A game changer in Syria?
The coming few days will be decisive in determining the effect of the newly formed coalition of anti-government opposition and revolutionary forces on the future of the Syrian regime and the armed uprising that is raging in Syria to topple it. The new front came into being in Doha after days of tense negotiations between various opposition groups, including leaders in exiles and so-called coordination committees based in Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC) finally bowed to international pressure, mainly from the US, to join this coalition which will now become the “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people and the natural successor to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Few days earlier the SNC carried out its own restructuring, electing a new executive body and a new president, George Sabra, a Christian and former communist. The SNC, believed to be under the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood, had failed to attract other opposition groups including Kurds, secularists and local coordination committees. It has now joined the new coalition who is led by an independent Islamist Moaz Al-Khatib. The new platform was suggested by leading opposition figure Riad Seif, who was also elected as Al-Khatib’s deputy. Seif has been working closely with US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, on a plan to unite various Syrian opposition groups.
The United States had rebuffed the SNC for failing to present a united front. It now promises to recognize the new coalition and will call on other countries to do so. The Arab League will consider giving Syria’s seat in the organization to the new coalition. Damascus has described its opponents meeting in Doha as a US creation, hoping to undermine their credibility.
The new coalition is expected to create an interim governing council, or a government in exile, and a supreme military body to coordinate operations and strategies on the ground. The united front will become the only conduit for humanitarian aid and hopefully arms; reassuring the west that weapons will not fall into the wrong hands and that a recognized moderate government will take over once Assad is toppled.
It is early to predict how the new coalition will affect developments on the ground. The Syrian regime and rebels have been locked in a bloody confrontation for months now. Recently the Syrian Free Army (SFA) has reorganized its forces into three main fighting groups on three fronts. The regime appeared to have lost ground in the north and has made little headway in reclaiming Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. The SFA has been getting ready to launch a big offensive on Damascus; a crucial battle to depose of the regime.
On the other hand, President Assad remains defiant. His air force has been pounding rebel areas all over the country, with heavy civilian casualties.
In recent days thousands of refugees have crossed into Turkey and Jordan.
The UN estimates the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries to be more than 400,000. Their conditions will worsen as winter settles in.
Even as the fighting inches closer to Damascus and its environs it is difficult to see the rebels achieving a decisive victory soon. The Syrian regime still has uncontested control of the sky and recently it has been accused of using cluster bombs against its own population. And while the SFA has said it is now reorganizing itself and is leading the battles from “liberated” areas, the West continues to worry about the role of foreign combatants in the Syrian crisis.
With the US and its regional allies placing high hopes on the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, the capacity of this body to stay united remains doubtful. In the absence of a political deal anytime soon, the coalition’s president has reiterated previous positions that there will be no dialogue with the regime. There are no signs that Washington will adopt a new approach on direct military intervention.
Reuters reported that Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, told SNC members that they should forget dreams of US military intervention in President Barack Obama’s second term.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in the region last week, urged the Syrian opposition to abandon its precondition that President Assad step down before any talks can be held on ending the conflict. But while he denied that secret talks are taking place between Washington and Moscow over Syria, it is now believed that only an understanding between Obama and Vladimir Putin on Syria can resolve the issue. Such an agreement may not be to the liking of the new coalition, especially with regard to Assad’s future, but it is the only realistic way of reaching a political deal.
Other scenarios will not bode well for Syria and its people, or for the region. They include an open-ended war where no clear winner will emerge or a de facto division of Syria along areas under control of each party. And there is also the threat of a regional spillover. The price of something like this taking place will be too much to bear for the Syrians and the region as a whole.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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