The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is a peculiar creature. It can be classed neither as a revolutionary organization—it is no Palestine Liberation Organization or African National Congress—nor as a true opposition umbrella group, like the Alliance for Change that toppled Milošević. Its purpose is similarly perplexing. It claims to represent the aims and aspirations of the Syrian people, yet it has no presence on the ground and little say over what people do there. It promises international intervention—or at the very least the arming of the Free Syrian Army—yet NATO has explicitly ruled out becoming involved. And while the SNC makes a big fuss about its humanitarian work, what little money that reaches the deserving is often marked by corruption. If the SNC is not an effective leadership body, a relief organization, or a particularly good lobby group, what exactly is it?
This question did not seem to have perturbed the minds of the hundred or so oppositionists who gathered in Istanbul last month to debate widening the group’s membership. At the end of nine tortuous days of horse-trading punctuated by haranguing from foreign ambassadors, they eventually settled on a list of 114 members, up from a mere sixty. There are now more liberals, FSA officers and representatives of local councils in the internationally recognized and supported body. “The coalition has succeeded in undergoing the expansion,” declared acting president George Sabra. He is right. The coalition did succeed in Istanbul, but only in the same way as Hezbollah triumphed in Qusayr: at great cost.
But unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s oppositionists are not new to loss of prestige. They have been the butt of newsroom jokes for years, well before the popular uprising exposed their incompetence to all and sundry. The problem is that this time, their squabbling risks disturbing that last fig leaf of credibility: that they, despite their obvious faults, represent an alternative vision of politics to that of the Assad regime.
That claim is becoming increasingly harder to sustain. Take, for instance, the way that SNC members are chosen. Elections are out; in are the much-favored muhasasa (share-allocation) and tawafuk (consensus) methods, in which seats are dispensed by a committee of apparatchiks in a manner that aims to keep rival factions of (mostly exiled) oppositionists happy. When faced with criticisms over the ineffectiveness of the body, the usual answer is to expand membership to co-opt those complaining from the sidelines. The exact criteria for membership is kept conveniently elastic; that is how Ghassan Hitto, an unknown businessman who was an expatriate in Texas for thirty years and who has no experience of opposition politics, can end up as interim prime minister. Indeed, that is how Sabra himself—having failed to win a minimum number of votes in the Syrian National Council election last November—was handpicked by a shadowy inner circle to become first the head of the council (the largest bloc within the coalition), and then the coalition’s acting president.
Take also the delicate matter of “foreign interference.” Days into the Istanbul meeting, SNC figures began talking of “external pressures” being applied to accept resolutions that have been cooked up by Russia and the West. “A strong media campaign is underway against the SNC because it refused to submit to pressures,” tweeted Abdulkarim Bakkar, an SNC member. “The coalition fought for independent national decision-making and got most of what it wanted,” he added.
While all this sounds terribly heroic, the reality is that the SNC is heavily mortgaged to the Qatar–Turkey axis and is as much “independent” of the two as Assad is of the Iranians. Now, internal disputes within the SNC have to be settled by the group’s regional backers and the resolution of the conflict rests in the hands of US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact is that the SNC owes its legitimacy not to the backing of ordinary Syrians, but to the willingness of the West and Arab states to do business with it. This is precisely the sort of legitimacy that Assad enjoyed before the uprising, and which the SNC oppositionists hope will propel them to power.
The SNC also suffers from a lack of achievement, a corporatist mindset, disdain for the ordinary man, aversion to institutional transparency and accountability, and a disinclination to anything resembling intellectual honesty. What is the SNC? Well, it is a collection of self-interested individuals who see themselves as intermediaries between foreign powers and local communities in a strategically important part of the Middle East. They are essentially glorified middlemen who, quite naturally, spend most of their time in luxury hotels conceiving plots, striking deals, arranging payments, and every so often appearing on TV to condemn whatever crime Assad is committing.
This “go-betweener” role, which involves a great deal of clientelism and conspiracy, has been a constant function of the Syrian political elite. In the 1950s, it was split along pro-Hashemite and pro-Saudi/Egyptian lines until Hafez Al-Assad eliminated elite infighting by imposing himself as supreme middleman. What has changed is that now there are two political elites in conflict, and the difference between them is subtler than they can comfortably admit.
The SNC cannot shape its own destiny: it is the vehicle by which others shape theirs. So is the Assad regime. It is with this growing realization on the part of ordinary Syrians that both parties now weigh the costs and benefits of negotiating in Geneva.