The West and Gulf States Back the Creation of an Opposition Coalition in Syria

Written by Ivan Bakin, Hopeprint International Relations Intern

Syrian opposition groups united on Sunday, November 11, in Doha, the Qatari capital, and the coalition was able to select a leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, who is a reformist Damascus religious leader [1]. The coalition brings together some disparate groups in the opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, and the conference was called together and hosted by Western and Gulf States. While opposition groups were forging a union, representatives from the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, and other governments who oppose an Assad held Syria met and pressured the Syrian opposition groups to unite. Western and Arab state opposition to the Assad regime have united in a group, “Friends of Syria” [2].

The Doha meeting produced a unity of opposition, and several points which the coalition will uphold. The coalition will work to topple the Assad regime; moreover, they will dismantle security organs of the regime and prosecute all implicated in crimes against the Syrian people. Furthermore, the coalition supports the unification of the revolutionary military councils under a single council’s leadership. However, the key provisions to the coalition agreement are the plans for the fall of the regime. The coalition “is committed not to take part in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime,” and will form a provisional government after gaining international recognition, with a goal of creating a new national general congress when the regime falls [3].

Forming a coalition of opposition groups was designed to gain further international support. Coalition groups seek financial, humanitarian, and military aid in their bid to destroy the Bashar al-Assad government [4].

Overlooked is the composition of the coalition, and the reason that the West and Gulf states are pushing for a strong opposition to Assad. Syria has been a significant state in the region historically, and has been pivotal in the past 60 years. Beginning with Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, in the early 1970s, Syria has allied with nations to oppose Israeli influence in the region. This meant that it united with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and broke away from the majority of Arab states to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Additionally, Syria has been linked to supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, which are militant and political organizations opposing Israel in their respective territories. The United States found an ally in the War on Terror, following September 2001, and Bashar al-Assad’s push to liberalize parts of the Syrian economy; however, Syria’s unexpected opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a rift. The Bush administration moved from blocking congressional bills sanctioning Syria, to labeling Syria a sponsor of terrorism and insinuating that after Saddam Hussein fell, Assad would be quick to follow [5]. The US became bogged down in Iraq, and being unable to push direct intervention with Syria. Documents released through Wikileaks implemented covert US campaigns, financing opposition groups and anti-Bashar al-Assad propaganda [6]. Genuine peaceful political protests beginning in 2011 set the stage for further foreign intervention. Wanting to destroy Iran’s access to the Mediterranean were strong motivators for US and Saudi Arabian aid to anti-Assad groups, as well as, Syrian connections to Hamas and Hezbollah being keys to US, UK, and Israeli support against the Syrian government [7].

Once peaceful protests began to transform into open conflict, these “Friends of Syria” began to pick and choose opposition groups. Internal opposition groups seeking dialogue and peaceful transitions to democracy, such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Changes in Syria (NCC), have not been noted in Western media, or backed by the West. For instance, a conference to find unity among opposition was conducted in September in Syria [8]. Representatives from 15 Syrian opposition parties, eight civil society movements, and delegates from Russia, China, Iran, and Arab nations attended, but was either not covered or not condoned by the West because of the interests of Russia and Iran in the Assad regime. The “Friends of Syria” initially supported the external, Istanbul-based group, the Syrian National Council (SNC). The SNC was a group of various parties or interest groups, but called for foreign military intervention [9]. The SNC and groups which met in Doha also do not support negotiating with Basha al-Assad and performing regime change. Disallusionment of the Syrian people coupled with an inability to progress on the political front have caused the US to seek more radical leadership for the opposition. Hillary Clinton stated that the US wants a group more closely connected to Syria and able to produce results with foreign aid and cohesion of dissident groups [10].

The new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is the political branch of the Western and Gulf state backed opposition, but the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the military branch. The agreement in Doha pushes for uniting rebel groups, presumably under the guidance of the FSA. The FSA has been heavily aided in equipment and training by the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia [11]. Further evidence to support foreign military aid to rebel groups, which is goes against the ideals of the UN Security Council and Syria backed“Annan plan,” is verification of US-made missiles in the hands of the FSA [12]. Conflict is also increasing on the perimeters of Syria as both Turkey and Israel have intensified military build up, as well as, launching military strikes into Syrian territory [13]. Most recently Israel launched “retaliatory” attacks from the Golan Heights, a piece of land lost by Syria to Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War [14].

Though many see a coalition of opposition as a sign of strength among the dissidents, it will not end the bloodshed in Syria. Increasingly militarized responses to Basah al-Assad, in addition to, supporting opposition groups which call for foreign military intervention are perpetuating the conflict in Syria. The “Friends of Syria” have committed the opposition to topple the regime with no chance of peaceful dialogue. Meanwhile, those states have also increased their military presence in the region, with more powers threatening to intervene. Britain’s David Cameron recently issued a statement revealing the UK has plans for intervention, which top generals suggest can be possibly implemented within the next few months [15].

Pictures of the Violence in Syria



End Notes – Further Reading

[1] Al Jazeera, . “Syria opposition coalition picks new leader.”Al Jazeera, 11 12, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[2] Sherlock, Ruth. “Syrian opposition finally forms unified coalition.” The Telegraph, 11 11, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[3]Al Jazeera, . “Main Points of Doha Deal By Syrian Opposition Groups.” Al Jazeera, 11 11, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[4] Al Jazeera, “Syria opposition coalition picks new leader.”

[5] Palmer, Monte. The Politics of the Middle East. Canada: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

[6] Whitlock, Craig. “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by WikiLeaks show.”Washington Post, 4 17, 2011. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[7] Rubin, James P. “The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria.”Foreign Policy.,1 (accessed November 12, 2012).

[8] Ralph, Talia. “Syria: Opposition leaders convene for rare meeting in Damascus.” Global Post, 9 23, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[9] Slim, Randa. “Meet Syria’s Opposition.” Foreign Policy. . (accessed November 12, 2012).

[10] Russia Today, . “US Wants Syrian Opposition Shakeup.”Russia Today, 11 1, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[11] Schmitt, Eric. “C.I.A. Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition .” New York Times, 6 21, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[12] Russia Today, . “Syrian Suffering: ‘Rebels Armed with US-made Missiles’.” Russia Today, 11 6, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[13] Munoz, Carlo. “Panetta downplays military buildup on Turkey-Syria border.” The Hill, 6 29, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[14] Williams, Dan. “Israel Fires Warning Shots at Syria Over Golan Shelling.” Reuters, 11 11, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).

[15] Hope, Christopher, and Richard Spencer. “Britain could intervene militarily in Syria in months, UK’s top general suggests.” Telegraph, 11 11, 2012. (accessed November 12, 2012).