International support for the 21-month-old uprising in Syria is coming together around a newly formed coalition that hopes it can avoid the chaos and continued bloodshed many have predicted when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls.
(SNC), was formed last November at a conference in Doha. Its first order of business has been to find some way to link their own national transition efforts with the political activists and community leaders inside Syria.
So far, the front-line rebel fighters have been pushing ahead with their military offensive faster than their would-be diplomatic allies outside Syria. Thanks to covert outside aid, Syrian Army defectors and captured weaponry, those rebel units have been able to take on and often beat Assad’s military in the larger cities such as Damascus and Aleppo as well as in the oil fields of the northeast. The rebels also effectively control large swathes of the north along the Turkish frontier.
The opposition’s politicians and diplomats are now trying to catch up. In the coming weeks, the Syrian National Coalition is expected elect an interim prime minister who will then name a provisional cabinet to govern Syria after Assad’s expected downfall. The plan is that after the country has been stabilized, national elections could be held to choose a parliament.
As the Assad regime’s military and government officials withdraw from cities and villages, opposition civic councils are taking on governmental responsibilities such as re-starting schools, courts, trash collection, medical care and other basic services. The SNC already has chosen representatives for each of Syria’s 14 governorates to coordinate the effort.
When somebody comes into the country with a million dollars to buy and distribute relief and food, people inside are not going to tell him go away
A key to that process going forward is establishing a political structure between the emerging civic councils inside Syria and the SNC’s provisional headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey. As SNC officials see it, this will allow the coalition to funnel assistance, much of it financial and humanitarian, that is beginning to come in from more than 160 nations and organizations investing in Syria’s future national and local institutions.
A member of the coalition, Jaber Zaien, complains that as of now, no one is coordinating the delivery of civil assistance to Syria. Zaien represents one of the largest of the political activist networks inside Syria. The problem, he says, is similar to what has been happening with military assistance to the Syrian Free Army rebel fighters.
“It is the same story it was for the armed groups,” Zaien said. The councils “have been supported by different people and different countries and that is one main reason why it is very difficult for them to unite.”
“When somebody comes into the country with a million dollars to buy and distribute relief and food, people inside are not going to tell him go away,” he explained.
Weak links into Syria
Shortly after its creation at the conference in Doha, the Syrian National Coalition announced its first effort to coordinate support inside Syria by naming the SNC representatives to the 14 governorates. The criticism began almost immediately.
I think predictions of the unity of the opposition are overstated
Of the 14 representatives, only one – Jalal al-Khanji, an engineer who runs the largest local council in Aleppo – still lives in Syria. Five appointees had left the country in recent months. The others had been outside Syria “for a very long time,” Zaien said.
According to Zaien, delegates in Doha had expected the representatives would be chosen by each governorate as local elections became possible. He said delegates were surprised when they arrived at the conference to find out the representatives had already been appointed, apparently with strong input from conference host Qatar.
, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C., indicated this is a sign that the SNC’s efforts are not going smoothly.
“I think predictions of the unity of the opposition are overstated,” Tabler said. “The question is, how much sway do they (the 14 appointed representatives) have in their governorates?”
Councils emerge under fire to collect trash
Over and above the administrative and bureaucratic issues, trying to set up opposition government structures in the middle of a civil war is dangerous.
The place where they were meeting was bombed and 20 out of the 23 were killed
One of the first civic councils was formed three months ago in Deir Azzour
, the capital of a governorate on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. Twenty-three members were elected. They decided to meet secretly in the basement of the city’s Civil Service Building.
“The place where they were meeting was bombed and 20 out of the 23 were killed,” said Khalid Saleh
, media director for the Syrian National Coalition. He said the attack was carried out by an Assad regime MiG fighter-bomber, adding that one of the three survivors died a few days later.
Saleh acknowledged that much SNC work needs to be done. He said links to governorates “are not fully created. We don’t have full coverage over the provinces, such as Damascus.”
“I know some of the areas are trying to improve on their constituencies,” Saleh said.
The rebel-controlled Idlib governorate will hold a conference in the coming month, Saleh said. He added that 75 Syrians were selected to replace the original council in Deir Azzour to represent the governorate’s 84 villages, towns and cities.
Zaien acknowledged, however, that some governorates and larger communities are forming their own civic councils not linked to the SNC structures.
“You have different sources and different interests and if you cannot unite sources, then it will to be very difficult to unite forces because people are starving,” Zaien said.