As was expected the meeting of Syrian insurgents / opponents of the Bashar regime in Doha hosted by Qatar but having the strong backing of the USA and its allies along with the GCC countries came up with a creation of a new Syrian Opposition group called «The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces». The Syrian National Council, which hitherto had regarded itself as the representative of the Syrian opposition will have a much-reduced role in the new Coalition with only 22 members in the 60-member Council of the New Coalition.
The 12 point agreement to set up the Coalition would create a Supreme Military Council, a Judicial Committee and a transitional government-in-waiting of technocrats. It was also agreed that the parties work «for the fall of the regime and of all its symbols and pillars», and would rule out any dialogue with Assad's government…
The newly elected leader, Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib has a strong religious background and an equally strong background, it appears from published material, of preaching moderation, inter-religious harmony and resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule. As the Imam, prayer leader and religious guide in one of Damascus’ most famous mosques he enjoys considerable respect within Syria particularly since he stayed in Damascus during the first year of the insurgency and left only when he feared arrest some months ago. His deputies also hail from mixed backgrounds, with Seif reportedly backed by Washington and Atassi belonging to a Homs family active in the secular opposition. A third vice president post will remain vacant for a Kurd. This last point is of importance. It appears that there is not adequate representation in the new coalition of the minorities-the Christians, the Alawites and the Kurds.
Minority representation apart, all indications are that the new coalition has a much larger number of members who live in Syria and have been personally involved in the fighting and is better placed to bridge the differences within insurgent ranks. There are also clear signs, however, that while some of the fighters in Syria will be under their direct influence there will be many others who will be faithful only to their local commanders and may not become part of what the coalition hopes to achieve- a central command structure and a unified approach to securing and distributing the financial and military assistance that is expected to increase as the coalition secures international recognition.
One of the hardest tasks that Khatib will have is bringing all fighters under a central command and reversing the current trend of much of the assistance from the oil rich countries of the Gulf-both official and private – being channelled to the «Islamists» who played a small part in starting the insurgency but who, having greater access to funding and weapons have now becoming increasingly assertive.
It is of course the GCC countries with Qatar in the forefront, which have proved to be the main financiers of the insurgency and the main force, with clear American backing, for the creation of the new coalition. It was to be expected therefore that the GCC would be the first to recognise the «National Coalition for the Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition … as the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people," and the GCC Secretary General announced this immediately. The Qatari Prime Minister also then accompanied the Khatib to the Arab League meeting in Cairo but there some reservations on the part of Iraq and Algeria caused the League to stop short of recognising the coalition as representing the Syrian people and chose instead to recognize it as reflecting the «aspirations of the Syrian people» and «the sole interlocutors with the Arab League». The coalition was granted observer status at the League but was not asked to occupy the Syrian seat, which has been vacant since the Assad regime was expelled.
In a break with the rest of the western world, which generally welcomed the formation of the coalition but refrained from going further, the French have recognised the new coalition as the representative of Syria and are apparently now contemplating accepting its envoy. The French have of course had an old connection with Syrian, which was under French control after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Other countries are currently marking time but it is reported that a meeting in Morocco is planned on the next few weeks at which the expectation is that the coalition may secure recognition from a large number of countries
In the meanwhile Iran has announced that it will be convening a meeting of Syrian representatives where again they will try and push for an intra-Syria dialogue for a negotiated solution. The problem is that according to some analysts the coalition is prepared for such a dialogue but only after Bashar and ten people belonging to his inner circle have been thrown out. They realize that they must not commit the error of dismissing the entire government because then the same chaos would ensue as happened in Iraq after the Iraqi army was dissolved and all Baathists were thrown out of the administration.
It was perhaps in this context that British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested that Bashar could be offered safe passage out of Syria. In an apparent response Bashar in an interview to a Russian TV channel said, «I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country», «I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria».
From the perspective of Bashar and his close aides, the conflict in Syria, unlike the revolutions in Yemen, has acquired a strong sectarian dimension. It would be unlikely that any transitional arrangement would allow a largely Alawite government structure to survive or to allow any Bashar loyalists to continue to serve.
In the meanwhile the slaughter continues. The Syrian Red Crescent now estimates, and the UN agrees, that the number of internally displaced persons in Syria exceeds 2.5 million people. The Turkish foreign Minister while recognising the new coalition as the legitimate representative of Syria said that some 120,000 Syrians are living in refugee camps in Turkey while another 80,000 are living there on their own. A similar number is said to be in Jordan. How many have fled elsewhere-Lebanon and Iraq – is not clear but it is certainly a substantial number.
The fighting in densely populated urban areas has intensified. Heartbreaking pictures appear on TV showing the large-scale destruction of houses and infrastructure while the estimates of the daily toll of lives lost stands above a hundred with the total loss of life exceeding 36,000. Insurgent fighters have been seen in these TV reports shooting unarmed Syrian soldiers. This constitutes a war crime since the International committee of the Red Cross has now decreed that the conflict in Syria is a civil war and combatants are required to abide the laws governing such conflicts.
On the international front the daily barrage of artillery exchanges with Turkey continue and an ominous new dimension has been added by the recent exchanges of artillery fire in the Israel occupied Golan Heights. If this were not enough the USA has sent an army contingent to Jordan ostensibly to assist with the refugee crisis but with the additional and more substantive purpose of being positioned to seize or destroy the chemical weapons that Syria is said to possess.
In the interview referred to above Bashar also touched upon the possibility of a western invasion maintaining that «I think that the price of this invasion, if it happened, is going to be bigger than the whole world can afford… It will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific». He is probably right in assuming that there will be no physical invasion by a war weary America wary of any physical involvement in yet another conflict in the Middle East. The possible use of chemical weapons may change Obama’s current view. Western news media has highlighted the fact that the Pentagon has drawn up estimates of the number of forces that would be required for an invasion if Bashar resorts to the use of chemical weapons.
The regional situation is deteriorating. Now there are demonstrations in Jordan in which for the first time participants have called for the ouster of the King. Ostensibly these demonstrations are protesting increases in fuel prices ordained by the IMF as a condition for its continued financial support for Jordan. In practice however there is no doubt that the Syrian situation and the influx of refugees has contributed to the unrest.
In Lebanon which is inextricably linked to Syria, there is an uneasy peace but it is evident that sectarian differences have been exacerbated with the Hezbollah sending its units into Syria to help Bashar while Sunni fighters are joining the insurgents.
In Iraq too the Syrian situation has exacerbated the sectarian divide and has contributed to straining further the tense relation between the central government and the Kurdish regime which acknowledges being actively engaged with the Syrian Kurds and their effort to create an autonomous Western Kurdistan in Syrai.
In Turkey, the influx of refugees, the disruption of trade and above all the increase in Kurdish activity has created new strains. There is no evident connection between the Syrian situation and the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in retaliation for the rocket attacks Hamas has been launching on Israel. This too has however given rise to new frustrations in the Arab world and has the potential for bringing to an end the uneasy treaty relations Israel has with Egypt and Jordan. This in turn will create new tensions on the Israel Syria border and probably lead to further fighting in the Golan Heights.
More fighting and more destruction lie ahead. The Bashar regime is tough and one sees few signs despite the defections that the regime is on the brink of collapse In the future it can be anticipated that the new coalition will get more arms from abroad and the Syrian regime too will beg borrow and steal to enhance its own arsenal.