Is the newly-formed Syrian National Coalition a turning point in the stalemated 20-month old rebellion against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad? Or, as the Syrian crisis shows more signs of spreading regionally and humanitarian conditions worsen, will it turn out to be yet another failed attempt to rally a splintered opposition around a common vision of a post-Assad Syria?
The answer will depend on the opposition’s ability to convince the international community of its unity and credibility inside Syria. Yet the extent of that credibility may very well depend on the willingness of the international community to provide political and even military support.
The National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces formed on November 11th when opposition leaders signed an agreement in Qatar. Its President, Moaz al-Khatib, is considered a moderate as are his two deputies, businessman Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, an anti-Assad activist whose appointment also signals the new Coalition’s willingness to put women in leadership roles.
The coalition will be tested with significant challenges ahead. These include, winning the allegiance of Syria’s silent majority; being able to command and impose its will on the various armed groups in the opposition; and forming a transitional government.
The most critical component though, lies outside of Syria – winning international recognition and support. To successfully emerge as a credible leader of the rebellion against the Syrian regime, the Coalition will need to become the sole conduit of international political and military support. Yaser Tabbara, the Coalition spokesman, said that the opposition was promised exactly that in Qatar.
With the exception of Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, the Arab League recognized the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Turkey has since become the first of Syria’s neighbors to join that call and France is the first Western power to do so.
France and Turkey’s backing is significant but the United Kingdom and the United States, which have been heavily involved in the process of crafting this new opposition grouping, are reluctant to follow suit until the Coalition has proven it can avoid the internal feuding and Islamist influence seen in the groups predecessor, the Syrian National Council. In a press conference on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. considers the Coalition a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people but isn’t prepared to recognize it as a government in exile.
While considering contingency plans that include arming rebels, western countries have so far restricted their assistance to non-military equipment. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford reportedly made it clear in Qatar that the coalition should not expect U.S. military aid even if they did forge a single leadership, urging them instead to focus on a political strategy to oust Assad. Moreover, the European Union maintains an arms embargo that precludes arming rebels, but France is pushing for a change that would allow defensive arms supplies to the Coalition.
Is the new Coalition a sign of progress? That will depend on its ability to avoid its predecessor’s pitfalls and to convince the rest of the global community, especially the United States, that it is a legitimate alternative to the Assad regime.