The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was set up six seven months after the uprising against the Assad regime erupted in March of 2011, was the biggest and most significant Syrian opposition group in exile until November 11, 2012, when it joined the broader National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Previously, the SNC had been the main point of reference for countries backing the opposition. On April 1, 2012, the over 100 countries in the Friends of Syria group recognized it as “the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.” However, international wariness over the SNC’s continuing splits and schisms and its failure to unite the rest of the opposition behind a clear program and strategy prompted most countries which recognized it it only as a legitimate representative—rather than the sole representative—of the Syrian people.
On October 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States no longer considered the SNC to be “the visible leader of the opposition” and called for a new opposition leadership that would more effectively represent “those who are in the frontlines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom." After reorganization talks on November 7, 2012, the council elected George Sabra as president.
George Sabra: chairman
Abdul Basit Sida: former chairman
Burhan Ghalioun: former chairman (until June 10, 2012)
Muhammad Farouk Tayfour: member of the Executive Committee and head of the Relief & Development Projects Bureau
Ahmad Ramadan: spokesperson
The SNC was announced in Istanbul on October 2, 2011. This followed an earlier attempt to form a unified umbrella framework with the other principal opposition grouping in Syria, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which had been established in June. The “National Coalition” was announced in Doha in September 2011 but later failed to materialize. Instead, the SNC was set up by a coalition of groups and individuals, including signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005), the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, various Kurdish factions, representatives of the Local Coordination Committees, other political parties or platforms including Damascus Spring and the National Bloc, representatives of the Alawi and Assyrian communities, and some independent figures. By March 2012, the SNC claimed it comprised 90 percent of the opposition parties and movements, although this claim has been challenged by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and others.
Obstacles to Unity
The SNC has faced persistent difficulty maintaining internal unity and cohesion.
The main challenges and issues hampering SNC unity, which in turn deter unequivocal international support, include:
The Islamist Factor
The SNC contains a large Islamist component, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and a second Islamist bloc consisting of the “Group of 74,” mostly former Brotherhood members including many businessmen. With nearly one-quarter of the council’s 310 seats, the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly the largest and most coherent faction within the SNC, prompting some critics to argue that it wields excessive influence over decisionmaking and policymaking. In an effort to allay fears of Islamist domination, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a new “pledge and charter” on March 25, 2012, setting out its commitment to a civil constitution, full democracy, equality irrespective of ethnicity, religion, or gender, and freedoms of opinion and belief.
The Kurdish Issue
This subject has proven even thornier. Relations between Kurdish opposition parties and activists and the SNC have been strained from the outset, as both the SNC and the influential Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have resisted Kurdish demands for federalism or “political decentralization,” which would grant Kurdish autonomy within Syria. Kurdish spokespeople have accused the SNC of succumbing to pressure from Turkey and also suspect hostility on the part of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, given its warm relations with the Justice and Development Party government in Turkey.
The SNC sought to mend this rift by publishing the National Charter: the Kurdish Issue in Syria on April 2, recognizing “the national rights of the Kurdish people.” This document fell short, however, of meeting Kurdish demands and prompted the Kurdish National Council to break with the SNC. Kurdish representation in the SNC is now limited to Executive Committee member Abdul Basit Sida and the Future Party.
Armed Resistance, the Free Syrian Army, and International Intervention
The SNC’s unity and cohesion have also been strained by disagreements over how to respond to the regime’s increased resorting to violence and to the council’s initial reluctance to back armed resistance, arm rebels inside Syria, or support demands for outside intervention to protect civilians.
On March 12, 2012, the SNC announced a clear position, demanding the establishment and protection of humanitarian corridors and the imposition of a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria. It also said it was setting up a coordination bureau to channel arms from unspecified foreign governments to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Despite these policy shifts, the SNC’s relations with the Free Syrian Army have fluctuated. The announcement after the April 2012 Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul that Gulf Cooperation Council member states would channel funds through the SNC to pay the salaries of the Free Syrian Army did not lead to a more effective relationship between the two bodies nor to the emergence of a unified military command structure. Free Syrian Army commander, Colonel Riad al-Asaad remained outspoken in his criticism of the SNC, although the council has enjoyed a somewhat smoother relationship with the head of the military council, Major General Mustafa al-Sheikh. The decision to adopt a military strategy against the regime also exacerbated differences between the SNC and some of the other opposition factions, in particular the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change.
Fragmentation and Efforts to Unite
In addition to the walkout staged by the Kurdish parties, in February 2012 a group of influential dissidents led by Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Walid al-Nabi, Catherine al-Talli, and Fawwaz Tillo announced the formation of a “Syrian Patriotic Action Group” as a distinct platform within the SNC, which they criticized for its inefficiency and inaction. In mid-March, Maleh and Labwani resigned from the SNC, followed by some 70 other members. They rejoined the council two weeks later as it attempted to unify its ranks ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on April 1, but the break became final when Maleh formed the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees.
In mid-June, disagreements within the SNC between the Islamist Group of 74 and other smaller factions within the National Bloc resulted in its division into two wings. One of these wings, the Union of Democratic Coordination, is led by Ahmad Ramadan, while the other, which has not declared an official name, is headed by Radwan Ziadeh. The SNC settled the dispute by allocating to each of the factions three seats on the General Secretariat and one seat on the Executive Committee. This doubled the representation of the National Bloc within the SNC, raising concern in some quarters that Islamist control of the SNC had increased. The two blocs remained represented in the SNC’s General Assembly, and Ahmad Ramadan was returned to the Executive Committee.
