The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition)—the main representative of the opposition—is barely holding its ground. When the most recent round of the Geneva II peace talks collapsed in February 2014, the failure simply papered over the coalition’s continuing lack of a political strategy to defeat the Assad regime. As a senior figure admitted during the talks, “if we could beat them on the ground, we wouldn’t have reached this point.” 

The entire fate of the political opposition is hostage to dysfunctional internal politics, which are now largely driven by the rivalry between two major Arab backers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each of which sponsors competing factions within the National Coalition. This predicament has been brought vividly to the fore by a sharp deterioration in Saudi-Qatari relations since the start of 2014, a shift that has deepened the coalition’s internal divisions and complicated its relations with the rebel Free Syrian Army command. These political travails, along with the coalition’s persistent institutional paralysis and failure to demonstrate command ability on the ground inside Syria, now threaten to implode the provisional government it officially inaugurated on November 12, 2013. 

The National Coalition has been unable to provide credible political leadership and strategic direction, and it has failed to build effective administrative structures and a continuous presence in liberated areas of Syria. It has no prospect of overcoming these shortcomings in the future, given its dysfunctional internal dynamics and total dependence on continued recognition by the Friends of Syria for political status and survival. The coalition is living on borrowed time.

A Brief Respite 

The National Coalition enjoyed temporary relief from its political travails during the Geneva II talks, but the respite proved all too brief. By all accounts, the coalition’s internal divisions did not prevent it from performing well during the negotiations. The signs had boded poorly initially; its inability to form a unified delegation until the very eve of the first round of Geneva II talks in January 2014 gave little confidence that it could provide strong leadership in an eventual transition process—or fend off continuing political challenges from both partners and rivals until then. But it appeared to rise to the occasion, and at the second round of talks in February the coalition presented a solidly crafted, detailed vision for a system of government and a constitutional framework in the transitional phase. It also put forth a 24-point Statement of Basic Principles for reaching national accord and protecting basic rights in the interim. 

The National Coalition is far from off the hook, however. Its decision in principle last November to negotiate with the regime was deeply unpopular among many civilian activists and armed rebels inside Syria; the military commander of the powerful Islamic Front, Zahran Alloush, tweeted on January 7 that anyone attending the Geneva II talks would be a target for retribution. The coalition’s own ranks split when it finalized its participation in the conference, and the Syrian National Council bloc of 22 members withdrew in protest on January 20. 

The collapse of the peace talks enabled the National Coalition to bring its discourse back in line with its grass roots and much of the armed rebellion, including those who had opposed its participation in Geneva. The Syrian National Council responded by reaffirming its membership in the coalition on February 22. 

But this diplomatic hiatus merely postponed the moment when the coalition must either engage in substantive negotiations with the regime or face up to the need to devise a credible new political strategy capable of engaging the regime’s own support base and breaking it away. 

With Friends Like These

The National Coalition’s reprieve during the Geneva talks also momentarily masked the extent of its incapacitation by renewed Saudi-Qatari competition for influence over the Syrian opposition. 

The reinvigorated contest between the two Gulf states reflects the collapse of an understanding reached in summer 2013 between Saudi King Abdullah and the new emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, over the transfer of the Syrian file from Qatari to Saudi hands. Since then, Saudi Arabia has sought to consolidate the position of Ahmad al-Jarba, whom it supported to become the new chairman of the National Coalition in July 2013. The renewed struggle between Saudi- and Qatari-backed factions within the coalition has further polarized the body’s internal politics. 

On January 5, the Saudi-backed Jarba was reelected coalition chairman, signaling the start of an open crisis that threatened to pull the National Coalition apart even before it attended the Geneva II talks. Riad Hijab, who stood as the rival candidate for what is seen as the Qatari-backed faction, announced his withdrawal from the coalition six days later in response to what he labeled “autocratic decisionmaking” and the coalition’s polarization between internal factions and its Arab and regional backers. 

Another 43 of the National Coalition’s 120 members pulled out with Hijab, citing a familiar litany of complaints about the “continuing absence of integrity in institutional activity and an insistent mentality of exclusion, monopoly, and hijacking decisionmaking.” Leading the dissenters was Mustafa Sabbagh, widely regarded as Qatar’s man in the National Coalition. According to credible opposition sources, Sabbagh—who had lost his bid to be re-elected as secretary general in the January 5 vote—was discussing the possibility of forming a new opposition body to supplant the National Coalition with Islamic Front military commander Alloush, who has been based in Turkey since late 2013. 

