x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Syria opposition has a chance to rebuild itself

The new chief of the opposition Syrian National Council has a chance to make the group work, if he can emphasise compromise and inclusion.

On Sunday, the opposition Syrian National Council named its new chief to replace Burhan Ghalioun, the French Syrian academic who had headed the council for over nine months with little to show for it. It is hoped that replacing him with Abdel Basset Sayda, a Kurdish human rights activist, will strengthen the SNC and bring together political forces that were alienated from each other during Mr Ghalioun's tenure.

There are early signs it will. The Syrian Kurdish National Council welcomed Mr Sayda's election and said progress had been made in bringing the two bodies closer. The Kurds are an important segment of Syrian society, and have long defied Baathist rule. Kurdish support will be key to sustaining efforts to topple the Assad regime, as Kurds make up a large proportion of the population in Damascus, Aleppo and northeastern cities.

But while Mr Sayda may be capable of building bridges, rebuilding the SNC itself will prove far more difficult.

The Council suffers from several problems, including internal friction and a lack of representative leadership. Based in Istanbul, it is made of up expatriate Syrians and academics who are accused of being out of touch.

Moreover, the SNC's insular Executive Bureau suffers from a failure of vision, preferring to echo the demands of the tansiqiyyat (the Local Coordination Committees that organise protests on the ground) and by extension, the Free Syrian Army. Because of the popularity of these bodies, the SNC follows but rarely leads. The resignation of Mr Ghalioun came immediately after the local committees threatened to pull out of the SNC altogether.

Unless the philosophy of the SNC changes, from being a party that panders to particular views to an inclusive council of various political forces, it is hard to expect a unified Syrian opposition to emerge.

But perfect unity is only an ideal. The appointment of a Kurdish leader is a positive step if he succeeds in bringing the Kurdish minority closer to the SNC. But even then, the opposition's struggles will continue.

When the SNC was formed in August 2011, it was important that it was seen as inclusive to reassure the silent majority. With the growing prominence of the Free Syrian Army, a unified council became essential to oversee the military defectors and the thousands of civilians who joined them.

Now, as violence reaches staggering levels, the unity and leadership of the council are of paramount importance. All of Syria's opposition groups will have to show a greater ability to compromise as partners if Syria is to avoid all-out civil war.