Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
Forming a Syrian Opposition Government: The Time is Now
Frederic C. Hof| January 08, 2013 – At
The Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) formed in November 2012 faces no shortage of dire challenges as it tries to organize itself and give desperately needed political leadership to a heterogeneous hodgepodge of armed and unarmed opponents of the dying yet lethally venomous regime of Bashar al-Assad. How to uphold the primacy of citizenship in an increasingly sectarian struggle? How to maintain credibility with those who are fighting and dying? How to reach out to minorities and other fence sitters inside Syria? How to prepare for the practicalities of transition and governance? How to shape and influence international support for Syria’s revolution rather than being shaped and influenced by outsiders? How to eclipse internal rivalries and policy differences with selflessness and a unifying sense of mission encompassing a broadly acceptable vision of what the new Syria will be and how it will function?
In a just world, Syrians emerging from an induced political coma of some 50 years would not be faced with such daunting tasks. Starting with the 1958-1961 Egyptian-run United Arab Republic, Syrians have become accustomed to the heavy hand of intelligence services on political discourse. Over the years, frank political discussions even within families became guarded and circumscribed, a condition not significantly altered by the “Damascus Spring” experiment over a decade ago. Now it is all out there for discussion and decision. Syrians who, not long ago, could only choose among silence, torture, and departure are now being asked to practice teamwork, transparency, and compromise. There is nothing fair or just about this situation.
Yet fair or not, ready or not, Syria requires a government. For more than 40 years the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) was the transmission belt for the desires of a narrow, family-based clique. That government is now neutered—the geographical scope of its assigned writ having shrunken dramatically over the past 21 months. Yet a functioning bureaucracy will be central to any transition plan due to the need for continuity of government. Ministries, departments, and agencies—including the security services—employ people and provide services, albeit often ineffectively and corruptly. The preservation of these organs, as imperfect as they are, can facilitate the rapid dispersal of international assistance post-Assad and reassure millions of Syrians who fear the chaos of revolutionary rule. Reform will come in time. It is important to distinguish government and its associated bureaucracy from the ruling clique, which has become a militia, willing and even eager to risk destroying Syria to try to save itself.
As I have written previously the old expression, you can’t beat something with nothing, applies in spades to Syria. No one—not even Bashar al-Assad himself—doubts the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of what remains of the old system. Yet millions of Syrians grudgingly adhere to “the Doctor.” They do so partly because they fear his jailers and torturers, but largely because they know not what comes next. This is the obstacle that a provisional government formed by the SOC can address and overcome
A provisional government led by the SOC would be a key step on the way to a national unity transition government that could and should include serving, non-criminal officials of the current and previous SARGs. Provided it consists of respectable individuals whose revolutionary credentials neither alienate nor frighten the cowed and undecided, a provisional government would in large measure answer the “what’s next?” question that immobilizes millions of Syrians. Provided it can establish itself in liberated parts of Syria and facilitate effective local governance while expediting external humanitarian assistance and the restoration of essential services and infrastructure, it can reflect credibility. Indeed, to the extent that such a government would attract recognition from abroad as the government of Syria it could be the legitimate recipient of security assistance. If and when the time comes to negotiate with the SARG on the formation of a transitional national unity government to take full executive powers from the regime, the provisional government would be the SARG’s sole legitimate interlocutor.
Would the formation of a provisional government be a panacea? No. One has to assume that the regime will fight hard to hold onto Damascus and that Iran and Hezbollah will assist in that effort. Would the formation of such a government be easy? On the contrary—battles for privilege and position could be discouraging and even debilitating. Yet here a hard question must be posed: if the very process of establishing a clear alternative to the regime fatally wounds the unity of the Syrian Opposition Council or splinters the opposition more generally, then what is the opposition really? And, as a practical matter, if there are to be fights over who gets to be minister of finance, defense and so forth, is it not better to have these fights now, before the regime vaporizes and before someone actually has to try to govern Syria?
No doubt the endeavor to form a provisional government would be fraught with difficulties and could indeed end badly. Yet as the Assad poison pill of sectarianism slowly paralyzes and kills the idea and the reality of a united Syria, time is of the essence. The United States correctly opposed calls for a provisional government in mid-2012; the Syrian National Council would have been a disastrously weak and narrow foundation for such an effort. Reservations on the part of the US administration are understandable even now. Yet Syria is dying, and Syria’s death would have dire implications not only for its 23 million citizens but for the entire region.
The way forward will be replete with risks. Yet the riskiest of approaches in Syria’s hour of peril could be for the United States and others to hold the Syrian Opposition Council at arms-length and ask it to jump through bureaucratic hoops rather than asking it to offer the Syrian people a visible, credible alternative to the Assad regime. Time is the enemy. You can’t beat something with nothing. If there is to be something, the time to create that something is now.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.
“Saving Syria from Assad” (Julian Lindley-French, Atlantic Council)
“an enduring Syrian peace will also only be possible if the conflict is detached from a wider regional Realpolitik. Iran has been supporting the regime with both expertise and munitions, with substantial evidence of direct involvement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whilst Russia and China have blocked any direct outside intervention. Indeed, the regional strategic ambitions of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah-led conflict with Israel have critically exacerbated the war. Equally, whilst an arms embargo has been formally imposed evidence abounds that it exists in name only. The Coalition has been receiving directly or indirectly both small arms and man-held anti-aircraft missiles from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to counter the regime’s use of air power.
