Syrian Opposition Seeks An Edge Ahead of Geneva II

The Syrian opposition has tried to reduce its divisions ahead of the Geneva II conference.

al-monitor Demonstrators shout Islamic slogans and wave Syrian opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, May 24, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

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syrian, russian, internationalization of the syrian crisis, geneva, assad

Jun 10, 2013

International efforts for a political settlement in Syria have intensified recently. This happened after the Friends of Syria and the Friends of Bashar al-Assad turned the Syrian revolution into a conflict similar to the one at the beginning of the 20th century between Russia and the countries of the Western alliance, over who would take over the Ottoman Empire’s former territory.

The new factor in the struggle over Syria is the involvement of Iran, with its ideological project, as well as Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of most Russian influence in the Middle East. Russia today wants to maintain control of its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous, regardless of the wishes of the oppressed Syrian people and their revolution.

But a political settlement for the Syrian conflict requires that the Syrian opposition be adequately represented in the Geneva II conference. This requires an understanding of the “map” of the Syrian political opposition as well as its proposals.

Since it was formed, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), which is headed by Hassan Abdel Azim, has had modest demands. The NCC can be considered to be on Russia’s side. Russia believes that Assad remaining in power is necessary for its Middle East interests and for its foothold in the Mediterranean.

The NCC has stayed within Russian and Iranian parameters. The NCC’s members are nationalist, Nasserite and leftist remnants who cling to the slogan of “resistance to imperialist and Zionist projects.”

The NCC has ignored officers and soldiers who refused to fire on civilians and has sent delegations to Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, thus placing itself in the “Friends of Assad” camp. The NCC did not raise the slogan of overthrowing the regime except to save face. The group’s representative abroad, Haytham Manna, criticizes the Free Syrian Army (FSA). On more than one occasion, he described it as armed gangs, terrorists and Salafists. He tried to use Gandhian slogans that are inconsistent with his political character. He made proposals that were completely in line with Russian, Iranian, and Chinese proposals, very similar to what Assad wants.

On the other side of the Syrian opposition, there is the Syrian National Council (SNC), which adopted the objectives of the revolution and its slogans but was unable to provide the revolution with a political umbrella or with adequate leadership that would draw a road map to overthrow the regime and build a new Syria.

That was partly why the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed. It was intended to be a substitute for the SNC but it ended up being similar to it. Some would even say that the National Coalition is a carbon copy of the SNC.

Today, some say that the SNC controls the National Coalition by means of the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Action bloc, and Secretary-General Mustafa Sabbagh’s bloc, which has regional support. Also in the coalition are the remnants of the Damascus Declaration, represented by temporary coalition leader George Sabra, whom some call “Mohammad Sabra.” Liberal and democratic figures, most notably Riad Seif and Suheir al-Atassi, don’t have much influence in the National Coalition.

The map of the Syrian political opposition is not limited to just the National Coalition and the SNC. It also includes the Democratic Forum led by Michel Kilo, the National Change Current led by Ammar Qarbi, the National Democratic Alliance and organizations and parties inside and outside Syria. But the National Coalition and the SNC are the opposition’s main forces.

Kurdish representation has remained outside the known Syrian opposition forces. The Kurdish National Council, which is made up of small Kurdish parties, has remained outside the SNC and the National Coalition. The Supreme Kurdish Council was formed due to pressure from the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan. There is also the so-called Council of the People of Western Kurdistan, which is controlled by the PKK’s political arm the National Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Saleh Muslim Mohammed.

The need to unite and coordinate the efforts of the democratic forces in the Syrian opposition resulted in the formation of the Union of Syrian Democrats, which held a preparatory meeting in Cairo on May 11-12. The meeting was attended by more than 250 people, representing both independent and partisan figures. The formation of the Union of Syrian Democrats resulted in the National Coalition’s expansion. The coalition’s general committee added eight members from a list of 22 names. Subsequent pressure resulted in the addition of 43 members, which include the 14 who remained from the 22-member list, 14 members from the revolutionary movement (one member for each governorate), and 15 members chosen by the FSA. So the coalition membership was raised from 63 to 114.

The meaning of the National Coalition’s expansion

The expansion of the National Coalition on the eve of Geneva II does not mean increasing the share of liberals or democrats in it. Rather, it means increasing the representation of Syrian political and military forces in the National Coalition, thus allowing it to deal with events while having balanced representation and political programs, which strengthens the coalition in Syria and abroad.

The National Coalition, in its new composition, is better equipped to deal with Geneva II because it is supported by the Union of Syrian Democrats, the revolutionaries, and the FSA. This weakens Russia’s hand because Russia is using the Syrian opposition’s divisions to block the ultimate goal of Geneva II: removing Assad and putting an end to the Syrians’ suffering.

Uniting the Syrian opposition would be a major blow to the Syrian regime and its friends. Even though the regime declared that it will attend Geneva II, it will try to use the help of Russia and Iran to sabotage the conference and prevent it from resulting in producing a transitional government with full authority that will replace the Assad regime and put an end to its tyranny and injustice.

The Syrian regime is famous for its maneuvers and tricks. Russia will undoubtedly help the regime in sabotaging Geneva II because any serious discussion of a transitional phase essentially means getting rid of Assad’s regime. But the regime, supported by Hezbollah as well as Iranian and Iraqi militias, is trying to establish a new reality on the ground to strengthen its negotiating position.

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