The S.N.C. Opposition, Issues and Developments:
We devote this report to the Syrian National Council (S.N.C.) bloc in the Syrian opposition.
- Syria’s opposition is multifaceted and includes Baathists who have split with the establishment, communists, Muslim Brotherhood, and a broad spectrum of other opposition groups. Some groups, like the PKK / PYD, the Al Assad family opposition, Ghaddam’s National Salvation Front, the Baath Party Dissidents, and the Reform Party of Syria are viewed with caution by Western mandarins. The West approves the powerful mainstream Local Coordinating Committees plus an assortment of Kurdish and independent groups that represent Syria’s mainstream opposition. And, though with less enthusiasm recently, the West has tried to engineer a united opposition by shoehorning all approved groups into alliance with the group backed by the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish de-facto contact group to promote the removal of Bashar al Assad, i.e. The Syrian national Council. They have failed. But they have managed to make the Syrian National Council the main address for Western engagement with the opposition.
- Syria’s Kurdish opposition, and indeed most representatives of the “minorities” have tended to be reluctant to join the Syrian National Council because of its strong Muslim Brotherhood element and for fear of encouraging an Islamist successor government.
- The Russians are equally reluctant to engage with the Syrian National Council because they too regard it as “Islamist” in character.
William Hague has been tweeting again. This time about this weekend’s Geneva meeting of the Syrian Action Group called by Kofi Annan. “Must agree principles for political transition” tweeted Hague. Note that the Syrian people don’t get a voice in this. But the Geneva meeting is just a curtain raiser. The West remains cautiously convinced that the SNC is its best bet (though they are less besotted than they once were) and will again try to get the Syrian Kurds and others to engage with its protégé at a second forthcoming meeting in the current frenzied series, in Cairo on this Monday / Tuesday, to which they have invited 218 assorted delegates from the “approved” opposition under the auspices of the United Nations. Their priority is now to get the Syrian National Council to be more “Transparent” and more “Inclusive”. The West has much riding on the Cairo meeting but many of the non-SNC opposition are not ready to play ball with the West and the SNC themselves will be cautious about the West’s “interim government of technocrats” agenda. One influential opposition member told the NCF, “If you think we are coming to Cairo to make a deal you will be disappointed. Nasser al-Kudwa (deputy to UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan) wants a deal. You want us to have a techno-government. To make a political solution. That would make us traitors for those who have been killed and arrested. You are not working on a solution. You just want us to sign a document. To make unity. Don’t expect too much of Cairo. On 6th July we’ll be in Paris (for the donors meeting). We hope that will be helpful, not a joke.”
So William Hague will possibly fail to get the opposition on board for the techno-government he is so enamoured with. The Kurds may offer him a consolation prize if the Kurdish National Council bows to UK pressure and moves back into alliance with the Syrian National Council. Staggeringly they may do so without extracting any guarantees on behalf of the minorities about the nature of post Assad governance in Syria. But the Kurds were always good at selling themselves down the river.
The structure of the SNC
The Syrian National Council is made up of 310 members, from different opposition groups both from within inside and outside Syria. These consist of representatives of: what the SNC calls “grassroots movements” i.e. one member representing the Local Co-ordination Committees (who view the SNC with great caution) and others from the Syrian Revolution General Commission (which is an engineered grouping that includes facebook page editors and other activists); the National Bloc (an “Islamist” alliance); the Damascus Declaration / Damascus Spring (collections of liberal independents only a couple of which stand with the SNC); the Muslim Brotherhood Alliance; Kurdish Bloc (i.e. one or two independent Kurds plus the small Kurdish Future Movement); Independents which the SNC calls “National Figures”; and the Assyrians Organization (a very small radical Christian group with most of its support in Kurdish Iraq).
The council is headed up by a Secretariat General, which is composed of representatives nominated from the various groups. There are currently 33 representatives in the Secretariat General. The Secretariat elects a smaller and representative eight member Executive Committee. The Committee elects a President for a renewable term of three months.
Below is a list of the Secretariat General members. Those whose names are in bold caps are part of the Executive Committee.