What would a ‘credible’ international presence on the ground look like and under what mandate? Arab League, UN, NATO, EU or a beefed up Contact Group? Experience of political transition in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (hardly encouraging) suggests that early political reconciliation would be critical but only possible if reprisal killings are prevented and the humanitarian suffering of all alleviated. A new seat of government in Damascus would also need to be rapidly established and protected, committed to a political timetable for transition underpinned by the early disarmament and rehabilitation of combatants. The armed forces would need to be re-oriented and essential services and the judicial system preserved to provide stability. Critically, senior members of the Assad regime charged under law would need to get a fair trial and justice seen to work. National elections woven into a new constitution would also be vital with extreme elements in the opposition forced to face a choice; reconciliation or exclusion. Would Russia and China agree? Maybe this is the moment for a Tony Blair-type Sextet for Syria – America, Arab League, China, EU and Russia?”
“What if Assad Wins?” (Seth Mandel, Commentary Magazine)
“All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief-straining under the weight of reality-in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.
But the standard rule of conventional wisdom-that it may be the former but is rarely the latter-applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:
More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: “In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn’t intervene is happening because we didn’t intervene.” Judging by Assad’s speech, Syria’s civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.
That “illusion” is a Western creation, and more importantly it is not widely-and certainly not universally-shared. The “rebels” do not emit an air of encroaching victory, and to speak of patience and inevitability seems nothing less than vulgar. Can anyone explain why time is on the side of the rebels? It certainly doesn’t feel that way anymore, does it?”
Time for a Syrian transitional government – By Radwan Ziadeh Tuesday, January 8, 2013
….Many Syrian opposition political forces still refuse to form an interim government on the ground, claiming that to do so would be premature. This may once have been true, but no longer. The preconditions which certain opposition members have demanded before forming the transitional government will never come to fruition. Therefore, the transitional government or government-in-exile should be formed immediately.The transitional government should aim to achieve a number of key objectives. First, it should support the creation of a central authority for the liberated areas to maintain control and to prevent chaos. Neither the Syrian National Council (SNC) nor the Syrian Coalition is currently capable of establishing such an authority. However, the longer the forming of the transitional government takes, the more chaotic the situation will be, the more difficult it will be to establish a central authority, and the more difficult it will be to provide the liberated areas with social services, judicial institutions, health services, and humanitarian assistance.
Second: on a legal level, the legitimacy of the Assad regime can be undermined by granting control to the transitional authority over Syrian embassies, which can only be taken by government representatives and not by political entities. Syrian government positions in international institutions such as the United Nations and the Human Rights Council should be handed to a transitional government as well. Third, this in turn would pave the road toward international recognition, which would allow the new government to ratify the Rome Statute, allowing the Assad regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) with much greater ease….
Terrorist group fills power vacuum among Syria rebels
By Nada Bakos, Special to CNN, January 9, 2013
….An important differentiator between al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Nusra is one of its tactics: Zarqawi made a practice of indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians, effectively terrorizing the Iraqi population, especially the Shiite minority. Zarqawi, despite identifying with al Qaeda, had a much thinner theological basis than al Qaeda central.
Key figures at al Qaeda central such as bin Laden and Zawahiri argued with Zarqawi over his tactics, complaining that alienating mainstream Muslims would not help achieve the over-arching goal of instilling Sharia law.
Al-Nusra is using some of the same tactics as al Qaeda in Iraq (e.g., suicide bombings, kidnappings and car bombs), but it appears to be trying to strike a balance Zarqawi was unwilling to make: Not only does it seem to be avoiding alienating—if not antagonizing—the larger population, but it also is providing the people of Syria with a range of goods and services such as food, water and medical care—basic necessities that people need to survive in the best of times, let alone when their country is in the throes of a civil war.
If this becomes a trend, it might signal that al-Nusra aspires to be more like Hezbollah or Hamas, organizations that defy neat categorization based on the range of social, political and military activities they engage in and the resultant legitimacy they have in the eyes of their constituencies.
In the Syrian uprising, the opportunity for meaningful U.S. intervention might have passed: Exhaustion from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll on the U.S. military, have taxed the national treasury, and sapped political will, especially as the state of the economy remains at the center of the debate in Washington.
Our absence from the fight is going to cost us if the al-Assad regime fails, leaving rebel groups like al-Nusra dictating the direction, pace and scope of a new Syria.
Given that managing affairs in the Middle East has never been one of our strong suits, the question at this point should be how can the United States, particularly the Department of State, best engage groups that might be inimical to U.S. values but necessary to our interests in the Middle East? For that, I am not sure there is a clear or simple answer.
One opportunity would be if the United States uses its designation of al-Nusra as both a stick and carrot, cajoling and encouraging it to enter into mainstream politics when (or if) the Assad regime falls.
My read of al-Nusra, however, is that, like Zarqawi, it does not aspire to be a political player and is unlikely to settle for a political role in the new government. Instead, it may aim to play the spoiler for any transitional government and use its resources and political violence to empower and encourage other like-minded extremists. With time and opportunity, al-Nusra could not only add to regional instability in the Middle East, but also rekindle global jihad.