‘Failure’ of Tunisian Conference Leaves Syrian National Council Shaken

Article Summary
Mohammed Ballout contends that the foreign-based opposition movements grouped within the Syrian National Council have suffered a bitter defeat in Tunis, with the failure of conference participants to agree on either concrete intervention in the Syrian crisis or formal recognition of the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has been shaken by the failure of the Friends of Syria conference to achieve even the minimum requirements for realizing the aspirations of the Syrian people, said SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun. The council did not get a clear commitment from conference participants for the adoption of a military intervention, nor did it secure any other kind of minimal requirement that the Syrian regime to open humanitarian channels for aid convoys to besieged cities. Moreover, conference attendants did not issue any definitive statement proclaiming the SNC the sole representative of either the Syrian people or the opposition.

The deep divisions within the SNC — the primary representative of the broadest spectrum of the Syrian opposition abroad — are highlighted by the failure of the Tunisian conference. Reactions have varied with respect to the structure of the SNC. In fact, some members chose to resign, while others preferred to stay, but within new formations.

For his part, lawyer Najati Tayyara sent his resignation letter to the Executive Office, "because [the council] did not achieve any tangible progress in stopping the bloodbath inflicted on our Syrian people. Moreover, the opposition, in all its parties, was not up to the level of the occasion and neither I nor the SNC have managed to discourage the UAE from expelling Syrian citizens for holding anti-regime demonstrations [at their country's consulate in Dubai].”  A resignation letter sent by seven members lashed out at the Chairman, Burhan Ghalioun, for his management style. The letter was signed by Shadi Junaid, Khaled Saleh, Ammar Abu Khitab, Akram Assaf, Ahmad Shaker and Riad El-Hassan.

In Tunisia, 19 SNC members have announced the formation of the Syria Working Group and the establishment of offices in parallel to the council's institutions. These offices are in charge of public and foreign relations as well as of supply, media, financial and legal issues, not to mention the protection of civilians. However, the group preferred to remain part of the council. Its significance lies in the fact that it includes the opposition leader Haitham al-Maleh, a member of the Executive Office. It also includes Imad El-Din Rashid, another member of the Executive Office (which consists of 10 members). The announcement of the formation of the group was signed by Munther Majos, Jabr al-Shoufi, Hassan Bali, Jean Antar, Walid al-Bunni (Foreign Affairs Chief for the SNC), Kamal al-Labwani, Fawaz Tello, Brigadier Hossam el-Din Awak, Anas al-Abda, Adib Shishakli, Hashim Sultan, Basil al-Kuaifi, Samir Sattouf, Abdullah Tamer El-Melhem, Subhi Qtrameez, Samir Mattar and Ahmad al-Jubouri.

The statement of the new group said that it was formed after "months passed without the council being able to achieve satisfactory results, activate its executive offices or adopt the demands of the rebels within [Syria].” The group pledged to work "on overthrowing the regime by all available means, including supporting the Free [Syrian] Army, which carries the greatest burden during this period.”

In the last few hours, the proposal to hold a meeting of the conference leadership on Monday, advanced by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has failed, because Tunisia has declined to host such a meeting. This group consists of six Arab countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco) and four Western countries (France, Britain, the United States, Germany and Turkey), and the proposal aims to resume the debate on the formation of a UN-Arab force. It is noteworthy that this proposal was only a part of the list of suggestions at the request of the Arab League. The group agreed to resume discussion on the appropriate means to be adopted in order to spread these forces, and the meeting aims to issue a more powerful closing statement than the statement issued under the title ‘presidential conclusions,’ which simply comprises the proposals that have been advanced during the Tunisia conference.

In Tunisia — and for the first time since the beginning of the crisis — Saudi Arabia has clearly intensified its rhetoric against the Syrian regime, going beyond Qatar, which had been leading the Arab attack on the Assad regime under the umbrella of the Arab League. The SNC, thanks to the harsh tone adopted by Saudi Arabia at the conference, got considerable verbal consolation to compensate for the absence of any concrete decisions and for the failure to seriously consider the military options in all forms, ranging from safe areas to an air embargo or direct Arab-UN intervention.

The conference was intended to close on the presidential conclusions, a 17-paragraph summary of demands that the SNC deemed unsatisfactory. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated that the Syrian regime has turned into an occupation force in its own country, adding that "arming the opposition is an excellent idea.”

Accommodating the Saudi wrath, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced to turn on her heel to hold a press conference in which she went beyond the Saudi position and called on the Syrian army to rebel, saying that President Bashar al-Assad is making a mistake in ignoring the people and that his days in power are numbered.

It seems that in Tunisia, many elements emerged to put the military option temporarily on hold. An Arab diplomat said that Americans are suspicious about some of the armed wings of the Syrian opposition. He said that Arab observers have back brought from the sites they visited tapes showing members of Free Syrian Army torturing and killing regime loyalists.

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal said that Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, had compiled a list of names of people who could face investigation for crimes against humanity. The paper says that the list includes the names of Syrian government and military officials who should be referred to the International Court of Justice. Moreover, the list includes members of the Free Syria Army accused of kidnapping, torture and murder.

The British delegation to the conference did not clarify its position on the military option, while the paper they submitted to the conference did not include any support for this option. The British delegation explained Whitehall’s position to reporters as calling for a political solution and peaceful dialogue, especially given that the death toll has exceeded 7,000 people. The British government supports sending an Arab or Islamic force to Syria, and distances itself from the option of sending any Western forces to Syria.

A Syrian source from the opposition said that there was no real Arab consensus on a proposal to send Arab and/or UN troops. According to the source, the Egyptians who met with opposition members not belonging to the National Council have expressed their rejection of any non-Arab intervention in Syria, which would turn Syria into an arena for conflict between regional powers, an option Egyptians reject. The source said that Moroccan officials demanded to know whether the opposition supports sending Moroccan troops to Syria, and whether a force of 5,000 Moroccan soldiers would be sufficient for the protection of humanitarian corridors to cities besieged by the Syrian army.

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