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Syrian Opposition: Now's Not the Time to Plan Post-Assad Era

The Syrian opposition in exile is under increasing pressure from international and Arab supporters, as well as forces on the ground, to prepare for life after Assad, writes Hala Kodmani. But opposition forces insist they must first focus on ousting Assad, not to mention the glaring lack of consensus on how to map out the next government.

PARIS — Pressed by its international and Arab supporters to hasten preparations for the post-Assad era, the Syrian opposition in exile is under even greater pressure from dissident forces on the ground. Army defectors are now setting the political agenda — one of all-out war on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. Meanwhile, the political opposition, mostly embodied by the Syrian National Council (SNC), says it is growing tired of Western and Arab calls to map out the next government, insisting that it is not yet in control, not to mention a glaring lack of consensus as to who should sit on it.

Working on post-Assad scenarios while trying to address the urgent needs of a dramatically evolving military and humanitarian situation is a daunting challenge for the Syrian political opposition in exile. In fact, Col. Qassim Saaeddine, the spokesman for the Common Commandment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said it was nothing short of “nonsense.” Speaking from Rastan, near Homs, in the middle of a military offensive by regular army brigades, Saaeddine said that his only message to “the world’s politicians and to our exiled opposition” was: “Provide us with anti-aircraft rockets so we can do as our brave men just did when they destroyed two tanks and one armored vehicle with anti-tank rockets.” Saaeddine said that for the time being the priority is “inflicting as much damage as possible on Bashar forces and increasing the number and rank of defectors.”
Three days after speaking to Al-Monitor, however, Saaeddine went ahead and announced his own transition plan dubbed a “national salvation draft,” which would bring together military and civilian figures.
For the Syrian exiled opposition, the priority is to back the FSA and bring relief to the agonizing civilian population under fire. It is understood as the litmus test for its main body, the SNC. “Large campaigns to collect and organize humanitarian aid for the victims of ferocious attacks and channeling it through revolutionary groups should now be the top priority for the opposition and especially the SNC,” said Rima Fleihan, speaking from Jordan. She is an emerging top figure of the young Syrian opposition. And she was the kingpin of the inclusive meeting of Syrian opposition forces at the beginning of July in Cairo to discuss transition plans. “Coordinating efforts between the political and military components of the Syrian opposition is critical today,” Fleihan said, while reminding the international community that “a significant step in this direction was accomplished in our Cairo meeting which came out with a unified vision for tomorrow’s Syria and a detailed transition plan.” But she insisted, “This is no time to discuss the names and qualities of members of a transitional government.”
Many other leading dissident figures show irritation at Arab and Western calls to the opposition to prepare for the post-Assad era. “We are weary of hearing US spokesmen saying that the days of Assad are numbered or French officials saying that Assad will fall sooner or later,” said George Sabra, a senior spokesman for the SNC in Paris. Friends of the Syrian regime are much more efficient and faithful than the friends of the Syrian people, he added, pointing to Russia’s continuous political and military support for the Assad government. Meanwhile, he said that “even pledges of financial aid to the Syrian population announced in meetings, including the last Friends of Syria conference in Paris [on July 6] are not respected.” Another member of the SNC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed frustration at “European and US rhetorical support.” “They keep giving us lessons and pieces of advice asking us to reassure minorities and to prevent jihadist influence within the FSA as if we were already in charge!”
Recent calls by the Arab League, and France in particular, in favor of a national unity transitional government with “acceptable” figures from the Assad regime have upset Syrian dissidents while threatening new divisions among them, especially as a potentially major actor in the transition entered the scene.
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, the first from Assad’s inner-circle to defect, just made his long-awaited public coming out since he arrived in Paris on July 6. His choice of Saudi Arabia, and its sponsored Al-Arabiya news TV channel and Al-Sharq al-Awsat daily paper, to confirm his defection and his call for Syrian unity behind the revolution in carefully chosen consensual words have perplexed most in the opposition. After being hosted by France and now welcomed with open arms by Saudi Arabia, Tlass’s latest meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotuglu signal at least a strong interest — if not Western support — in his playing a central role in the transition.
While publicly welcoming Tlass to the fold, some dissidents have pointed to his opportunistic stand in “leaving the drowning ship” while others have expressed doubts at his political ability to play an essential role in the post-Assad transition. Not only are military and political opponents to the regime split over Tlass but rifts are also appearing within each group. Gen. Mustapha Cheikh, the Turkey-based head of the FSA military council favors Tlass to lead the next stage, as he trusts his long experience in the Syrian army. Other FSA officers reject him over his past link with the regime. Meanwhile, the SNC executive bureau meeting in Doha this past Thursday rushed to call on Riyad Seif, a long-time Damascus politician, twice detained in the 2000s and the most recently exiled dissident, to head a transitional Syrian government.
But reaching a compromise with former members of the Syrian regime or with those who “don’t have blood on their hands” as advocated by most in the Syrian opposition to preserve the state’s integrity may turn out to be unacceptable to those fighting on the ground. For the time being, the fighters’ uncompromising position applies mostly to the fate of Assad. The Homs Revolutionary Coordination Committees slammed the SNC leaders as “traitors” for accepting the idea of a safe exit for the president as proposed by the Arab League on July 22. To most Syrian rebels, the offer is both disconnected from Syria’s political reality and ignorant of the regime’s nature and way of thinking.
“Now that it is obvious to all Syrians and beyond that the Assad regime will fight for its survival to the end,” said one recently exiled young activist in Paris, who asked to remain anonymous, “any talk about political transition does not answer the question of how it will be ousted.”
Hala Kodmani is a French-Syrian freelance journalist based in Paris.
Editor's note: Hala Kodmani, a free-lance journalist who writes for Libération, Télégramme, L’expressTélérama, Pélerin, Canadian L’actualité and other publications, is also president of Free Syria, which describes itself as a group of "Syrian intellectuals, professionals and students in France and/or French of Syrian origin...established to support the upheaval and the legitimate demands of the Syrian people against a tyrannical and corrupt regime." That affiliation should have been disclosed when the article was first posted. She also served as a media representative of the Arab League from 1982 to 2000. 

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