Antakya, Turkey. I sat tonight in a cafe in this Turkish town near the Syrian border, with a Syrian activist who is heavily involved in an important effort this week to unify her country’s political opposition.
I’ll call her Nadia (I can’t use her real name because her brother is in prison inside Syria). Another brother fled Syria after a government militia dragged doctors and patients out of a hospital where he worked. As he hid behind some trees and watched in horror , the goons killed their prisoners, burning some of them alive.
Nadia was a school administrator before the revolution; she left everything to help organize civilian activists inside and outside Syria. She took part in a seminal meeting in New York on Sept. 29 of the Friends of Syria, representatives from countries (including the USA) that want Syrian leader Bashar al Assad gone. They discussed a plan put forward by legendary Syrian oppositionist Riad Seif to form a new political council that fairly represents the internal activists at the center of the fight.
This weekend the Syrian National Council or SNC, an unwieldy assembly of disparate opposition groups, mostly exiles, is meeting in Doha, Qatar. The SNC has been unable to overcome its internal differences and provide a transitional leadership body that other countries could recognize; last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton basically labeled the SNC passé’.
Seif, backed by Washington, European countries, Turkey, and key Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is convening a second Doha meeting on Nov. 8, which will be heavy on internal Syrian activists. Nadia (and US officials) hope it will produce a committee of 50 that will in turn pick a smaller leadership council that can win international recognition. That won’t be easy. There will be a lot of jockeying for position. And the new group will fail if it doesn’t receive serious international backing.
If Seif succeeds, however, Nadia says that this body could serve as an address through which international aid could finally be delivered to liberated areas inside Syria that are desperate for food and medicine.
Equally if not more important, the new council could take major steps towards dealing with the most dangerous problem in today’s Syria: the myriad opposition military militias, many collecting money from rich Gulf Arabs that tends to go to religious militant groups rather than units commanded by professionals who have defected from the Syrian army.
“There will be another meeting for the military,” Nadia says. “The new council should appoint a minister of defense who could appoint commanders, including a special command that could be trained to handle ground to air weapons.” If there were a clear opposition military command structure, which could take responsibility for such weapons, the next U.S. president might be more willing to help the rebels get the weapons they need to get rid of Assad.
“We have to try to stop outside support for jihadi groups,” Nadia says, and unifying Syrian activists holds the only hope of doing do.
She’s correct. But the Seif plan may come too late, and include too few activists from inside Syria. The SNC, which still does include important groups of activists, cannot be wholly ignored, and may undermine this effort. Moreover, failing to include responsible military commanders from the outset, while understandable, may be a mistake.
The landscape in this civil war has shifted, with power leaching away from civilian activists, and accruing on the ground to myriad militias with guns. Although still a minority, many of them are religious, or have Islamist tendencies. How they can be compelled to accept a largely secular transitional government, especially if it still includes a large component of exiles, is unclear.
So, as you recuperate from the strains of America’s election day, watch closely to see what happens on November 8 in Doha. The results there will deeply affect one of the first major foreign policy crisis the next president will face.