Syria crisis: What chance for new opposition coalition?

Moaz al-Khatib speaks in Doha, Qatar, 11 November  2012 Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque, fled Syria this year

It was a difficult birth, after a long gestation leading to more than a week of intensive labour, with a large host of doctors and midwives in anxious attendance.

But after a lot of last-minute pushing and pulling, and some cries of distress, the new, unified Syrian opposition leadership that the West has long been seeking finally emerged from the talks in Qatar.

How it fares may in large measure depend on the extent to which its outside backers, the US-led "Friends of Syria" group, live up to their pledges of support.

And that may, in turn, depend on the extent to which the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces establishes its credibility and leadership on the ground, especially in terms of controlling and unifying the rebel military.

So there is a potential Catch-22 situation which might eventually leave the coalition stranded, as the umbrella Syrian National Council was before it.

But the opposition's outside backers see the new coalition as an essential one-stop address, through which they hope to pump much-needed aid and resources to the rebel-held "liberated" areas, where there is a vacuum of government services and a bottomless pit of humanitarian needs as winter approaches fast.

Multilateral backing?

The new coalition can count on formal recognition from the Friends of Syria (FoS) countries, probably at a meeting to be held in Morocco soon.

Start Quote

This is an important milestone in forming a broad and representative Opposition that reflects the full diversity of the Syrian people”

End Quote William Hague UK Foreign Secretary

The Gulf Cooperation Council states have already been first to lead the way, and others will certainly follow.

That much, and the provision of an unspecified amount of financial support, was unanimously agreed at a meeting of the "core group" of the FoS in Qatar as the opposition talks were getting under way last week.

It is part of the deal for the unification move.

The FoS core group includes the US and like-minded European and Middle Eastern partners, such as the UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt.

At the Morocco meeting, assuming it goes ahead, they might be able to induce as many as 100 nations to recognise the new coalition as the sole representative of the Syrians.

The coalition would then set up an interim government largely made up of technocrats, as well as a military council and a judicial authority.

Should the regime collapse, the interim government would become a transitional one, which would in turn be dissolved once elections could be arranged.

Peaceful transition?

So the mechanisms are theoretically in place. What now is the strategy towards the shared goal of regime change?

The Western powers who adopted the Riad Seif initiative and have now succeeded in rallying most of the visible opposition groups around it, see the process as essentially a negotiated political one, leaving as much as possible intact so that the country is not plunged into greater chaos than it already is.

Syrian nationals leave after Syrian aircraft bombed the strategic border town of Ras al-Ain, 12 November 2012 Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries

Their vision is informed above all by what happened (and is still happening) in Iraq as a result of the mistakes made after the 2003 invasion, when virtually all political, military and security structures were dissolved.

But in encouraging the opposition to unify, Western diplomats say, their intent is not to railroad the rebels into negotiating with Bashar al-Assad and his regime, as some oppositionists feared.

What they have in mind is to force Mr Assad and his top 10 or so associates to leave - a process they describe as "decapitation".

The opposition would then be expected to negotiate a peaceful transition with what was left of the regime, whether or not they were deemed to have "blood on their hands".

The most obvious flaw in that argument is of course that Bashar al-Assad is, at least at this stage, not minded to co-operate and flit the coop.

He made that clear in his latest interview, possibly in response to deliberately-dropped public hints from the British Prime Minister David Cameron that an exit could be arranged if he were willing - in other words, that there was an avenue open other than being backed into a corner and fighting to the death.

So how do the Western powers intend to try to decapitate the regime and take Mr Assad out of the picture?

Their strategy seems to be to bank on the new opposition coalition establishing itself as a truly credible force in terms of support from inside the country.

The opposition's backers could then go to the Russians and Chinese - who have always claimed that they are not attached to the person of Bashar al-Assad but could not see a viable alternative - and persuade them that there really is just that, waiting in the wings, as the regime crumbles.

More hardware

If Moscow and Beijing - and possibly even Tehran - were to tell Mr Assad that his time was up, it is hard to imagine that he could resist the pressure for long, any more than Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia could, once the writing was on the wall.

The BBC's Jim Muir says Turkey is "very deeply concerned" about the ongoing crisis, which saw Syrian government air raids near its border

But Moscow's reaction to the formation of the new opposition coalition made it clear that the moment for such an intervention has not yet come, any more than it has for Mr Assad to take that decision off his own bat.

So Western diplomats expect a difficult period of at least six months or a year during which hostilities will continue, with the opposition trying its best to change the balance of power on the ground.

For many of the opposition elements taking part in the talks, the main motivation in complying with the pressures to unite was to get new, more effective military hardware - especially anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

So far, the West has strenuously resisted such demands. In the Doha talks, the Americans, foremost among the agreement's midwives, made it bluntly clear that Washington would provide neither weaponry nor the protected safe haven the rebels want to establish in the north.

But the opposition hopes that the West may at least give a nod to sympathetic regional powers, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, who might open the sluice-gates to upgraded weaponry.

The West is of course deeply concerned that such hardware might fall into the hands of Salafi or jihadi extremist groups who have joined the fray on the ground, potentially creating another Taliban.

But there is a strong argument that by denying the mainstream opposition the tools they need to do the job, a vacuum is being created which the radicals have been able to exploit.

'Guns and money'

Conversely, if the new coalition is successful in asserting itself on the ground and has the resources it needs, the jihadist minority could find itself sidelined or even suppressed.

Moaz al-Khatib

  • Born 1960
  • Son of long-standing imam of Damascus's Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Studied applied geophysics
  • Imam of Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Detained by Syrian military intelligence
  • Fled Syria for Cairo in July 2012

As one insider put it: "People will recognise and follow anybody who can give them guns and money."

And as confidence in the new coalition builds, assuming it does, the West might not turn out to be quite as adamant as it appears about withholding military support, especially if it is seen as marginalising the extremists.

Mr Cameron's office has said that he has asked that options which were examined and shelved a year ago, should be dusted off and looked at again.

Senior British military leaders have also not excluded an eventual possible intervention if the humanitarian situation worsens further with the onset of winter.

But all that lies some way ahead.

In the meantime, the focus for the new opposition coalition will be on building recognition and support both outside and inside the country, setting up structures to administer the so-called liberated areas and channel resources there, and trying to unify the disparate military elements on the ground under some form of political control and direction.

They will have to work hard to disprove the caustic strictures of the Information Minister in Damascus, Omran al-Zoabi, who dismissed the opposition meetings as the delusional ravings of people sitting in the lounges of five-star Gulf hotels.

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