The rapid developments in recent days in the world of the Syrian groups fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad will be a game-changer if the new coalition of opposition forces actually becomes a unified movement that achieves four critical and linked goals: coordinating internal military action, generating legitimate and credible local governance bodies in areas liberated from government control, connecting with Alawites, senior security personnel and other regime supporters to convince them of their safety in a post-Assad Syria, and managing a rising flow of international diplomacy and aid. That is a tall order, but for the country and ancient culture that gave the world its first alphabet and musical notations, among other wonders, it is doable.
The new “National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition” was agreed upon during a weekend marathon negotiation and political pressure cooker in Doha, Qatar. This kind of reconciliation and consensus-building exercise has now become a hallmark of the dynamic Qatari approach to resolving thorny issues among Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, Sudanese and now Syrians: lock the recalcitrant participants in a luxury hotel for a few days, shower them with fine hospitality and promises of substantial aid in the future, focus the world’s media and political attention on them, and tell them they cannot leave until they have reached an agreement.
The Syrian opposition coalition that was born through this kind of Qatari midwifery faces many hurdles, but it also carries the hopes of tens of millions of Syrians and hundreds of millions of Arabs who wish to see it prevail. It has already been recognized as the legitimate Syrian government by heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, the U.S., Germany, Italy and France. Pulling recognition from the Assad family regime and bestowing it upon this new opposition coalition is one of the few safe moves that foreign countries can make, given their hesitancy in offering serious weaponry to the opposition groups, for fear of promoting the fortunes of Islamists among them. This is an easy step, but we will soon discover if it is also meaningful.
This highlights the single most delicate aspect of the opposition coalition: It is vulnerable to being seen as a made-in-Doha-and-Washington puppet of the U.S. and the Gulf states, without sufficient legitimacy on the ground inside Syria, where the fate of Syria will be decided. Events in the coming month will be critical to bolstering the credibility and legitimacy of the coalition, by providing it with major diplomatic recognition, isolating the Assad regime internationally, increasing humanitarian aid flows inside Syria, and prodding a more effective military resistance strategy. If these things happen more or less simultaneously, the coalition will earn the legitimacy inside Syria that is crucial for its success. If not, it will flounder and dissipate, and conditions in Syria will stagger along at their current harsh pace.
It is not realistic to take one aspect of the coalition’s tasks – such as military action or diplomatic recognition – and focus on developing that, while its other tasks lag behind. Forging an effective, unified Syrian opposition that can topple the Assad family regime is not like building a Lego house, one brick at a time. Events are moving so quickly inside and around Syria that if the opposition coalition does not gain traction quickly it will be overtaken by other smaller groups working on the ground inside Syria, including tribal, ethnic, nationalist, Islamist, Salafist and purely local groups, some of whom are in the new coalition.
The tendency in the struggle to liberate Syria from its current rulers is for many separate efforts to proceed simultaneously, which weakens them all. We have seen in the last six months half a dozen groups around the world working on post-Assad transition plans, three groups that flirted with forming governments-in-exile, at least three leading political opposition movements inside and outside of Syria, half a dozen serious attempts to unify or at least seriously coordinate among the different opposition movements, and perhaps hundreds of local resistance groups around the country. This is a land and a political dynamic that naturally lends itself to fragmentation.
There are many reasons inside Syria and around the region and the world why the new coalition can succeed, starting with the impressive trio of leaders, President Mouaz Khatib and deputies Riad Seif and Suhair Atassi, all of whom served time in Assad prisons and have credibility among their peers.
The most surprising things about the coalition is why it took so long to come into being, given the support it can generate at home, in the region and internationally.
If it can move ahead quickly on the four critical issues of resistance, governance, aid and diplomacy, it offers the best chance to date of bringing the Syrian conflict to a speedy end and moving into the challenging next phase of building a new country in the post-Assad era.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @RamiKhouri.