Friends Of Syria Must Listen To Syrians


In the 1979 Monty Python comedy film Life of Brian, the Judean People’s Front scoff at the People’s Front of Judea for being "splitters".

In the lead up to the April Fool’s Day "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul by the splintered motley crew of opposition groups, there are already echoes of this stone throwing which could trivialise the serious situation on the ground in Syria.

It is difficult to avoid cynicism about this opportunistic "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic. It has even brought the US and al Qaeda on the same side of the bedlam.

Around 200 "Friends of Syria" have been invited to the 1 April conference by host country Turkey and Al Jazeera home-base country Qatar, who have no love lost with the Syrian regime.

Apart from local and diasporic pro-democracy groups, the friends include those who may ultimately prefer a theocracy than a democracy in Syria.

Despite efforts to downplay fears of a shift from a secular to a sectarian Syrian state and public denials by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and al Qaeda, the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has resulted in legitimate fears by the country’s Christian minorities.

Also appearing would be lone warriors such Rami Abdulrahman whose London-based front the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has successfully sold a Syrian narrative to the western media while the Syrian government repeatedly peddled its "armed gangs" excuse for forestalling reform.

Among all the opposition voices, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is ambitious to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and this arrogance may lead to more enemies than friends.

The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) intends to boycott the conference. It also boycotted the first summit in Tunis last month, opposing Libyan-style foreign military intervention.

In Monty Pythonesque manner, Osama al-Munjid, a founding member of SNC, told ABC radio that this NCCDC "does not represent anyone but themselves".

His organisation ostensibly works toward a "peaceful transition to free, democratic rule" but undermines its pacifist goals with its violent slogans that the current Syrian government is an "illegitimate occupying militia" and a "murderous regime" led by "butcher Bashar".

He has conjured up all the comparisons with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, both of whom were ousted by foreign military force and militia groups that now need to be disarmed. From its pacifist roots in 2005 as a non-violent political movement by Syrian expatriates, headquartered in Washington DC, the SNC now appears hell bent on a repeat of the NATO-Libyan Rebels model.

This was reinforced this month when SNC president Dr Burhan Ghalioun announced the formation of a Military Bureau, presumably the precursor to a future Ministry of Defence, to coordinate the "brave factions of the armed resistance" including the Free Syrian Army "under one central command". The SNC unashamedly declares that "all forms of intervention are on the table … to bring down the Assad regime".

Critics and defectors from the SNC have complained about lack of transparency, financial accountability and power monopolisation. Wary of the perceived disconnect from the Syrian people, the SNC moved its headquarters to Istanbul in December 2011.

Recognising the inherent issues of legitimacy and representation with exiled voices, United Nations and Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan told the SNC that that they needed to have continuous and open communication with people "inside and outside of Syria".

The list of new splitter factions continues to grow. Five senior members of the SNC resigned earlier this month, including human rights lawyer Katherine al-Talli who then formed the Syrian Patriotic Front, and former judge Haitham al-Maleh who lost patience in "working to arm the rebels".

Already, Ammar al-Qurabi who chairs the Syrian National Conference for Change declared that he welcomed the unified vision — but not "under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council".

The UNSC statement prefacing the six point plan includes "comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian Government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition", yet SNC’s Osama al-Munjid told ABC that "we will never sit and talk".

Unsurprisingly, the SNC refuses to acknowledge any of the reforms implemented by the Syrian government, even though many mirror the SNC’s own stated goals such as abolishing emergency laws, abolishing laws restricting rights to establish political parties, licensing of media outlets, and specific terms governing the election of the president.

Herein lies one of the tragedies of stubbornness where the most vocal opposition group insists on revolution from outsiders, rather than evolution from within Syria which could be achieved via open dialogue brokered by Special Envoy Kofi Annan. Rather than being a copycat of the violent Libyan model which ended with a bloody assassination of Moammar Gaddafi instead of trials in the international criminal court, the Syrian revolutionaries can lay new foundations with the rule of law.

Unlike Tunis, Egypt and Libya, the Syrian government has passed many new laws for which it must be held accountable. These reforms are all on the public record and include constitutional changes for presidential elections, a pluralistic party system, granting citizenship to Kurds, allowing public gatherings and granting amnesty to media.

Foreign intervention by the kings on this chessboard come with a price tag and may reduce the SNC to a future pawn indebted to new masters — not a government that will only answer to the Syrian people. The SNC should come clean about its sponsors and their strategic agendas, who are most likely the Gulf States and their US-Israeli allies.

Already the US and Turkey have pledged non lethal assistance such as communications equipment.

The SNC has many admirable aspirations such as a "truth and national reconciliation commission". But perhaps before the SNC and other fronts embark on a bloody path to wipe the Syrian government off the map, with assistance from above and beyond, it would be wise to listen to the will of Syrians on Syrian soil.

Ask them a question along the lines of, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Only then will the SNC begin to earn legitimacy and the Syrian government be relegated to history.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.