The Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) formed in November 2012 faces no shortage of dire challenges as it tries to organize itself and give desperately needed political leadership to a heterogeneous hodgepodge of armed and unarmed opponents of the dying yet lethally venomous regime of Bashar al-Assad. How to uphold the primacy of citizenship in an increasingly sectarian struggle? How to maintain credibility with those who are fighting and dying? How to reach out to minorities and other fence sitters inside Syria? How to prepare for the practicalities of transition and governance? How to shape and influence international support for Syria’s revolution rather than being shaped and influenced by outsiders? How to eclipse internal rivalries and policy differences with selflessness and a unifying sense of mission encompassing a broadly acceptable vision of what the new Syria will be and how it will function?
In a just world, Syrians emerging from an induced political coma of some 50 years would not be faced with such daunting tasks. Starting with the 1958-1961 Egyptian-run United Arab Republic, Syrians have become accustomed to the heavy hand of intelligence services on political discourse. Over the years, frank political discussions even within families became guarded and circumscribed, a condition not significantly altered by the “Damascus Spring” experiment over a decade ago. Now it is all out there for discussion and decision. Syrians who, not long ago, could only choose among silence, torture, and departure are now being asked to practice teamwork, transparency, and compromise. There is nothing fair or just about this situation.
Yet fair or not, ready or not, Syria requires a government. For more than 40 years the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) was the transmission belt for the desires of a narrow, family-based clique. That government is now neutered—the geographical scope of its assigned writ having shrunken dramatically over the past 21 months. Yet a functioning bureaucracy will be central to any transition plan due to the need for continuity of government. Ministries, departments, and agencies—including the security services—employ people and provide services, albeit often ineffectively and corruptly. The preservation of these organs, as imperfect as they are, can facilitate the rapid dispersal of international assistance post-Assad and reassure millions of Syrians who fear the chaos of revolutionary rule. Reform will come in time. It is important to distinguish government and its associated bureaucracy from the ruling clique, which has become a militia, willing and even eager to risk destroying Syria to try to save itself.
As I have written previously the old expression, you can’t beat something with nothing, applies in spades to Syria. No one—not even Bashar al-Assad himself—doubts the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of what remains of the old system. Yet millions of Syrians grudgingly adhere to “the Doctor.” They do so partly because they fear his jailers and torturers, but largely because they know not what comes next. This is the obstacle that a provisional government formed by the SOC can address and overcome
A provisional government led by the SOC would be a key step on the way to a national unity transition government that could and should include serving, non-criminal officials of the current and previous SARGs. Provided it consists of respectable individuals whose revolutionary credentials neither alienate nor frighten the cowed and undecided, a provisional government would in large measure answer the “what’s next?” question that immobilizes millions of Syrians. Provided it can establish itself in liberated parts of Syria and facilitate effective local governance while expediting external humanitarian assistance and the restoration of essential services and infrastructure, it can reflect credibility. Indeed, to the extent that such a government would attract recognition from abroad as the government of Syria it could be the legitimate recipient of security assistance. If and when the time comes to negotiate with the SARG on the formation of a transitional national unity government to take full executive powers from the regime, the provisional government would be the SARG’s sole legitimate interlocutor.
Would the formation of a provisional government be a panacea? No. One has to assume that the regime will fight hard to hold onto Damascus and that Iran and Hezbollah will assist in that effort. Would the formation of such a government be easy? On the contrary—battles for privilege and position could be discouraging and even debilitating. Yet here a hard question must be posed: if the very process of establishing a clear alternative to the regime fatally wounds the unity of the Syrian Opposition Council or splinters the opposition more generally, then what is the opposition really? And, as a practical matter, if there are to be fights over who gets to be minister of finance, defense and so forth, is it not better to have these fights now, before the regime vaporizes and before someone actually has to try to govern Syria?
No doubt the endeavor to form a provisional government would be fraught with difficulties and could indeed end badly. Yet as the Assad poison pill of sectarianism slowly paralyzes and kills the idea and the reality of a united Syria, time is of the essence. The United States correctly opposed calls for a provisional government in mid-2012; the Syrian National Council would have been a disastrously weak and narrow foundation for such an effort. Reservations on the part of the US administration are understandable even now. Yet Syria is dying, and Syria’s death would have dire implications not only for its 23 million citizens but for the entire region.
The way forward will be replete with risks. Yet the riskiest of approaches in Syria’s hour of peril could be for the United States and others to hold the Syrian Opposition Council at arms-length and ask it to jump through bureaucratic hoops rather than asking it to offer the Syrian people a visible, credible alternative to the Assad regime. Time is the enemy. You can’t beat something with nothing. If there is to be something, the time to create that something is now.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.