The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change is a coalition of non-armed opposition parties and figures based in Syria. The National Coordination Body was established in June 2011 to unite the demands of the opposition and organize political dialogue and peaceful anti-regime protests.
Its founding document called for peaceful protests to secure basic demands before the opposition would engage in any dialogue with the government: release of political prisoners, withdrawal of the army from cities, annulment of Article 8 of the constitution (ending the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power and allowing other parties to compete freely for public office), lifting the state of emergency, allowing foreign journalists to enter Syria, and prosecuting those responsible for violence. The document also presented a political program for the formation of an interim government and the introduction of key reforms. These included the drafting a new constitution and democratic laws governing the establishment of political parties and popular reconciliation; compensation for victims of the revolution; and addressing the Kurdish issue.
Members of the National Coordination Body are committed to three principles: “No” to foreign military intervention, “No” to religious and sectarian instigation, and “No” to violence and the militarization of the revolution.
Following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, opposition figures met to form a coalition of different political blocs. Some had already engaged in similar initiatives in the past, notably in 2005 when the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change gathered the largest number to date of signatories calling for the establishment of a democratic state. The 2005 coalition did not last long. Internal rifts led to the 2006 withdrawal of the Muslim Brotherhood, which suspended opposition activities following the start of an indirect dialogue with the Assad regime in 2008. The Arab Democratic Unionist Party withdrew in January of the same year, as did both the Communist Labor Party and the Democratic Socialist Arab Baath Party in September.
Following the start of protests in Syria, Burhan Ghalioun, Michel Kilo, Hussein al-Awdat, Aref Dalila, Habib Issa, Abdul-Aziz al-Khair, and Hazem Nahar called on all opposition parties to reconvene despite political and personal differences in order to develop a common vision. The National Coordination Body was formed in Damascus, bringing together fifteen political parties and several independent figures. However, uniting opposition figures in Syria and abroad—and in particular meeting with the Istanbul Group (later named the Syrian National Council)—was no easy task.
In September 2011, representatives of the National Coordination Body, the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the independent Islamic movement met in Doha to discuss the crisis and agree on a united political platform. The participants agreed to form a national coalition including the four movements, to be announced in Damascus. This agreement also proved to be short-lived, however. When the Arab League announced a peace initiative in September 2011 proposing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power for an additional two years, the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew from the agreement.
In light of political differences with the Syrian National Council and other supporting countries, the National Coordination Body refrained from attending the Friends of Syria conferences, held in Tunisia in February 2012 and in Istanbul and Paris in April 2012. Turkey had meanwhile recognized the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the opposition, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar had called for arming the Free Syrian Army, a move opposed by the National Coordination Body. However, the National Coordination Body joined the Syrian National Council and representatives from other opposition groups and coalitions at a conference convened in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League on July 2–3. They issued two closing documents, setting out 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. Yet, conference participants were unable to agree on the formation of a unified body to represent the opposition.
More recently, the National Coordination Body organized the Syria Salvation Conference on September 23, 2012, in Damascus. Twenty other opposition groups and movements attended the conference, which concluded with a call for the immediate toppling of the regime and the establishment of a civil democratic state. Although the gathering was tolerated by state authorities, at least three members of the participating groups were detained a few days prior to the conference.
The issue of whether or not to conduct negotiations with the Syrian government continues to divide the National Coordination Body and the Syrian National Council. The National Coordination Body called for negotiations when the protests began in Syria; but it refrained from calling for the overthrow of Assad, a key demand of the Syrian National Council. Arming the opposition Free Syrian Army has been another contentious issue. Although the National Coordination Body believes the Free Syrian Army is an essential part of the revolution and plays a key role in protecting society, it fears an escalation of violence and thus rejects calls to arm it.
The National Coordination Body has also rejected international support and foreign military intervention, instead calling for internal pressure on the Syrian government in order to achieve a political solution. With the announcement of Kofi Annan’s peace plan in March 2012, some Coordination Body figures indicated their approval of arming the Free Syrian Army or even accepting “humanitarian intervention” should this plan fail. In a radical change of position, National Coordination Body chairman Hassan Abdul Azim indicated his support for intervention during his visit to Moscow on April 17, 2012, partially bridging the gap with the Syrian National Council.
The National Coordination Body has also objected to what it calls the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination in the Syrian National Council, which it views as misrepresenting the Syrian people. In the words of the deputy chairman of the National Coordination Body and spokesperson abroad, Haytham Manna, the Brotherhood accounts for “no more than 10% of Syrian society, at most.”
Main Parties and Forces
At its inception, the National Coordination Body encompassed opposition figures and parties including the National Democratic Rally. The Rally itself comprised five parties, notably the Democratic Arab Socialist Union headed by Hassan Abdul Azim, the official spokesperson for the National Democratic Rally and chairman of the National Coordination Body. The Rally also included the Arab Revolutionary Workers’ Party, represented by Hazem Nahar; the Communist Labor Party, represented by Abdul-Aziz al-Khair; the Arab Socialist Movement, represented by Munir al-Bitar; the Syriac Union Party; and the Democratic People’s Party, which has not been represented in the Executive Bureau of the National Coordination Body. The National Coordination Body also included parties with Marxist leanings; the Together for a Free Democratic Syria movement, founded by Mounzer Khaddam; and independent, civil society neighborhood committees.
As for Kurdish representation, the Coordination Body initially included four political parties represented by two members within the Executive Bureau: Saleh Muslim Mohammed representing the Democratic Union Party and Nasreddin Ibrahim representing the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria. However, with the exception of the Democratic Union Party, the other Kurdish parties withdrew from the National Coordination Body in January 2012 to join the Kurdish National Council, which they had helped establish in October 2011 along with other Kurdish parties that had initially joined the Syrian National Council. The issue of Kurdish rights, especially with regards to political rather than administrative autonomy within post-Assad Syria, still troubles most Kurdish parties’ relationship with the National Coordination Body as well as with the Syrian National Council.
Regional and International Ties
The National Coordination Body has stated its willingness to engage in dialogue with “all forces and countries to explain its positions and understand the positions of those forces and countries, based on the respect of national sovereignty.” It enjoys partial international recognition. In January and April 2012, a delegation from the National Coordination Body visited Russia, which supports political dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition and rejects a military solution to the crisis. In January 2012 a National Coordination Body delegation headed to Iran, a visit allegedly organized in coordination with the Syrian government, and in February 2012 another delegation visited China. The National Coordination Body has also engaged in discussions with several Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia in addition to meeting ambassadors from European Union countries, the United States, South Africa, and Japan. Relations have been less than cordial with the Gulf Cooperation Council member states in general, and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, given disagreement over whether to engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime and over arming the opposition. Ties with Turkey have been no better, given the country’s undisguised preference for the Syrian National Council.