On Sunday, a variety of Syrian opposition groups convened in Doha, Qatar for talks on forming a unified front against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The meeting follows a call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an overhaul of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition group-in-exile that has gained the support of the international community.
However, the SNC has been unpopular amongst Syrian opposition groups due to its lack of representation of on-the-ground figures and troublesome infighting that has lead to a lack of coherent vision. Such difficulties have included contested transitions of power, resignations of prominent members and an inability to properly arm Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. Prominent human rights activist Walid Al-Bunni, a signer of the 2005 Damascus Declaration and former SNC member, claimed that the domination of the council by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists was an inaccurate representation of the Syrian populace. It comes as no surprise that the United States’ primary concern lies in building a Syrian government that is in line with its own interests. Therefore, the U.S. does not trust the responsibility of a transitional government to the SNC.
On Monday at Doha, a proposal was made for the new opposition council to be made up of 25 percent SNC members, 25 percent FSA, 25 percent Local Coordinating Committees, and 25 percent technocrats and regime defectors.
A vocal figure for this sort of restructuring is Riad Seif, a former parliamentarian who was a core member of the Damascus Spring protests in 2000. Burhan Ghalioun, the first chairman of the SNC and another Damascus Spring alumni has criticized the plan as practical suicide for the SNC, though he has agreed to expand the membership of the SNC to include more diverse factions of the opposition. At this point it is unclear what the results of the four day conference will be, but it must include some measure of comprise amongst these figures and the U.S.
Though many are scoffing at the talks, the decision to more intimately include the FSA in the political opposition comes at a serendipitous moment, as a plan for integrating the command of the five main FSA fronts was announced on Monday. Part of the original problem with the SNC was its inability to effectively communicate with the FSA. A unified opposition militia that is heavily integrated with the political council will likely lead to more informed positions as well as some increase in popular support. As Rami Khouri notes, the US should try to downplay its association with the new council, as American approval remains a stigma in most of the Arab world, though it is likely too late following the boisterous state department announcement. Either way, the decision to overhaul the SNC is the right one. The opposition must do its best to represent those who are giving their lives each day for the rights of all Syrians.