Dealing With Syria’s Fractious Opposition

Reports out of Istanbul detail yet another episode of Syrian opposition disunity: this time over the selection of a prime minister to head an Interim Government long-since established by the Syrian National Coalition. Ahmad Tohme secured election to the post from which he had been dismissed months ago. He was reportedly the favorite of Qatar. Those members of the National Coalition responsive to the preferences of Saudi Arabia declined to vote. The outcome all-but-guarantees an elongated period of estrangement between the leadership of the National Coalition and the Interim Government. This is a gift to the Assad regime and its apologists: one that can be retrieved unopened and consigned to the trash only by the United States.

The second anniversary of Washington’s decision to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people is approaching. We know now that the December 2012 recognition declaration was meant to provide a headline for an otherwise empty “Friends of the Syrian People” conference in Marrakech. Still—and this will seem quaintly antiquated to some—the declaration invoked the honor and reputation of the United States. Surely, it occurred to those who bestowed the blessing of legitimacy on the National Coalition that the real thing could come only from the Syrian people and would have to be earned inside Syria: not in Istanbul, Paris, or Peoria. Yet nothing was done to encourage or facilitate the movement of this exiled National Coalition to Syria. Indeed, when the Interim Government was established in 2013 US officials went out of their way to denigrate it, dismissing it as a potential alternative to the Assad regime on the grounds that it would be unable to manage air traffic or oversee maritime affairs.

It is the deadly phenomenon of ISIS that has caused the Obama administration to reconsider the issue of toxic governance in Syria and the fertile field it has provided the phony caliph and his murderous companions. Although the stabilization of the tactical situation in Iraq is (as it should be) priority number one for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the Obama administration—thanks at least in part to Turkish pressure—is recognizing that Bashar al-Assad in Syria is the distilled equivalent of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq: a vacuum-creating enabler of ISIS. Gone from President Obama’s Andrews Joint Base remarks of October 14 to assembled uniformed military chiefs was any mention of another Geneva conference aimed at persuading a criminal regime to give way voluntarily to something civilized. In its place were words calling for the support of the Syrian opposition inside Syria as the alternative to the Assad regime and ISIS alike in the search for truly legitimate governance.

Why then, as President Obama signals willingness at last to put flesh on the bones of a December 2012 declaration, does the mainstream Syrian opposition go through yet another disunity melodrama? Here it is necessary to take into consideration two important factors: the location of the Syrian National Coalition and the Interim Government; and the roles of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the affairs of the Syrian opposition.

So long as the body purporting to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people exists in exile, it will be neither legitimate nor representative. Even if one acknowledges the inherent difficulty of real, constructive politics for people coming out of a half-century of induced political coma, it is inescapably true that exile will encourage pointless maneuvering and empty argumentation. The President of the Syrian National Coalition, Hadi al-Bahra, wants to move the entire operation from Turkey to Syria. He will need, for a time, a protected zone inside Syria to link up with local committees and non-jihadist military units. Yet he is ready to move and he will need the support of the United States, Turkey, and others of the London 11 to make it happen.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are important members of the London 11 and the anti-ISIS coalition. They are also political rivals, with sharply differing views on (among other things) the Muslim Brotherhood. If they seriously wish to see a capable, viable, and legitimate alternative to the Assad regime and ISIS in Syria, they will find a way to compose their differences at least with respect to the Syrian opposition. If their common objective, on the other hand, is to project their rivalry onto that opposition by battling for allies and employees, then they might as well find a way to reconcile with Bashar al-Assad.

It would be reassuring to believe that Riyadh and Doha have the wherewithal to cooperate closely when it comes to Syria, even as they pursue competing agendas in the balance of the Middle East-North Africa region. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they can see how opposition dysfunction and disunity plays into the hands of a regime eager to convince those it rules that there is no alternative to it. Yet if they have ever had the requisite motivation to bury the hatchet on Syria, would they not have done so by now?

This job will require the application of some very persuasive and hard-edged American diplomacy. It is understandable that an administration beset on so many fronts would want this cup to pass its lips. Yet the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syria people: not as a ping- pong ball to be smacked around by regional rivals. Dare it be said, US leadership is required.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Free Syrian Army fighters run with their weapons during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad around Handarat area October 16, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS)