Right policies adopted at the wrong time and expressed in a wrong manner produces wrong results. The Obama Administration is right in dismissing the SNC, but they should have done so long ago and with greater finesse. Still, the politics of the traditional opposition is nothing but a sideshow. Real power lies with rebels, their leaders and the political forces gradually coalescing around them.
On the U.S. and the Syrian Opposition
My quote in The Time:
Indeed, many feel that Clinton’s reorganization is too little too late. “The opposition Secretary Clinton is trying to unify has become largely irrelevant, even infusing it with elements from inside may not be sufficient,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian exile who is active in the opposition in Washington. “Syria’s current fragmentation necessitates working with local groups, that is, the rebels and whatever political forces are coalescing around them.”
In announcing it the way she did, Clinton also alienated one of the few friends the U.S. has amongst the Syrian opposition, the SNC, which announced it would hold its own meeting just prior to the Doha gathering as a snub to the U.S. “The SNC will fight for its survival, many opportunists will fight for inclusion, seeing a window in Clinton’s announcement,” Abdulhamid says. “It’s going to be a free for all and a freakshow in Doha. The U.S. should have worked on this quietly.”
Let me clarify here, however, that the note about the SNC being a friend of the U.S. is actually not my view. In fact, most groups and figures taking part in the SNC are ideologically hostile to the United States, and this has indeed been one of the main reasons why they were unable to forge a working relationship with the Obama Administration and with American groups that have tried to offer advice on strategy and vision. American officials are right in their stand against the SNC. As a coalition it was forged with much haste and hubris by a group of exiles and expatriates who thought the world was dying to intervene in Syria and was only waiting for a semi-credible group to emerge on the scene to forge ahead with the intended intervention. In fact, many subscribed to the same conspiratorial thinking of the regime. They sincerely believed, propelled by their own ideological perceptions of the West, that the Arab Spring was orchestrated by western powers in order to change the status quo which, for whatever reason, has become unacceptable to the West.
Moreover, seeing that the world was willing to endorse transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya even when Islamists clearly appeared as the ultimate beneficiaries, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its wider network of contacts and sympathizers, felt empowered to play a more overt role in forming and manipulating the decision-making processes in the SNC. Islamists felt that the U.S. and the West are willing to engage them and to deal with them as the only groups on the political scene organized sufficiently to lead the transition and stabilization processes ahead. But, for domestic politics, so the MB & Co. thought, American and Western leaders can only engage Islamists “from behind a veil” or as parts of a larger whole, hence the need for a body like the SNC.
It is this kind of thinking that plagued and continue to plague many of the key figures in the SNC and the wider opposition. When things did not go as desired in terms of securing American and western endorsement and support, SNC leaders dug further into their conspiratorial minds, and came up with the conclusion that the West is looking for some concessions on their part and for some kind of bargain. As such, engagement with Western leaders and advisers soon entailed queries as to what the SNC can offer in the future to guarantee Western support in the present: in side conversations people floated ideas like making concessions in future peace talks with Israel, guaranteeing shares in future exploration for oil and natural gas in the country, especially off the Mediterranean shores, pledging to hire western companies to supervise the rebuilding process, and so on.
The failure by western officials to raise such issues or shrug them off when they were raised even in the context of private off-record meetings was perplexing to many SNC members and leaders. The fact that Western officials seem more concerned with the need for having better representation of minority groups in the Council and issuing a vision guaranteeing minority rights did not make sense until they were examined in the context of western domestic politics. Western leaders, SNC leaders surmised, needed to raise these issues not out of genuine concern for them but for complexities related to domestic politics. If only SNC leaders were as interested with domestic politics as their Western counterparts things could have been better. Instead, their statements on a variety of issues, especially minority rights, were meant mostly for the consumption of a western audience and rang all too hollow for a Syrian audience, especially the minorities. They lacked depth, substance and even emotion, as one would expect, because they were never addressed as an internal need.
As SNC leaders grew disillusioned with the possibility of reaching a deal with the U.S. and the West, they fell back more and more on their old anti-western rhetoric and thinking. The West must be conspiring with Iran against the Sunni majority in the region. The Bargain the West wants to make, they asserted, is with Iran because Shiites are a minority in the region and, as such, will prove more pliable on the longer run than the Sunni majority whose countries have to be further weakened and divided.
