Since its creation in October 2011, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the primary liaison between Syria’s opposition and the international community, has striven to present itself as the sole voice of the uprising. Yet the SNC’s unity has been put to the test as it contemplates adopting a military strategy in response to the Syrian regime’s increasingly fierce crackdown on anti-government protests.
Syria’s political opposition is divided in two main camps – the SNC and the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC). The latter group initially advocated a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and has also adamantly opposed the idea of foreign intervention. Consequently, critics have slammed the National Coordination Committee as a puppet of the regime.
The SNC, which has widespread support among demonstrators, has been recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by countries such as France, Spain and Libya. One hundred of its 230 members are based in Syria under the security of anonymity. In contrast with the NCC, the SNC has categorically refused to deal directly with Assad’s regime. Although the organisation’s president, Burhan Ghalioun, never explicitly advocated foreign intervention, he vowed he would not rule out any strategy to protect his fellow Syrians.
Cracks within the SNC began to show after a majority of its members came out in favour of the idea of adopting a military strategy to counter the government’s deadly offensive on opposition targets. On February 24, representatives from 60 different nations convened for a “Friends of Syria” meeting in the Tunisian capital, vowing to bolster ties with the SNC. Following the Tunis conference, however, a number of the council’s members turned on Ghalioun, accusing him of having stalled on plans to define tangible military objectives. Two days later, Ghalioun’s critics splintered from the SNC to create what is now the Syrian Liberation Front.
Perhaps too little too late, Ghalioun announced on March 1 the creation of a military bureau within the SNC aimed at coordinating the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and overseeing militarisation. Yet less than one week after its creation, the SNC’s new military branch already looked to be on the brink of collapse. SNC military advisor and former General Akil Hachem stormed out of the council after learning that Ghalioun was not considering foreign military intervention as part of the new strategy, despite overwhelming support for the option.
"The SNC is paying for its past mistakes. It should never have let people believe that foreign military intervention was possible"
The SNC hasn’t been doing very well since the Tunis conference, which was marred by the fact that the council wasn’t able to come to an agreement on how to proceed. In my opinion, they are now paying for their past mistakes. They should never have imagined, nor let those suffering in Syria believe that foreign military intervention was an option. [Before changing his position, Ghalioun said on numerous occasions that he would not exclude any possiblity to bring an end to bloodshed in Syria, suggesting that he still considered foreign military intervention, among other things, as a viable option]. The fact that things didn’t work out this way in the end has damaged the SNC’s credibility. That’s why we’re now seeing a lot of people turning their backs on the council [like Akil Hachem, the SNC’s military advisor]. They don’t want to be associated with a ‘weak’ organization.
In general, the council has been rather unlucky and external pressures have not helped their cause. The explosive nature of the region’s geopolitics, whether it be Syria’s proximity to a country as sensitive as Israel, or the government’s links to Hezbollah [which is considered a ‘terrorist’ organisation by the international community], or its strong ties to countries such as Russia and Iran, have made foreign intervention undesirable. Given the context, the idea of expecting military aid was unrealistic.
In Libya, the opposition was much luckier than us and things happened extremely quickly. But I’m sure that if NATO had waited several months before intervening, divisions within Libya’s opposition would have also emerged. It’s not unusual in periods of crisis.
"Creating a strong and coordinated Free Syrian Army would encourage soldiers from the regular army to defect"
The SNC must change its strategy and make realistic demands, such as completely isolating the regime on a political level, by pushing for Syria’s ambassadors abroad to be sent back home. Furthermore, the SNC must assert itself as the clear leader of the opposition and streamline the protesters' demands rather than let them guide the movement. They need to pave the way for the next step.
I think that the opposition is making an effort to do this. The creation of a military bureau was a good idea. At a time when international intervention is no longer feasible and demonstrators have been outmanned and overpowered by Assad’s forces, the only remaining option is to coordinate and reinforce the Free Syrian Army. If we can collaborate with the FSA to create an organized structure with strong leadership, soldiers from the regular army will be encouraged to defect and join our ranks. It will also be easier for the opposition to control our armed forces in the long term.
Today, the question is to what extent the leaders of the Free Syrian Army are ready to collaborate with the SNC. [The head of the Free Syrian Army, Riad-al-Assaad, has said that the SNC did not consult him in creating its military bureau, adding that the FSA did not need ‘strategic advisors’]. It is for this reason that the SNC must continue to position itself as Syria’s sole interlocutor abroad. Despite the recent rifts, it’s not such a bad party".
"It’s normal that there are divisions within the SNC, or the opposition in general. The important thing is that we all agree on one point – the need to bring down the regime"
We’ve been asking for the SNC to create two branches for a while – one that focuses on politics, and the other on military issues. The latter would be in charge of coordinating the opposition’s armed forces on the ground. So we were pleased when Ghalioun finally decided to create the new bureau. We still chant “the SNC represents me” and “the Free Army is defending me” when we go out to demonstrate, and we’ve called on those who have deserted from the regular army to take up arms. It’s normal that there are divisions within the SNC, or the opposition in general. But the important thing is that we all agree on one point – the need to bring down the regime.
The creation of the military bureau is a positive sign. It indicates that the Free Syrian Army and the SNC are communicating with each other. Admittedly, the SNC’s military bureau doesn’t have the means to meet all of the responsibilities it's been saddled with, such as controlling the flow of weapons across the border [not even the current regime has the ability to do so], but this new body is a good means of shoring up support from the Free Syrian Army”.