· ABDULAHAD ASTEPHO, Assyrian Democratic Organisation, Belgium #
· ABDULBASET SIEDA, Kurdish independent, Sweden, President #
· Abdulelah Almalham, tribal leader, Saudi Arabia #
· Abdulhamid al Atassi, Damascus Declaration, Paris; National Peoples’ Party
· Abdulkarim Bakkar, “national figure”, Saudi Arabia
· Ahmad al Assi al Jarba, Independent, Saudi Arabia
· AHMAD RAMADAN, National Bloc, London; longstanding Hamas activist *
· Ahmad Sayed Yusef, Muslim Brotherhood, Jeddah *
· Anas al Abdah, Damascus Declaration; Movement for Justice and Development, UK *
· Bashal al Heraki, National Bloc, Amman, Jordan; Assistant to Imad al Din Rashid *
· BASMA KODMANI, National Bloc, Paris, spokesperson; leftwing technocrat; the only woman in the inner circle
· Bassam Ishak, “national figure”, Cairo
· BURHAN GHALIOUN, Independent, Paris #
· Geroge Sabra, Christian Independent #
· Hamza Alchamali, LCC, Germany
· Hozan Ibrahim, LCC, Hasaka (currently living in Berlin as political refugee), Kurdish
· Imaldeldin Al Racheed, National Bloc; Links to the Sourourist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood *
· Jabr Alshoufi, Damascus Declaration, Cairo
· KHALID AL HAJ SALEH, National Bloc, USA
· Khalil Al Haj Saleh, LCC, Paris
· Mohamad Bassam Yusef, Muslim Brotherhood, UK *
· MOHAMAD FARUQ TAYFUR, Muslim Brotherhood *
· Mohamad Walid, “national figure”
· Mohammed Yasser Almosadi, Muslim Brotherhood, Jeddah *
· MOTI’ AL-BATIN, National Bloc, Imam of Dera’a Mosque *
· Najib Ghadbian, National Bloc, USA; University of Arkansas, Member of National Initiative for Change
· Nazir Hakim, Muslim Brotherhood, France *
· Sadiq Jalal al Azm, “national figure”, Princeton University, USA
· Saied Lahdo, Assyrians Organisation, Netherlands #
· SAMIR NASHAR, Damascus Declaration, Istanbul; National Liberal Alliance (originally secular but now regarded by some as becoming “Islamist”)
· Serdar Murad, Kurdish Bloc, Iraq
· Wael Merza, Secretary General *
· Zouhair Salem, “national figure”
In the above list we have marked some names with a hash # mark to indicate those who are perceived to be secular and some with an asterisk * to mark those perceived by some to be “Islamist” in inclination (either Muslim Brotherhood, or Salafist, or radical Muslim nationalist). But these definitions are in some sense arbitrary and should be viewed with caution. Those we have not marked are not known to us but that does not mean that they are not important. If you believe us to have made errors please correct us so that we can alter our lists accordingly.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN KEY EXTERNAL POWERS AND THE SNC
RUSSIA: Relations between Russia and the SNC have been strained from the beginning, as Russia is a firm ally of Assad’s government. Accusations have flown back and forth between the two parties, Russia accusing the SNC of inciting a civil war, and the SNC retaliating by challenging Moscow to remove Assad from power. The SNC then issued statements that claimed Russia “carries moral and legal blame for covering his [Assad’s] crimes”.
FRANCE: In November 2011, France stated that the SNC was the legitimate interlocutor for the Syrian opposition. The then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe further stated that all of the Syrian opposition should revolve around the SNC. Although the French officially back the SNC, they feel as though the SNC should be more balanced, as the SNC is largely Sunni Arab, with very few Kurds or Christians, and no Alawites. France’s support for the SNC is unwavering.
CHINA: China has neither expressed support for the SNC, nor recognized it. However, China has held talks with the SNC, distancing themselves from Assad’s government and claiming that China is only interested in what is best for the Syrian people. The talks were held with the SNC’s former president Burhan Ghalioun, who claimed the SNC “highly valued China’s important role” and thanked China for its humanitarian aid to Syria.
LIBYA: The Libyan National Transitional Council became the first government to recognise the SNC as a ‘legitimate authority’ to rule Syria. The interim government said that the SNC was more representative of the Syrian people than the Assad government, in the process refusing to recognise the Syrian government as a ‘legitimate political entity’. In March, the Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Rahim al-Kib denied that Libya was training Syrian rebels after accusations by Russia that there were training centres in Libya.