Nothing came of this bid. Indeed, following a surprise decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha on March 5, 2014, Sabbagh announced that he and the other 43 dissenters who had pulled out of the National Coalition in January would now return to its ranks, “in light of the dangerous developments in which the revolution is passing.” 

But the crisis is far from over. Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization on March 8, a move that targeted the group’s presence in the Gulf and, secondarily, in Egypt and also posed a serious dilemma for the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch, which is an important component of the National Coalition (and of the Syrian National Council). The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which supported Jarba’s election and reelection as coalition chairman in a bid to gain Saudi favor, has maintained a studied silence in public, but in private its leaders admit to being severely discomfited. 

In addition, the Saudi campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is integral to its feud with Qatar, making the Syrian opposition’s task of reconciling Saudi priorities with its own need for unity much harder. The opposition cannot afford to turn its back altogether on the Brotherhood, which has membership networks in exile that lend the National Coalition what little organizational coherence it has.

Complicating the Opposition’s Civil-Military Relations

Saudi-Qatari rivalry is also detrimentally impacting the National Coalition’s relationship with the command of the Free Syrian Army, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). The SMC has exercised the barest influence over the armed rebellion since its formation in December 2012. This fact has prompted a Saudi push since August 2013 to bring a majority of rebel groups inside Syria and defecting army officers grouped in Jordan and Turkey into a new “national army” that will be loyal to the coalition. Since February 2014, open feuding between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has triggered an equally vehement confrontation between the coalition’s Jarba and Brigadier Salim Idris, until recently head of the SMC, and exposed very public divisions within the rebel command.

Tension had been brewing since late 2013. Despite Qatar ostensibly taking a backseat in relations with both the National Coalition and the armed rebellion in deference to Saudi Arabia, it responded to Saudi backing for the emergence of new rebel coalitions by sponsoring the merger of competing clusters of groups into larger formations. Qatar also discreetly maintained ties with then SMC head Idris, who reportedly approached Doha in late 2013 or early 2014 in a bid to secure direct military assistance and funding for rebel groups nominally under his command. 

Idris was moreover privy to the private discussion between Sabbagh and Alloush regarding setting up a competitor to the National Coalition. Relations between Idris and Jarba were already strained, and they soured further when several of the SMC’s fifteen representatives in the National Coalition who were loyal to Idris joined the bloc of dissenting coalition members that withdrew on January 11, 2014. Two weeks later, Idris also sought to counter the inclusion of Saudi-backed groups in the SMC by endorsing the establishment of a new rebel alliance, the Hazm Movement

These behind-the-scenes maneuvers may have been why, on February 16, Idris was replaced as SMC head by Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, a member of the southern al-Nuaimi tribe and an ally of Jarba, himself from an eastern Syrian tribe. Also aligned against Idris was Asaad Mustafa, minister of defense in the National Coalition’s provisional government and a fellow Nuaimi tribesman of Bashir. Mustafa had earlier confirmed his intention to form a single “free national army” comprising all rebel groups, such as the Islamic Front, and to work in particular with defected Syrian Army officers based in Jordan and Turkey, of whom there are estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000. Both elements have been integral to Saudi plans for the armed rebellion. 

Idris immediately rejected his dismissal, accusing Jarba of “operating with a mentality of clientelism and buying influence and loyalties.” Idris also complained that “all and sundry disbursed salaries to [his] officers and units and bought their loyalty.” Roughly half the SMC’s 30 members, including the field commanders of its five “fronts” and the heads of several other military councils in Syria, came out in strong support of Idris, describing his dismissal in a collective statement as “legally null and void.” On March 6, Idris and his supporters in the General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces formally announced their “disengagement” from the “council of 30” (the SMC) and from Mustafa’s defense ministry. They are also freezing all relations with Jarba. 

Mustafa and SMC head Bashir cemented what is likely to be a long-lasting rift by appointing a new general staff on March 30. In addition, they pledged to form new military councils inside Syria that they promised would be “closer to the ground and the battlefield.” But claims of fresh blood and field presence remain to be tested. Although a few of the new appointees are affiliated with some of the larger rebel groups, all are commissioned officers who defected from the Syrian Army. Many of them have been in camps in Turkey and Jordan since their defections. Several have, moreover, appeared in previous, short-lived command lineups at various times since 2012. 

Also, although the rebel Mujahideen Army, Sixteenth Division, and First al-Fath Division joined a new military operations room in Aleppo that Bashir announced on March 28, his claim that this force is “unified” ignores the presence of other major players in the city that do not come under its authority. 

