposition, rather than compliance with foreign demands.
Some of the opposition has mixed feelings about the SNI, and the SNC for one moved quickly to defend its accomplishments. It promised the Syrian people that it would reform its composition and step up support for the revolution, while continuing to work to unite the ranks of the opposition at home and abroad.
It said that the formation of a new entity was an attempt to “harm the revolution” and plant the seeds of division.
While the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood agreed “on principle” to the formation of the SNI, it had reservations. It said that the SNI should not be seen as an alternative to the SNC and that it should be committed to “overthrowing the regime, its figures and foundations” and not enter into dialogue or negotiations with it.
The political opposition inside Syria, including the National Coordination Committee and part of the Damascus Declaration, the Democratic Forum, the Building the State group and others, refused to be part of the new body despite their reservations about the SNC.
 “There are signs indicating that this meeting was not an expression of Syrian free will,” the groups said, claiming that the SNI was a US move to dominate Syria after the removal of the Al-Assad regime.
The SNI would be similar to the Coalition Provisional Authority led by US ambassador Paul Bremmer in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, the groups said, especially since ambassador Ford was involved in the SNI’s work in Doha and was planning current and future phases as if he were a full-fledged member.
Commenting on the capability of the new entity to dominate the political opposition, Ali Abdallah a leading member of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the problem with this body is that it contradicts itself. It claims that it is an alternative to the failed SNC, but at the same time it presents a doomed formula — namely, gathering elements and figures together whose views are so far apart that they contradict each other.”
 “The key issue here is the positions of those countries supporting this entity, especially the US. Is it serious about supporting the Syrian revolution and making progress by tipping the balance in its favour, or is it just extending the crisis by moving pawns around?”
“The US is seeking a half-victory and a half-defeat. It is bleeding both sides, and taming the revolution before pressuring the regime to accept the transitional phase. The outlines of the SNI remind one of US plans in Iraq: handing power over to marginal elements that agree to be the subjects of Washington.”
“There are disturbing signs about lowering the ceiling of the demands of the opposition through negotiations with the regime,” Abdallah said.
According to western diplomatic sources and opposition members in the SNI, the new entity and the interim government it will form will be quickly recognised internationally and will receive political and financial support from the US and Europe.
 It will reportedly be given a key role in planning the coming phase, will coordinate with the military wing of the Revolution, boost arms deliveries to the “moderate” opposition, and weaken jihadist groups within the ranks of the armed opposition and FSA.
It will also assist in sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the armed opposition for use in the latter’s battles with the regime.
After hesitating for 18 months, it appears that the US has decided to intervene in deciding the future of the Syrian crisis. Thus far, neither the US nor Europe has supplied the armed opposition with military, logistical, or humanitarian assistance. This has kept the Syrian crisis on the level of skirmishes between the opposition and the regime.
Irrespective of the opinions of those opposition groups not included in the SNI, it is certain that the new opposition bloc will be supported by the US, Europe and some neighbouring states. It seems likely that the US will also secure international support for the SNI over the coming few days.

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