Until last week, Western governments were desperately trying to identify credible interlocutors within the Syrian opposition circles, often dubbed "the five-star hotels opposition". With the designation on November 11 of Moaz al-Khatib as leader of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, with Riad Seif and Souheir al-Atassi as his deputies, a major step forward has been taken. International recognition is on its way. However, a number of things need to happen before an effective relationship can be built between the EU—and the West—and the new Syrian opposition.
For more than a year-and-a-half, the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime was characterized by its lack of a strong connection with opponents on the ground, especially with armed groups. The armed rebellion was, and at this point in time still is, made up of separate factions and militias with no real coordination, let alone a unified command or a civilian political structure to which to report.
Moaz al-Khatib, an oil sector engineer and former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, has garnered substantial praise since his designation, while Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi bring their own credibility to the coalition. They have now set up shop in Cairo and have received the full endorsement of France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as the "sole representative" of the Syrian opposition. The European Union and the United States have endorsed the group in a more general fashion.
Even more importantly, from Syrian citizens of various affiliations with whom I have met recently, it is clear that al-Khatib and his associates seem to draw praise for their opposition to the regime—as an imam, al-Khatib refused to follow the speeches imposed by the regime and was imprisoned—their resistance, and their tolerance. These endorsements are a first achievement, but a number of steps are necessary before Moaz al-Khatib becomes the real head of the Syrian opposition and enters into a substantive relationship with EU leaders.
First, inclusiveness is a must. Moaz al-Khatib and his associates must demonstrate that they are ready to encompass all the ethnic and religious strands of Syrian society. Such a demonstration, if made in visible and tangible terms, would annihilate Damascus’ claim that Bashar al-Assad is the only guarantor of Syria's future unity. And Syria's unity matters to the EU and the West.
Second, a strong link needs to be established with ground forces and demonstrated by way of unified command and control procedures, and coherent statements. For the time being, such a coherent structure does not exist, as illustrated by the various statements made by rebel groups against Moaz al-Khatib—although the latest statements are more supportive. Asserting his lasting authority over these militias and groups will be crucial for the new opposition leader.
Third, operational coordination should be established with civil society groups. Media reports have often focused on armed groups. Yet, a large number of civilian organizations have sprung up since the beginning of the Syrian revolution and are active in a variety of fields, including humanitarian assistance—food, fuel, and basic supplies—emergency health systems, video reporting and web dissemination, information gathering about casualties and abuses, and even the production of cartoons. These civil society organizations are the voices of the people's revolution. The least the leader of the political opposition can do is listen to these civilian voices in an organized and democratic fashion. This would be another crucial distinction between the opposition and the Assad regime.
Fourth, the newly structured Syrian opposition should set up lean and efficient mechanisms to administer the "liberated" areas of the country—even if they are often no more than areas abandoned by the Assad regime. If effective, such a civilian administration would allow the EU and other donors to channel their humanitarian assistance through genuine and reliable mechanisms and offer real relief to internally displaced persons. This would also put an end to the EU’s un-dignified practice of using the Syrian Red Crescent—a purely governmental institution closely controlled by the regime—as the sole channel for providing assistance.
Fifth, Moaz al-Khatib and his associates should engage in talks with representatives of the Russian and Chinese governments and explain why the prospects of "negotiating" with the Assad regime are so limited, if not totally non-existent, given its nature. Such a relationship, even if uneasy in the beginning, would go a long way to establishing the credibility of the Syrian civilian opposition with the main supporters of the present regime.
All in all, Moaz al-Khatib and his associates have a long and arduous road to travel. And the National Coalition does not have the luxury of time, since every day that passes sees the proliferation of radical groups which may lead Syria toward lasting chaos. The steps described above are the necessary conditions for the Syrian opposition to succeed and marginalize radical forces. Some EU countries have taken risks by endorsing Moaz al-Khatib. He should prove them right and quickly establish his democratic political credentials.
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