Taking the Provisional Government Hostage 

Another hostage of the National Coalition’s dysfunctional politics and the Saudi-Qatari rivalry that underlies much of them is the provisional government. This body, which is subordinate to the coalition, remains largely a scheme on paper, but it is emerging as a new frontline in the coalition’s factional struggles. As a result, the provisional government has been unable to develop administrative capability in liberated areas or support local councils effectively, and its ministers and staff have not yet moved from exile in Turkey into Syria.

The provisional government’s inability to establish an on-the-ground presence poses a threat to the coalition’s political claim to represent all Syrians and its ambition to displace the Assad regime. Indeed, on March 9 Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said that the National Coalition could not assume Syria’s seat in the organization because “it has not yet established its institutions.” 

Elaraby’s statement came exactly one year after a majority of Arab foreign ministers had called on the National Coalition to form an executive body that could be entrusted with sovereign functions. Yet the provisional government has been treated as something of an illegitimate child since Ghassan Hito was appointed its head on March 18, 2013, unloved and unwanted by many in the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syria. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, in particular, opposed the creation of an alternate government inside Syria. Indeed, most factions in the National Coalition itself were extremely reluctant to form a body that could become a political competitor, and they strove to ensure that a provisional government would be no more than an “executive administration,” as Jarba described it. Unable to make any headway, Hito resigned on July 8. 

Another four months passed before the provisional government finally saw the light of day under a new prime minister, Ahmad Tomeh. But nothing has changed in its dysfunctional dynamics, despite upbeat announcements to the contrary. On January 1, 2014, for example, one of Tomeh’s advisers stated that employees were being assigned to liaise between cabinet ministers in Turkey and the administration in Syria. He also claimed that the provisional government was preparing to launch a one-hundred-day action plan.

But these initiatives were immediately waylaid by the resumption of Saudi-Qatari rivalry, which renewed the factional tussle within the National Coalition for control of the provisional government. Former SMC head Idris explained his dismissal as the result of a feud between Jarba’s ally, Defense Minister Mustafa, and Tomeh, for example, and civilian activists accused Jarba of seeking to replace Tomeh with Mustafa. Evident tensions between the three men are prompting continued speculation in opposition media about a cabinet reshuffle, further undermining the provisional government’s credibility. 

The rivalry next spilled into an open struggle for control of the local administrative councils that provide services and relief activities in liberated areas of Syria. These councils had previously been Sabbagh’s responsibility as an executive committee bureau member in the National Coalition, but following his withdrawal Jarba apparently sought to assume Sabbagh’s role. The provisional government meanwhile strove to assert its own authority, convening a conference in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep on March 4 to form a coordinating body for the opposition’s provincial councils. This meeting was adjourned amid mutual recriminations between supporters of the opposing camps. 

And although the sharp rise in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar following the March 5 withdrawal of the Gulf ambassadors from Doha had prompted the National Coalition’s dissenters under Sabbagh to mend fences with Jarba, the truce proved short-lived. Internal feuding was rekindled by the coalition’s announcement on March 9 that it had established a Higher Council for Local Administration. The provisional government’s ministry of local administration pointedly denied any connection with the new body and accused Sabbagh of a power play. The struggle over the right to represent and manage local councils inside Syria is now between three bodies, to the detriment of the civilian councils themselves. 

Building Castles in the Air

Local councils in Syria’s liberated areas are still struggling to assert their authority over rebel groups and the rival administrative and judicial bodies they are forming, all while contending with severe shortages of funding and other material resources and the regime’s unrelenting bombardment. The continued incapacitation of the provisional government has impeded these councils from improving performance. This is in large part due to the difficulty of learning and exchanging experiences between dispersed liberated areas and to the constant threat of regime attack, as veteran human rights activist and provisional Minister of Transitional Justice Radwan Ziadeh explained on February 24. And now the National Coalition’s factional politics exert an increasingly heavy toll on the local councils.

This effect was demonstrated on March 6, when the administration of local councils in the eastern Ghoutah near Damascus said it would boycott elections scheduled by the National Coalition because its coordination bureau in Jordan had imposed certain candidates “due to personal loyalties and corruption.” In nearby Sweida, meanwhile, the provincial council stated its refusal to join the newly announced Higher Council for Local Administration, saying the new body “lacks a sound legal basis of affiliation to the provisional government and Ministry of Local Administration.” 

