How Syrian National Council Fell From Rebel Darling to Outcast

Article Summary
One year on from the establishment of the Syrian National Council, Tarek el-Abd examines the group’s missteps and asks why it has struggled to stay true to its founding principle of protecting the people’s peaceful revolution.

It has been exactly one year since the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was formed to represent the political arm of the popular uprising in Syria and lead it, but the winds did not blow as the body had wished.

The SNC has not achieved any significant results. It has not corrected any defect in the course of the movement. It stood behind the public, repeated their demands and even added some, with a strange insistence on being the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.

Worst of all, it only held meetings and delivered speeches, which were not of benefit to anyone. This prompted dozens of opposition figures to withdraw from the council.

The local coordination committees announced at the beginning of the summer that they were freezing their SNC membership, leading to a series of crises inside the newborn entity and a gradual loss of public support — or rather a loss of the world’s confidence on several occasions.

Also read

Forced birth and questions from the public

As the Syrian popular uprising continued, it became necessary to establish a political entity that included all opposition groups and worked to provide a clear and accurate picture of the Syrian situation. A series of conferences were held in Damascus, Istanbul and Doha, bringing together dozens of opposition figures who tried to found a organization capable of leading and guiding the popular movement away from any flaws which would lead to violence, sectarianism or foreign intervention.

Perhaps the most famous meeting was the one called for by Azmi Bishara in early August of last year in Doha, setting the stage for serious efforts to form a council to carry out these tasks.

Early in September 2011, the first political entity representing the opposition, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), came together in Damascus. This body attended another meeting in the Qatari capital with the rest of the opposition groups working abroad in an attempt to unite the opposition.

Syrians witnessed the birth of another organization in Istanbul, which was the SNC. This group included political forces such as those behind the Damascus Declaration, communists, liberal figures and local coordination committees. However, its backbone was the Muslim Brotherhood, both in its executive office and its administration.

Remarkably, the NCC announced at that stage that it would not join the ranks of the SNC, whose birth was accompanied by a campaign to damage the NCC.

The SNC considered the NCC to be backed by the regime and unrepresentative of the public. They crowned this campaign with demonstrations under the slogan: “The Syrian National Council represents me.”

The SNC gave a speech in which it celebrated the peaceful Syrian revolution, stressing the importance of peaceful resistance and the need to protect civilians without resorting to foreign military intervention. This was repeated in the speeches and interviews of various SNC members, who confirmed that they did not strive to hold any office after the fall of the regime.

However, soon after, problems began to surface. For one, the SNC developed a tendency toward militarization. For another, the council has repeatedly renewed the mandate of its chief, Burhan Ghalioun, ever since the SNC was formed last June.

These were coupled with questions regarding the council's private funding and the fate of the funds that several countries said they offered to aid the Syrian opposition or Syrian refugees abroad. The need for such clarification seems obvious given the dire situation of refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, alongside a lack of any clear accounting on the part of the council.

SNC and the public: an era of rivalries

The SNC keeps announcing that it is the legitimate representative of the Syrian public, ignoring any demands advanced by this rebellious public. The SNC has only repeated the public’s demands, and added a few of its own, without demonstrating that it is part of the leadership of this popular uprising.

The SNC began based on the principle of protecting civilians. It repeated the public’s demands for an air embargo and buffer zone. It celebrated the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), without — at least in the early stages — the slightest attempt to regulate the militarization of the conflict or eliminate the arms chaos.

This was before the NCC created a liaison office with the FSA commander in Turkey, Riad Asaad, failing to notice that the latter had no authority over any armed insurgency inside Syria.

Matters got even worse with the formation of the SNC’s military council under the command of Mustafa al-Sheikh, followed by the establishment of the joint command and finally the “national army,” which led to a crisis resulting from the multitude of commands — not to mention the dozens of independent brigades that are not affiliated with any of the previously mentioned four entities.

The SNC did not object to any of this occurring and continued, through its communiqués, to encourage the arming of militants and the transfer of arms despite the fact that dozens of countries expressed their unwillingness to arm the opposition as long as it was still rife with divisions and included extremist groups with close ties to al-Qaeda.

The SNC went so far as to say, right before the “Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last February, that military intervention was the only solution to end the Syrian crisis.This statement contrasted with the opinion of internal movements whose rivalries had, in turn, intensified to unprecedented levels.

This coincided with the disregard of many of the proposals presented by local activists, which pushed the Local Coordination Committees to suspend their membership in the SNC as a result of the widening schism between them and the SNC’s executive office. The latter seemed entirely absent when it came to aiding or supplying the displaced with the necessities for a decent life, in the areas controlled by the opposition or among the refugees themselves.

