Sunday, March 24, 2013

al Khatib's Resignation and the Post-Assad Opposition Movement

The resignation of Sheikh Muath al Khatib as the head of the Syrian National Coalition might have shown him to be a principled and deservedly popular leader in the opposition, but it is also a political mistake, albeit a small one in the big scheme of things.

A Political Mistake?

Rightly, Mr Khatib and others in the coalition are concerned about the rising dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the interference of Qatar in the political makeup of a post-Assad government, however it would have been far more prudent of him to follow the old adage, keep your friends close but your enemies closer. People who are talking about divisions within the opposition miss the point. The issue at stake here is not Assad's regime and its effective overthrow but the shape of a  post-Assad era. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, like any other political movement, are trying to establish themselves in a dominant position for when the regime falls. They are admittedly very organized, secretive and multi-faceted, however they are not as effective or powerful as some may think.

Still, what is done is done, and now Khatib has resigned from his position as head of the Syrian National Coalition. There is no doubt he will continue his political involvement with the Syrian revolution as he is, by far, the most popular figure in Syrian politics at the moment. Whilst his resignation might have been a political "schoolboy error", he can still do a lot if he plays his cards wisely.

The Post-Assad Government, a Political MacGuffin

Mr Khatib should firstly realise that gaining a place in the early post-Assad Syrian governments is a political MacGuffin. The reality is that none of these governments will last very long or be successful. In a country that has not had a functioning state with institutions in over forty years, it will be inevitable that the first attempts at putting this together will be smashed to pieces owing to the immense challenges the country faces.

It is far more effective for Mr al Khatib, and others who share his views, to start forming a viable and vocal Syrian opposition for the post-Assad era. This does not mean that Mr Khatib needs to surrender power to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari backers, far from it. The creation of a credible and well organized Syrian opposition for the post-Assad Syria is something that has, until now, been the domain of the movements and figures that are said to be sponsored by the regime, such as the Building the Syrian State movement led by Louay Hussein, and Haitham Manaa.

The Fight for a Real Syrian Opposition

These groups, though widely considered to lack credibility or political acumen, will no doubt try to set themselves up as some kind of a domestic and self-described "principled" opposition party to the post-Assad regime. Their role, in reality, will be to sabotage any kind of political development in the country and to try and emulate the political deadlock and jockeying that we see in Lebanon between the pro-March 8th and March 14th movements. Mr Khatib's political credentials and popularity will essentially circumvent these spoilers, and set the stage for a genuine political arena in Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are, after all, as interested as he in the interests of Syria because they believe their political vision is the solution, however controversial some might find that vision to be.

It is, in light of the material challenges facing the Syrian revolution, extremely difficult for anybody to chart a course that is free from Qatari, Saudi or Western interference. The massive assistance being provided to Assad by Russia and Iran have always made the revolution a pretty one-sided affair. The Free Syrian Army, that has announced it will not recognise the interim government, should be wise and realize that it cannot fight Assad's militias with good intentions alone and whilst their support of Khatib and the moderate camp in the Syrian opposition is admirable, they must remember that they are first and foremost tasked with protecting Syrian civilians and overthrowing Assad.

The Syrian National Interest

The issue of foreign involvement in Syria was pretty much inevitable as soon as it became apparent that Assad will only surrender power by force. Political wisdom states that those who fight with the arms of another are doomed to be indebted to them once they are victorious, and no doubt Syria will be joining the pro-Western, Gulf camp, once the regime is overthrown. But this simple fact is often used to overshadow the alternate scenario. If Assad, by a miracle, survives this fight, then Syria will effectively become an Iranian colony owing to the deep level of Tehran's involvement and their strategic interest in the country. All things being the same, Syria will join either one camp or the other, and in this situation what Mr al Khatib should do is to gauge the Syrian national interest and act accordingly. The only sane option available is to side with the Gulf, as their markets, assistance, and the close proximity of Turkey - a country with long historic and cultural ties to Syria - would all be good anchors to help pin the countries post-war reconstruction.


In short, Mr Khatib should not be trying to influence the shape of a post-Assad government which will inevitably fail and provoke ire from Syrians tired of war and oppression. That is a losing battle. Instead what he must try to do is to create the real Syrian opposition movements that will take power and salvage the first attempts at governance in Syria. This will require foresight and patience and it is easier said than done, but an accurate assessment of the situation that Syria is in today will show that this is the only realistic option he has. And he should take advantage of it.

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