Syria's Opposition Takes Form

By: 
Steven Heydemann

There is little doubt the creation of a unified front among the various dissident groups in Syria is a positive development for their cause. But it remains unclear if it reflects a true "coalescing" of all the different rebel voices, or if the group can grow into an effective political force capable of being seen as a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

October 6, 2011

There is little doubt the creation of a unified front among the various dissident groups in Syria is a positive development for their cause. But it remains unclear if it reflects a true "coalescing" of all the different rebel voices, or if the group can grow into an effective political force capable of being seen as a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

What effect will it have?

The formation of an inclusive Syrian National Council will improve coordination among a Syrian opposition that had struggled for months to overcome internal divisions. It will assist the internal opposition in communicating its views and priorities to the international community. Perhaps most important, the emergence of the SNC finally provides a unified framework through which the Syrian opposition can engage with the international community. For months, the opposition has been under pressure from the U.S. and other governments to develop the governance structures that would demonstrate its viability as an alternative to the Assad regime, and give the international community a credible partner in its efforts to support a democratic transition in Syria. However, while the SNC represents a step forward, it reflects some important compromises that were essential in pulling Syria's diverse opposition together. And that may constrain its capacity to provide a unified alternative to the Assad regime.

Back to Top

How is the SNC comprised?

The SNC is less a council than a coalition of seven major groupings within the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration, the internal Local Coordinating Committees, members of an earlier version of the SNC, as well as Kurdish and other minority groups within the opposition. Leadership of the SNC will, in part, rotate among the leaders of each of these seven factions. This raises some important questions about how the SNC will reach decisions, whether it is consolidating divisions among the opposition rather than continuing to work to overcome them, and how it will establish itself as a fully representative body. For now, many Syrian supporters of the uprising are giving the SNC the benefit of the doubt, and are prepared to support it while it finds its feet. But there are very real possibilities for the issues that its current form leaves unaddressed to come back to haunt it over time. And, its status as a coalition rather than a true council of the opposition may lead the international community to delay recognition of the SNC, at least for the time being.

Back to Top

Now that it’s been created, what does the SNC need to do to speak effectively with one voice?

The SNC will need to develop procedures and processes for developing consensus among the seven core blocs that define its leadership. In the negotiations over the formation of the SNC, the main blocs were able to reach agreement on a number of key issues. These include an insistence on regime change -- in other words, rejection of any solution that leaves the Assad regime in power in some form; a commitment to peaceful means of resistance and a rejection of militarization; and a commitment to an inclusive, democratic Syria. This latter position has been accepted even by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a welcome sign that it does not seek to impose an Islamic state on Syria. So even if differences remain among opposition groupings on some issues, the SNC has coalesced different rebel voices on a number of critical opposition priorities.

 

Back to Top

Does creation of the SNC make it harder for the Assad regime to ignore the movement?

The Assad regime will continue to reject the legitimacy of any opposition group that challenges its right to rule. Instead, it will continue to affirm its support for a negotiated process of political reform--a commitment that no serious observer of Syrian politics views as credible.

Back to Top

How would you suggest the SNC address the rifts inherent in its formation?

The formation of the SNC was originally announced several weeks ago. At that time, its leadership--based on the release of a partial list of names of SNC members--was seen to be heavily Islamist. Minorities and women, as well as Syrian secularists, were underrepresented. As a result a number of influential opposition factions were leery of extending their support to this version of the SNC. "Dissident" opposition leaders launched a campaign to reform the SNC and address its shortcomings. The SNC that was announced, for the second time, Oct. 2 reflected the relative success of the opposition in re-framing the goals and priorities of the council, and bringing into it a more diverse and inclusive membership. This was a significant success. Yet in accepting a number of compromises in the name of inclusion and diversity, the SNC was not able to integrate opposition groupings under one fully unified governance structure. Instead, it has organized itself along factional lines, assigning a share of membership in the leadership bodies of the SNC to representatives of various power blocs within the opposition. This was a pragmatic and perhaps necessary step. It may pave the way for a more integrated opposition in the future. For now, however, it is a compromise outcome that could also be subject to significant strains and tensions in the event that the blocs represented in the SNC encounter issues on which they are unable to reach agreement.

Back to Top

Explore Further

October 6, 2011
Issue Areas: 
Countries: