The Folly of Waiting for a More Perfect Syrian Opposition

Most fighters on the ground don't care about the National Coalition, whose members are primarily based abroad.
A Free Syria Army fighter runs for cover after firing towards Syria forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad at the front line in Aleppo on December 24, 2012. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

Today, the debate over Syria focuses once again on the composition of the Syrian National Coalition. And while the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia push the opposition to expand its ranks to include more liberals, the Assad regime continues to make significant gains against rebel forces, who report a loss of morale and -- remarkably after two years of asking -- lack even the most basic equipment. "If we had more ammunition," says a rebel from Aleppo's Tawhid brigade, "we could take Aleppo in 20 days."

With military intervention effectively ruled out from the beginning, the United States has instead worked to build a more "unified" and "representative" political opposition, despite the fact that liberation movements, historically, are rarely unified or particularly representative. A more unified opposition would, of course, be better, but the persistent hopes for a more perfect opposition have become both a crutch and a distraction from what really matters -- fighting Assad's forces and shifting the military balance on the ground. Progress on the military front is a prerequisite for political progress, rather than the other way around.

From the beginning, there has been a seemingly obsessive concern with creating a more palatable and sufficiently "liberal" opposition. It may have made sense to try in the early months of the uprising, but much less so today, with the armed opposition inside Syria effectively dominated by Salafis and Islamists. A truly "representative" opposition coalition, in actuality, would require adding a significant number of Salafis (there is no Salafi bloc in the National Coalition), but, presumably, this is not the sort of representation that the United States, Britain, and France have in mind.

In the early months of the uprising, the international community worked to build up the Syrian National Council (SNC), after a number of false starts and dueling opposition conferences. Soon enough, the SNC came to be seen as a Muslim Brotherhood proxy and was deemed insufficiently representative of Syria's ethnic and religious diversity (not without reason), so efforts were made to piece together a broader coalition, culminating in the formation of the National Coalition. This new 60-person strong coalition, in which the SNC was allotted a third of the seats, also came to be seen as dominated by the Brotherhood (despite Brotherhood members only officially having six seats). To be sure, the group is able to extend its influence beyond its numbers through a network of allies, including former Brotherhood members from Ahmed Ramadan's National Action Group. It seems self-defeating, though, to fault the Brotherhood for being better organized and more effective than the rest of the notoriously fractious Syrian opposition.

In recent weeks, there was yet another effort to "broaden" the coalition to include 20 to 25 additional seats for a liberal bloc led by veteran secular opposition leader Michel Kilo. Western nations, along with Saudi Arabia, effectively tried to strong-arm the National Coalition into accepting Kilo and his allies. When it went to a vote, Coalition members approved only six new seats (according to coalition bylaws, adding new seats requires a 42-vote supermajority). The French were reportedly furious, saying "unless you expand you will get no support from any of us." Such a reaction, through unsurprising, was a bit odd. In any organization, it is standard practice for existing members to approve expansion of membership.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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