Sentiments have changed on the ground as well. The erstwhile goodwill towards America and the West that colored the first few months of the Revolution has long given way to doubts among most, and to downright hostility among the more ideological inclined segments, be they Islamist or Leftist. In fact, a few weeks ago, Islamists manage to win a vote on Facebook to hold the rallies under the banner that went “Oh, America, haven’t had enough of our blood yet?” The vote was close, if not rigged by the Islamists who control that Facebook page, but it did show the growing strength of Islamists and the growing radicalization of sentiments in the country and within the ranks of the expat community.
The recent statements by Secretary Clinton on the need to create a more inclusive opposition body took place in the context just described. It’s no wonder it generated such a hostile reaction in opposition circles, even from SNC critics. At this stage, attacking America and American imperialism are once more in vogue and are in fact all the rage in opposition circles. This is again the best way for many opposition groups and figures to brandish their patriotic credentials.
There is much hypocrisy in this attitude of course.
But is the United States completely blameless here? While the Obama Administration was right in criticizing the SNC and the Syrian expatriate opposition in general, using this criticism as the pretext for its unwillingness to intervene in Syria, was quite hypocritical as well and was major contorting factors in the ongoing radicalization of the revolution and the break-up of the country. The Obama Administration had its own ideological handicaps regarding the issue of “foreign entanglement,” one that is quite divorced from reality and served as a blind-spot that affected its analysis of the situation in Syria and its potential fallouts. Electoral considerations have also complicated matters. The result is an unmitigated disaster that could still spiral into a region-wide meltdown.
Caught between the cold and faulty calculations of the Obama Administration and the personal and ideological agendas of an opposition that has already proven no less corrupt, decrepit and immoral than the departing regime, the real losers in all this are the Syrian people.
Indeed, a recent report in Mclatchy Newspapers suggests that official figures and statistics provided by the UN and western governments may not reflect the reality of the situation. Indeed, these figures might be off by a factor of 50% at occasions.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the organization’s refugee agency, estimated last week that 360,000 Syrians had fled the country, but a UNHCR official told McClatchy that the number may be double that, more than 700,000, including 150,000 Syrians who’ve sought refuge in Egypt, a nation that shares no borders with Syria.
As for the number of the internally displaced, estimates range from 1.5 to 2.5 to 6 to even 10 million. Whatever the case may be, taken in conjunction with a death toll currently put at 40,000, an estimated 50,000 missing, and the wholesale destruction that has been wrought on the infrastructure all over the country, the situation is disastrous.
The SNC might score a victory in its battle against the Obama Administration, either by surviving it, or by defeating its plans, or both. This will be a meaningless victory, of course, because the whole battle irrelevant. Rebel leaders acting inside the country and the new political forces slowly coalescing around them in different regions, irrespective of the ideologies involved, are the real leaders now in the sense that they are the real decision-makers. The idea of controlling them through a political body made up of traditional figures, even if some of them are included in it, is simply unrealistic at this stage. Rebel leaders have already created their own turfs and hence their own stakes, and just as opposition leaders are unwilling to take “dictates” from the U.S., rebel leaders are unlikely to take dictates from the SNC or any transitional government that tries to undermine their authority.
Moreover, controlling rebels by controlling their supply lines can work only when there is agreement between the suppliers. Such agreement does not exist due to conflicting agendas, double-dealing, lack of transparency in the process, and lack of leadership on part of the U.S. The supplying process might be sporadic and unpredictable, and that will remain as a source of weakness for the rebels, but it’s unlikely to stop them. It hasn’t so far.
At this stage, Syria needs to be pacified one region and perhaps one canton at a time to prevent atrocities by all sides. This move calls for accepting the current fragmentation of the country on a transitional basis and initiating processes that could down the road reintegrate the different pieces. Fragmentation is already a reality, one cannot prevent what has already happened, but one can hope to reverse it. Furthermore, this approach calls for working closely with existing rebel groups and the local governing councils that are being established, irrespective of their ideological leanings. Indeed, in different regions, rebels and activists are working quietly to establish their own regional political transitional councils. None of the usual actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood, is in charge of this process. MB leaders are watching in horror, but for now they could only do what they have been doing all along:
1) Continue to siphon off aid sent to the rebels through the SNC’s Relief Office, which the MB controls (According to a recent act of transparency by the SNC: more than 40 million dollars have been given to the Council: 20 million from Libya and the rest from the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Over 90% of the funds, according to the SNC press release, were dedicated to “relief”).
2) Continue to try to remain relevant in the political game by playing all sides and hedging your bets. The MB just came up with a statement which endorses the initiative announced by Secretary Clinton with caveats:
- The proposed new body should clearly demands ouster of the regime and rejects dialogue with it.
