Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had some success in remaking the Syrian opposition from a group of squabbling exiles into a more broadly representative leadership with close ties to the Syrian people. During political transitions in the past, the United States has too often backed the wrong horse, trying to invest authority and resources in exiled elites who proved to be non-entities in their home countries, while overlooking the homegrown leaders who actually rose to power. The administration seems to be avoiding this mistake in Syria, but standing up a new opposition leadership is only the first step. To foster the transition to stable democracies in Syria and other states in the region, the Obama administration will have to provide political and material support to local leaders who may at times rile American sensibilities but who can actually wield power in their home countries.
From Iraq to the Arab Spring, the United States has often erred by promoting exiles who look appealing because of their espousal of Western values, English language skills and media savvy. Yet these same attributes, coupled with a lack of recent experience living in their homelands, make these individuals seem out of touch. Homegrown leaders stand in contrast to those who chose comfortable exile. They may be virtually unknown in the West, but stayed in their homelands and suffered through repression and civil war. Thus, they have greater local legitimacy, deeper ties to indigenous social networks, and keener instincts on local politics due to knowledge of domestic grievances.
In Iraq, for example, U.S. officials initially backed Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who vociferously supported the U.S. intervention and received broad media coverage between 2002 and 2004. But Iraqis quickly repudiated Chalabi, and he failed even to win a seat in the first parliamentary elections in 2005. Similarly, Washington focused attention on members of the al-Hakim family who led the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, supported the U.S. invasion, and returned to Iraq from exile in Iran only after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqis who remained in the country and suffered under Saddam’s brutal rule brushed aside the Hakims because of their close links to the United States and Iran.
In contrast, officials of the U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq dismissed Muqtada al-Sadr—the Shia leader of both the homegrown Sadrist Trend and its military wing, the Jaysh al-Mahdi Army—as a mere nuisance. The Iraqi elite similarly regarded Sadr as an upstart and a rabble-rouser, while U.S. media barely mentioned him until 2004. Yet it was Sadr, rather than Chalabi or the Hakims, who rose to become a power to be reckoned with and remains a key figure in Iraqi politics today.
A similar pattern can be seen in Egypt. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, gained attention from U.S. officials and media as a potential alternative to Mubarak who could unify Egypt’s fractious political opposition. But ElBaradei had spent little time in Egypt over the years, and he failed to muster enough popular support even to run in Egypt’s first competitive presidential elections. Defying the expectations of Westerners as well as many Egyptians, Mohamed Morsi, a former senior member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who gained street credibility due to the time he spent in prison for his opposition to Mubarak, became Egypt’s president in June 2012. As a candidate, Morsi seemed to possess none of the more obvious requisites for political success, and many Egyptians depicted him as uncharismatic. But Morsi’s electoral victory revealed the depth of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and religious network and its grassroots appeal.
Iraq and Egypt are not unique. A lack of staying power in former exiles is evident in other transitional countries. Consider Libya, where former exiled professors Mahmoud Jibril and his successor Abdurrahim el-Keib were both unable to hold the post of prime minister for even a year.
As a result of unwarranted faith in the political viability of exiles, nearly two years after the revolution in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, Washington lacks coherent strategies for deciding which emerging leaders to support and how to help them become more democratic without inflaming Arab nationalism. The derailed transitions in the region continue to radicalize fragmented Arab societies, produce failing states and imperil regional security and U.S. interests. These failures enable acts such as the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
To achieve its long-term goal of stable democracies in the region, it is imperative that the United States engage directly with homegrown leaders and provide economic and security assistance to those who prove acceptable in terms of U.S. values and interests, even if they are less than perfect. Secretary Clinton signaled a shift in this direction by sidelining the ineffective exiles of the Syrian National Council and encouraging the formation of a new entity, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, headed by leaders with greater credibility inside Syria. Mouaz al-Khatib, the head of the National Coalition, is a Sunni preacher and an outspoken supporter of the opposition who was imprisoned before fleeing Syria in the spring of 2012. Likewise, Riad Seif, one of the two vice-presidents of the National Coalition, is a long-time leader of Syria’s pro-democracy movement who has spent time in prison since 2001 for his political opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
These individuals may or may not become the most influential leaders in the new Syria, but whoever ultimately leads Syria will have to have the same kind of local legitimacy that Khatib and Seif enjoy. U.S. policymakers should focus on the rhetoric and agendas of such homegrown opposition leaders and take steps to channel the influence of these leaders toward effective post-conflict reconstruction and democratic governance of their homelands.
This objective can be accomplished only if the United States has skin in the game. The Obama administration should take action and immediately start supplying Syrian fighters with weapons, as well as economic and logistical assistance. This will reinforce the new opposition’s reputation for being able to deliver for the Syrian people, enable a counterweight to the Islamist radicals who have grown into an increasingly powerful force in Syria in the absence of tangible Western aid to moderates, and provide negotiating leverage with those Alawites who have become weary of Assad’s disastrous policies.
To maintain a consistent policy, it is important to realize that providing support to leaders with local legitimacy will require patience and some degree of tolerance for occasional acts or statements by these leaders that will rub Americans the wrong way. Part of what makes these leaders appealing to their domestic audiences is the fact that they do not always use the language or invoke the symbols that resonate in Western democracies.
The Arab uprisings have unleashed anti-Americanism, and among some in the Arab world U.S. economic and security assistance has become a source of controversy. Local publics often perceive Western aid as interference in their internal affairs or attempts to thwart their struggles against dictators. This potential for popular backlash has contributed to Western reluctance to provide aid that could bolster civil society in Libya, prevent further economic decline in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia, or resolve the military stalemate in Syria.
Still, the United States and its European allies must reach out to the local movements taking the first steps toward democratization and provide the resources and expertise necessary for cultivating reform, institutions and democracy. In dealing with already formed governments, such as in Egypt and Tunisia, Western governments should seek to replace the old client-proxy relations with transparent partnerships to avoid infringing on the partner’s sovereignty and further damaging the West’s credibility in the eyes of the Arab public.
In all cases, it will be crucial to keep local partners accountable. The leaders of the newly formed National Coalition are pleading for assistance from the international community and emphasizing that the aid should come without any strings attached. Yet accounts of atrocities and criminal acts committed by the Syrian rebels have become frequent, and what originally started as civilian resistance has evolved into a fractured militarized force with radical Salafi splinters. Acts such as the summary execution of disarmed fighters are not only contrary to American values, but also counterproductive to the cause of the Syrian opposition. The rebels’ indiscriminate violence and criminal behavior only encourage Assad’s supporters to fight to the death and alienate ordinary civilians. As the international community prepares to work with the National Coalition, it must make its economic and security assistance conditional on Syrian leaders’ unequivocal commitment to democratic governance and human rights.
Irena L. Sargsyan is a research analyst at the Brookings Institution and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of government at Georgetown University. Andrew Bennett is a professor in the department of government at Georgetown University.