Under intense international pressure, various elements within the opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed on Sunday to the formation of a new coalition, essentially the first step toward a government-in-exile, to function as the sole representative of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNCORF, or simply "National Coalition") is designed to replace the year-old Syrian National Council (SNC), the legitimate authority of which had been challenged in recent months by both opposition groups within Syria and international actors, including the United States. In a Q&A in Zagreb on 31 October, Secretary of State Clinton assessed the situation rather bluntly:
[T]here needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians. It is not a secret that many inside Syria are worried about what comes next. They have no love lost for the Assad regime, but they worry, rightly so, about the future. And so there needs to be an opposition that can speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria. And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution. There are disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria and attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against a repressive regime for their own purposes.While the specific details regarding the composition of the new 65-seat coalition are still emerging, the leadership of the new coalition was announced on Sunday. The President is Mouaz al-Khatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus whose anti-regime statements have landed him in jail on several occasions since April 2011. The two Vice-Presidents are Riad Saif (primary author of the Syrian National Initiative providing the outlines for the structure of the SNCORF) and Suhair al-Atassi (prominent female secular activist), both of whom have been enduring voices of dissent in Syrian politics since the "Damascus Spring" in the wake of the death of Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000. A third Vice-Presidential post is expected for a representative of the Kurdish National Council, assuming they approve the formation of the new coalition. Mustafa al-Sabbagh, SNC member and head of the Syrian Business Forum, was appointed Secretary-General.
So the Arab League-sponsored meetings, starting in Doha next week, will be an important next step. I have been constantly involved with my counterparts, both in the EU and in the Arab League, in particular with the hosts of the meeting next week in Qatar. We have recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure. We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard. So our efforts are very focused on that right now.
International reactions and discussion, after the fold...
Yesterday, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the U.A.E, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait) recognized the SNCORF as "the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people." The statement of the full 22-member Arab League (within which the GCC has become, over the past year or so, an interesting bloc) was more nuanced, stating their support for the new coalition as "a legitimate representative and a primary negotiator with the Arab League." Iraq and Algeria are reported to hold reservations, while Lebanon effectively abstained.
In a Department of State press statement on Sunday, Mark Toner congratulated the Syrian opposition on the formation of the new coalition:
The United States congratulates the representatives of the Syrian people on the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve. We will work with the National Coalition to ensure that our humanitarian and non-lethal assistance serves the needs of the Syrian people. We also commend the Government of Qatar for its steadfast leadership and support of this conference.The Department of State is sending a high-level delegation to an emergency aid meeting in London on Friday.
Following meetings with SNCORF leadership in Cairo, French Foreign Minister Fabius has urged the international community to "support" the new coalition, although he stopped short of formal recognition.
[UPDATE: In a press conference earlier today, French President Hollande stated: "I announce today that France recognises the Syrian national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as the future government of a democratic Syria, allowing it to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime."]European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton released a similar congratulatory statement, offering support absent formal recognition.
A statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry likewise lauded the new coalition, noting that the agreement “would add momentum to efforts in completing the democratic transition process in line with the legitimate expectations of the people.”
Not unexpectedly, neither Russia nor Iran nor Hizb'allah are delighted by the new coalition, expressing their particular dissatisfaction with the SNCORF's point-of-agreement not to engage in any dialogue or negotiation with the al-Assad regime.
The next few weeks will be a severe test for the SNCORF as they attempt to emerge as the credible, authoritative "voice" of a more representative and more unified opposition and defend against the characteristic forms of infighting and mismanagement that quickly drove the SNC into irrelevance. They must work quickly to define an agenda and identify the membership and functions of a transitional government-in-exile. They must enforce a command-structure over the armed "wing" of the opposition (the Free Syria Army [FSA] and others) in ways that demonstrate legitimate accountability not only to international actors (from whom they desire increased funding, logistical support and weaponry) but also to that portion of the civilian population which has, to varying degrees and for a variety of reasons, lost trust in the armed opposition. And they must ensure that the diverse political, sectarian and ethnic representation on the 65-seat council has substantive effect and it not merely window-dressing to gain Western support.
The next major event in terms of international policy is the meeting of high-level representatives in London this Friday, the main subject of which is anticipated to be the increased provision of non-lethal aid and assistance to the SNCORF. There is also a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and ministers of the GCC scheduled for tomorrow in Riyadh which could be... well... "interesting."
Meta-Note: This is the third diary in an new intermittent series related to Syria through the Adalah group. For some background on my / our desire to reclaim a sane and reality-based space for discussing events and processes in Syria as well as developments in international (specifically U.S.) policy on Syria, see here and here.