Commentary by Tamer Mallat – 14 November 2011
It’s been eight months now since the start of the Revolution in Syria, and much has yet to be done. Lousy diplomacy and trivial politics have so far cost thousands of people their lives, not to mention the tens of thousands currently locked up in the despicable jails of Bashar. Yet, there is hope. The final formation of the Syrian National Council last month was crucial for the survival of Syria’s battered revolutionaries. With no resources at its disposal, and skepticism haunting its every move, the SNC has defiantly, albeit slowly, been able to muster up support for its quest to dislodge Bashar al-Assad’s regime from power and pave the way for democracy in a country that has known darkness for over forty years. Just last Friday, the Arab League made some headway by threatening to suspend Syria’s membership if the regime does not halt its ruthless repression. The suspension of the regime’s membership would no doubt represent a game changer for the seemingly endless Syrian Revolution.
The importance of a failure by Assad to implement the Arab League ultimatum provides the first step for the fulfillment of the Syrian National Council’s goals laid out in its October 17 declaration. This could pave the way for a full recognition of the Council by the League as the official representative of the Syrian people. Symbolically, this would also mean the accomplishment of two SNC goals laid out in the same declaration that request the “suspension of the Syrian regime from the Arab League, with sanctions imposed on the regime”, in addition to “the recognition of the National Council as the legitimate representative of the will of the Syrian people.” Regarding the Arab League’s own statement, Beirut-based Syrian activist Shakeeb Al-Jabri explains the particular significance of an “unnoticed” sixth clause, which “calls on the opposition to meet in Cairo to discuss ‘a transition phase’ in Syria.” For Jabri, the clause highlights the League’s complete loss of confidence in Assad.
Burhan Ghalioun’s speech on the night of 2nd of November marked another noteworthy step in the consolidation of the Council’s internal dynamics. Leadership wise, the speech heralded the acceptation of Ghalioun as the primary representative of a unified Syrian opposition. The perfection of the delivery gave Mr. Ghalioun a presidential allure, distinguishing him from the mocking spectacles of Bashar al-Assad. Further, the timing of the speech, hours after Nabil al-Arabi’s surreal announcement of a ‘peace plan’ with Assad, allowed the president of the SNC to re-iterate the Council’s refusal to negotiate with a regime that it wishes to see fall. Lastly, Ghalioun’s intervention completely discredited the Arab League’s initial plan, forcing the League to take more radical measures barely a week later.
Despite that, the fight for SNC legitimacy remains an ongoing battle, with many technical and political difficulties hindering it in its path.
The most simple, and perhaps the most obvious obstacles that the Syrian National Council encounter, constitute paradoxically the most sinister of snags. For one thing, almost all communication is in Arabic. This is only normal of course, but the problem lies in the fact that aside the most important of news, very little is actually translated into other languages. Neither the SNC website, nor any other major opposition information source is available to non-Arabic speakers. The only information available for the latter is scattered, making it difficult for journalists and the general public to come up with coherent and well-informed conclusions. Such information gaps are especially dangerous, as they are left to the dogs of doubt. This can be deadly, as three of France’s most important media outlets, Le Monde, Le Figaro and Agence France Press, have recklessly conducted interviews with former regime Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s younger brother responsible for the butchery that took place in Hama in 1982. Such shameful interviews conducted by French journalists, who have hardly mentioned the Syrian National Council since its formation, make it difficult for SNC members residing in France to gain wider visibility. Because little is still known about the characteristics of the Syrian National Council outside the Arab world, the image of the Council abroad remains at the mercy of the media’s hands.
This point raises another issue that has limited the visibility of a well-organized opposition. As a result of the SNC’s structural and institutional deficit, in addition to the current impossibility for it to operate safely from Syria, it becomes difficult for the opposition to be represented in single place. The Council has no real base from which to meet regularly and coordinate policy. It becomes then necessary for institutions such as universities or public venues to host the SNC, subsequently facilitating communication and decision-making.
Lastly, the National Coordination Committee, a Damascus-based rival opposition group to the SNC, has claimed that it is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people’s aspirations for freedom. The NCC, unlike the SNC, favors dialogue with the regime. It is also against the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria, something widely demanded by Syrian protestors. This has created the impression that the Syrian opposition is divided between a Syria-based group, and a group working outside the country. In reality, the NCC is responsible for having created a trivial debate over whether the external presence of the Syrian National Council allows it to have any kind of legitimacy. Such a debate is nonsensical, as National Coordination Committee members can fly freely in and out of Syria, and are under no restrictions on the ground. Real opposition members simply cannot do that, which raises questions on whether the NCC entertains any links with the regime. For an SNC member to land in Damascus or try to enter Syria would spell out immediate death.
On November 16, the Arab League will suspend Syria’s membership if the regime does not halt all violence and withdraw its troops from the ground. The ultimatum will also mark the beginning of transition talks with the Syrian National Council. As Shakeeb al-Jabri explains, this is the moment where the Council must show that it has what it takes to lead the revolution. In addition to these positive developments, it is also paramount for the SNC to work on improving communication, and to coordinate more thoroughly in order to unify the image of the Syrian opposition. The combination of these two elements, leadership and organization, will no doubt accelerate the fall of Syria’s sordid dictator.