Monday, October 3, 2011

Council & Consequence!

Hundreds killed, thousands detained, new council formed, nothing changed.  

Monday October 3, 2011

France welcomes the formation of a new Syrian national council as killing continues…

On Travelling

I have not been able to update the blog in a while because I had to undertake a mini-European tour during which I met with representatives of civil society organizations, academic institutions, Syrian opposition groups and a few officials and parliamentarians. Our discussions focused on some of things below, especially the issue of criteria that can be used to assess the credibility and legitimacy of a council claiming to represent the Syrian revolution. 

On Homs and the prospects of civil war

Nothing taking place in Homs city and the larger province, including Rastan and Talbisseh, should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following this blog. I have recently described the situation there as a low intensity conflict, and if it has by now acquired aspects of a civil war, especially in Homs City, what could be more natural? The situation is no less critical in neighboring Idlib and Hama provinces. Still, and as opposition groups argue whether to call for international protection, the international community doesn’t seem to be that concerned: going beyond sanctions is out of the question even should a thousand Benghazi take place in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Assads continue to retake the country one rebellious community at a time. Today, it was Rastan’s turn, tomorrow Talbisseh’s then on to Homs City, and the rebellious communities in Damascus. The regime has not fallen yet, there are no spoils to divide, and no matter how emphatic it is in its condemnation of the Assads, the international community could just as easily re-legitimate them should their regime survive – something that is still quite possible, even if we don’t want to admit it. Assads’ violence is methodical, organized and overwhelming, disorganized violence will not only fail against them: it will play right into their hands. While nonviolence could only work on the longer run, but in order for protesters to keep committed to it in the face of all provocations, they need to be inspired. Still, the only thing Syrian opposition figures seem capable of inspiring in their people these days, other than mild sympathy, is strong contempt.

Be that as it may, the situation in Homs and Idlib remains particular to these regions, the protest movement in Damascus, the Kurdish regions and most Deraa/Hauran remain quite peaceful. This could remain a two-track revolution for a while.

On Assassinations

6 assassinations in less than a week reflect a level of organization and coordination not witnessed among ordinary protesters. So either we have a new group in our midst with experience in surveillance, tracking and operating below the radar of security apparatuses, or we have to give the repeated assertions made by activists that Assad security agents are indeed to blame for these assassination in hope of continuing to stoke sectarian fires some serious consideration. Time will tell.

On the new National Council

Meanwhile, we now have a new council, namely the Syrian National Council 2.0 – a new and expanded version of the one launched 3 weeks ago. The Council has met with approval of many key players, individuals and groups, on the Syrian political scene, acting both inside and outside Syria, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration Council, the Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, Burhan Ghalioun and Co. and a number of Kurdish and Christian personalities.

The manner with which the Council was put together is controversial to say the least, as many important figures and groups were excluded from the deliberations, and the representation of certain confessional and national groups, such as Alawites, Christians and Kurds, fall way below their demographic size. The same can unsurprisingly be said of women as well. The correspondence between demographic size and representation in the council is the only objective criterion we have at this stage to help us decide on fairness, legitimacy and, of course, engageability.  

Still, this Council, it seems, is the best that can be achieved by Syria’s myriad opposition groups without external pressure.

While the Council in its new formation cannot be denounced as Islamist anymore, it cannot be described with any credibility as truly representative. In sectarian terms, Sunni Arabs seem to make up a majority that is much higher than their demographic size should entail. There seems to be a problem with regional representation as well. We should be able to form a clearer picture once we have full disclosure of the names, backgrounds and affiliations of council members.

The Council, we are told, will operate on three levels: the General Assembly (230 seats, including 40 seats reserved for activists inside Syria), the General Secretariat (29) and the Executive Committee (7). In theory, the Assembly will elect the Secretariat and the Executive Committee, but, in practice, the names seem to have already been decided, with Burhan Ghalioun named as the President, and Basma Kodmani as spokeswoman. Most decision-making, in theory, will be done at the Secretariat level, but we cannot discount that, in practice, most decisions will be likely made by certain individual(s) in the Executive Committee. If the list of names of potential EC members I reviewed is accurate, then, the strategy is to create a diverse membership at this all too visible level to hide the homogeneity at the base.

The strategy might prove effective indeed as far as the international community is concerned, that is, until experts begin sifting through the backgrounds of the various individuals making up the Assembly. Domestically though, the SNC’s current makeup is bound to send the wrong message to the Alawites and Christians, playing right into Assad’s hands of framing the revolution in purely confessional and sectarian terms. It will not be well-received as well by Kurds, tribal groups and liberal Sunnis, including members of the artistic community and the business community. But Kurdish parties and main tribal groups will still back the Council at this stage for the lack of better options. But considering the long fight ahead, these internal contradictions will hurt and are bound to resurface all too soon.

Personally, and after noting that I cannot get along with the kind of politicking taking place in all activities involved with council-formation, where transparency is minimal and personalities rather than ideas and programs continue to dominate, I will refrain from joining the fray, and will simply observe and critique from a distance while lobbying for greater inclusion of currently underrepresented and excluded groups to guarantee the emergence of a truly national and representative body down the road. Because no council, no matter how temporary, should be considered final and legitimate until it is truly representative.

So my advice to the international community at this stage, including the U.S. and E.U., regarding future dealings with this new revised version of SNC: approach with caution, do not fully endorse, until certain criteria allowing for fairer representation of Syria’s demographic and political realities are met. Perhaps, this conditional engagement can help nudge SNC leadership in the right direction.

This table might be of use for future reference:

Syria’s Major Ethnic Groups

Sunni Arabs (Tribal 20%, Urban 40%)
Christians (including Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, etc.)
Others (Ismailis, Circassians, etc.)