Meanwhile, the Arab League sought to unify opposition ranks. Its first attempt in mid-May collapsed when the SNC and other groups announced they would not attend a planned meeting in Cairo, despite several weeks of preparatory meetings. Its second attempt was more successful: 250 members of various opposition groups and coalitions, including the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, finally convened in Cairo on July 2–3. They issued two closing documents, a National Pact and a Joint Political Plan for the Transitional Phase, and agreed in general terms to support the Free Syrian Army, dissolve the ruling Baath Party, and exclude President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime figures from a role in the transition. However, conference participants were unable to agree on the formation of a unified body to represent the opposition.
Principal members of the Friends of Syria who were represented at the Cairo meeting accepted that it was more important for the opposition to agree on a common political platform for transition than to achieve formal organizational unity. However, they grew increasingly frustrated over the following four months with the continuing failure of the SNC to increase representation within its ranks of opposition groups and emerging civilian structures inside Syria and its inability to formulate concrete proposals for a transitional government.
When Secretary Clinton publicly broke ranks with the SNC, she endorsed the Syrian National Initiative, a plan developed by SNC Executive Committee member Riad Seif, as an alternative leadership and representative framework. Severely embarrassed that it was undercut, the SNC responded by accusing Washington of “sowing the seeds of division” and indicated that it would refuse to join the new body. But it eventually signed the agreement, formed the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and was awarded 22 seats out of 63 in the coalition’s governing political council. About half a dozen other SNC members were also given seats as “independent national figures” or representatives of minorities.
Other SNC dissenters such as Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, and Tawfik Dunia also joined the political council of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Riad Seif, who failed to be reelected to the SNC’s General Secretariat, became one of three deputy chairmen of the new coalition.
A few days earlier, on November 8, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria also announced their withdrawal from the SNC over its failure to adopt “serious and effective” reforms to make it more representative, although the head and two members of their bloc in the SNC opposed the decision.
The SNC envisions that the “new Syria” will be a “democratic, pluralistic, and civil state” as well as a “parliamentary republic with sovereignty of the people based on the principles of equal citizenship with separation of powers, the peaceful transfer of power, the rule of law, and the protection and guarantee of the rights of minorities.”
On March 27, 2012, it published a National Covenant for a New Syria, which it proposed as a common platform to share with other opposition groups. The covenant reiterated principles contained in the SNC’s original political program of November 20, 2011, including the commitment to:
• A democratic, pluralistic, and civil state, based on equal citizenship and rights, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and guaranteed rights for minorities
• Human rights as defined under international law, with basic freedoms of belief, opinion, assembly, and so on, without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender
• National rights for the Kurdish and Assyrian peoples within the framework of the unity of Syrian territory and people
• Full rights for women
• The restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions
The SNC also planned for a transitional period after the overthrow of the Syrian regime in which it would form a transitional government responsible for organizing parliamentary elections within six months. This would be followed by the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution within one year. The transitional government would also release detainees and prisoners, establish an independent judicial commission to address grievances, and create a national reconciliation commission.
On November 7, 2012, the SNC’s General Assembly adopted the Initiative for a National Conference leading to a Transitional Government. This called for a national conference to be convened—preferably inside Syria—to form a transitional government. A majority of the 300 delegates to the conference would come from local councils in the liberated areas, technocrats defecting from the regime, independent opposition groups, and armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. One-quarter of the delegates would represent the SNC. The transitional government would be announced once it was assured of international recognition, and the SNC and its various committees would continue to support the transitional government.
The SNC started with 310 members representing the main groupings that established it—the National Bloc, the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood Alliance, the Kurdish Bloc, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Damascus Spring, and grassroots movements—as well as a number of independent national figures. Membership of the General Assembly was expanded to 420 in November 2012 in order to increase representation of the opposition inside Syria and of thirteen new groups and other independent political figures that had joined the council.
The SNC is governed by a General Secretariat between meetings of its General Assembly. Initially comprising 26 members, the secretariat was enlarged to 45 in November 2012 in order to increase representation of the revolutionary grassroots movement in Syria and include newly joined groups.
Managing the SNC on a day-to-day basis is an Executive Committee. This committee initially had eight members but expanded to eleven in November 2012. The chairman, who is a member of the Executive Committee, is elected for a renewable term of three months.
Syrian exile academic and independent activist Burhan Ghalioun was elected as SNC chairman in October 2011. His chairmanship was renewed twice, but after being reelected on May 15, 2012, he announced that he would resign in response to repeated criticism of his leadership. On June 11, Kurdish writer and activist Abdul Basit Sida, representing the Kurdish Bloc within the SNC, was elected as the council's new chairman. He was succeeded on November 10 by George Sabra, a veteran left-wing dissident and leading member of the People’s Democratic Party. Because Sabra was born into a Christian family, his election was regarded as an attempt to defuse secular Syrian and Western concerns about Islamist influence in the SNC.
In addition to its governing political structure, the SNC has set up the following bureaus: Administration and Organization, Expatriate Affairs, Finance and Economic Affairs, Human Rights and Civil Society, International Relations, Legal Affairs, Media and Public Relations, Military Affairs, Policy and Planning, Relief and Development Projects, Revolution Support, and Tribal Affairs. Only a handful of these bureaus appear to be operational, most notably the office of Relief and Development Projects.