Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Arming the opposition?

Following the formation of a new Syrian opposition movement, will the West now send military assistance to those fighting the regime, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has only been a few days since the majority of the political opposition forces in Syria closed ranks and formed a broad coalition that Syrian and Western analysts believe is a milestone development in the Syrian crisis.
However, there are still doubts about how the crisis in the country will develop since there has been no international consensus on a solution. The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad greeted news of the formation of the new coalition by saying it was a “declaration of war” and its recognition by some states “an immoral act.”
It accused Western states like France of “supporting murderers and terrorists” and of “encouraging the destruction of Syria.”
Syria’s deputy foreign minister said the new opposition coalition was not “a product of Syria” and was “a US-Qatari plot to destroy the country.” He said that the real Syrian opposition operated inside the country, ignoring the fact that the regime has violently suppressed all forms of opposition over the past five decades.
Over the past 18 months, this policy has evolved into bloody repression. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSR), ordinarily called the Syrian National Coalition, was formed in Qatar at the beginning of this month, and it has pledged not to take part in any dialogue with the regime before the ousting of Al-Assad.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organisation of Arab Gulf states, was the first to recognise the coalition as being “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” The Arab League only recognised the NCSR as “the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” alarming the opposition by the guardedness of its language.
The NCSR might have thought that the countdown had started for the overthrow of the regime with Arab and international support after the opposition had closed ranks in forming the new coalition.
France took the pioneering step of recognising the NCSR as “the sole and legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, suggesting that any transitional government formed by the coalition would also be the legitimate Syrian government.
It suggested the possibility of arming the opposition by indicating that the EU ban on selling weapons to Syria could be lifted and announcing the appointment of a NCSR ambassador to Paris.
While the US recognised the NCSR as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” unlike France it did not recognise it as the country’s transitional government. The US has also been reluctant to lift the ban on arming the opposition, and it has urged the coalition to prove it is the true representative of all segments of Syrian society.
The US also wants to see the coalition’s military council prove that it is capable of containing the armed groups in the country and of uniting them under its control.
Britain took a similar position and said it wanted further details of the coalition and its make-up before it could recognise it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Russia, the main ally of the Syrian regime, said that the new coalition did not unite the opposition and that the opposition inside Syria was not a part of it.
Moscow said that the Syrian crisis could only be resolved through dialogue between the regime and the opposition without foreign interference and that this should be based on UN resolutions and the Geneva Declaration.
However, the regime has long made it plain that it is not interested in dialogue and that it continues to seek a military resolution to the crisis.
George Sabra, chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said he was uneasy about the positions of the Arab and Western states towards the NCSR. In curt responses to questions from Al-Ahram Weekly, Sabra, arrested several times before and during the Syrian uprising, said that it was a “standard start that does not promise much.”
Asked about the low level of recognition by the Arab League, he said that “the Arab statement is similar to the Arab condition: some states fear the changes to come and others are scared of the current changes.”
Moaz Al-Khatib, leader of the NCSR, said that “there will be more recognition of the coalition in the future” and that it “is still very new and states want to see it in action before they react to it.”
Al-Khatib emphasised the need for political, financial, humanitarian and military support for the coalition in its work to topple the Syrian regime.
According to Al-Khatib, the NCSR would now attempt to gain Arab, regional and international recognition and would then form a united military command for all the armed groups in Syria.
It would also set up working groups in preparation for the formation of an interim government capable of arming the opposition. After the overthrow of the Al-Assad regime, this would be followed by a national conference and the formation of a transitional government, he said.
However, while the NCSR has outlined its plans, it has yet to agree on the details or set out a plan for political transition in Syria. Even the idea of a government in exile remains uncertain as long as the current regime remains in power.
The West has thus far avoided military intervention in Syria to stop the massacres that have killed more than 40,000 civilians since the uprising began nearly 20 months ago, and it has now tasked the NCSR with uniting the armed groups under one military council in order to change the balance of power inside Syria in its favour.
The Arab states have also not aided the Syrian revolutionaries in their battle against the regime, except by providing rhetoric and some political and media support. The Western states, led by the US, may want first to cleanse Syria of jihadists and protect their own future interests before agreeing to send any arms to the revolutionaries.
France is withholding arms to the opposition until it forms a transitional government backed by the majority of the country’s population, while the US is waiting for Syria to be cleansed of jihadists and for guarantees that weapons will not end up in the hands of “extremists.”
The UN is waiting for its envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to draft his own plan to resolve the crisis, and the European states want to ensure that an Islamist regime does not take power in Syria.
Turkey is waiting for NATO military guarantees, despite the fact that Syrian warplanes have breached its airspace several times. The Arab League is waiting for the Arabs to agree on a unanimous course of action, something which is unlikely to happen.
Meanwhile, the Syrian people stand alone, having witnessed the unkept promises made by Arab, regional and international parties over the past 18 months of the uprising. Turkey pledged that Hama in central Syria would be a “red line,” for example, according to the country’s prime minister, but when Syrian forces used heavy artillery to pummel the city Turkey did not lift a finger.
Europe and the US indicated that they would create safe zones in Syria so that the displaced and revolutionaries could find refuge, and they also said that they were looking into a flight ban over Syria to allow the opposition a breathing space. These promises did not materialise.
Arab and Western states promised to send humanitarian aid to the nearly 2.5 million displaced and refugees, but these people are still living in often harsh conditions. The Friends of Syria Group held conferences in Tunis and Istanbul and promised to send humanitarian, political and military aid, but the resolutions of these conferences have since been shelved and forgotten.
The new coalition faces many internal and external challenges on the road to toppling the regime. Some believe that it needs the international community to recognise it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to allow it to access frozen Syrian funds abroad in order to purchase weapons.  
Others believe that relying on foreign forces could have uncertain results, while working from the inside could guarantee that national decisions are independent and free from foreign prerequisites.
Syrians, such people say, should resolve their problems from within their own borders and coordinate between the political opposition and the revolutionaries on the ground, thus uniting the efforts of the peaceful revolutionary forces and the armed groups.
Whatever the new coalition now decides, if it does not move quickly it will likely lose its popular support even before it gains the international community’s recognition.

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