As Syria’s political opposition looks to repair divisions within its ranks ahead of a coming meeting of the Friends of Syria in İstanbul, the future composition and power of the opposition’s largest council have become an open question, say experts and members of the opposition.
“The international community has thought of an opposition put together into one organized group, but this isn’t a very realistic vision,” said Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer and associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “It’s a tremendously unfair expectation; instead the future lies with smaller groups coming together and coordinating with each other.”
Last week saw a major blow to the largest political coalition of opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as a five members left the group, citing frustrations over its progress and leadership.
Among them were Haitham al-Maleh and Kamal al-Labwani, two of the country’s most ardent and widely known dissidents. Their popularity among grassroots opposition groups provided a major boost in credibility to an SNC largely composed of exiled leaders, and their departure was seen as a signal that the SNC still has major problems in its leadership and does not represent the country’s grassroots opposition movement.
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman last week, Maleh said that the leadership of the council had failed to “treat the rest of the council democratically,” citing present SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun as a leader out of touch with the broader needs of the opposition. At a time when the group’s leadership should be working to adopt the views of a wide community of dissidents, Maleh said, Ghalioun did not discuss the content of a speech before the Friends of Syria group earlier in February with other members of the SNC, nor has the leader allegedly informed members of the SNC prior to major meetings between himself and state officials from France, Turkey and the United States. “The group is not a council; it is run like the Baath party,” Maleh told Sunday’s Zaman. The similarly frustrated Kamal al-Labwani voiced similar reasons for his defection to the press last week, and repeated the oft heard call that the moderate Islamist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood dominates the SNC to the detriment of opposition groups, which are fearful of the group’s plans for a post-Assad Syria. The prominent defections and the subsequent fear that the political opposition may be crumbling earned a statement from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last week in which he said that the Friends of Syria group could continue to look towards the council as the main opposition group and would work to “strengthen the [SNC] social base.”
Yet according to Chatham House’s Allaf, the future of the Syrian opposition may not be in a single coalition but in a group of diverse parties who coordinate with each other. “There has been a major push to create an opposition group which is the ‘only real representative’ of the opposition in Syria. When major opposition personalities like al-Labwani and al-Maleh joined the group, it looked like that could be done. But after their defection, there’s less likelihood that a single opposition group will emerge to represent all opinions. But the misconception is that this is somehow a problem which the SNC must solve by getting all members back into its fold. The SNC will continue to exist, but the way forward is through smaller bodies that are going to coordinate with each other and the SNC,” Allaf said. Indeed, Allaf’s prediction is supported by the case of prominent member of the Syrian opposition and National Organization for Human Rights head Ammar al-Qurabi, who left the SNC in late February. Qurabi announced upon his resignation that he was creating a new coalition of smaller opposition groups that had hesitated to join the SNC. Qurabi instead announced a new coalition of his own party, the liberal National Movement for Change, which has partnered with the Liberation and Construction Block, led by influential tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir; the Islamist Movement for the Fatherland; the Turkmen National Bloc and the Kurdish Movement for a New Life. The groups, Qurabi said at the time, had agreed on the necessity of a united political front against Assad and pledged to support the SNC in its aims of building international support to isolate Assad and provide desperately needed foreign assistance.
“The SNC was largely coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood when it was created, and it strove to get voices on board, but key opposition members joined as individuals and weren’t able to exercise their own views in the council. We will see more groups and parties forming and then coordinating with, rather than being absorbed into, the Syrian National Council,” said Allaf. “It represents the diverse reality of all the people seeking change in Syria. It will give people a voice, rather than the SNC, where people feared the power of the top leadership.” It remains unclear how a more dispersed political opposition might develop and function, but the opposition may be limited to such a state as the country’s long-repressed opposition voices work to forge parties to protect their specific interests. If the future of Syria’s political opposition does indeed lie in smaller groups, they will nonetheless need to learn how to voice their common interests soon, lest they be swept away in the growing violence between the regime and an increasingly independent armed opposition.