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Fractious opposition helps Al Assad’s cause

Syrian National Council has to make a serious effort to exercise tolerance toward other ethno-religious groups and pro-democracy opposition bodies and better coordinate with the rebels on the ground

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on an unexpected visit to Turkey to discuss the crisis in Syria and to meet with Syrian opposition figures. She must impress on them the urgent need to unite their fractious ranks.

Of all the explanations for why Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has not yet been toppled, perhaps the most important is the Syrian opposition. Its continued inability to unite has contributed greatly to the drawn-out uprising, which has lasted longer than any other in the Middle East.

Of course this is not to belittle the huge odds that are stacked against the opposition. Its military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is, after all, fighting Al Assad’s killing machine and his divide-and-rule strategy with minimal international support.

This reality notwithstanding, it should not obscure the fact that the Syrian political opposition’s performance so far has been dreadful and its behaviour more often than not has been counterproductive. The political opposition, specifically the Syrian National Council (SNC), is not a hopeless case, but it can and should do much better. The Syrian people deserve nothing less.

You do not have to be an expert on Syria or even be familiar with the state of the Syrian opposition to know of its deep troubles. Consider this latest story:

In their attempts to plan for the day after Al Assad, three separate Syrian opposition groups recently floated different proposals for a transitional government.

Seasoned activist and long-time opposition figure Haitham Al Maleh, who is the chairman of the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees (CSRT) and formerly a member of the SNC (he quit due to his disapproval of the SNC’s tactics), is trying to form a transitional government in Cairo made up of technocrats. His effort, however, has been heavily criticised by the SNC, whose members, ironically, also happen to be in the process of holding talks to form a different transitional government.


The Free Syrian Army has expressed its vehement rejection of both initiatives and called instead for the establishment of a higher defence council that would include military and civilian figures. The free army’s leader Col Riad Al Assad reserved some harsh words for the SNC, saying it was made up of opportunists who want to “ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs”.

What causes the disunity? It has to do with mindset and approach. Because the SNC is the largest political opposition group and has the biggest potential, its failings should be put in the spotlight. In short, the SNC sidelines opposition figures who do not share its views and tactics.

For all their espoused liberalism, SNC liberals (including Islamists, of course) are proving to be quite illiberal, unwilling or unable to tolerate opinions that are not fully in line with theirs. Worse, they often call those who do not agree with them “traitors” to the cause.

The roots of political intolerance are complex. As political scientist Carson Holloway nicely put it, they are “simply a reflection of the ordinary weakness of human nature, which in all men yearns to silence those whose opinions differ too widely from their own”.

Of course, the SNC is not the first political entity throughout history to suppress freedom of thought and speech for the sake of achieving more immediate goals. History is replete with examples of political movements, parties, and individuals quashing diversity in their pursuit of freedom and independence.

The March 14 political coalition in Lebanon ostracised all those independent Lebanese who did not unconditionally endorse its political tactics as conspirators or followers of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. No wonder that coalition, which claimed monopoly over the slogans of freedom, sovereignty, and independence, has lost so many supporters and has failed to lead the country to democracy after Syria exited.

Consensus with all the other major Syrian opposition groups that have credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people, while difficult, will serve the fight against Al Assad as well as the overall march against tyranny. And it will speed up the transition toward democracy when Damascus falls.

Saying the right things regarding the inclusion and respect of minorities in Syria is important but not enough. Until the SNC makes a serious effort to exercise tolerance toward other ethno-religious groups and pro-democracy opposition bodies and better coordinate with the rebels on the ground, Washington should not recognise any transitional government it may form in the near future. It sounds harsh but America’s reputation and interests are at stake here.

— Christian Science Monitor


Bilal Y. Saab is visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.