Syrian National Coalition: Opposing Currents Fight for Control

President of the opposition Syrian National Council, George Sabra is surrounded by journalists as he arrives for a meeting with the Arab League general secretary along with SNC chief at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on 24 February 2013. (Photo: AFP - Khaled Desouki)

By: Mohammed Sayyid Rasas

Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The formation of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) over three months ago in Qatar was reluctantly accepted by opposition factions that saw it as a US-Russian vehicle to impose a political settlement on the Syrian crisis.

Preparations to form a new opposition body to replace the Syrian National Council began in the summer of 2012. This came shortly after the declaration of what became known as the “Geneva agreement on Syria,” a deal struck between the US and Russia for a political settlement of the crisis.

Washington felt that the Council was not open to such a solution and set out to form a new opposition coalition, charging former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with the task.

Ford’s mission, however, faced stiff resistance from the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the Council, as well as others in the opposition like Riad al-Turk, who understood early on that the aim of the new formation was to impose a political settlement with the regime.

In a newspaper interview on 7 December 2012, Turk freely expressed his reservations about the SNC – the Coalition, that is – despite having agreed to become a member, saying that he was not too excited about it because “it is intended to take the place of the Council, according to the wishes of the Americans.”

“The SNC was parachuted down on us to draw the domesticated opposition into a settlement with the regime,” he added. The Russians and Americans “want to exhaust the two sides in order to lead them into a Lebanese-style settlement where there are neither winners nor losers.”

It appears that Turk had decided to sabotage the SNC from within, insisting in the same interview that “what is most important is not what some of the major powers want, but what is happening on the ground inside Syria.” He said that he was counting on the armed opposition “to bring down the regime, no matter the cost.”

Turk’s views were backed by the effective leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Farouk Tayfour, who played a critical role in the Islamists’ armed uprising against Hafez al-Assad between 1979 and 1982.

In the July 2012 opposition conference in Cairo, Tayfour declared that “we are willing to take matters into our own hands,” after acknowledging that the Council’s strategy of foreign intervention along the lines of Iraq and Libya had failed.

Tayfour and Turk succeed in blocking Washington’s choice to head up the SNC, businessman Riad Seif, agreeing at the last minute to a compromise candidate with no political experience, the current president, Moaz al-Khatib.

Khatib consequently dropped what was considered a political bomb in the SNC by agreeing to “negotiations with the regime,” justifying it as a personal position due to the fact that “countries make promises, but do not fulfill them. They tell the Syrians to attack, but abandon them in the heat of battle.”

Within days, Khatib’s initiative galvanized support, first from Washington then the Russians and Iranians. Soon, elements within the opposition alliance, including Seif and a coterie of Damascene opposition businessmen, as well as a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, offered their support.

At first, Khatib’s dialogue initiative was little more than an attempt to test the waters within the SNC to see how far they would go in terms of a negotiated solution. But on 14 February 2013, in a meeting of the founding committee of the SNC in Cairo, the Coalition formally agreed to a “political solution,” while imposing some negotiation conditions.

Despite this, there remains two contradictory currents within the SNC still fighting to get their way. One side is moving in the direction of talking with certain elements within the regime, while the other continues to hold out for changing the military balance on the ground.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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