By Amr al-Azm
Following talks with a number of people who attended the Doha meeting of November 8-11, this is my assessment of the newly formed “National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition”. The coming together of the various Syrian opposition factions to finally strike a deal based on a 12 point agreement that would unify them under the umbrella of a newly created coalition body is remarkable considering the obstacles that had to be overcome. It faced intense opposition by some groups, particularly the SNC, which viewed this as a blatant effort to sideline them. Its members have fought for a leading role in the new group.
The original Riad Seif plan called for a council of 51 seats, a joint supreme military council, a judiciary commission and the formation of a provisional government selected from technocrats.
The new National Coalition that emerged in Doha on Monday ended up comprising of 65 seats. The SNC was earmarked 22 seats, the local administration councils were allocated 14 seats (one for each of the provinces in Syria), national figures were allocated initially 8 seats, eventually rising to 10 seats, with the balance (19 seats) to be distributed amongst the various remaining opposition groups and entities. The new coalition eventually managed late on Monday evening to eventually select Moaz Al-Khatib (a cleric and former imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus) and two deputies (with a third still to be named by the Kurds) who are Riad Seif (both prominent dissidents and activists). A third position, which is until now poorly, understood is that of Secretary General, to be occupied by Mustapha Sabagh (head of the Syrian Business men Group). It is rumoured (by Al-Jazira and others) that the position would carry sweeping powers to rival even those of the head of the coalition Moaz Al-Khatib and seen as a principle demand by the Qataris.
Yet there are few details regarding the structure of the new coalition, or the mechanisms for decision-making within it. Nor is there a timeline for achieving its political goals in place. This all points to a clear lack of strategy and planning on the part of those who put this coalition together and those currently leading it. This in turn raises a number of serious challenges that need to be quickly addressed if this coalition is to have a chance of succeeding and not succumb to the same malaise that afflicted its much vaunted predecessor the SNC which is now reviled and delegitimized by many within the opposition and having lost credibility amongst its chief backers in the international community.
Immediate Challenges: The most immediate challenges are going to be those pertaining to strategic planning as well as transparency and legitimacy. These coupled with an ability to produce quick if not immediate tangible results to satisfy high expectations (often unrealistic) by the opposition.
- The most critical challenge of all is the clear lack of an agenda or any strategy and planning for the next steps by the new coalition and its leadership. This is further exacerbated by the lack of any real political experience at the international and domestic levels by those heading the coalition. This lack of experience and ability to strategize will very quickly affect the organizational and implementation abilities of the coalition. Left unaddressed this could easily lead to major errors, poor performance, mismanagement, dysfunctional decision making processes, ultimately degenerating into stasis and stagnation mirroring what happened to the SNC before them.
- The Doha meeting was expected to also produce a provisional government of technocrats. This did not happen and there are clearly a lot of reservations both within the SNC and the opposition at large for such a proposal. Yet the ability of the coalition to form such provisional technocrat government (relatively smoothly) will be taken as a critical sign by the international community of the measure of stability and maturity that the Syrian opposition has reached (or not!!!)
- The actual number of SNC members versus the officially stated figure of 23. Many of the names that appear on the list are known SNC members or belong to entities already represented in the SNC yet have been given independent seats separate from those belonging to the SNC. Whilst the figures fluctuate due to the fact that some may have already resigned from the SNC, it has been suggested that there are at least 10 names that are not listed with the SNC but are still members or represented within it. These include Riad Seif, Najib Ghadban, Mustapha Sabagh to name but a few. This discrepancy has already been noted by many and whilst there has been no major outcry as yet, that is more likely because people want to give the new coalition a chance. At the first sign of trouble however it will represent a soft underbelly on issues of transparency. Also makes for a poor start.
- The selection of representatives to fill the 14 seats of the Local Administration councils for the provinces is quickly proving to be controversial. Already there are voices being raised from within the provinces in Syria (the real people who are engaged in local administration) that they have not been consulted and that they object to many of those appointed. The selection was always going to be problematic but the lack of a clear and transparent mechanism is a serious problem that will have to be quickly addressed. Already there are accusations (unsubstantiated as yet) of cronyism profiteering and nepotism with the ink not even dry yet.
- There are prominent opposition entities inside and outside Syria such as the NCC (National Coordination Committee) that have yet to join in addition to any new entities or major defections that may emerge in the future for which no clear mechanisms or strategies for their inclusion appear to have been devised.
Suggested Responses: The following suggestions are made to help address the challenges raised above and are listed in order of priority rather than to reflect the above order of the challenges listed above.
- The first and most immediate response should be the bringing in of a team of professional consultants to assist and advise the leadership of the new council particularly on setting a agenda and matters strategy and planning. Ideally this team should have been in place to step in the minute the coalition was formed so that they could heat the ground running. Rapid demonstration of results is critical as there is a golden window right now that should be exploited to the maximum. Any errors will be quickly seized upon magnified and amplified. Its not too late yet but this should be a top priority. (you don’t want a re-run of some of those awkward meetings between Secretary Clinton and the SNC).
- A second priority is the need to quickly form the provisional technocrat government. All efforts should go into encouraging and helping/supporting the formation of this provisional government preferably before the meeting in Marrakesh. Whilst the Arab League and the GCC with perhaps one or two international countries such as France might be will to recognize the new coalition immediately, it is significant that the EU has chosen to be more circumspect opting to wait and see before formally committing. Given the challenges ahead that may be a wise choice.
- It is also critical that the issues of honesty and transparency highlighted above are addressed as quickly as possible. Whilst it is perfectly understandable that a significant amount of negotiations and horse-trading went on during the preliminary meetings prior to the announcements, it is essential that the outcome appears to be as honest and as transparent as possible. The glaring discrepancies mentioned above should not be discounted just because no one has yet objected aggressively. My suggestion is that the list is amended and relabeled to accurately reflect the true proportions. Those who wish to take up their seats in their new designation in the coalition should publicly resign from the SNC explaining why they have chosen to do so. I think if done quickly it will pass without much fuss. Failure to address this issue promptly will result in serious blowback. I sense a head of steam building already particularly from those on the ground inside in the provinces all you will need is a trigger. Also efforts should be made to encourage and, if need be, pressure the coalition to continue to work to be as inclusive as possible, again with a view to avoiding the errors of its predecessors.
In conclusion, this coalition will be given its honeymoon with the opposition in general and the internal opposition in particular. Its predecessor, the SNC, was given a honeymoon after all. But this will not last for long. The poor performance of the SNC and its causes are well known to most people. It will not take them long to conclude that due to the unfortunate overpopulation of SNC members in the new coalition, the virus that struck down the SNC has been transferred to the new coalition and that it is now stricken with the same malaise much to the embarrassment of all.
Amr Al Azm is an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.