New Syrian opposition gains some diplomatic support, US embrace still absent

By Paul Mutter

The Syrian National Coalition, formed in Qatar last week through a US-led international initiative, has gained two important diplomatic victories in the past few days. NATO member Turkey has formally recognized the body as Syria’s legitimate government, while the BBC reports that France — one of the leaders of NATO intervention in Libya last year and now with a change in leadership — wants the EU to rethink the arms embargo imposed on Syria to allow “defensive weapons” through and recognize the Coalition. The Gulf Cooperation Council has again promised more substantive aid plus military hardware, but it is not clear how much of that has arrived at all beyond some small arms shipments: “We need arms. We need arms. We need arms,” the head of the Syrian National Council, now part of the new group with 22 seats, demanded of the international community last weekend. One dissident also told The Economist that the main task for the new body is to effectively secure aid for the fighters and nonviolent activists on the ground. The State Department, according to the New York Times, put a great deal of effort into organizing the new opposition group in Qatar, and its diplomats proved demanding too, with one telling Foreign Policy “…if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you’re going to do this now.” But Washington cannot ignore the serious pitfalls of the Council. “[T]he influence of the exiled Syrian National Council over fighters on the ground,” Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor notes, ” is near zero.” The US also wants the new body to “to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure,” suggesting a desire to more substantively engage with “vetted” anti-Assad forces who have so far received only limited communications and humanitarian aid from the US and EU. However, according to Syrian-American intellectual Dr. Amr al-Azm, writing at Syria Comment, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) running the towns and cities that rebel forces occupy are voicing displeasure with the paucity of seats set aside for them: 14 versus 22 for the emigre-heavy Syrian National Council. But the most important endorsement, that of the United States, is still missing. McClatchyreports that one reason for US concern is that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood will rise to dominate the opposition and the Administration will be blasted for it, even despite initial Republican calls to arm the rebels:

Questions have arisen about the views of the head of the group, moderate cleric Moaz al Khatib, and the influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the new organization … …. While the United States and other western powers want the new Coalition to supplant the Council, the Brotherhood is sure to retain its influence. A leading Brotherhood member told McClatchy that no more than six of the 63 in the Coalition’s membership are from his group. Yet with 22 of the Coalition seats occupied by members of the Council, and given that the Brotherhood has a significant influence on the Council, it seems likely to retain a substantial role in émigré politics.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy Speaker responded to such concerns by announcing that the group had no designs to “monopolize” politics in the country, but hoped to reach a “consensus” on Islamic law down the road. While the Brotherhood may benefit from a receptive international climate in the region and access to rebel groups seeking weaponry, for many Syrians, the organization is still synonymous with the brutal counterinsurgency campaign that was waged from 1976 to 1982 between the Brothers and the Ba’athist state. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal has reported in the past few months that it’s the local “Islamists” who’ve risen independently of the distant Brotherhood-in-exile that are carrying the revolt forward into the countryside.

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