Syria's Floundering Rebel Alliance

The internationally backed Syrian National Coalition suffers from many of the same flaws as its predecessor.

The Syrian National Coalition has eclipsed the Syrian National Council as the opposition’s political bloc, but it is difficult to see where they are different.

In a new setback to opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, the rebel coalition tasked with providing Syrians with a political alternative failed for the second time to form a transitional government that would administer parts of Syria free from the army’s control. Delegates who participated in the meeting, which was conducted in Turkey, were forced to cut the deliberations short after the coalition was unable to agree on who would lead the newly-formed body and what role the group would play after Assad is defeated.

For those who have been seeking Bashar al-Assad’s ouster for nearly two years, putting pressure on the Syrian army has only been one half of the strategy. The other half, and one in which outside powers have tried to jump start for well over a year, has been to formulate a united bloc that could mold into an internationally-endorsed transitional government for Syrians. The rationale is simple: only through a confident and assertive opposition leadership will all Syrians feel comfortable to enough to switch sides.

Unfortunately, trying to create a body that would draw more Syrians away from the Assad regime has proved to be an immeasurably difficult task. In fact, it is primarily Assad’s actions—not the opposition—that have hurt the Syrian strongman the most.

The Syrian National Council—an organization created and endorsed by prominent Syrian dissidents earlier in the conflict—was designed to put a transition plan into action. But after months of arguing about what needed to be done and on how strongly they would push for outside intervention, members of the council found its credibility fatally weakened. The perception increased when rebels fighting in the name of the Free Syrian Army openly expressed their frustration about the exiles to anyone who would listen. The United States and its Western and Arab allies quickly lost faith in the council to do anything but bicker amongst themselves as the people they were supposed to represent continued dying in massacres and air strikes.

Realizing that Syrians would need better political representation if they had any chance of forging a post-Assad future, Western powers, Turkey, and Qatar managed to get the activists to reorganize. At first, the reorganization appeared to work; elements who stayed inside Syria were now given a say in what the country would look like after Assad was overthrown. The United States, Britain, France, and the Gulf Cooperation Council followed up with formal diplomatic recognition, bestowing upon the coalition the title of “legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

From that point on, however, the Syrian National Coalition has not been strong, cognizant, or unified enough to escape from its predecessor’s shadow. How much influence regime defectors, such as former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, should have in the council remains a contentious issue, and the body itself appears to resemble a collection of factions (some religious, some secular) more than an organization in which Syrians can put their faith.

SNC delegates in Turkey walked away from the two-day conference without any solid ideas about how a transitional government would be structured, let alone how it would work. The membership of the opposition remains heavily fragmented, which is perhaps expected given the fact that one family has ruled the country for the past four decades. Depending on the subject being discussed, Islamists are often pitted against secularists, while Sunnis are determined to hold top posts regardless. Some are beginning to complain about the lack of assistance received thus far from the very countries that pushed them to organize in the first place. The Free Syrian Army is not even sure that the SNC can deliver, and the jihadists that are becoming more vocal and aggressive on the ground have dismissed them entirely.

All of this dysfunction has left Syrians who are in the middle in a terrible situation—stuck, with nowhere to go. Do they stick with a regime that is killing civilians in an unprecedented scale, or risk throwing their support to a rebel leadership that is still fighting about the very basics of democracy? The United States as well as its Western and Arab partners are rooting the opposition on. But all should be asking the same questions.

Daniel R. DePetris has written for the Christian Science MonitorSmall Wars Journal, International Affairs Review, and other publications. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Sentinel.

Image: Flickr/Rami Alhames. CC BY 2.0.