The Syrian opposition’s infighting, incompetence and lack of leadership have kept the beleaguered Bashar al-alive, or so argues Syrian journalist Malik Al-Abdeh in a recent Foreign Policy piece.
Al-Abdeh insists that, instead of blaming the West for lack of military support, the Syrian National Council (SNC) should look in the mirror at its own defects and should quit demanding a Libya-type intervention. The author then clearly explains the difference betweenand Libya:
But the West’s involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country.
The SNC, formed in Istanbul last year to head a post-Assad democratic transition, has been accused of being dominated by Islamists. In fact, the opposition council has failed to appeal to its own rebel forces, let alone the international community, opening a void that is now being filled by jihadists.
Al-Abdeh, crystalizing the opposition’s isolation, underlines the fact that no country apart from Libya has recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The SNC’s poor media strategy and inconsistent messaging have allowed the Assad regime to frame the narrative, which has enabled Damascus to convincingly convey, for example, that dangerous Islamist radicals are leading the opposition movement.
In addition, the regime has been able to leave the impression that Assad has long-term staying power, a message that has kept many Syrians on the fence if not supportive of the government. Such a dearth of proactive thinking leads Al-Abdeh to conclude that “the SNC’s fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.”
The author also asserts that part of what drives the stalemate is that the SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists.
Basma Kodmani, a founding member who resigned from the SNC just weeks ago, believes the council is ill-equipped to deal with the situation due to the aforementioned factionalism. Kodmani recently expanded upon this point during an interview with Reuters:
“The groups inside the council did not all behave as one in promoting one national project. Some have given too much attention to their own partisan agendas, some to their personal agendas sometimes. That resulted in a major weakness in connecting closely with the groups on the ground and providing the needed support in all forms.”
The State Department has been leery of fully committing to the SNC due to the perceived lack of grassroots connections. This mentality is justifiable considering how American leaders were burnt in Iraq, where the U.S., devoid of any semblance of ground truth, picked illegitimate figures to lead the postwar government.
Al-Abdeh illustrates the attitude of American officials by pointing out how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month, opting to meet with independent activists instead.
The SNC’s authority crisis lies in the fact that its sources of “legitimacy” are external, including Arab money and Western recognition. Although Arab money still flows into its coffers, the West is looking for alternatives after growing impatient with the SNC’s internal divisions.
The biggest challenge to identifying a sound alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has used the SNC to camouflage its parochial agenda. The Brotherhood will go to any length to secure power and will resist any attempts to establish a truly representative body. Al-Abdeh goes on to claim the Brotherhood and its ilk are not a far cry from Assad:
It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator’s manual.
The Syrian opposition must demonstrate a modicum of leadership, according to Al-Abdeh, before the international community makes “a Libya-type investment in men, material and political will.”