Clockwise from L.: Aref Dalila, Riad Hijab, Kamal Labwani, Riad Seif, Michel Kilo and Sadeq Jalal al-Azm
Muntaha Sultan al-Atrash (left), Razan Zaitouneh (top left), Fedaa Hourani (center) and Suhair Atassi (right)
The U.S.-sponsored drive to overhaul the Syrian opposition’s leadership is roller-coasting its way to a November 8 finale in Doha.
The drive aims to form a new opposition umbrella, called the Syrian National Initiative (SNI), to supplant the Syrian National Council (SNC).
Riad Seif, a former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident, developed the SNI blueprint.
The U.S. plan to change horses midstream were first revealed October 31 by Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin in his daily Web column The Cable (see my post of the same day, U.S. set to revisit Syria with ‘Riad Seif plan’).
Hours later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the SNC should no longer be considered the “visible leader” of the opposition movement, that many of its members have not been back to Syria in “20, 30 or 40 years” and there must be a “representation of those who are on the frontlines fighting and dying today.”
The following day (Nov. 1), the State Department said it has identified individual Syrians who “show leadership” and is “bringing them to the attention” of opposition members who will gather November 7 in Doha.
“This is primarily political leadership -- people who cannot only organize, but provide services. Because what this really is about is the day after, and the day will come when Assad falls -- and there needs to be in place structures that can provide governance and services to the people,” said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy State Department spokesman.
The focus, the official said, is on people with political and administrative skills, not military skills. Although some of them, he said, may have fought against the government as part of the opposition.
Ventrell directly criticized the SNC, saying that “after many months, (it) has not succeeded in broadening its leadership -- not to more insiders, not ethnically and not geographically. Meanwhile, we and our Friends of the Syrian people, have encountered individuals who have already displayed leadership and want to be part of Syria's future.”
The United States is anxious to avoid looking as if it is orchestrating the Doha opposition conference. Ventrell said Ambassador Robert Ford and his team will be there "on the sidelines" of the meeting.
“We are bringing these people to the attention of the Doha participants,” he said. “We’re not choosing anyone. Only the Syrian people can do that. Helping bring attention to a broader pool of candidates for the Syrian people to consider for potential leadership.”
Twenty-four hours later, Riad Seif was in Amman for consultations on the proposed SNI with about 25 Syrian dissidents and activists. Involved in the huddle were former Premier Riad Hijab, the former head of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, Kamal al-Labwani and Suhair Atassi.
Seif outlined the blueprint for the SNI in Arabic. The Carnegie think-tank promptly offered this translation of the document, “given its importance for Syria and U.S. policy”:
The current situation impresses upon us the need to form a leadership framework that will bring together all revolutionary and opposition forces. Syria is in desperate need of strong leadership that is cooperative and inclusive, a leadership that responds to the needs of the revolution and our steadfast people. Establishing such a framework will ensure that the new leadership enjoys the broad support of the Syrian people and thus has the legitimacy to be recognized as their representative.
We thus plan to form a broad, democratic, and inclusive political leadership to be called the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) and that will be based on the Cairo conference documents that the Syrian opposition agreed to in July 2012. The SNI will support the internal opposition and communicate with it and will be active on regional and international fronts.
The SNI also guarantees that there will be no political vacuum following the regime’s removal from power.
The recognition of this responsibility by all Syrian opposition factions will allow the SNI to work toward realizing the following goals:
- Preserving the national sovereignty and independence of Syrian decisions
- Preserving the nation’s geographic unity
- Preserving the people’s unity
- Emphasizing that the process of devising a political solution can only begin after Bashar al-Assad and the symbols of his regime are brought down and those responsible for the spilling of Syrian blood are brought to trial
- Emphasizing the importance of establishing a civil, pluralistic, and democratic Syria
The Syrian National Initiative will also work to:
- Establish a fund to support the Syrian people
- Support the Free Syrian Army
- Administer liberated territories
- Plan for the transitional period
- Secure international recognition
To this end, all factions of the Syrian political opposition, representatives of the Free Syrian Army, military councils, revolutionary forces, local councils, and national figures from the provinces will be invited to participate in this proposed initiative and set up the following four bodies:
- The Initiative Body (which will include representatives from political groups, local councils, and revolutionary forces as well as national figures)
- A Supreme Military Council (which will include representatives from the military councils and the brigades)
- A Judicial Committee
- A transitional government (which will be made up of technocrats)
The proposed project will be discussed in Doha on November 8 in order to arrive at the best possible framework to finalize the project.
“An alternative to the regime is dearly needed,” Seif, a liberal politician who is battling cancer and was only released from prison in Syria in June, told Reuters.
“We are talking about a temporary period that begins with forming a political leadership until a national assembly that represents all Syrians meets in Damascus, once Assad falls,” The charismatic 66-year old, who has been suffering from cancer for years, said in an interview in Amman.
Unlike previous efforts that failed to come up with a unified leadership, Seif said the Doha assembly will be more inclusive, representing a myriad of religious and activists’ groupings as well as more members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and Kurdish political leaders.
“We have 10 million Syrians who need everything from housing to security to public services, and a regime we have to take every possible measure to remove to avoid more losses,” Seif said, referring to inhabitants of areas under rebel control or where central authority had collapsed.
He proposes the formation of a new 50-member civilian group that will later choose a temporary government and coordinate with the military wing of the revolt.
He said the 50-member assembly will represent the “effective powers in the revolution” and “be convincing to the Syrian people”, adding that efforts were being made to bring the rebels under a unified military command.
Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Seif said, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and “decide the battle”.
Seif said independent figures, such as Syrian intellectual Sadeq Jalal al-Azm, would be in the group to lend credibility. Representatives of opposition local councils that are providing services in Syria’s 14 governorates also will be on board.
Lebanon’s independent daily an-Nahar says current SNC chairman Abdelbaset Sida would be asked to name 15 members to the 50-seat assembly, but will probably haggle for a higher number.”