The U.S. looks set to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people at an opposition conference in Morocco Wednesday – in a move that could pave the way to the formation of a government-in-exile.
But familiar divisions were aired between opposition leaders on the eve of the meeting in Marrakech, with threats of boycott, notable absences and a looming fight over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the Friends conference – the first after the formation of the Syrian National Coalition was announced to replace the Syrian National Council (SNC) – may signal a turning point for the opposition group.
While opinions differ on what significance U.S. recognition has, most opposition figures and analysts agree that the move – timed with the creation of a unified military council – suggests tacit recognition by the U.S. that a militarized opposition is necessary to bring Syrian President Bashar Assad down.
The United States has supplied nonlethal communications equipment and aid to the opposition but says it remains committed to a political solution.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who canceled her Moroccan visit due to stomach illness – held talks last week with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and said the U.S. was committed to a negotiated political transition, but reiterated her view that Assad cannot be part of that transition.
While it remains unlikely that the U.S. will intervene militarily in Syria itself, developments indicate it is making more assertive moves to at least manage arms flow to the Syrian rebels.
U.S.-based Syrian academic and a brief member of the former SNC, Amr al-Azm said the United States’ move indicated a recognition that military might was required to force Assad to the negotiating table.
“A political solution requires both parties to be willing to come to the table, [and] right now the regime doesn’t feel that it is in sufficient danger to need to negotiate,” Azm said via Skype.
The key to the success of the model will be the ability of the Coalition to agree on the formation of a transition government, he added.
“The regime needs to suffer some major military setbacks to bring it to the table.
“The opposition needs to produce a credible transitional government that can negotiate, and it must have support of … the military councils.”
SNC leader Christian Georges Sabra told The Daily Star that it was “still too early to talk about” a transition government, while divisions over who should lead such a government were highly apparent.
The SNC was absorbed into the Coalition at a meeting in Doha in November after mounting accusations that it was unrepresentative, dominated by the Brotherhood and had little connection to the networks on the ground.
The new Coalition, headed by moderate Sunni preacher Moaz Khateeb, was supposed to be more representative of the broader opposition, but opponents claim that with 40 seats in the 120 seat body, the Brotherhood, backed by Qatar, is still exerting undue influence.
Veteran dissident Kamal Labwani threatened to resign Tuesday from the Coalition as he had from the SNC.
“If the Americans want to recognize this Coalition then they take the responsibility of putting the Muslim Brotherhood in power and all the consequences that entails,” Labwani said from Turkey.
Labwani, who backed defected Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who was touted in talks last week in Cairo as the front runner for premier of an interim government, said unless the Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood backing of Khateeb was not moderated, he would quit.Notably, Hijab will not attend the conference in Morocco. Speaking via telephone from Amman, he confirmed he would not attend, but refused to elaborate.
Discussions of the role of Islamists groups within the opposition body come as Western fears mount over signs of the growing influence of extremist forces.
With fighting accelerating around the capital Damascus, rebel commanders from inside Syria meeting in Turkey Sunday announced the formation of a Supreme Military Council, after coming under pressure from main financial and military backers, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Representatives from jihadist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, which has proved a crucial player in recent rebel wins, were not invited to participate, raising questions about the extent to which the council can influence the military movement and raising the specter of conflict between armed elements.
In a sign of potential tension in the Coalition-U.S. relationship, senior Brotherhood figure Mohammad Tayfour, ahead of the Marrakech meeting, denounced a U.S. decision to place Al-Nusra on a terrorist blacklist, saying it was “too hasty.”
Washington-based opposition figure Radwan Ziadeh said U.S. recognition of the coalition would prove “insignificant.”
“We are now in a position where we need an effective and coordinated military action and not bother with the politics,” he said on route from Tunis to Marrakech.
“We need to go directly to … forming a government-in-exile.
“They can take seats in embassies, appointed on a state-by-state basis, and those states can assist with advanced weapons,” adding that he understood the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar to be strained.
Al-Azm took a different view. “The Qataris will need to control both the coalition and the military council … they can’t just ignore the U.S. out of hand.”
“The U.S. does not want a military solution but accepts that military action is now inevitably part of the solution. The trick now is how to prevent it from becoming the total solution.”