Consensus Interruptus in Syria

By Bilal Y. Saab – This weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travels unexpectedly to Turkey to discuss the crisis in Syria and to meet with Syrian opposition figures. She must impress on them the urgent need to unite their fractious ranks.

Of all the explanations for why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not yet been toppled, perhaps the most important is the Syrian opposition. Its continued inability to unite has contributed greatly to the drawn-out uprising, which has lasted longer than any other in the Middle East.

Of course this is not to belittle the huge odds that are stacked against the opposition. Its military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is, after all, fighting Mr. Assad’s killing machine and his divide-and-rule strategy with minimal international support.

This reality notwithstanding, it should not obscure the fact that the Syrian political opposition’s performance so far has been dreadful and its behavior more often than not has been counterproductive. The political opposition, specifically the Syrian National Council (SNC), is not a hopeless case but it can and should do much better. The Syrian people deserve nothing less.

You do not have to be an expert on Syria or even be familiar with the state of the Syrian opposition to know of its deep troubles. Consider this latest story:

In their attempts to plan for the day after Assad, three separate Syrian opposition groups recently floated different proposals for a transitional government. Seasoned activist and long-time opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh, who is the chairman of the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees (CSRT) and formerly a member of the SNC (he quit due to his disapproval of the SNC’s tactics), is trying to form a transitional government in Cairo made up of technocrats. His effort, however, has been heavily criticized by the SNC, whose members, ironically, also happen to be in the process of holding talks to form a different transitional government.

The Free Syrian Army has expressed its vehement rejection of both initiatives and called instead for the establishment of a higher defense council that would include military and civilian figures. The free army’s leader Col. Riad al-Asaad reserved some harsh words for the SNC, saying it was made up of opportunists who want to “ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs.”

While news of the Syrian opposition’s divisions is nothing new, it is about time we gain a better understanding of how serious an issue this is, what its causes are, and how it can be managed or resolved.

Let’s start with seriousness. Senior members of the SNC with whom I have interacted closely in Washington and European capitals since the start of the uprising insist that there are no divisions per se between the SNC and other opposition groups including Mr. al-Maleh’s. They call them normal “differences” that should be expected between people of different political backgrounds. Forgive me, but that is rubbish. There are real divisions in the ranks that have obstructed effective collective action and strategic planning, and such divisions have not gone unnoticed by US, European, and Arab officials.

So what has caused these divisions? Many have made the case that several members of the Syrian opposition, and specifically the SNC, are politically inexperienced because of the decades-old oppression by the Syrian regime. So they will make mistakes in their dealings with each other. They have yet to develop a culture of negotiation and compromise. They are new to the game of politics, and thus you can’t really fault them.

Sorry, I am not convinced.

Another possible reason is that separate groups of the Syrian opposition have different foreign support networks that are in contention or competition over Syria’s future. Some groups are backed by the Gulf state Qatar, others by Saudi Arabia, while Turkey primarily supports the FSA. Because of these regional powers’ rival agendas, Syrian opposition groups end up pulling in different directions and fighting each other.

That sounds like a more satisfactory explanation than inexperience. However, these different opposition groups made conscious decisions to seek external assistance or sponsorship at the expense of unity. So they deserve some blame.

Perhaps the ideological or political differences within the Syrian opposition – Islamist vs. secularist, rightist vs. leftist, technocrat vs. politician – are too great and cause these schisms. Yet membership in all opposition groups tends to be mixed, and within each group secularists and Islamists, liberals and conservatives, get along just fine. The SNC is only one example. So it’s not that either.

What causes the disunity then? It has to do with mindset and approach. Because the SNC is the largest political opposition group and has the biggest potential, its failings should be put in the spotlight. In short, the SNC sidelines opposition figures who do not share its views and tactics.

For all their espoused liberalism, SNC liberals (including Islamists, of course) are proving to be quite illiberal, unwilling or unable to tolerate opinions that are not fully in line with theirs. Worse, they often call those who do not agree with them and those who defected from their ranks “traitors” to the cause.

This is tragic. People such as Michel Kilo, known as the grandfather of the Syrian opposition; Haytham al-Mannaa, the highly-respected and internationally recognized human rights activist and president of the National Coordination Body of Democratic Change; Kamal Labwani, a colleague of al-Maleh in the CSRT, and many others are hardly pro-regime propagandists. For decades, they have been harassed and imprisoned by the regime for their pro-democracy activism.

The roots of political intolerance are complex. As political scientist Carson Holloway nicely put it, they are “simply a reflection of the ordinary weakness of human nature, which in all men yearns to silence those whose opinions differ too widely from their own.”

Of course, the SNC is not the first political entity throughout history to suppress freedom of thought and speech for the sake of achieving more immediate goals. History is replete with examples of political movements, parties, and individuals quashing diversity in their pursuit of freedom and independence.

It famously happened during and after the 1789 French revolution to the moderate Girondins in their disagreement with the radical Jacobins, although they were both in the pro-revolution camp. Eventually, Robespierre and the Jacobins took control of the Girondin-led National Assembly. Then came the “Reign of Terror” from late 1793-1794 when Robespierre had more than 15,000 people executed at the guillotine because of increasing paranoia about counter-revolutionary influences.

More recently in the Middle East, the March 14 political coalition in Lebanon – whose supporters led an uprising of a million people against Syria in 2005 – ostracized all those independent Lebanese who did not unconditionally endorse its political tactics as conspirators or followers of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. No wonder that coalition, which claimed monopoly over the slogans of freedom, sovereignty, and independence, has lost so many supporters and has failed to lead the country to democracy after Syria exited Lebanon.

Political tolerance is not a luxury, it is essential to the democratic experiment. Thomas Jefferson could not have said it more eloquently in his first inaugural address: Those who might wish to dissolve the newly established union should be left “undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated” in a country “where reason is left free to combat it.”

It would do the SNC good to head this advice. Consensus with all the other major Syrian opposition groups that have credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people, while difficult, will serve the fight against Assad as well as the overall march against tyranny. And it will speed up the transition toward democracy when Damascus falls.

Saying the right things regarding the inclusion and respect of minorities in Syria – Christians, Kurds, and others – is important but not enough. Until the SNC makes a serious effort to exercise tolerance toward other ethno-religious groups and pro-democracy opposition bodies and better coordinate with the rebels on the ground, Washington should not recognize any transitional government it may form in the near future. It sounds harsh but America’s reputation and interests are at stake here.

This opinion appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on August 10, 2012.