London conference showcases new Syrian opposition

The new Syrian opposition coalition holds centre stage at a conference in London Friday. Experts say this week could mark a turning point in the civil war.

New coalition could be a turning point in civil war

A view of the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces conference in Doha Nov. 11. Syria's fractious opposition finally put aside fierce arguments on Sunday to rally behind a new leader within a new coalition that its Western and Arab backers hope can topple President Bashar al-Assad and take over the country. (Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters)

The international conference underway today in London provides the Syrian opposition's brand new coalition an opportunity to showcase itself to its sponsors.

Formed on Nov. 11 in Doha, Qatar, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is a kind of stepchild of the many Western and Arab governments that had been calling for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step aside. 

France was the first Western country to recognize the coalition; Turkey did so Thursday. "Working with the Syrian opposition is a high priority," the U.K. Foreign Office tweeted Thursday, quoting Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The weekend meeting in Doha and now this U.K.-sponsored gathering are supposed to focus on emergency aid.

But it also marks "the beginning of an important shift on the part of the United States and its European allies to a more hands-on approach to help the opposition put its act together," Fawaz Gerges, who heads the Middle East Centre at the London School of  Economics and Poltical Science (LSE), told CBC News.

Pivotal time ahead

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft artillery weapon during an air strike in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, as seen from the Turkish side of the border, Nov. 13. A Syrian warplane struck homes in the town of Ras al-Ain on Tuesday, pursuing an aerial bombardment to force out rebels, a Reuters witness and refugees said. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

"The next few weeks are very pivotal," says Gerges, who has just written a new book Obama and the Middle East: the End of America's moment? 

Much will depend, he says, on whether the new coalition will "coalesce into an effective, centralized political and military authority."

Can it work? 

Until last weekend, the main opposition group in Syria was the Syrian National Council, but it only represented about half the opposition forces taking on al-Assad.

The SNC, which joined the new coalition, had "failed to absorb or even get the armed revolutionary committees to accept its authority," says Gerges.

He estimates the new coalition represents about 90 per cent of the Syrian opposition groups and factions, and it hopes to bring under its authority the 150 or more armed committees fighting against the Assad regime.

Rex Brynen, a Middle East expert at McGill University in Montreal, says the formation of the new coalition is "potentially very important."

But the critical issue for him is whether it can knit together the Syrian opposition in a more cohesive way than the SNC was able to achieve.

If it succeeds it "makes the opposition much more effective internally, in terms of coordinating their efforts to overthrow the regime.

"And it also bodes much better for transition because a more unified opposition that's thought about transitional arrangements and transitional leadership is more likely to exit a civil war in some degree of order than one in which there is no consensus on that."

If that doesn't happen, though, Brynen warns that, "as soon as the civil war ends you end up with civil war over what the new political order should look like."

U.S. support

The new opposition coalition came about only after considerable international pressure, particularly from the U.S.

At his first post-election press conference on Wednesday, President Barack Obama was asked about the coalition and said, "we consider them a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

He immediately added, however, that, "we're not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile."

Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges says the U. S. government wants 'to wait and see, not only how the actions of the new coalition will be seen inside Syria but what concrete measures it will take.' (CBC)

According to Gerges, it was Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who spearheaded efforts to unite the opposition, and to make it more representative and inclusive.

The Assad regime has pointed to the coalition's American backing in order to try to undermine its credibility.

Gerges suggests the Obama government wants "to wait and see, not only how the actions of the new coalition will be seen inside Syria but what concrete measures it will take."

Brynen expects that any further international assistance for the coalition will be based on how it fares. "If we see more progress on the Syrian opposition side in getting things together, we're going to see gradually stepped up levels of support."

Arming the rebels

At his press conference, Obama also mentioned the "extremist elements" in the opposition, and Gerges interprets that to mean that "the Americans want the new coalition to purge its ranks of the militant jihadists" in return for stepped-up American support.

"Then the United States would move to help provide advance weapons that could tip the balance of power inside Syria itself," he suggests.

For its part, the French government is already raising the possibility of arming the rebels, who have been receiving weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Brynen, however, says that has been "a very messy process." And that it has "annoyed the Saudis and Qataris no end that there are no clear channels, there aren't any logistics chains, there's no clear chain of command, you're not sure who you're giving the guns to."

He also argues that simply providing arms won't fix the opposition's political and command-and-control problems.

Residents of the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain run as smoke rises after a Syrian warplane bombed the rebel-held town, Nov. 12. Helicopters also strafed targets near the town, which fell to rebels on Nov. 8 during an advance into Syria's mixed Arab and Kurdish northeast. (Murad Sezer/Reuters )

Europe has an arms embargo in place for the Syria conflict, but France is expected to bring up the arms issue at a European foreign ministers' meeting on Monday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week, "it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by Bashar [Assad]'s planes."

French President Francois Hollande is scheduled to meet with the Syrian coalition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, on Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported.

France has being playing a leading Western role on Syria, as it did in regard to Libya during the anti-Gadhafi rebellion.

Al-Khatib's role

Both Gerges and Brynen describe al-Khatib as a well-regarded figure.

Born in Damascus in 1960, al-Khatib worked as  a geologist and was the imam of the most important mosque in Syria, the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus.

Mouaz al-Khatib, the president of the new National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition, speaks at the group's founding conference in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 11. (Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters)

He fled Syria in July, after being jailed several times for his opposition to Assad.

Al-Khatib has said he's not against talking with Assad, which may even endear him to the Russians, who have been defending the Syrian regime's sovereignty at the UN.

He has called for an inclusive Syria that respects all its religious and ethnic groups, and Gerges says that "by appointing al-Khatib, the opposition is trying to send a clear message to the opposition inside Syria."

Unlike earlier SNC leaders -- a secular leftist academic, followed by an exiled public intellectual -- al-Khatib is a religious figure who was a mainstay of Damascus culture.

According to Gerges, his selection as coalition leader also "tells you about the shifting identity of the opposition.

"It tells you about the growing religiosity of the armed uprising, it tells you that what started as a popular uprising has evolved now into an entirely different kind of war."

Although many media reports refer to al-Khatib as a religious moderate, LSE PhD student Mohanad Hage Ali reviewed Khatib's writings and found numerous examples of "virulent" rhetoric towards Syria's minorities, as well as anti-semitic statements.

Rex Brynen of Montreal's McGill University wonders whether Mouaz al-Khatib has the political skills and capital to lead such a difficult movement in a notoriously diverse country like Syria. (McGill University)

For his part, Brynen wonders whether al-Khatib has the political skills and capital to lead such a difficult movement in a notoriously diverse country.

Syria "tends to be divided into local, regional, political, social subsystems and they've each generated their own local opposition, so it's inherently a more difficult country to get a coordinated rebel command operating," he says.

He also notes that Syria's Kurds "are not clearly on either side and that's a significant loss to the opposition."

The past week in Syria has also seen Assad's air force hitting targets very close to the border with Turkey and even, mistakenly, it was said, firing mortars into Israel.

"That's one of the reasons why the Western powers, particularly the United States, have basically reassessed their approach and become more actively engaged," Gerges says.