- It should allow for the continued existence of the SNC and not presents itself as an alternative to it.
- It should include more Islamic figures (including religiously observant women) than currently suggested.
- . It should represent all provinces in manner commensurate with the demographic size of each.
- It should include adequate representation of the joint leadership of the military councils (an MB construct).
- It should include representatives of Islamic Kurdish movements and not only secular ones.
- It should include representation for the Turkmen minority (Turkmen rebels who are active mostly in Lattakia are for the most part Islamist).
- The new body should include a clear organization structure and bylaws.
- Finally, the countries calling for this body should provide for its needs and should support the revolution to enable it to achieve its stated goals.
And so the bargaining continues.
Of relevance as well, is this editorial by the NY times in support of Mrs. Clinton’s initiative:
The Americans’ frustration with the Syrian National Council is understandable. Most of its members are out of touch with what’s really happening in the country. They have been hopelessly divided, incapable of making decisions, and have failed to persuade Syrians that they offer a viable alternative to Mr. Assad.
Since the war began, scores of new local opposition organizations have sprung up in Syria. They are much better positioned to help the United States and other donors direct humanitarian and other assistance. They also offer a better chance of reaching out to those who still back Mr. Assad — especially the military — and persuading them to abandon him in favor of a new order.
Mrs. Clinton has acknowledged that she has recommended individuals and organizations to be part of the new leadership structure. But there is a risk that the new group could be seen as an American-made entity. The rebels would have more support if they committed to marginalizing the jihadists who have joined the fight. If there is a deal in Doha, the United States and its partners are prepared to help quickly carry out assistance projects. Congress should support the administration in this effort.
Local rebel groups in Idlib Province took control of an army weapons storage facility near the town of Saraqib and confiscate its content http://youtu.be/jpDfDXrvK8E Rebels also appear to have executed 8 soldiers that they have captured as this video shows http://youtu.be/0otIHbj58y8 Around 70 more loyalist soldiers were killed in the course of the battle. Naturally the regime and its militias maintain an overwhelming lead when it comes to atrocities, as these just leaked videos show. Judging by accent and their mockery of the Jihadis, the militias shown here are Alawites. The incident took place in Idlib Province as well http://youtu.be/C8QlD2WZNaA , http://youtu.be/Jeo1OCfWrus
The pounding of the Eastern Ghoutah Region in Damascus Province continues: Saqba http://youtu.be/rOEdbODda6U , http://youtu.be/1I_gqebWfrc , http://youtu.be/1N3G-S2hBvA Douma http://youtu.be/8Z-knEg0CdQ Arbeen http://youtu.be/OrKt5wiTKP4 Kafar Batna http://youtu.be/Eb3X5fBdrFM , http://youtu.be/X7H6PHA0Jrs Jisreen http://youtu.be/EQECVUb1Sb8 Hamouriyeh http://youtu.be/XCgGtZHmTTI
Towns and villages throughout Idlib Province received their fair share of the pounding as well: Taoum http://youtu.be/E1ip7gMUKEI
Rebels bombard the Military Airport at Taftanaz, Idlib Province, with homemade missiles http://youtu.be/ghR3QHJBM1g as well as more advanced weapons http://youtu.be/V6Mc1HOTWSk , http://youtu.be/0BM-dbmdU3Y Assad’s jets also bombard the airport after its fall into the hands of the rebels http://youtu.be/4Erq9zAd3L0
Rebels bring down a MiG in Salqeen, Idlib Province http://youtu.be/Vf-hiXhEEpw
In Alboukamal, Deir Ezzor Province, local rebels try to bring down a helicopter gunship http://youtu.be/f5Zf6W7jq-I
Scenes from the clashes in Deir Ezzor City http://youtu.be/vqjuEEpDxWg , http://youtu.be/sx3JJ3FKNOc Local rebels have their own armored vehicle http://youtu.be/djy4GaKhywc And come under attack from jets http://youtu.be/fbycK7nnzIs , http://youtu.be/6ecnNtaDbAw
Of course, anti-regime rallies continue to take place despite the brutal crackdown. The Massacre in the Damascene suburb of Daraya that claimed the lives of over 500 residents two months ago did not dampen the revolutionary spirit of the inhabitants. A major rally took place there on Friday http://youtu.be/NWs8x4VhM50 , http://youtu.be/J0BvLFW0ZLE