Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement that the United States is supporting a plan to forge a broader Syrian coalition of exiled political opponents and internal armed groups to supplant the Syrian National Council as the opposition’s primary representative set off a chain reaction. The rejections, cautious endorsements, and recriminations that immediately followed her statement show why the Syrian opposition has remained so fragmented and why the ongoing opposition meetings in Doha are unlikely to bring about the desired unity.

Marina Ottaway
Before joining the Endowment, Ottaway carried out research in Africa and in the Middle East for many years and taught at the University of Addis Ababa, the University of Zambia, the American University in Cairo, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
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The firestorm got started on October 31 while Clinton was traveling in Croatia. She appeared to put an American stamp on a project to launch a new initiative to bring together Syria’s exiled and internal opposition in a new, more inclusive council. The Syrian National Initiative would supplant the Syrian National Council (SNC) and become the conduit for all foreign assistance going to fighters inside Syria. The effort, Clinton argued, would also serve to isolate the radical jihadi organizations that are springing up in surprising numbers inside the country. Studies by the International Crisis Group and by Swedish analyst Aron Lund cite at least a dozen such organizations operating in Syria.

The plan for the Syrian National Initiative was published online on November 2 by its proponent Riad Seif, a prominent opponent of the Assad regime now living in exile after being imprisoned several times. The blueprint calls for setting up four distinct bodies. They include an Initiative Body that would incorporate representatives of all exiled political organizations, the local coordinating committees within Syria, and a variety of “national figures”; a Supreme Military Council of all fighting groups; a Judicial Committee; and a technocratic transitional government.

In the somewhat grandiose scheme, the Syrian National Initiative would not only become the conduit for all aid to the Syrian opposition and support for the Free Syrian Army (a misnomer for the armed groups fighting inside the country with various amounts of coordination), but also administer liberated territories, plan for the transition period, and secure international recognition. The initiative will be launched in Doha beginning on November 8.

Planning for the formation of a new body to represent the opposition has been under way for a long time, and international and U.S. dissatisfaction with the Syrian National Council is no secret. But Clinton’s very public announcement caused strong reactions all around.

First, the State Department tried to backtrack on the statement without openly contradicting Clinton. State Department spokespeople battled journalists at two successive press conferences trying to convince them—apparently unsuccessfully—that the initiative was not a U.S. plan and that Washington was not anointing Riad Seif as the new head of the transitional government. By this time Seif was being referred to by many as Syria’s Ahmed Chalabi or, more aptly, Hamid Karzai.

Second, Riad Seif tried to distance himself from the plan and, above all, from the possibility of his being anointed the new leader, citing his poor health. But at the same time he met in Jordan with Syrian opposition leaders sympathetic to his plan.

Reactions to the initiative by Syrian organizations varied widely:

The Syrian National Council, which has so far represented the Syrian opposition, was understandably worried by an initiative that risked supplanting its own role. Representatives already meeting in Doha this week to discuss enlarging the SNC’s composition and to elect a new leadership were divided on how to react. The present head of the SNC, Abdul Basit Sida, and Executive Committee member Samir Nashar strongly rejected the initiative as an attempt to undermine the council. The same goes for former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun. Others, while not enthusiastic, left open the possibility of at least attending the meeting in order to remain part of the process.

By November 5, the SNC was moving toward participating in this week’s Syrian National Initiative meeting but was also making efforts to enlarge itself—a preventive move to achieve better representation on the Initiative Body. The leadership decided to include thirteen other opposition groups and independents and make room for their representation on its Executive Committee. At the same time, members of the SNC’s Executive Committee together with the Joint Military Command (which represents moderate fighting groups and is based in Turkey) declared that they would vote for Riad Seif to lead the Syrian National Initiative.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the component of the SNC most likely to be marginalized by the initiative or even lumped together with jihadi groups, was quite outspoken against the change, seeing it as an egregious example of U.S. interference. The Syrian Brotherhood’s spokesman, Zuhair Salim, declared that there was not much difference between Clinton’s statements and the Balfour Declaration (which said that the British government regarded with favor the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine), except the time when they were made. But in the end, even some Brotherhood members, including spokesman Mulham Droubi, appeared to leave open the small possibility that they would participate.

From Syria, the local coordinating committees, the internal representatives of the political opposition with strong links to the armed opposition in many cases, blasted Clinton’s remarks  as unwelcome in a communiqué, while expressing cautious support for the initiative. They stressed the need for a unified opposition, berating the international community for not providing sufficient support.

Most interestingly, there was no official reaction from either the Free Syrian Army or the various brigades. They do not even mention the initiative on their webpages even though a major part of the Syrian National Initiative would involve the integration of the fighting groups into the overall organization.

Various other political organizations and personalities outside the SNC appear to be keeping their options open. Most notably, the National Coordination Body, which represents the internal political opposition that rejects violence and wants negotiations with the regime, appeared to be holding back on committing itself one way or another. The Syrian Patriotic Group of Haitham al-Maleh welcomed the initiative as did several former SNC members, such as Basma Kodmani.

The Kurdish Syrian National Council, a collection of sixteen moderate Kurdish parties aligned with Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, has been invited to the conference with three seats allotted to its members, and the group has decided to participate in the meeting. The council will send Abdul Hakim Bashar (the former head of the Kurdish National Council), Hamid Darwish, and Ismail Hamo to Doha.

On the international level, there is still considerable caution about the plan. Even the United States is backing out a bit, realizing that the Initiative is not going to be helped if it is perceived as an American one. And Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy, insisted on November 4 after meeting with Arab League head Nabil Elaraby and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that any solution in Syria must be based on the Geneva declaration in June that called for negotiations between President Assad and the opposition, leading to the establishment of a transitional government.

The next few days are likely to see changes in the positions of some groups and individuals, but they are unlikely to overcome the fragmentation reflected in the conflicting positions. The Doha meeting may well create a new body, but it is a long shot that the new organization will be able to supersede all the others.