Steven Heydemann
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on : Tuesday, 31 Jan, 2012
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A Credible Alternative

Is the Syrian opposition ready to govern?

After 10 months of popular protests across Syria, the government crackdown has neither discouraged protesters nor ended a crisis that has caused thousands of civilian deaths. The Arab League's failure to end the crisis by diplomatic means has prompted fresh calls for UN intervention, and reignited debates about whether President Assad should be forced from office. Is there a credible alternative?

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the SNC, has struggled to present a united front

Across Syria, indications are mounting that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is fraying.  A ten-month campaign to crush the Syrian uprising has failed. The economy is reeling from the effects of sanctions. The Arab League has called for the removal of President Assad, and is pushing the UN Security Council to endorse its transition plan. Growing numbers of soldiers are defecting to the Free Syrian Army, intensifying regime concerns about the reliability of its armed forces.  Zabadani, some 50 kilometers northwest of Damascus, has been “liberated,” at least temporarily, and security forces are reluctant to enter many other areas during the day.  Across the country, it seems, the regime’s control over territory is steadily eroding.  Until recently, Damascus was largely spared the security crackdown experienced by the rest of the country.  No longer.  Residents of the capital are now subject to a growing web of security checkpoints, and suburbs like Douma and Saqba have become arenas for guerilla warfare.

The fall of the Assad regime is not yet in sight.  The ruling elite and security apparatus have, by and large, held together and the regime still enjoys overwhelming military superiority.  Yet the gradual erosion of its power has clearly picked up speed, and the acceleration of events on the ground gives new urgency to questions about the state of Syria’s opposition.  If the regime falls, is the opposition ready?  The issue is not only whether the opposition can govern, but whether it can restore stability in a country fractured by months of conflict and put Syria on a path toward economic recovery and democracy.

SNC leaders have been proactive in building relations with the international community.As many opposition figures quietly acknowledge, there is ample cause for concern.  Complaints about the absence of a unified and effective leadership are commonplace, both in the media and among the Western and Arab governments that have supported the uprising. Criticism of the opposition’s shortcomings has also been rife inside Syria, where protestors have called for more decisive action from their external leadership. Western and Arab governments have urged opposition factions to unite, to communicate more effectively with protesters on the ground, and to develop a compelling vision for Syria’s future.

Indeed, it was only in October 2011 that leading opposition groups established the Syrian National Council (SNC) as an umbrella coalition, and even then differences persisted. Not until December 2011, at its first General Assembly in Tunis, did the SNC take critical steps to address long-simmering issues of representation and inclusion, expanding its leadership to bring in well-known figures such as Haitham Al-Maleh, Sadek Al-Azm, and others.  Special efforts were made to bring prominent internal dissidents into its upper ranks, as well, improving the SNC’s standing inside Syria.

These gains, however, were followed by setbacks.  Important questions of representation still linger, as do concerns about how the SNC makes decisions.  Immediately after the Tunis meeting, the SNC embarked on a flawed and ultimately unsuccessful attempt—purportedly at the urging of Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby—to forge a unified platform with the National Coordinating Committee, a group that has controversially endorsed negotiations with the Assad regime.  When the effort became public, members of both groups were angered, and negotiations were broken off.  The SNC’s leaders have also stumbled on occasion in suggesting what the future of Syria’s foreign policy might be, hinting at pro-Western shifts that have angered some segments of the opposition.  And the SNC has also been compelled to adapt to the rise of the Free Syrian Army, which has contributed to the militarization of the uprising—a trend the SNC views with ambivalence—but has also acquired substantial legitimacy on the ground, at times eclipsing the SNC itself.

Yet the picture is not entirely bleak, especially in light of the severe political conditions that Syrians have lived under for the past fifty years.  The scale of repression practiced by the Assad regime severely stunted the development of a meaningful political society in Syria, other than a small, beleaguered community of activists.  The SNC is largely the product of political amateurs, newcomers to challenges of managing a political movement, and far less experienced at coordinating a mass uprising on a national scale.

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, and self-inflicted wounds notwithstanding, the SNC has moved further in many ways that its critics admit. The Council was never intended to serve as a political party, but as a transitional framework for coordinating the uprising and representing it to the international community. On this front, there has been slow but steady progress. SNC leaders have been proactive in building relations with the international community.  Turkey, France, the UK, Germany and the US now increasingly acknowledge the primacy of the SNC among the Syrian opposition, as does the GCC.  Libya and Tunisia have pledged formal recognition.  It has released a political platform which, if short on details, nonetheless commits the SNC to principles of inclusion, religious tolerance, a civil state, economic liberty, and the rule of law.  Its members are involved in several serious efforts to chart a post-transition vision for Syria’s future.  The SNC is also in active negotiation with the leadership of the Free Syrian Army—itself far less coherent or organized than its name might suggest—which has recognized the authority of the SNC and agreed to coordinate its activities.  As the Syrian uprising approaches its first anniversary, the SNC is a becoming a more capable and politically mature organization.

This progress is welcome, but as the Assad regime shows growing signs of strain, the opposition needs to move much more quickly.  The challenges and opportunities it will face depend heavily on how the Assad regime falls: whether it collapses, is brought down from within by an Egyptian-style process of regime decapitation that leaves much of the authoritarian apparatus intact—or is removed through negotiations that produce meaningful political change and stronger prospects for a stable transition. In any of these scenarios, however, the opposition must be prepared to respond, to demonstrate that it represents a viable alternative to the Assad regime, is equipped to fill what could be a dangerous void, and can provide the leadership needed to help Syrians recover from the traumas of the past year.  There are clear indications that the SNC and the opposition more broadly are moving in this direction.  Yet more and faster progress is still needed, and there is more the international community could do to speed up the process.  Too many Syrians continue to question the SNC’s credibility.  It is now time to prove that the Syrian people have an opposition leadership worthy of their extraordinary sacrifice.

Steven Heydemann

Steven Heydemann

Steven Heydemann is a political scientist who specializes in the comparative politics and the political economy of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria.

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