This problem was also apparent in matters relating to the role of minorities in the popular movement, whereby the Kurdish issue did not seem to garner any meaningful interest. This came at a time when Kurdish activists had strongly attacked the SNC’s stance and its position that minimized the importance of the Kurdish role in a move that — in some people’s opinions — aimed to placate the Turks.

Relationship with other factions of the opposition: between disavowal and disregard

Since its inception, the SNC has not had good relations with the other factions within the opposition. Its insistence that it be considered the sole representative was accompanied by its insistence that other opposition movements did not represent the people. It went so far as to claim that they were created by the regime.

This stance went hand in hand with a media and Internet campaign that discredited all other opposition figures. Thus, some members of the SNC insisted on claiming that the NCC did not represent the people. This move was accompanied by a campaign, waged by a number of activists and social-networking websites, to brand NCC members as traitors.

This campaign reached the point where some activists physically assaulted members of the committee who attended the Arab League meeting last November, despite that fact that the SNC’s president at the time, Burhan Ghalioun, offered an apology and condemned such behavior.

Despite the SNC’s insistence on the legitimacy of its representation, it entered into negotiations with the NCC, resulting in an agreement on many principles that specify the goals of the opposition movement and the mechanism by which said opposition must function. But the agreement lasted only 24 hours, collapsing as a result of the unprecedented attack on it waged by members of the SNC and street activists, leading to the failure of many attempts to unify the opposition.

It should be noted in this context that the SNC believes that the attempt to unify the opposition would have been successful if only different factions and movements had agreed to fall under its banner and work with it, something that was unacceptable to many factions.

The situation was further exacerbated by the resignation of many prominent figures from the council itself, such as Walid al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, Haitham al-Maleh, Basma Kodmani and Moutih al-Batin.

Opposition members who attended the Cairo conference also complained that the SNC had objected to the formation of committees tasked with following up on the decisions of the conference, only to reverse course and accept their formation while excluding the NCC because its stance — involving a truce with the regime — fell contrary to the conference’s decisions.

This exclusion was not specific to the NCC but also touched various opposition movements, even some outside Syria, and even those whose position was similar to that of the SNC. This move and other similar steps clearly expose the SNC’s refusal to deal with other opposition movements unless they fall completely under its banner.

Relationship with international powers and performance in the media

Those who follow the SNC’s relationship with Arab and Western countries have probably noticed that the latter’s view changed from enthusiasm to aloofness, then disregard and finally to a search for alternatives. For despite the council’s flying visits to dozens of countries, including Russia and China, and its attendance of numerous conferences on Syria, it failed to acquire any recognition apart from Libya.

Add to that France’s eagerness to form a transitional government, which it proposed to the leaders of the council, who, in turn, failed to garner any meaningful Arab or international support for this move, or a change in the stance of the countries that supported the regime.

The SNC even went one step further and accused the countries that back the regime — such as Russia, China and Iran — of being part of the problem.

The council neglected to acknowledge all of the regional and international initiatives that called for the adoption of a political solution. The council prematurely announced the failure of the Arab initiative and Kofi Annan’s plan.

Furthermore, its members committed a grave error when they unleashed a ferocious attack on the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, as result of a statement in which he declared that it was premature to discuss Assad’s departure, which turned out to be inaccurate.

Add to that the ongoing confusion evident in its press releases, such as when the SNC declared that it would accept a regime led by elements of the current regime, only to deny that later on. Moreover, it announced that defectors from the current regime would not be given a role to play in any future regime because they had not supported the revolution from its onset, as they put it.

This is not to mention the sometimes glaringly contradictory statements made by council members.

All these factors, and the inability to achieve any progress in unifying the political opposition, drove many countries to reopen channels of communication with other opposition factions.

The resulting outcome was the formation of an opposition political entity replete with contrary influences that continues to echo the public’s sentiments and deals with its opposition comrades through an exclusionary mentality.

All the while, it incessantly asks that the revolution be supplied with arms without trying seriously to find solutions that would avert the country being transformed into a theater for jihad or regional confrontation, while at the same time considering itself qualified to lead the future Syria.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:

  • The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
  • Archived articles
  • Exclusive events
  • The Week in Review
  • Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly
Found in: syrian opposition, syrian crackdown, syrian national council, syrian
Next for you

The website uses cookies and similar technologies to track browsing behavior for adapting the website to the user, for delivering our services, for market research, and for advertising. Detailed information, including the right to withdraw consent, can be found in our Privacy Policy. To view our Privacy Policy in full, click here. By using our site, you agree to these terms.