x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Bullets and empty promises push Syrians to the brink

The people who should be providing Syria with new leadership are instead continuing to bicker and do the bidding of others.

A young Syrian activist walked out of an Istanbul hotel conference room last week, exhausted after listening to politicians bicker for hours. He was asked by an elderly man sitting outside: "So who won? Qatar or Saudi?" He responded: "We don't know yet, there's a vote between them tomorrow morning." The man asked: "What about Homs? Or didn't they get to it today?" The discouraged activist didn't respond.

On June 5, the Syrian opposition's National Coalition finally met after multiple delays to vote for a new leader after its former president, Mouaz Al Khatib, resigned in May in protest of the international community's silence on Syria.

The coalition's secretary general, Moustafa Sabbagh, was competing against the relatively unknown Ahmad Assi Jarba and the well-respected Dr Luay Safi. Long past midnight, after spending the day passing revised by-laws, facing allegations of corruption and the Supreme Military Command's frustrations and listening to Syrian activists' pleas for aid, the results were in. Mr Jarba had not received the 50.1 per cent majority needed to win. Dr Safi was eliminated and a run-off election was set between Mr Sabbagh and Mr Jarba. The next six hours were a frenzy of securing votes by any means. One activist wondered if the coalition ever worked on anything as hard it does right before elections.

It is no secret that the coalition's blunders were on full display last May. As the border town of Qusair outside Homs bled while FSA rebels fought the Syrian army and Hizbollah militias, members squandered public sympathy over internal power struggles. Corruption, back-room deals, bribes for votes and personal attacks had become the coalition's norm.

On Saturday, Mr Jarba narrowly won. On Sunday, Ghassan Hitto, the Sabbagh-backed prime minister of the interim government, resigned. Two days earlier, Mr Hitto had spoken confidently, declaring that Syria's greatest threat after the regime was the coalition itself.

The young activist's enthusiasm dulled after the elections. He said: "When I saw people shouting 'Jarba, Jarba', I realised this was not about Syria at all." The vote on Saturday was not for Mr Jarba or against Mr Sabbagh's corrupt leadership but rather for Saudi Arabia's interests over Qatar's. The vote of desperation highlighted the distance from the day when the coalition was handed Syria's chair in the Arab League - perhaps the best day this coalition will ever witness.

The expanded coalition under Mr Jarba's leadership now faces its biggest challenge: staying relevant. On the first day after the elections, Mr Jarba made a surprise visit to northern Syria emphasising the coalition's strong relationship with the military opposition. When he returned to Istanbul, he led an emergency meeting with activists from Homs, promising a personal donation of $250,000 (Dh918,000) in addition to a $1.5 million pledge from the coalition to aid the besieged city.

In the coalition's impotent attempts to gain international legitimacy, it lost the most important legitimacy it ever had: the Syrian people's support. During a recent visit to the Syrian town of Kafranbel, I asked about why artists didn't feature these politicians in their influential banners. Activist Raed Faris responded: "These people's names are not worth our ink. No one inside knows who these figures are or what the coalition even is."

Syrians have been patient with the political opposition for over two years now. But their patience has ended. The voices inside the country have been drowned out between a trickle of oil money and empty promises of arms on one hand, and the bombs and bullets of the Syrian army on the other. And people wonder why billions of dollars are pledged to Egypt after the overthrow of a government while Syrians fighting a ruthless tyrant are left to beg for crumbs of aid?

Hadi Bahra, a newly-elected member of the coalition, considers the new leadership and expansion positively as it breaks the Muslim Brotherhood monopoly to finally represent the diverse make-up of Syria's society. He also views Mr Jarba's strong ties to the fighters as instrumental in uniting the political and military oppositions.

Adib Shishakly, the coalition's representative to the Gulf Cooperation Council, shares Mr Bahra's optimism. He views the reformed coalition as an "umbrella" that encompasses almost all Syrian political groups and most importantly represents the Supreme Military Command. He says, "the international community has no excuse to not endorse and recognise this opposition body." Mr Shishakly acknowledges the regime's advances in Homs but he remains steadfast: "Every war has many battles. We may have lost a battle but that doesn't mean we've lost the war."

Although the Assad regime and its allies are the Syrian people's first enemy, the political opposition's legitimacy is only gained by defending the people and working to end the bloodshed. In light of the latest reforms, Syrians suspect that the changes are too little, too late. The coalition needs to work quickly to dispel the doubts by forming an effective interim government that functions inside Syria and organising a united front to gain international support and recognition.

Mr Jarba faces a jaded nation that has had enough with the political opposition in exile. The new leader claims that he needs one month to shift the situation on the ground - an ambitious goal but the reality is that's probably as much a chance the people will grant him.

There's a Syrian saying that when you are drowning, you keep holding on even if only to a straw. After 28 months of struggle, we, the people and opposition, are finally united in our despair, clutching our straws, hoping they are not our last ones.


Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer

On @AmalHanano