Meeting in Istanbul on April 1, 2012, the Friends of Syria agreed to help fund Syrian opposition fighters and provide communications equipment to the rebels, stopping well short of military intervention. Meanwhile, efforts by Kofi Annan under the banner of the United Nations take another tack—negotiating with the intransigent Bashar al-Assad. Though the Friends of Syria plan will help rebel forces, the opposition still faces significant obstacles. The Annan approach may hold the key to overcoming them, but the Syrian National Council may be unwilling to put its fragile cohesion to the test by adopting it.

The Friends of Syria concluding statement was politically significant for three main reasons. First, it demonstrated that the international commitment to “political transition leading to a civil, democratic, pluralistic, independent and free state” in Syria has solidified. That reinforces the message to members and supporters of the Syrian regime—and anybody still in the middle—that the regime will continue to be isolated. Ending the country’s continually deteriorating economic conditions and deepening financial crisis is now inextricably linked to the opposition’s demand for a fundamental restructuring of power.

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, the impact of war on states and societies, the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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Second, the Friends of Syria recognized the Syrian National Council in exile as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians and the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.” This did not go quite as far as the Syrian National Council might have wished—the statement did not recognize the council as the legitimate representative of all Syrians. Nonetheless, it gave the council a major boost, making it the channel through which all political and diplomatic consultation will go, along with financial support and humanitarian assistance.

This will be significant if the April 10 cease-fire accepted by the Syrian government holds and if the “comprehensive political dialogue” called for in the Annan peace plan, which was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on March 21, actually gets under way.

Granted, prospects for a lasting cease-fire and the full release of detained opposition activists are poor, and for a serious dialogue even poorer. But the recognition of the Syrian National Council by the Friends of Syria means that the regime will not be able to pick and choose its own “opposition” to talk to, as it has done in the past, and that it will have to negotiate in the presence of Arab and international mediators.

Should the Annan initiative reach a dead end, however, then the most significant aspect of the widening regional and international recognition of the Syrian National Council is that it has been formally appointed as the channel for funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—reportedly amounting to $100 million—to pay salaries and other expenses of the Free Syrian Army. This gives the council the means, for the first time, to exercise real influence over the opposition’s main military body and to subordinate it to the political leadership.

The third and most significant political conclusion from the meeting, however, is the obvious implication that the Friends of Syria will go no further in confronting the Syrian regime at this stage. Even senior members of the Syrian National Council recognize that there will be no external military intervention in the foreseeable future, though they argue that this may change and continue to lobby for one. Despite all appearances of full political and moral support, the Friends of Syria meeting has left the Syrian National Council facing several major challenges.

Foremost among them is the Syrian National Council’s lack of a political program, a road map for the transfer of power. Simply demanding the immediate departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or regarding this as the ultimate end goal of any diplomatic process, does not answer many difficult questions. Still unclear is how to engage the wide range of political and social groups that view regime change with trepidation, regardless of where their political sympathies lie.

What will happen to senior state officials, government ministers, top-ranking civil servants, and Baath Party members? Is there any reason to expect that they will facilitate the transfer of power without prior political arrangements and assurances? The Syrian National Council leadership argues that the problem lies exclusively with Assad and a tiny clique around him and can easily be resolved by his departure, but that approach side steps important questions.

In the absence of external military intervention, the Syrian National Council will struggle to retain the diplomatic momentum abroad and, more importantly, the political initiative inside Syria. It may soon find that recognition of its status as a legitimate representative and umbrella organization raises expectations it cannot meet, compelling it to develop new political initiatives that may not enjoy consensus support within the council, let alone the opposition as a whole.

The draft “National Pact for a New Syria” proposed by the Syrian National Council at its latest Istanbul meeting, along with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s new “pledge and charter,” articulate a commendable vision for a future, democratic Syria. But the more immediate and difficult task is to spell out steps and mechanisms for the coming phase and transition, if there is to be one.

Leading members and groups of the Syrian National Council increasingly respond to these challenges by focusing on what they call “reestablishing parity” with the regime. By that they mean creating a counterbalancing military capability to deter continued, indiscriminate violence by government forces.

Yet without externally protected safe havens, sanctuaries in neighboring countries, and a supply of weapons, none of which are forthcoming at present, the armed opposition will have to remain inside Syria, scattered in small numbers to avoid destruction. And that undermines the notion of parity. This search for parity simply bypasses the need for a political program, without resolving the difficult questions of how to retain control over armed groups inside Syria, develop the Free Syrian Army as a disciplined command structure and credible force, and maintain effective political leadership.

The Syrian National Council may find that the “comprehensive political dialogue” called for in the Annan peace plan is not merely something to be suffered temporarily but rather a powerful instrument in its hands. It would be naive in the extreme to pin any hopes on the regime committing itself to meaningful dialogue, but no less foolish to relinquish the call for dialogue as a means of political confrontation in and of itself.

Although the approach embodied in the Annan plan may be slow and painful, it crucially offers a means for the opposition to shift the confrontation from the military arena, where the regime is strongest, to the political and moral one, where the opposition is strongest. Without this, it is difficult to envisage the minority communities that are fearful of a sectarian or Islamist backlash—Alawis and Christians, in particular—and a large section of the Sunni middle class changing sides willingly.

That is why the Annan initiative is significant: By committing to dialogue and prioritizing a negotiated solution, the opposition will not persuade Assad to share or leave power. But it will reassure the large middle class and the minority communities, whose participation in post-conflict political reconciliation and economic reconstruction will be critical, and will generate internal pressures within Assad’s own camp.

Let there be no doubt that these sectors hold the key to the pace and manner of political transition in Syria, and to what comes after. For the Syrian National Council, and for the opposition more broadly, the issue is not whether the Annan plan can bring about meaningful peace talks with the regime in the immediate future. Rather, the aim should be to shift the political balance within Syria in the medium term, say six to nine months and onward. By then, the combined effects of attrition within regime ranks, capital flight, currency devaluation, and fuel shortages will make these additional societal sectors ripe for engagement. But without a road map, the potential for mobilizing them cannot be fulfilled.

Unfortunately, merely suggesting this sort of political debate within the opposition as a whole, inside and outside the country, and even within the Syrian National Council, provokes mutual recrimination and distrust.

If the Syrian National Council proves unable to deliver on unrealistic expectations over the coming months, it will lose the support of those in Syria who continue to defy the regime openly, without gaining new trust or allies among the other sectors it needs to win over and mobilize. The acid test will be whether the council can engage in this debate at leadership level and rebuild bridges with those opposition bodies inside Syria—such as the National Coordinating Body or the newly announced al-Watan coalition—that are being eclipsed both by regime violence and by the external endorsement of the Syrian National Council.

This piece was adapted from an op-ed that originally appeared in Al-Hayat.