Friday, March 29, 2013
By Michael Glackin
Talk of the opposition Syrian National Coalition being thrown into disarray by the recent resignation of its president, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, is wide of the mark. The coalition exists in a state off perpetual disarray and division; Khatib’s resignation merely put the chaos in plain view.
Headless chickens have more direction than the National Coalition, and have infinitely more certainty about their fate. Two years on from the start of the uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad there is still no certainty about how or when Syria’s bloody conflict will end, or what will happen to heal Syria and its long suffering people when it does.
Just to add to the general disarray, the National Coalition’s general assembly announced it would not accept Khatib’s resignation and he remains in place as “caretaker president.” A National Coalition insider said the coalition is due to hold talks with Khatib and indicated he may even withdraw his resignation in the coming days.
Nonetheless, from the perspective of the West, a few things have become clearer. The extremist Islamist tendency is clearly on the rise within the Syrian opposition, and according to Khatib and his supporters the blame for that must be laid at the door of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union for what he perceives as their failure to offer moderates within the National Coalition meaningful support.
Yet despite this, and Ghassan Hitto’s “election” as interim prime minister, British and Western policy toward the National Coalition will not soon change. Lukewarm support will continue. Syria’s rebels will not be armed by the West. And many more innocent Syrians will die.
The Arab League may well have taken down the Syrian national flag and hoisted the opposition’s colors to the mast, but that doesn’t amount to much if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, or if you are caught in the grip of the relentless killing across Syria.
As for Khatib, he was on borrowed time after he offered talks between the National Coalition and the Syrian government. Despite halfhearted pledges of support for this policy in public, senior opposition figures, many of whom have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, were furious. The sudden elevation of Hitto, a virtually unknown information technology executive who joined the opposition last year after living in the U.S. for 30 years, was clearly intended to undermine Khatib.
Until last week the National Coalition had steadfastly avoided appointing an interim prime minister for fear of exacerbating divisions within the coalition and between its supporters in both the Gulf and the West. But insiders said Khatib’s increasingly “go it alone” policy, primarily his offer to talk to the Assad regime, which took place without consultation with other National Coalition officials, prompted his opponents to act.
It’s also not a coincidence that one of Hitto’s first pronouncements was to firmly rule out any talks with the Assad regime. Hitto is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and his election was reportedly pushed by Qatar and Turkey, who are increasing their influence in the National Coalition as the Syrian civil war drags on.
But the National Coalition’s representative in the U.K., Walid Safur, insists that the talk of extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of the opposition is inaccurate. Speaking to me Wednesday, he said: “We’re a democratic movement, one that allows freedom of expression, unlike the Assad regime which kills those with opposing views. There are differences, but we are united on the major issue, which is to free Syria from the murderous regime of Bashar Assad.”
That said, Safur acknowledged the sharp rise in the number of extremist Islamist groups within the opposition’s ranks on the ground. He said: “The spread of elements such as the extremists has happened because the West has taken an ethical decision not to help the Syrian people overthrow Assad. Those elements are helping the Syrian people, if the West wants to prevent this it needs to step in and do more to help.”
But in a classic “Catch 22,” help is not forthcoming because the mistrust and disunity within Syria’s opposition, and the nature of many if the armed factions inside Syria, such as the extremist Nusra Front, have left the West reluctant to intervene more resolutely.
Consequently, despite the U.K.’s much publicized attempts to lift the European Union ban on arming the rebels, the Foreign Office insisted this week that it has not called for the opposition to be armed. An official explained the policy to me in detail. He said: “We haven’t taken a position on arming the opposition. The ability to send arms to the rebels and actually sending arms are not the same thing. If we have the ability to send arms it sends a clear message to Assad, but we haven’t made a decision about actually sending arms.”
Well, one can only hope such a policy is clear to Assad because it’s probably as clear as mud to most other people. But it reflects that the British government is aware that extremist groups are gaining more influence within the opposition and finding room to operate in Syria.
The Foreign Office official told me, “This is why we continue to support moderate opposition to boost their appeal and effectiveness over extremists. There remains a need to build up moderate opposition on the ground to counter extremist influence.”
Yet the events of the last week underline that despite creating the National Coalition to serve its own purposes, the West has, until now, lost the battle to bolster moderate elements within the opposition, and so far appears to be strengthening the extremists instead. Even headless chickens can survive long enough to hatch bad eggs.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.