SAUDI ARABIA: Saudi Arabia recognised the SNC in February, labelling it the ‘official representative’ of the Syrian people. Reports in April suggested that the Kingdom would channel funds for rebel fighters through the SNC. It is now apparent that Saudi Arabia is funding the FSA direct, whilst Qatar has been funding the SNC.
QATAR: Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has recognised the SNC as Syria’s legitimate representative. And much like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has provided funds to the SNC and weapons to the FSA. Qatar has iterated that arming the opposition is an ‘excellent idea’ and has often spoken of the Syrian people’s ‘right to defend themselves’.
TURKEY: Turkey was influential in the formation of the SNC; the Council was formed in Istanbul in August 2011 (evolving from a pre-existing Islamist grouping known as the Antalya Conference group). The Muslim Brotherhood influence within the SNC has been due to the strong ties that Islamist party enjoys with Istanbul, more so than it does with Saudi Arabia. The SNC opened its first office in Istanbul. Army and government defectors and armed rebels have used Turkey as a safe haven.
The SNC as viewed by those on the ground in Syria
Those working for the uprising in Syria are scathing in their condemnation of the SNC. To be fair however, they have scarcely a good word to say about any of the external opposition, which they generally view as irrelevant. We asked a prominent member of the Free Syrian Army who had previously been associated with the Syrian National Council what he thought of the SNC. This was his view (and is a fairly representative FSA perspective):
“The SNC is working for another country. It is ruled by the Brotherhood. It has no base in Syria. It only has power in the US mind. We are fighting for freedom. We are revolutionist. It is not possible to work with those people. The international community don’t know what they want. They want everything from the Syrian people but don’t want to give anything. They support the Muslim Brotherhood through Qatar. Right now the SNC has nothing anyone wants. The Free Syrian Army are the important ones. The SNC took Abdelbasset who has been 33 years in exile and put him in the chair. This will never work for the young people, the Syrian people. We do not want those who spent all their lives in exile like Basma and Burhan. On the ground, inside Syria, we work with the Muslim Brotherhood but don’t ask us to work with the Syrian National Council. The Saudis and the Turks help us a little bit. But if the West wanted to stop Bashar, he’d be stopped. The Syrian government gets new ships with weapons. But if the West even promises us communications equipment we get ten pieces. What can we do with that? The US and all the international community force us to work through the SNC but the SNC doesn’t know anything on the ground.”
The History of the SNC
The Syrian National Council was formed out of the pre-existing Antalya group in Istanbul in August 2011 as a coalition of the Moslem Brotherhood with some of the smaller secular groups in political opposition to the Assad Government. It began to receive some international recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.
It consists of 310 members, and various political factions including a few of the members of the grouping known as the Damascus Declaration, one representative of the Local Co-ordination Committees and the small Kurdish faction known as the Kurdish Future Movement. It attempted to be an umbrella Council, but has struggled to maintain the unity that it laid out in its mission statement. Early on, the SNC was seen by the West and the Arab League as the opposition group to resolve the crisis in Syria. The international community hoped that the SNC could serve as a replica of the Libyan National Transitional Council, as a result of which the SNC received strong backing. However, constant internal fighting over political and strategic differences, and a sense of disconnect from the revolution in the streets has led to the SNC losing its credibility – not only within Syria, but also a cooling of its relationship with the international community.
Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris based Syrian Arab intellectual, was elected the first President of the Council, and his three month term was renewed twice. Because of his political independence and secular views, he was seen as an ideal candidate to unite the vastly disparate opposition groups. As President, he stated that was he open to dialogue with the government, and believed in the transition to democracy through peaceful means.
Instead, Ghalioun was very divisive. He managed to alienate street support, cross-party and ethnic support, and militant support from the FSA. He likened Syrian Kurds to immigrants in Europe, and faced a strong backlash from the FSA following an attempt to create an SNC-led military bureau to co-ordinate the various armed groups in Syria. The FSA refused to become part of the bureau.
At the Tunis Conference in February 2012, differences were laid bare as splits appeared in the SNC. Influential figures Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Walid al-Nabi, Catherine al-Talli and Louay Al Mouqdad broke away from the SNC. This was followed by the resignation of Fawaz Tello, another liberal activist. Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani and Catherine al-Talli formed the Syrian Patriotic Action Group (SPAG) whilst Louay Al Mouqdad went off to join the Free Syrian Army. The SPAG criticised Ghalioun and the Council for inaction and inefficiency, and disagreed majorly on the peaceful means for democratic reform.
