Syrian opposition remains fractured and weak

Until they get organised, more blood will flow

 

On Thursday, a conference was organised by the LSE Middle East Centre to assess the Syrian revolution 18 months on. It focused on the revolution from inside the regime, looked at the Syrian opposition, and explored the identity and impact of the revolution on the economy and society. The conference raised many issues: Brigadier General Akil Hashem and activist Suheir Atassi called for foreign intervention while others like journalist Stephen Starr and Dr Thomas Pierret offered more nuanced narratives. The conference deliberately skirted around the thorny issue of sectarianism and the Kurdish question. 

However, Professor Burhan Ghalioun, former chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was most candid about the Syrian conflict.  In fact Professor Ghalioun’s comments seemed like an admission of SNC’s failure to lead the revolution. The Sorbonne professor blamed the regime for militarising the conflict which had begun peacefully. It was the regime's brutal suppression of the protestors that was the cause. He described the regime as an occupying power using violence to beat its citizens into submission. He blamed the regime for creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of playing on the Jihadi threat when YouTube videos clearly showed the protests to be otherwise. He claimed that documentation existed to show that there were Syrian intelligence quotas for killing protesters. He rejected the idea that the conflict was a civil war but rather an illegitimate regime’s war against the Syrian people.

Ghalioun blamed the lack of unity within the Syrian opposition on differing political aims as well as the regime’s brutal repression. He said that the international community was incapable of intervening in Syria and accused the Friends of Syria for being hesitant in their support. Much of this professed support was rhetoric rather than reality. He concluded that the conflict had become a stalemate and Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts would go the same way as Kofi Annan’s.

Professor Fawaz Gerges was right in describing Professor Ghalioun as a progressive. However, some hard questions still needed to be asked. Syrian journalist Malik el-Abdeh summed it up when he tweeted: “Ghalioun is blaming everyone but himself”.  Questions about the SNC seemed to draw a blank. What do they represent? Who are they, and what if anything has Ghalioun done to bring them together? None of these questions was dealt with at in the conference. One Syrian delegate asked why had there been no strong leadership? Professor Ghalioun’s response was not satisfactory. “No one,” he said, “neither politician nor an academic can lead this revolution”. But surely opposition leaders could at least channel the revolution? Have the efforts of Kerensky or Lenin, sons of repressive police states, not shown that? Why should Syria be any different? Why has the SNC not channeled the revolution?  The fact that it cannot, to Burhan Ghalioun’s own admission, even coordinate with the Free Syrian Army, shows the extent of its fracture.

What does that mean for Syria 18 months on?  We are faced with a scenario with a touch of the Russian civil war; opposition groups attack the regime with no strategy. The Syrian regime controls the cities, possesses effective military strategy and has all the guns. Moreover, as Dr Christopher Phillips pointed out, Assad’s regime is excellent at propaganda. What does the SNC have? Not even a radio station to broadcast its message whatever that is.  As Stephen Starr has pointed out, the regime might be brutal but at least it represents stability and continuity. It shouldn’t surprise us then that Syrian citizens, Friends of Syria and the international community are hedging their bets. The SNC has not given anyone a credible reason to support them. Until the opposition coordinates with the FSA more effectively and delivers a clear political agenda, opposition activists like Suheir Attasi will remain frustrated. It also means that Professor Ghalioun’s prediction will come true: more blood will flow. 

 

Rebel forces in Syria. Credit: Getty Images

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.