l-r: Saif, Atassi, Khatib (Reuters photo)
Following my previous comment on the astounding failures of Syrian political elites, I must report some optimism. The Syrian National Council has accepted its place within the new Syrian National Coalition (it makes up a third of the new body), and the Coalition has won recognition by the Arab League, France, Japan and others.
The Coalition’s choice of leaders is the most inspiring sign, one which suggests both that the Coalition is no foreign front, and that another, much more positive aspect of Syria is finally coming to the fore.
President Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib is a mosque imam, an engineer and a public intellectual. He is Islamist enough for the Islamists and less extreme Salafists of the armed resistance to give him a hearing, but not Islamist enough to scare secularists and minority groups. He has written books on the importance of minority religious rights and women’s rights in a just Islamic society. His speeches since assuming his position have reached out to minorities and to the soldiers in Asad’s army, who he described as victims of the regime.
Vice President Riyadh Saif is a businessman, former MP, and a liberal democrat.
And Vice President Suheir al-Atassi, daughter of foundational Ba’athist Jamal al-Atassi, is a human rights activist, a secular feminist, a founder of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and a key activist of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees. She is the sort of person who should have been representing the Revolution at the highest level from the very start.
All three leaders have been active participants in the revolution inside Syria, and all three have suffered imprisonment. All three are known and respected by Syrians inside the country.
The Local Coordination Committees have joined the Coalition, and noises of optimism are bubbling up from revolutionaries inside and outside. As a minor anecdote, I notice that a pro-revolution Alawi friend of mine is expressing optimism about the future for the first time in a long while.
But in some quarters the bickering and sniping continues unabated. Rim Turkmani of the Building the Syrian State group complained to the Guardian that the Coalition was formed in response to outside pressure. This is partially true, and it’s a great shame, a stain on Syrian political elites, that it took threats, promises and cajolements from Qatar, France, Britain and America to achieve this compromise. Yet urgency – the suffering of the people – demands that all strands of Syrian opposition support the Coalition. Though there is still a very long way to go, Asad is losing on the battlefield. By force of arms, areas of the country have been liberated (or partially liberated, as they still suffer terrible bombing). To allow the splintered military leadership to rule in these areas without any central coordination and advice, without any common system of law, would open the way to a warlord-riven and sectarian future (Asad opened this door initially; there’s no need for political elites to push it further open).
Seemingly insistent on Syrian self-reliance, it is a contradiction for Rim to also say that the ‘international community’ should first agree on Syria, +36and that Syrians should then take their lead from this foreign consensus.
The real unity which matters right now is not that of the political opposition, but that of the international community. Once an international consensus is agreed it is going to be much easier to unite the opposition, and more importantly, end the regime. Russia and China are going to view this group as hostile to them. They are key players in this conflict, and you simply can’t solve a conflict if you do not involve all the players.
This strikes me as totally unrealistic. There is never going to be international consensus on Syria, no more than there’s ever going to be consensus on Palestine. In the one case Russia backs an unworkable regime; in the other America backs its unreasonable ally. When coupled with the notion of negotiations with the regime, which Building the Syrian State also subscribes to, Rim’s stance becomes almost criminally unrealistic. It has been obvious for over a year that the regime has decided (as its shabeeha scawl on the walls) “al-Asad or we’ll burn the country.” The ceasefire plans of the Arab League, Kofi Annan and al-Akhdar Ibrahimi have come and gone, and Asad’s campaign of torture, shooting, shelling, and aerial bombardment has escalated steadily. After two years of burning, staring into the abyss of Somalisation, Syria does not need to wait for further proof of the regime’s inability to compromise. There should be negotiations with representatives of people and communities who are scared by the revolution (and this will be facilitated by the fall of the regime, when such people will finally be able to represent themselves), but not with criminals who don’t want and aren’t capable of negotiations, who use talk of negotiations to buy more killing time. The only subject for negotiations with the regime is the terms of its surrender, and negotiations can only be held after it has stopped its violence and released the prisoners.
I met Rim Turkmani in London (and she’s intelligent, principled and highly educated as well as friendly and civilised – I hope she’ll forgive me for disagreeing with her in public) and heard her make this analogy: “We have to negotiate with the regime just as the parent of a kidnapped child has to negotiate with the hostage taker, because the child’s survival is of paramount importance.” If I can twist the metaphor somewhat, I would respond that the regime has kidnapped ten children and has already killed eight while negotiations continue. It’s killed eight in gales of laughter, and given interviews to the newspapers about how good the killing felt. It’s time not for a negotiator, but for a marksman.
Rim also says the Coalition doesn’t represent all of the fighters or people on the ground. Of course this is true. That’s why the Coalition has a great deal of work to do. It may be too late (after nearly two years of elite bickering) for a political leadership to assert control over many of the fighters, particularly the Salafis, but someone has to try. Efficiently coordinating funds and weapons deliveries would be a great start, and would stop the rise in importance in Gulf-funded al-Qa’ida types. As for the unarmed revolutionaries, many don’t wish to be ‘represented’ by any body. What they want is for the regime to be neutralised, and then to be able to express themselves in democratic elections. It’s the Coalition’s job to achieve these two aims. With forty thousand dead and the country in ruins, there is no more time to waste.