x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Opposition has to find common ground in Syria

A second attempt by Syrian opposition figures to form a national council is crucial to offer a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

On the six-month anniversary of the first anti-regime protests in Syria last week, opposition groups in Istanbul announced the formation of a Syrian National Council to steer the transition to democracy. But it was the second such announcement - the first one a month ago in Ankara turned into a fiasco.

Even people who were named as opposition leaders distanced themselves from the first council, saying it failed to represent protesters who were risking their lives on the ground in Syria.

This time it is imperative that they find common ground. For a start, a single voice will help to convince Russia, China, India and Brazil - all of which continue to support the Assad regime - to take a stand against the bloodshed. These countries do not side with the regime for existential reasons, as Iran does, but for strategic interests. Russia, for example, has a Cold War base in the coastal city of Tartus, its only naval presence on the Mediterranean.

A unified alternative to the regime will begin to convince the international community at large that it is safe to invest in the opposition. It is time to begin considering a future beyond the regime, although admittedly the Assads' violent grip on power has shown few signs of weakening.

Another imperative for the opposition, perhaps the most important, is to make a commitment to Syrians that a post-Assad order will be a civil state that guarantees the rights of minorities without discrimination. That must include recognition of Kurdish rights - the Baathist Party has always insisted on the Arab identity of Syria at the expense of the Kurdish minority's identity and culture. Similar assurances need to be given to other groups including Christians, Druze and Alawites, as well as secularists.

The challenge for Syria's opposition - and this new National Council - has always been to bring together so many points of view under a single tent. In the next week, members are expected to appoint a leader; one leading candidate has been Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian professor at the Sorbonne University, who might prove a unifying force.

The United States and France have expressed initial support for the council, but it is too early to speak of international recognition. First, this new opposition front must earn the recognition of the Syrian people. As the Assad regime shows no signs of ending the violence, this council cannot afford another fiasco of its own making.