Syrian National Coalition: The Road to Legitimacy

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President of the opposition Syrian National Council George Sabra arrives at a conference focusing on investment in future Syria in the Gulf emirate of Dubai 21 November 2012. (Photo: AFP - Karim Sahib)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The West has given the newly formed Syrian opposition alliance, the National Coalition (NC), a major boost, as France leads the way in recognizing it as the sole representative of the Syrian people and even allowing it to appoint an ambassador in Paris.

Despite the importance of the French step – which is not satisfied with just cutting off relations with Damascus – it remains a political rather than a legal action. It does not necessarily mean that the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad has faded, regardless of how much control he retains within the country.

The advanced French step of recognizing the NC and accepting an ambassador to represent it leads to several observations:

1. Syria remains a fully recognized member-state of the United Nations, with Assad as its president. Its membership has not been suspended temporarily, or terminated in any way. The country’s status at the UN is similar to its status in the Arab League, where Syria’s membership was frozen, without expelling it or issuing a decision on the legitimacy of Assad.

An NC representative was accepted into the Arab League as an observer only – they have the right to speak but cannot vote or exercise the rights of the regime in the forum.

The situation with the French recognition is similar in that Paris cannot legally take over the Syrian embassy there, which is the property of Damascus. Nor can the French authorities legally enter the premises of the embassy or take possession of documents and records inside.

Paris doesn’t even have the authority to allow anyone into the building without Syrian government approval. Therefore, in such a situation, the best that the NC can aspire to is to become a representative body in France, for it cannot legally take on the role of the embassy.

2. On the schedule of each annual gathering of the UN General Assembly is a clause about the protection of diplomatic missions. Based on the Vienna Convention of 1961, which regulates diplomatic relations between states, the clause allows any country whose embassy has been subject to an attack to raise a complaint to the UN.

In this case, Syria can raise a complaint against France, although it is not totally innocent, given that the French embassy in Damascus was shut down last March after the departure of ambassador Éric Chevallier, who was attacked on several occasions by Syrian citizens for having met with opposition figures.

3. The appointment of an ambassador representing the “Syrian people” and not the Syrian state raises a number of legal complications for the French court system, particularly if a related dispute occurs which requires their intervention.

It was far easier for France to cut off relations with Damascus and shut its embassy down than to give legal legitimacy to a popularly-based authority like the Syrian opposition coalition.

Any given country’s legal system can deal with individuals as individuals and states or institutions as such, but the problem arises when having to deal with individuals and groups as representatives of states that still exist and are recognized according to international conventions.

4. Undoubtedly, recognition of the NC by France – along with Italy and Turkey – is very important for bilateral relations between the two. In the eyes of Paris, the NC has become the sole representative of the Syrian people with an ambassador in Paris. Up to this point, such a step represents pure moral support and nothing more.

But, once a government-in-exile is declared and other countries recognize it, the legitimacy of the NC will take a qualitative step forward. At the end of the day, the jewel in the crown – i.e., being recognized at the UN – remains an impossible step.

How are China and Russia to be convinced to strip the regime of its seat and support the opposition in its bid to take it over?

The idea is that official recognition of the opposition is part of a gradual process of increasing pressure on the regime, while at the same time strengthening the role of the armed rebellion within the country. But the picture is not so clear in the view of regional parties who have a direct stake in the Syrian crisis.

First, we must consider the Iranian Revolutionary Guards mission that was sent to Syria to appraise the situation there. It later moved on to Lebanon, where it met with Hezbollah officials.

The mission concluded that Iran must support the Assad regime by all means possible and without delay, as the consequences of the regime’s fall will have a devastating impact that Damascus’ allies will live to regret. The fear is that if the regime is defeated, the battle could very well move on to the streets of Baghdad and even Iran itself.

Second, we must also pay attention to what prominent Western diplomatic sources in Lebanon are saying in official meetings. They predict that in the coming months, the Assad regime will be subjected to more serious tremors, laying out three scenarios:

– The NC will declare a government in exile that will quickly be recognized by over 100 countries, including Arab and European states and the United States.

– The continued bleeding of the regime without it being toppled due to the continued loyalty of the military and intelligence agencies.

– US-Russian negotiations – with Saudi, Turkish, but not Iranian participation – to form a transitional government and put an end to the destructive armed battles.

Third, Western diplomatic sources are talking about contradictory Iranian assessments of what is going on in Syria. One side believes that Iran will face a major loss if the Assad regime falls, while the other sees it as a partial loss, as Tehran still has many cards to play in the region, including in Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon, not to mention that the Houthis in Yemen have become a force to be reckoned with.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


"popularly-based authority like the Syrian opposition coalition"

Was it a joke? The only popularly this "opposition" could claim is with Killary and Gulf royals. Even so-called "rebels" in Syria do not recognize it.

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