US, Turkey and the Syrian opposition

US, Turkey and the Syrian opposition

One of the biggest obstacles preventing the international community from giving a decisive outside push to overthrow Bashar al-Assad is its inability to see a viable, unified alternative for the post-Assad period.

That there are real barriers towards the Syrian opposition unifying is extremely troubling for Syria’s stability in the long term, even though it is clear that the success of expanding the revolution to minority groups and the Sunni middle class, especially in cities like Aleppo, is very important.

According to Randa Slim, a fellow at the New American Foundation, there are some signs that the Syrian regime, through Lebanon and Iraq, has been working to get around the economic sanctions to create an immune system. 

The civil war in Syria 

The prevention of sectarian civil war in Syria, and the establishment of a real and inclusive democracy after al-Assad, depends almost entirely on unifying the opposition and, more specifically, compromise. The Syrian National Council or SNC, (formed in Istanbul, based in Paris, and already recognized as the official representative of the people’s opposition in Syria by France, the U.S. and others), has made some progress in this regard. It has expanded its membership and made statements with regard to minority groups – however, it has done too little.

For instance, in the past month, the SNC attempted to make an agreement with the Kurdish opposition, the largest minority group in Syria, which is mostly unified in the Kurdish Syrian National Council (KNC). Basma Kodmani and Burhan Ghalioun of the SNC visited the head of the KNC, Abdal Hakim Bashar, in Erbil, Iraq. The Kurds, backed and united by Iraqi Kurdistan, demanded federalism, which Bashar said was essential to prevent civil war in Syria. Kodmani said the SNC viewed federalism as a radical proposal, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman Zuhair Salim rejected it outright. The talks faltered and the SNC has since lost the membership of all Kurdish parties and has thus become less representative. 

One major factor preventing the SNC coming to a compromise with the Kurdish opposition might have been Turkey. Turkey’s support for the SNC and a wide variety of Syrian opposition groups has been recognized by all informed parties. However Ankara, even though Turkish officials deny it, appears to be supporting the Islamist elements within SNC, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, more than others. One of the major shared interests of both Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, for many Kurds, is that they are against Kurdish parties who demand greater autonomy in their regions.

Turkey’s appearance in support of more Islamist elements within the Syrian opposition might not only alienate the Kurds, who do not have a single Islamist party in Syria, but also other minorities, some nationalist and secular elements as well.

The U.S. in particular has played a significant role in attempting to unify the Syrian opposition, by conditioning their recognition of the SNC as the legitimate government of Syria on providing more assurances towards minority groups. The U.S. has been engaged in facilitating talks to unify the Syrian opposition since before the SNC’s formation, and it was the main organizer of the talks between the SNC and KNC last month. The U.S. appears to be the only power with interest in pulling this off in a non-sectarian manner, as especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in one way or another, have interests in supporting Sunni Islamist groups.

Only a unified opposition can reflect all of Syria’s diverse communities and through compromise provide the stability that will allow all parts of Syrian society to feel stable and free after the fall of al-Assad. A unified opposition with a vision for all of Syria’s communities will decrease the risk of sectarian civil war and broaden the base of the uprising.

The friends of Syria conference in Tunisia, taking place next week, will be a great platform to start urgently doing just that.

*Omar Hossino is a Syria expert, currently based in Washington, DC

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