New Name, Same Problems

The New York Times – Room for Debate:

A new Syrian opposition group has earned diplomatic recognition from France and Britain.

National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces might offer more legitimate leaders than the Syrian National Council, but its rank and file are dominated by the same tired figures. Worse, the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on the group’s decisions is even more pronounced, as the Brotherhood has reportedly gained more power within the coalition, far in excess of its actual support on the ground.

Buoyed by recent rebel advances, the coalition was quick to hold discussions on forming a transitional government, and Washington and other capitals expect an announcement of an actual transitional government, including a prime minister and key ministerial positions, from the coalition any day now.

But this new opposition group has so far failed to articulate any realistic vision of a future governance system in Syria, and how it will protect the lives and basic rights of the country’s diverse minority groups. After almost two years of bloodshed, with major rebel groups calling openly for the establishment of an Islamic state, the continued lack of such a vision does not augur well for the prospective leadership of the opposition.

The coalition’s leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, recently told the Syrian Kurds that their concerns will have to be addressed by a future elected parliament. Meanwhile, other coalition members could complain that by voicing legitimate concerns over the fate of minorities, the United States and the international community might be trying to divide Syria.

How can such attitudes inspire trust?

The question before us is not whether the United States should recognize the new coalition. Rather, it is how the U.S. can recognize what is essentially an Islamist opposition that refuses to provide any real guarantees on the future of the country, even as it lobbies for the provision of arms and international support.

There is more to acquiring recognition than providing a new facade. The U.S. should recognize the coalition only after it provides credible guarantees that it will match majority rule with minority rights, and address the concerns of the secular components of the opposition and the Syrian society at large.

The leaders of the opposition must realize that, in order to successfully lead a nation through the difficult transition ahead, they will have to represent the concerns and aspirations of all Syrians, irrespective of where they fall now on the political spectrum. Otherwise the new Syrian government will doom the country to more chaos and fragmentation.

Ammar Abdulhamid is an exiled Syrian dissident living in Washington, D.C. where he is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also writes for the blog Syrian Revolution Digest.