x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A new voice for Syrians offers unity in crisis

Syria's new grouping of opposition forces appears to be a step in the necessary direction. But nothing will be easy.

A month ago, the Syrian uprising against the regime of president Bashar Al Assad appeared to be drifting towards stalemate. Rifts among the opposition had formed along ideological and political lines, and over whether to call for foreign intervention.

Such bumps can be fatal to a movement penned in by a violent autocrat, yet unable to define its own plan for the country's future.

But on Monday, a unifying front for the uprising was formed in Istanbul. It is neither the first time such an announcement has been made nor is it fully representative of all Syrians. And yet it is safe to say that this incarnation is more representative than previous ones, and offers the beginnings of an alternative to the status quo.

The formation of the Syrian National Council is evidence that opposition figures have begun to work together and discuss differences. Highly respected opposition figures, like the Paris Sorbonne political sociology professor Burhan Ghalioun, count themselves as members, as do political blocs like the Damascus Declaration of 2005.

That leaders of ethnic and religious minorities, along with tribal confederations, have also pledged support is indeed a welcome change.

Forming the council - a daunting challenge in its own right - may prove easier than the task that awaits it. Indeed, it is not at all clear how this body will win the support of a majority of Syrians while gaining the support and recognition of foreign governments. If questions about allegiance, transparency and motives seep into this Syrian project as it did the opposition in Libya, the result will be more of the same.

It is, however, a new option in a crisis that has presented few. Blood will still be spilled, protests violently put down and the threat of a sectarian rift deepens. But without a recognisable and legitimate voice speaking on behalf of those opposed to the Assad regime, the outcome of this struggle would already be a forgone conclusion.

World leaders can do much to ensure it isn't. Regime officials will no doubt seek to undermine the body's credibility. The international community, by working with the council and offering vocal support, can ensure that politics rather than violence remains at the centre of calls for change.

Religious or sectarian differences aside, many Syrians are united in their desire to see Mr Al Assad go, but concerned about a lack of alternatives. The seed of one has been planted in Istanbul. Now is the time to nurture it.