The eastern Ghoutah, which is notable for the resilience and pluralism of its grassroots structures, also reveals the challenges of functioning in the shadow of locally based rebel groups such as the Army of Islam and the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, which are locked in an increasingly bitter struggle to assert the authority of their affiliated judicial bodies.

Many activists have tried to avoid these internecine struggles, working with both the provisional government’s Ministry of Local Administration and the Higher Council for Local Administration. But the launch of a Facebook campaign in late March by others calling for the removal of National Coalition Chairman Jarba on the grounds of “inaction, corruption, and clientelism” shows how the factionalism of the exile opposition is reflecting upon structures inside Syria and complicating the provisional government’s task even further. 

Consequently, as local activists confirmed in an otherwise favorable account of the experience of al-Ghadfa, a town in Idlib Province, the local council “still lacks organizational structures, clear mechanisms of coordination, statistics, information, and civil record data.” More crucially, these activists deemed the National Coalition’s involvement “too slight to be worth mentioning.” 

The coalition’s one effective agency operating both inside and outside Syria, the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), has suffered its own infighting. In late November 2013, ACU employees went on strike to protest what they described as autocratic behavior by their head, coalition Deputy Chairperson Suheir Atassi, and corruption. Atassi disputed their claims, but the ACU was subsequently placed under an acting director reportedly loyal to Jarba. 

By the third anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising on March 15, the provisional government had still not built a physical presence on the ground, nor had it demonstrated an appreciable impact on administration and service delivery in opposition-held areas in Syria. Strapped for resources, it has done little to date beyond allocating modest payments to besieged towns in Syria. Deputy Prime Minister Iyad al-Qudsi announced $250,000 for Yabroud and $500,000 for several outlying neighborhoods of Damascus on March 13, for example. Paralyzed by factional competition, the provisional government was unable even to agree on nominations for the ministers of health and education until April 6, five months after its inauguration. 

The grim reality is that both the National Coalition and the provisional government are mere spectators of unfolding events inside Syria. The leadership void this has left in liberated areas is prompting a search for alternatives. One example among several is the Coalition of the Internal Opposition that convened in the Ghoutah in early October 2013 as a substitute for the National Coalition, but this body quickly dissipated. It was followed by the Syrian National Initiative, which declared its existence on December 22 and in mid-January 2014 published a detailed blueprint for a Syrian transitional authority comprising provincial councils; an army; police, relief, and reconstruction agencies; a constitutional assembly; and other bodies. Unfortunately this, too, is as much building castles in the air as the provisional government.

Counting Down for the Opposition

The opposition’s dysfunctional politics at the top have long had a detrimental impact on its grass roots. As veteran activist Hazem Nahar argued in a comment on the uprising’s third anniversary, bodies such as the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition have remained a preserve for a limited coterie of “old parties, with conventional organizational structures and limited presence, few of which have more than a few dozen members”—almost all of whom have reappeared in one opposition platform after another since 1979. But a majority of independent activists affiliated with these bodies, he argued, “are youth . . . who are marginal in the decisions and activities of parties and alliances.” Indeed, according to a field survey conducted in late 2013, unaffiliated civilian activists have been largely sidelined even in liberated areas, where much of their effort has shifted to relief work rather than overt political action. 

Commenting on the opposition’s disarray on February 9, Wael Mirza, former secretary of the Syrian National Council and a senior opposition adviser, wrote “we cannot escape the truth that the revolution has reached a state of overwhelming chaos on all levels, losing the initiative in most respects, and its general course has become a series of political, military, media, and relief reactions.” 

Privately, senior National Coalition officials acknowledge the coalition’s incapacitation. Publicly, they periodically call for internal reform and declare their openness to dialogue with other opposition bodies. Speaking in early April, for example, National Coalition Secretary General Badr Jamous announced that the coalition would concentrate in the coming phase on “unifying revolutionary forces” and assured his audience it was already undertaking “serious and important steps to institutionalize and restructure.” 

But the Syrian uprising is no longer in its heyday and cannot generate new momentum, let alone consensual new opposition structures. This leaves it dangerously dependent on the armed rebellion, which is also trending downward.

What survives of the revolutionary grass roots inside the country over the coming year may develop alternative forms, strategies, and leaderships, positioning it to engage with potential political openings and new allies should the regime’s support base finally crack. This is the opposition’s only real hope. Yet unless the National Coalition can develop credible political leadership and effective administration inside Syria, it will be unable to reverse the trend. The outlook for those trying to make it succeed looks bleak.

This article is part of a series on the state of the Syrian conflict that includes pieces on the Assad regime, the armed rebellion, and each side’s prospects.