Syria's New Opposition

The Syrian National Coalition will have to work hard to convince rebels that it's more than a debate club.

Nearly a month into its existence, the reorganized and reformed Syrian political opposition has made a number of strides in an attempt to speed up the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Formally named the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the bloc has secured international recognition from a host of countries over the past two weeks, including France and Britain. On Tuesday, President Obama announced in a television interview that the United States would follow suit. Washington has been the most eager to consolidate and strengthen opposition to the Assad regime, promising an extensive amount of diplomatic contact with its representatives and a hefty amount of financial aid in the future.

Yet kind words and promises of aid from the international community will not help the National Coalition in planning for a post-Assad government if the body remains a mystery to the people it is supposed to represent. The same problems that ruined the Syrian National Council as a credible alternative to the Assad regime could very well stain the new National Coalition if its leaders do not convince the Syrian people that they are more than just a passive debating society.

Initial reports from Syria suggest that some Free Syrian Army brigades are at least encouraged that the political opposition is finally getting its act together. The Syrian National Council (SNC), which at one time was viewed by the United States and Europe as the best option for a post-Assad authority, was never taken seriously by the internal Syrian rebellion. Viewed as distant to the conflict and preoccupied with securing Western support that did not come, the SNC leadership was quickly discarded by those fighting on the ground. When the SNC failed to persuade Western nations to send even the most rudimentary of weapons to the Free Syrian Army, many fighters inside Syria lost faith in what the exiles could accomplish.

There is always a chance that the National Coalition will break from this precedent. But it remains unlikely unless the tens of thousands of Syrians who are putting their lives at risk to overthrow Bashar al-Assad receive some type of benefit. The Coalition cannot wait and dither around for too long, lest its leaders become the second version of the now-defunct SNC. Lobbying in European capitals and establishing contacts with Western and Arab nations are all important, but those actions alone will not distinguish the new opposition coalition from its predecessor.

If it wants to do more than survive—and become a significant player in the broader opposition movement—the National Coalition will need to demonstrate to its colleagues inside Syria that their calls for humanitarian aid, weapons, funds, and communications equipment are being taken seriously by the leadership. The coalition must invest in parts of Syria that have been devastated by artillery bombardment, air strikes, bombings and pitched fighting. Schools need to be reopened; the internally displaced need to be cared for as the winter months set in; humanitarian assistance has to reach those who are in desperate need; and members of all sects, religions, and ethnicities have to be included in any post-Assad planning.

If the National Coalition manages to perform these tasks at the same time it tries to gather recognition from the West, it can succeed where the SNC failed. None of this will be easy, particularly for a group that was formed only weeks ago and has a considerable trust barrier to overcome with the Free Syrian Army. Yet the coalition must try, for the effort will reap enormous benefits for the Syrian political opposition—the most important of which is the formation of a tolerant, pluralistic and legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The only other choice is to follow in the footsteps of the SNC, an organization that was unable to provide Syrians still sitting on the fence with a reason to join the rebel camp. Without an alternative political plan that is concrete, specific and endorsed by a cross-section of Syrian society, the Syrian Revolution will not succeed in its ultimate aim: creating a democratic, accountable system that guarantees individual rights and collective security.

Daniel R. DePetris is an independent researcher and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Sentinel.

Image: Flickr/SyrianNationalCoalition.