British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to have the opposite of the Midas touch when it comes to foreign affairs. He has never looked particularly comfortable on the world stage, and these days he appears particularly hapless.
For instance, Cameron isn’t having much luck when it comes to his attempts to influence events in Syria. The growing complexities of the Syrian crisis have intensified Western anxieties about what will follow the anticipated toppling of President Bashar Assad. Government insiders talk about “facing another Iraq,” amid fears of a full blown sectarian civil war emerging from the ruins of the Assad regime.
To assuage such fears and accelerate planning for post-Assad Syria, the Foreign Office hosted a meeting this month with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces at Wilton Park in Sussex. The meeting, which took place behind closed doors, was a perfect opportunity for the Syrian opposition to finally outline its plans for running Syria in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s removal. It was hoped the coalition would at long last reveal who will serve in its transitional government and provide some information to representatives from Arab and Western governments at the meeting of what plans are in place to maintain order and ensure that state institutions continue to function once the Baath regime collapses.
In a Twitter message about the conference, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, pithily said: “Assad’s departure from power inevitable. Vital that international community plans ahead for the day after in Syria.” Unfortunately, the meeting failed to deliver anything resembling a plan for what happens “the day after.”
The Syrian opposition had another stab at forming a government when it met in Turkey two weekends ago, and once again it came up short. It was hoped the meeting would at least nominate a transitional prime minister such as former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected and joined the opposition last year. But this was rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest groups within the coalition. If the Syrian National Coalition cannot agree on who will lead it, what hope is there that it is capable of running a country torn apart by a devastating civil war?
Even a hastily arranged $20 million donation from Qatar on Jan. 21, which was seen as a precursor to naming a transitional prime minister and Cabinet in waiting, failed to rally the opposition. Part of the reluctance stems from fears the West will balk at the number of Islamists in the government, hence the coalition’s desire to get all the foreign aid it can before going public. But is also reveals the deep divisions that still exist within the coalition.
Meanwhile, Walid Safur, the representative of the Syrian opposition in the United Kingdom, confirmed that with the exception of Syria’s pervasive intelligence apparatus, most of the country’s institutions, namely the judiciary, the police and the Syrian army, will remain intact after Assad is ousted. Under this arrangement, Syria’s armed forces will be “sent to their barracks” and remain there unless they are needed to maintain stability during the transitional period.
This is a demand of Western countries, mindful of the chaos that disbanding the army in Iraq helped cause in that country. The success of the armed forces will be largely dependent on Western aid and Gulf petrodollars to guarantee army payrolls and ensure that troops remain content in their bases. But unlike the armed forces of Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian army has been far from a neutral player in the ongoing conflict. The army has been accused of a number of atrocities against unarmed civilians, and it remains to be seen whether Syrians who found themselves at the sharp end of the war will accept such a cozy arrangement. For them, the opposition coalition is a long way from the reality on the ground and has little credibility.
Despite almost two years of courting, encouraging, organizing and helping fund Syria’s opposition groups, the U.K. has seen only some broad brush strokes with little detail of how the transition from dictatorship to democracy will be implemented. The official line from the British government is that it is “happy with the progress” being made by the opposition and its commitment to democracy.
But privately government insiders admit they are losing patience with the continuing failure of the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government or offer practical proposals that will ensure stability in the period right after the fall of the Assad regime. In a desperate attempt to gloss over the situation, a government official insisted that the opposition was already gaining valuable experience establishing and running administrations in areas lost by the regime.
But again, reports on the ground in Syria paint a very different picture. In fact, Free Syrian Army fighters have been accused of wide-scale looting and kidnapping for ransom. In many areas, stability, and, more importantly for many, food and power supplies, are being provided by Islamic fundamentalists, including the Nusra Front which the United States insists is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and which has been designated a terrorist organization.
War makes strange bedfellows, and the National Coalition has pleaded with Washington to remove the Nusra Front from its terror list. Yet the organization is fighting to establish an Islamic state in Syria governed by Shariah law. This is hardly compatible with the Syrian National Coalition’s aspiration of a Syria where men and women from all the country’s ethnic groups enjoy equal rights.
The stark reality is that as the war enters its second year, the increasingly sectarian character of the opposition, like those of myriad fighters on the ground, is becoming more evident. And the longer the war goes on the greater the risk of increased divisions within the opposition and, more worryingly, of regional overspill.
No one is winning the war. In Libya the tipping point came when the West shifted from establishing a “no-fly zone” to bombing selected government targets. Despite the arrival of NATO arms and Patriot missiles on Turkey’s border with Syria this month, to be followed by the deployment of around 1,000 U.S., German and Dutch troops, it is unlikely that a similar scenario will play out in Syria.
Against this backdrop it is imperative that the Syrian National Coalition proves that it deserves the hopes invested in it before it is too late. It can only show it will govern for all Syrians, regardless of their creed or ethnicity, by revealing who will serve in its transitional government and by providing a blueprint for Syria’s immediate future. The U.K. may be losing patience with the opposition, but Syrians are losing their lives. And the opposition coalition is losing what little credibility it still has left with the West.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.