The Arab League is calling on the badly divided Syrian opposition to unite, in order to “negotiate as one bloc with the Syrian government.” To that end, it has invited main opposition factions to meet under its auspices in Cairo in mid-May. A ten-person committee representing the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Body, the Kurdish National Council, and the Syrian Democratic Platform have been meeting weekly since mid-April to formulate a common vision of a post-Assad Syria. But unless the opposition develops a clear transition plan and a credible political strategy for winning over key sectors in Syria, it will fail in bringing about change.

A challenge bedeviling the opposition since summer 2011 has been to agree on quotas for factional representation, the distribution of top posts and leadership committees, and operating procedures within a unified organizational framework. But even if the factions reach some formula for unity in Cairo, they will still not be ready for the complex challenges that lie ahead, whether or not serious talks with the regime actually take place.

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces and nonstate actors, the impact of war on states and societies, and the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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For example, the Syrian National Council has accepted the “comprehensive political dialogue” called for in the Annan peace plan only rhetorically, and has no credible strategy to engage and make progress in such talks if they take place. The SNC has assumed that renewed regime violence will inevitably abort the entire process and relieve the opposition of the responsibility to have a credible negotiating plan.

More importantly, the Syrian opposition has not yet developed a strategy to chip away at the regime’s support base. To foment change, the opposition needs to encourage dissent and splits within the regime’s core ranks and support base. Minorities that have rallied behind the regime out of fear of the alternative need to be reassured of their post-Assad future. And the large urban middle class that dislikes the regime but is deterred by the high costs of openly opposing it and discouraged by the opposition’s disunity and militarization needs to be convinced that the opposition offers a credible alternative.

These sectors of Syrian society are key to tipping the struggle for power in Syria. Indeed, the actions of the Friends of Syria are premised on the assumption that the economic and financial sanctions they have imposed on Syria might eventually prompt core regime members to remove President Bashar al-Assad or prod the country’s minorities or urban middle classes into open opposition. Yet in the absence of a political strategy to channel the distress of these social sectors and convince them of a viable alternative, simply hoping that sanctions will somehow produce the desired results is no strategy at all. Indeed, the current approach is prompting an exodus of businessmen from the country, and of senior army officers who slip into Turkey rather than lead their units into rebellion. This is eroding some of the very sectors upon which opposition hopes are at least partly pinned.

The Friends of Syria can afford to live with the lack of a political strategy, but the opposition cannot. It has yet to negotiate and draft what veteran Syrian activist Michel Kilo calls “a practicable political pact . . . defining the features of the phase of the transfer of power, how long it will take, the tasks of this phase, and ways to liquidate tyranny, present a democratic alternative, and ensure the people’s rights and so on.” Announcing a convincing transition plan is equally important whether, against all odds, a substantive dialogue starts with the regime or if the regime persists in waging indiscriminate violence and eliminates the possibility of a negotiated transition or interim pact.

The opposition must go well beyond simply demanding the regime's downfall or articulating highly idealistic visions for a future democratic Syria. Formal commitment to democracy and rule of law, political and cultural pluralism, civil and human rights, equality for all citizens, and freedom of opinion is highly commendable, but making clear how the country will get there is another matter.  Nor is it enough to present general proposals for the procedures and mechanisms through which a new constitution may be drafted and approved or for a new electoral system. Democratic transition in Syria unavoidably means negotiating formulas for power sharing and guarantees for individuals, parties, and communities that have the most to lose. Otherwise they can raise the costs of transition very considerably.

The toughest question facing the opposition is how to convince Alawis—or at least a significant portion of them—that they have a stake in a post-Assad Syria. This is closely related to the issue of what the opposition proposes to do with the ruling Baath Party should it be toppled from power, and with the senior army officer corps and the internal security apparatus. The latter two must certainly be democratized, and the disproportionate representation of Alawis in top positions corrected. But this must be done without pauperizing wide cross sections of the Alawi community that depend on employment within the state sector and without alienating the community through collective punishment.

Indeed, planning to criminalize the Baath Party, as happened in Iraq, would be unwise. This is not so much because the Syrian Baath claims 3 million members—whereas its Iraqi counterpart adopted an elitist approach, deliberately keeping its number small to ensure loyalty and effectiveness; a great many members of the Syrian Baath will owe it no special allegiance if it loses power. Rather, the rationale for coexisting with the Baath Party in Syria is that it will provide an institutional means for Alawi participation in formal politics and a potential parliamentary vehicle that is far from being a mere front for Alawi interests.

The opposition is not, in any case, in a position to dissolve the Baath Party, or to dictate terms. It faces a hard enough time cohering and formulating common rules for political dialogue and engagement within its own ranks. And yet the opposition—and some of its key external backers—has yet to absorb the full implications of being up against a regime that is weakened but still far from being on the ropes. Those in the opposition who use their belief in the inevitability of the regime’s fall to absolve themselves of the obligation to develop a political strategy that can bring about a real transition risk becoming marginal and irrelevant.

Every transitional experience in the region over the past decade—not least that of Iraq since 2003—confirms that democratic transition goes through several stages, each posing multiple and possibly bloody obstacles. The process will be slow, but convincing those who are anxious about the identity and intentions of their future leaders requires engagement and a clear strategy.

This is where the significance of the Annan peace plan lies: in compelling the Syrian opposition to develop a comprehensive transition plan and a political strategy for engaging the regime—whether through negotiation or confrontation—and appealing to key constituents within the country. The opposition won’t persuade Assad to share or leave power simply by doing this, but it can hope to generate pressures within his support base and help build political and social constituencies whose engagement is essential in pushing toward transition and whose participation will be essential for post-conflict political reconciliation and economic reconstruction.

Indeed, whether talks take place in the near future or not, the outcome of the Syrian standoff depends on shifting Syria’s internal political balance within the next six-to-nine months. By this time the combined effects of attrition among regime ranks, currency devaluation, and fuel shortages affecting summer irrigation and winter heating may broaden receptiveness to the opposition’s political strategy. But first it has to have one.