x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Clumsy Syrian National Coalition needs to prove it is made of the right stuff

Something of a miracle will be needed for the coveted unity and effectiveness of the Syrian opposition to materialise. Analysis by Phil Sands from the SNC's Istanbul summit

A lone Syrian rebel fighter runs through the streets of Daraa during clashes with government troops. The leader of the internationally recognised Syrian opposition implored any available Free Syrian Army units to head to Qusayr and reinforce rebel numbers.
A lone Syrian rebel fighter runs through the streets of Daraa during clashes with government troops. The leader of the internationally recognised Syrian opposition implored any available Free Syrian Army units to head to Qusayr and reinforce rebel numbers.

ISTANBUL // If the crucible of a rapidly worsening crisis in Syria were ever going to forge a stronger and more unified opposition, now would surely be the time for it to emerge.

Against a backdrop of heavy fighting in Qusayr, a strategically and symbolically important battle that both sides have declared decisive, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) began a three-day summit in Istanbul yesterday with a daunting to-do list.

It has to choose a new leader, consider opening its doors to a wider range of rebel groups and decide on a political strategy for the proposed international peace conference in Geneva.

All of that while dealing with the endless daily problems associated with a revolution-turned-regional war and trying to prove to a sceptical Syrian public, the wider world and other rebel splinter groups that it - the "official" Syrian opposition - is made of the right stuff.

Something of a miracle will be needed for this coveted unity and effectiveness to materialise.

A recent propaganda film showing the SNC's government in action hints at the obstacles it faces in its uphill struggle for credibility.

To a soundtrack of dramatic, Hollywood thriller-style music, the camera shows leading SNC figures hard at work in their boardroom.

Sleeves rolled up, marker pens in hand, a white board covered in writing in the background, they strategise and plan for victory against President Bashar Al Assad.

Interim prime minister Ghassan Hitto gestures with an emphatic gravitas to his ministerial team, a portrayal of the smart, no-nonsense CEO of Syria Inc.

Except the portrait misfires and more often than not, this collection of doubtlessly committed and principled people appears oddly hapless and helpless, like a meeting of a small town council trying to work out how much money to spend on biscuits and tea for the parish fair.

In one telling interlude, the stirring music fades and the words, "We are team executives" - spoken in English - hangs embarrassingly in the air, a moment beyond satire.

It is more David Brent, the delusional self-promoting middle manager of the comedy show The Office, than Che Guevara.

For their cinematic ventures, the self-styled executive leadership team were lampooned by opposition activists on social networking sites.

If the SNC had wanted to make itself look removed from the awful struggle unfolding in Syria, it could hardly have been more successful.

The PR slip-up is indicative of much more serious defects, problems the clumsy SNC has not only failed to address but made impossible to ignore.

On Tuesday, the SNC's interim president George Sabra, a courageous and intelligent dissident, gave a speech in which he sought to rally support for the rebels fighting for their lives - and the future of the revolution - in besieged Qusayr.

It could have been a Churchillian "fight them on the beaches" moment. Instead, it came across as a display of the SNC's continued impotence, a reminder of how few fighters it actually commands on the ground.

The leader of the internationally recognised Syrian opposition appealed to almost everyone for help. More tellingly, he implored any available Free Syrian Army units to head to Qusayr and reinforce rebels facing a powerful assault by Hizbollah and regime troops, aircraft, tanks and artillery.

It is hard to imagine Napoleon, Salahaddin or Churchill - even in the chaotic retreat from Dunkirk - having to plead publicly with their troops to go and fight. Or, for that matter, Bashar Al Assad or Hizbollah's Hassan Nasrallah doing the same.

Plans for defence or attack would have been made in advance, reinforcements and supplies deployed, diversionary assaults staged. Secret orders would be issued and followed, for good or ill.

If the rebels manage to retain control of Qusayr against formidable odds, it is hard to imagine them giving much credit to the SNC, which seems to be little more than a horrified spectator, like most outsiders.

This has not been the SNC's only Laurel-and-Hardy moment.

After Moaz Al Khatib, the coalition's former president, announced his resignation in March, the SNC blandly refused to recognise his desire to step down and failed to meet to discuss the matter, leaving him to carry on in the role.

Eventually Mr Al Khatib, a popular figure although not a hard-edged politician or inspirational rebel leader, forced through his resignation in April.

Mr Sabra became his temporary replacement, only to have another senior SNC figure, Haithem Al Maleh, a former judge, announce the whole process was constitutionally illegal and amounted to a coup.

Mr Al Khatib not only seemed to agree but added to the confusion by suggesting he was shocked that his resignation - in a sense, his second - had finally been accepted.

Meanwhile, Mr Hitto, elected in a controversial vote to serve as the opposition's interim prime minister, is apparently being sidelined by the SNC's international backers. Having barely assumed the role of prime minister, those funding the SNC are ushering him towards the exit.

It is perhaps the archetypical act of malevolent genius by the Assad dynasty that Syria is so politically eviscerated.This crop of opposition politicians - largely women and men of considerable courage and conviction - have proven incapable of properly organising and unifying, despite their shared goal of overthrowing a regime they despise and wide sympathy for their cause.

They are from a society - to borrow the shopworn but apt cliché - similar to that portrayed in George Orwell's 1984, a world in which trust, initiative and talent have been systematically destroyed.

The peaceful protesters who started the uprising in 2011 were learning those skills for themselves, in a race against time and bullets that they eventually lost. The regime's violence and the armed backlash it provoked overwhelmed the civil society activists before they were strong enough to gain control over the tidal wave of revolution.

Around the time of last month's meeting in Istanbul of governments that support the anti-Assad forces, an opposition member - a man very actively involved in the revolt but, unlike many less influential activists, uninterested in publicity - left preparatory talks early, despairing at the ineffectiveness he saw in the SNC.

After departing, he made a cruel observation: "How many bodyguards do you see protecting the Syrian opposition? How much security is there?

"A couple of men in suits, that's all, and there's a reason for that. These people are not important enough for the regime to want to kill. It would be more effort than it's worth."

Opposition activists showing leadership potential inside Syria - especially those advocating peaceful change and perhaps capable of inspiring it - have been murdered, disappeared or arrested by government security forces.

Before this latest general assembly comes to a close tomorrow, the SNC is expected to elect a new leader. Rumours are already circulating that it will be man named Ahmed Touma, no doubt another decent, courageous and principled gentleman.

Whoever is chosen as the next SNC president, will they and their military colleagues supposedly commanding the armed rebellion inside Syria, be giving orders to rebel troops? Or will they be forced again to make desperate public appeals on television for divided, poorly armed factions to help one another?

The answer to that question - perhaps depressingly easy to predict absent a sea change within the opposition and its international supporters - will to much to help determine the country's currently bleak future.

psands@thenational.ae

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