Any Syrian official can defect if he wishes to. But for those who defect late, there is no room for them in any new Syrian transitional government. The president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Abdulbaset Sieda, welcomes any new defector in the interim government, which, he said to As-Safir, is about to be formed. But he said that “Manaf Tlass and Riad Hijab cannot be part of the interim government because they were not with the revolution when it started.”
With the end of the French presidential electoral season, the SNC returned to the forefront of the French media. French President Francois Hollande, whom the Syrian opposition has accused of neglecting the Syrian issue, returned to the Elysee Palace and met with a number of SNC leaders in front of the cameras to ease the political pressure on him with regard to an issue he cannot ignore. During the campaign, the right-wing opposition and former president Nicolas Sarkozy forced Hollande to focus on domestic issues. But he cannot ignore the Syrian issue because it enjoys widespread sympathy among the French public.
Sources close to the French president say that talk of a no-fly zone does not mean that there is a real intention to impose it. The sources said that President Hollande will not act before the US presidential elections, and that he will not take any action with regard to Syria that may bother President Barack Obama during his campaign. In addition, there is no real French desire to go beyond logistically supporting the Syrian opposition. Is the SNC no longer supported by the West? Sieda asserts that “the SNC is still the largest umbrella organization for the Syrian opposition.”
The SNC took note of the West’s demand that more room inside the SNC be granted for the Syrian military opposition. The French government has always asked the SNC to include more Christians and Alawites, and now it is requesting that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) be represented as well. But does the SNC have any authority over the Syrian military councils? “Yes,” said Abdulbaset Sieda, “the SNC has enough authority over the Syrian military councils to include them in the interim government and the SNC is working to develop these relationships ... And the SNC will move to Syria when it becomes safe to do so.”
But even if the SNC forms an interim government before the Friends of Syria conference in Morocco in September, it will not be the only Syrian government on the ground. There is Mohammad Nawfal Dawalibi’s government in exile. Basma al-Qadamani, who is no longer a part of the SNC, is also working on a transitional government under Riad Seif. Haitham Maleh assumes that he has a mandate from the Syrian National Coalition to form a transitional government headquartered in Cairo. Burhan Ghalioun is proposing the formation of a committee of 15 opposition figures, including Michel Kilo and Aref Dalila, that would oversee the formation of a transitional government.
Within the SNC, there are still differences over who will be the members of the follow-up committee that will meet on August 27 and 28 with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi to discuss the transitional phase and the interim government. There is pressure from the Democratic People’s Party and the Muslim Brotherhood to monopolize the government’s formation “because we have more revolutionary legitimacy than any other political party,” according to a Syrian dissident.
There is another transitional government whose members are being proposed by the domestic leadership of the FSA. It is being supervised by Col. Qassem Saad Eddin in Rastan. Sieda says that these declarations are being made haphazardly and that rushing to take certain actions does not serve the national cause. It is likely that the talk about an interim government and the rush to form it is due to a Western diplomatic trend to bypass the SNC and grant the Syrian military opposition inside Syria a bigger representative role after the West had despaired of unifying the political opposition. The purpose of that would be to unify the military opposition, which holds the actual power on the ground, and to coordinate the work of the opposition’s military councils and combat units.
American and British diplomats have been visiting the Turkish-Syrian border ever since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit there two weeks ago. They are trying to identify the Syrian military groups they can talk to and have participate in the political process, away from the SNC.
But the Westerners may end up facing the same difficulties with the armed opposition. A Syrian opposition member in Paris said that Maj. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh — the head of the Joint Command of the Supreme Military Council and the FSA — does not think that unifying the armed opposition groups can be easily achieved. Sheikh has toured Idlib and Aleppo, where he met with the armed groups’ leaders, before returning to his headquarters in Antakya.
The source said that Sheikh was pessimistic about unifying the FSA and converting it into a nucleus for a Syrian National Army. Sheikh noted that there is no coordination between the military units, each of which is taking actions without orders from the joint command. This is negatively affecting combat operations and causing the armed opposition substantial losses.
Sheikh complained about Col. Riad Assaad’s complete subordination to the Turks and about the independent military actions taken by the armed groups, which are under the direct orders of those funding them. He also complained about the al-Qaeda and Salafist penetration of these armed groups and the presence of foreign fighters that are difficult to manage.
Sieda downplayed the significance of the Jihadist current, saying, “These groups are not part of the opposition and they have not become a popular movement. They are limited to a few individuals. Syrian society is moderate by nature, but because the people felt abandoned by the international community they have agreed to accept help from anyone. The longer the crisis drags on, the stronger the extremist currents will get.”
In addition to the Jihadist groups, there is the growing phenomenon of direct financing of armed groups and the emergence of groups that only care about benefiting from the money pouring in from the Gulf countries. French, British and US diplomats are pressuring Syrian, Qatari and Saudi Arabian financiers to unify their funding through a joint “tap” that will make administering and controlling the armed groups easier, would force them to coordinate with each other and prevent advanced weapons from reaching groups that do not adhere to Western strategy.
There are Islamist groups that are not participating in combat operations but are simply “awaiting the post-Assad phase, during which [they intend to] play a pivotal role, and perhaps a confrontational role,” according to a Syrian dissident.
A few weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood’s foreign-relations official Malham al-Douroubi revealed the existence of groups in northern Syria operating under Muslim Brotherhood orders. A prominent Syrian dissident said, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy in the north is to organize themselves and prepare combat battalions and develop them without getting involved in major battles, while prodding other forces to fight those battles. The Muslim Brotherhood has established political and military structures similar to that of the Syrian government. Thanks to Turkish security assistance, they now have accurate and complete information about Syria’s political and governmental structure, which the Turks have closely known through the Supreme Syrian-Turkish Ministerial Council.”
A year and a half after the outbreak of fighting, the Syrian regime is still resisting. Several deadlines predicting its demise have come and gone. According to Sieda, “The regime is living through its final phase, a phase that could take weeks or months because of interactions on the ground ... and also because of the massive aid it is receiving from Russia and Iran. But the regime has lost all legitimacy in front of the world, even though it has not physically collapsed.”
With whom in the regime would he accept to have a dialogue? Sieda answered, “We refuse to talk to those with blood on their hands. As for the rest, whether in the Baath Party, the government or other institutions, they can play a role in Syria’s future. There is no problem with them.”