x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syria's coalition: too little too late to force out Assad?

The new Syrian coalition comes so late, and is so fragile, that a long debilitating civil war and then a negotiated settlement are looking more likely.

Syrian opposition groups convened in Doha last week to form a new broad organisation, grandly titled the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, while Bashar Al Assad's regime continued to maim and massacre Syrians.

But ironically, and tragically, the creation of this new organisation may end up further factionalising an already badly fractured opposition. The new group will include, and is supposed to be more effective than, the pre-existing Syrian National Council. Yet, questions remain over how it aims to accomplish this.

Where the SNC is composed largely of exiles and based outside the country, this new umbrella group will be led by some of the dissidents who played an initial part in the revolution almost two years ago, and is to be based in opposition-controlled parts of Syria. The new National Coalition was quickly recognised by the Arab League, the GCC and the government of France.

While encouraging, particularly since the SNC has been more devoted to internal squabbling than resistance, efforts by the West to revamp the opposition and find a credible alternative to the Damascus regime is too little too late.

Western powers and their allies in the region have for too long misplaced their efforts by trying to help the SNC, which has been unrepresentative, disorganised, unconvincing and without legitimacy inside the country.

The mistaken initial western assumption was that the Assad regime's demise was imminent and that the SNC, along with its backers, could settle questions of representation and handle other shortcomings once it took over.

Accordingly the SNC, like other opposition groupings in exile from other countries, kept its eyes uncompromisingly fixed on taking the helm. It spent nearly two years of hard labour on projecting itself as the face and body of the uprising, despite realities on the ground suggesting the opposite.

Not surprisingly, the SNC rejected the new US proposal when it was first made; the whole thing almost fell through before the conference in Doha even began. That means that any effective coordination between the SNC and the new National Coalition (into which the SNC is supposed to fit) will be difficult, possibly unlikely.

The driving forces of the National Coalition, for their part, will claim greater legitimacy, since they have been playing a direct role in the revolution, on the ground in Syria.

The new approach on the part of the UK government, which recently announced its intention to increase engagement with the main fighting forces in Syria, also comes at a point when the uprising has spiralled out of control.

Although the so-called Free Syrian Army and other fighters continue to battle the regime - which is more than can be said for the SNC - the fighters have their own problems, starting with a lack of accountability to anyone, exemplified by the brutal execution of some captured regime soldiers two weeks ago.

Further, they remain badly coordinated and unable to organise themselves. Rebel groups did announce a major shuffle to their command structure, including relocating headquarters inside Syria, but clashes remain between Kurdish and Arab fighters. Downing Street's increased support, while encouraging for morale, will, at best, be limited to tokenism.

The hope was that the Syrian opposition could emerge as a serious force; but it has not yet done so. That's why the Gulf states and Turkey, so far the primary backers of the opposition, have failed to increase military, financial and technical support that could turn the tide against the Assad regime. The opposition's regional backers have no desire to get caught in a quagmire or take responsibility for the civil war that is very likely to take place if and when Mr Al Assad falls, one that may be far bloodier than the existing one.

Turkey could be lamenting its decision to support the uprising without addressing the deficiencies of the opposition. Ankara did not foresee the domestic political complications caused by the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region on its border. When those problems became clear, Ankara stopped short of intensifying support for the opposition, even after the Assad regime shelled a Turkish border town.

It may now be widely accepted that the fall of the regime is not the best option. A negotiated settlement, paving the way for the departure of the Assad elite, unlikely as it seems, might be less damaging for the country.

Further, the collapse of the regime would intensify the regionalisation of the conflict, the proliferation of weapons and the radicalisation of the opposition.

For this reason, international powers may be hoping to limit their support to the rebels, sustain the war of attrition and eventually force both sides to accept a negotiated settlement.


Ranj Alaaldin is a senior analyst with the Next Century Foundation, a conflict-resolution NGO based in London

On Twitter: @ranjalaaldin