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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle