Time is ticking for Syria

Time is ticking for Syria

Syria has become a hot potato for too many countries as the conflict inside Syria has again escalated over the last few weeks and the unification efforts among the opposition groups have finally born fruit. The forthcoming U.S. policy regarding Syria was already in the making during the presidential election campaign, as President Barack Obama already declared that he wants no American boots on the ground and would support the Syrian opposition from afar, although the U.S. administration was not happy with the composition and actions of the Syrian National Council (SNC). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed this policy during her Croatia visit, stating that the SNC “can no longer be viewed as the viable leader of the opposition,” and calling for a new “leadership structure that can speak to every segment and geographic part of Syria.”

After the clear U.S. warning, various Syrian opposition groups met in Doha, Qatar, last week and duly came to an agreement to form a new political structure, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, that would represent a unified opposition including members inside and outside the country as well as religious and ethnic minorities. They elected Moaz al-Khatib, a respected former imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, seen by many Syrians as a symbol of the uprising, as the president of the new coalition.

This was an important milestone for Syria as it seems that the newly constructed coalition will have the support of the U.S. and the West in general. The West and its Arab partners prefer to see a political transition in Syria rather than a military takeover and they will now rely on the coalition to do the deed. It won’t be easy, though. We don’t know as of yet, for example, whether the SNC will cease to exist, or what role it would play in the future and what the radical Islamists who – according to the West – infiltrated the SNC, will do. The SNC still controls 22 of 60 seats on the coalition. If it prefers infighting in an effort to secure the leadership instead of a joint fight against the regime, then the future of the coalition does not look good. This is where Turkey might be an important actor in keeping the SNC in line.

Much will also depend on the international support the new coalition will get on the ground. Although it was welcomed by many Western and Arab states, it still needs more widespread support and recognition. That is why the newly elected al-Khatib directly turned to the Arab League, since there are still differences among the members of the league over which political factions will dominate the new coalition. Thus many countries will prefer to sit on the sidelines to see the functioning of the coalition before moving to extend recognition. The next meeting of the “Friends of Syria” in Morocco next month will be an important deadline for the coalition.

International recognition is only a part of the problem; then there is the question of international support. Although the coalition wants open military support and a no-fly zone for success, many countries, especially the U.S., have so far committed nothing more than non-military support. They simply need more assurances as to the future of the country after al-Assad to start pushing more.

Until now the main problem for the Syrian uprising was its lack of a united opposition. Although this was somewhat solved in Doha, there are still many questions about the future of the country before the international community unequivocally commits itself to overthrowing the al-Assad regime. This is a long and arduous process, but time is ticking for Syria and its people.