Rivalries and bickering are ripping apart the largest opposition coalition in Syria and may further undermine its credibility, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.
Squabbles, rivalry and discontent dominated recent meetings of the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), underlining the inability of Syria’s only recognised opposition movement to lead the country along its desired path of peace, freedom and democracy.
For months now, the NCSROF has been part of the problem, not the solution. Its various factions are set one against the other in a mindless scene of disunity that undermines the coalition’s capability to formulate policy, enforce deals, monitor funds and conduct a cohesive military and political campaign.
In recent discussions, NCSROF member groups failed to introduce the institutional changes needed to streamline their work. As differences among the coalition’s components continued, leaders failed to come up with the interim opposition government many had hoped would put the opposition’s house in order.
In one session after another, the motley gatherings of leftists, liberals, Islamists, some veteran and some new to the scene, some civilians and some former military, offered opposing points of view on almost every point on the agenda.
They differed over decision-making methods, implementation processes, and much-needed checks and balances.
Liberals fought with leftists, who quarrelled with Islamists, who disagreed among themselves. Commanders of various outfits tried to pull rank, but failed to set up a workable chain of command. Tempers flared and egos clashed as more time was wasted. Problems festered, and solutions disappeared into thin air.
With the pan-Arabists disapproving of the Kurdish secessionists, the NCSROF contemplated and then rejected the idea of ethnic quotas designed to offer marginalised groups a fair share of power.
Alliances appeared within the coalition, and then faded out. The leftists drew closer to the democracy advocates, and then pulled back. The pan-Arabists accommodated the Kurds, and then balked. The liberals befriended the radicals, and then had second thoughts.
Those present came up with a long list of urgently needed reforms that lacked consensus and only served to aggravate a seemingly distracted mix of politicians, military commanders, intellectuals, and activists who have little in common and not much intention to accommodate one another.
Decisions were made and cancelled on the same day, an interim government was put together and dismantled almost instantly, and military proposals were no sooner submitted than rejected.
As the differences persisted, each of the 120 members of the coalition had deep misgivings about the NCSROF and its chances of survival, but no one resigned. Commenting on this sad state of affairs, former NCSROF chief Borhan Ghalyun said that the coalition was losing touch with reality.
“NCSROF members are losing touch with the rest of the Syrian people. They live in a bubble of their own creation that keeps them from grasping the tragic situation in which Syrians now live, whether they are at home or abroad,” he said.
Ghalyun railed against the “endless quarrelsomeness” that prevented the NCSROF from formulating and enforcing policy. Its “pathological interest in positions” had crippled its work, he said.
In order to emerge from its problems, the NCSROF had to meet two conditions, Ghalyun said. “One is to abolish polarisation, reject the quota thinking, and assign posts to people and not according to their ethnic backgrounds but to their abilities.”
“The other is to change the membership to reflect the considerable changes that have happened in the political and military groups active on the ground.” Until this was done, Ghalyun said, “the jockeying for posts will turn the NCSROF into an exclusive club for members only.”
Fayez Sara, adviser to the NCSROF, spoke of a “deep and multi-faceted crisis in the coalition that has to do with the NCSROF’s organisational structure, composition and its internal and external policies”.
Sara’s recommended reforms included “changing the coalition’s bylaws and formulating a political programme for participants.” Ending rivalries, forming an interim government with executive tasks, and streamlining relations between the interim government and donors could help revitalise the NCSROF, he added.
The extent of the needed reforms spelled out by Ghalyun and Sara has made observers wonder whether it would not be easier simply to disband the NCSROF and start again from scratch, however.
The proliferation of opposition groups, large or small, self-righteous or self-serving, secular or Islamist, intransigent or accommodating, has been a curse for the nation, which had hoped for an early end of the devastating conflict.
The NCSROF is not the only coalition of opposition groups. But it is the one that is most vocal, enjoys international support, has received immense amounts of funding, and is based abroad.
Other home-based groups do not seem to have as much influence, having either been too repressed to offer challenges to the regime, or forced into a level of accommodation with the authorities that has compromised their credibility.
The military groups operating at home often lack political leadership, and they are too engrossed in the daily task of battling the regime to come up with a clear political formula for the future. Most have resisted enrolling in a larger army, given the discipline and accountability that this could entail.
In its early days, the NCSROF attracted seasoned opposition members and well-known figures who had a long track record of political struggle against the regime. But over the past two years, novices have appeared in its ranks, idealists and opportunists have become insiders, and reports of corruption and political ineptness have become harder to dismiss.
As amateurs have worked their way up the ranks, the NCSROF’s ability to forge viable solutions has diminished, and its path has been strewn with organisational hurdles. Instead of identifying problems and then resolving them, the coalition’s leaders have got better at making fiery public statements of no particular consequence.
They have criticised the regime, but offered no formula for crisis management. They have called for regime change, but have failed to come up with a plan leading to that end.
Unable to grasp the limitations of their condition, they have accepted the advice of donors without question, taken orders along with cash, and failed to turn the nation’s hopes into tangible action.
Some NCSROF leaders have been pleased with themselves for having demanded foreign military intervention against the Syrian regime. Others have accepted foreign funding as a reward for their alleged struggle. Some have boasted of ties with certain Arab countries and of their ability to draw ample funds. And many are now perceived as working for their own good, rather than that of the nation.
Splintered and rudderless, the NCSROF today is neither able to clean up its act, formulate policy, or lead the nation into the future.