In yet another diplomatic initiative, countries supporting the Syrian opposition will gather in Tunis on Friday to discuss further action in Syria. The “Friends of Syria” meeting was proposed by France, which, together with Turkey, is calling for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor inside the conflict-ridden country.
It is doubtful that such a measure would gain support among “The Friends” if it is put forward, especially since such a move would require a military escort, and many countries have expressed their opposition to military intervention in Syria. Moreover, it would no doubt be opposed by Russia and China, two veto-wielding UN Security Council members who have twice exercised this power to prevent a resolution addressing the crisis in Syria from passing through the council. Russia has declined to attend Friday’s meeting, while China is mulling it over.
Russia has even questioned the legality of The Friends of Syria group, with its deputy foreign minister last week stating, “I believe that the establishment of such self-organized groups violates international law and the UN Charter, especially, since they are established for the purpose of intervention, including military intervention.”
There are loopholes and means to circumvent the logjam in the Security Council. Last week’s General Assembly meeting—in which 137 countries voted in favor of an immediate halt to Syria's brutal crackdown on dissent while just 13 voted against the motion—was an important litmus test, demonstrating that over four-fifths of UN members are condemning the regime’s actions. Two-thirds would be required to invoke an article dubbed “Uniting for Peace,” in which the General Assembly can push a resolution through, despite a Security Council veto. Uniting for Peace, however, has only been used once before in the UN’s history.
Another way of doing so, according to Michael Weiss, journalist and Director of Communications and Public Relations at UK-based think tank Henry Jackson Society, would be for the international community to recognize the SNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. If this were to happen, Weiss said, and the SNC were to call for an intervention, “this would characterize the Assad regime as ‘an invading army’,” thereby justifying military intervention by the international community.
The SNC is indeed pushing for international recognition, like Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) was during its own conflict.
Radwan Ziadeh, an academic and SNC member, said “We hope [international recognition] will come in the near future.” However, he acknowledged that will be difficult “because the SNC has no presence on the ground” inside Syria.
In addition, Weiss and other analysts believe that recognition of the SNC as the legal representative of the Syrian people at this point would be premature because the body suffers from severe shortcomings.
The SNC’s lack of visible presence is one of the gravest challenges it faces. Unlike the Libyan NTC, which was based in opposition-held Benghazi, the SNC operates outside the country, meaning that communication and coordination with demonstrators and activists is extremely difficult. Also unlike the NTC, the military wing of the Syrian uprising—which itself is divided among the Free Syrian Army and independent brigades—is a clearly distinct entity from the SNC.
Some, including Ammar Qurabi, a prominent Syrian human rights activist, charge the SNC with having no influence on demonstrations within the country and accuse it of jumping on the bandwagon of the revolution.
In a recently published report, Weiss and Syrian activist and journalist Hamza Fakher criticize the SNC for “clearly suffer[ing] from a stark demographic underrepresentation of ethnic and confessional minority groups” as well as an overrepresentation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, this matches recent disillusionment on the street, in which an increasing number of YouTube videos are being posted, including this one, purporting to show Syrian activists voicing criticism of the SNC.
Alia Mansour, another SNC member, told NOW Lebanon that “it is normal that the council would face criticism… especially [since] we have been absent for more than 40 to 50 years from any political and institutional activity.” Mansour admitted that since it was established in August of last year, the SNC failed to represent all the different entities of the Syrian opposition and was poorly structured. However, she stressed that “today there are specialists working on fixing and improving this structure.”
Despite their criticisms, Weiss and Fakher stress that the SNC has a unique role to play, given that it “remains the only Syrian opposition group currently capable of serving and being recognized as a government-in-exile, and as an umbrella group for opposition forces in general… Only the SNC can claim to at least include, however insufficiently, members of Syria’s broad and diverse population, including ethnic and confessional minorities.”
In other words, it’s not the best it could be, but it’s the best there is.
Nadine Elali contributed reporting.