An attempt by the Arab League to unite the opposition in mid-May collapsed when the SNC and other groups announced their refusal to attend a meeting in Cairo. In June, disagreements between the 'Group of 74' - mostly former members of the Muslim Brotherhood – and other smaller factions within the “National Bloc” resulted in its division into two wings. Ahmed Ramadan now heads the 'Union of Democratic Coordination', Radwan Ziadeh the other unnamed group. The SNC settled the dispute by allocating each of the factions three seats in the General Secretariat and one on the Executive Council, thereby doubling the former representation of the National Bloc within the SNC and raising concern in some quarters about increasing Islamist control over the SNC.
The increasing Islamism has worried the Kurdish groups, especially because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s close relations with their arch enemy, Turkey. Disputes over Kurdish rights led the Kurdish National Council to break with the SNC. Similarly, the LCC and other groups threatened to break away in criticism of what they saw as political and strategic failures of the Council’s Executive Committee. In response, Ghalioun resigned as President. An independent Kurd, Abdelbaset Sayda, was elected.
The election of Abdelbaset Sayda, a Kurdish professor, is an attempt to unify the SNC with Kurdish and minority factions. In a statement to reporters he said “We will expand and extend the base of the council, so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade.” Mr Sayda, who was elected unopposed has received criticism from mainstream Kurdish factions for marginalising Kurdish issues for those of the Muslim Brother dominated council. In April 2012, he pledged the SNC's readiness to recognise the Kurds as a nation within Syria after the fall of the Assad government. However the Muslim Brotherhood dominated and Gulf backed Council will have to make significant steps if they are to gain any meaningful support from Syria's minorities.
What the SNC is saying
Initially the SNC had said they would refrain from using violence, but in March 2012, at a conference in Paris, the SNC announced that they would act as a defence ministry, coordinating with the Free Syrian Army, a statement which never came to anything. This was another failure on Burhan Ghalioun’s part, who soon after resigned, making many statements thereafter about how the SNC failed Syria, by allowing so many people to die.
The new leader Abdulbaset Sayda, an independent figure regarded by some as a “fairly weak man but with a strong speaking voice in Arabic”, declared Assad’s government to be on its last legs. He also declared the government to be considerably weaker, a conclusion he drew from the fact that the number of shellings have increased. As the new SNC leader, Sayda declared that the SNC would “focus its efforts on making the international community put an end to the Assad government”. He also claimed the SNC aimed to strengthen relations with the Free Syrian Army, and follow through with the Annan plan. He also declared that the SNC did not want to eradicate the Ba’ath party, simply uproot tyranny.
The party aims are stated as:
· Working to overthrow the Assad regime through all legal means
· Affirming national unity within Syria, and rejecting ethnic strife
· Safe-guarding non violence as part of the Syrian revolution
· Rejecting foreign military intervention, and safeguarding Syrian sovereignty
These aims are brought together in an SNC statement that it wants Syria to be a “democratic, pluralistic, and civil state, a parliamentary republic with sovereignty of the people, based on equal rights of citizenship, with separation of powers, smooth transfer of power, the rule of law, and theguaranteed protection of minorities within Syria”.
The SNC has had a difficult time gaining support from any minorities. The Syrian Christian populationhas been particularly suspicious of the SNC; as a consequence the SNC released a number of statements that “urge the Christians of the Middle East to stand strong against the manipulation of Assad’s government”. Additionally the SNC continuously struggles for western support, calling for “the UN to take action to stop the violence, especially after the past week’s excessive death toll”.
Despite the SNC’s non violent outlook on the revolution, peaceful solutions being one of their aims, the SNC has now called for the UN to take aggressive action against the Assad government on top of economic sanctions and trade embargos.
Economically, the SNC holds an optimistic vision, only to be implemented after the fall of the Assad government, which they declare “will undoubtedly happen”. The economic reconstruction of Syria is to be helped along by opposition allies, in which context the SNC have agreed that UAE and Germany would be the leaders of Syria’s financial reconstruction committee.