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Al-Khatib’s Negotiation Proposal: A Crisis of Leadership?

Karl Sharro is a London-based architect and Middle East commentator. He blogs at the wildly popular and Tweets @KarlreMarks.

Written by Karl Sharro Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Moaz al-Khatib’s conditional proposal for negotiation with the Syrian regime has created much controversy among the ranks of the Syrian opposition, dominated by discussions about principles and tactics.

A more significant aspect of the proposal is that it reveals the improvised nature of decision making among the leadership of the ‘external’ opposition.

This makeshift approach to leadership will continue to squander the sacrifices of the Syrian people if not rectified urgently.

Such a change will require a bold decision to build a legitimate leadership on the ground in Syria.

Many criticized the head of the Syrian National Coalition’s proposal on the grounds that it represents a departure from the principle of not negotiating with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Others argued that his conditions of releasing the estimated 160,000 political prisoners within Syrian jails and renewing the passport of Syrians abroad were worthy aims that justify such a negotiation.

But the merits of the proposal itself are, in fact, irrelevant.

The reality is that al-Khatib is in no position at the moment to make such proposals, nor is al-Assad disposed to recognising the National Coalition as the leading body of the uprising.

It is no secret that al-Khatib’s attempts at establishing control of the armed groups since his election in November have not been successful, nor have his attempts at consolidating the political leadership of the uprising within Syria.

Al-Khatib’s leadership, and that of the National Coalition, remains more dependent on external recognition than internal legitimacy.

In light of that and the apparent reluctance of Western governments to support the Syrian rebels, it is plausible to see al-Khatib’s proposal as an attempt at escaping forward and trying to change the dynamics of the situation to guarantee a role of the National Coalition.

The short-sightedness of this manoeuvre, however, is that it ignores that the ever-changing reality on the ground in Syria. The political vacuum left by the withdrawal of the government and the absence of the external opposition is being filled by emerging groups that are consolidating their power where it matters the most.

In fact, the Western reluctance to support the rebels is caused mainly by the anxiety towards the emerging  Islamist and Jihadi elements within Syria and the increasingly larger role they are playing not only militarily but also politically and administratively.

No amount of external funding can compensate for this grassroots-type action. In highly fluid situation like that of Syria now, the pace of change can be quite fast and the rise of new Islamist organisations can galvanise within months. (Much like what happened in Iraq and Lebanon before).

The success of the Islamists on the ground isn’t only a logistical and military matter, the role of ideology is very important. Islamists build on a certain interpretation of religious texts that gives meaning to their fight and instils a sense of purpose among their supporters.

Meanwhile, the external opposition continues to talk in vague generalities that lack any substance. And the recently released National Coalition ‘vision for transition’ was an uninspiring technocratic document that epitomised this failure in building a convincing political discourse.

The only way for the National Coalition to gain legitimacy and a sense of purpose is to be on the ground among the Syrian people, to engage, lead and project their demands.

If the opposition cannot administer the regime-free areas and establish a foothold there, there’s very little chance that it could actually play an important role in Syria’s transition towards democracy. The testing ground for any leadership is their effectiveness in those areas and among the hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered around the neighbouring countries.

Al-Khatib’s mistake was not realising that one cannot negotiate from a position of weakness. If he is serious about turning the situation around, he and the National Coalition will have to compete with the likes of Al-Nusra Front for the support of the Syrian people, on the ground.

The opposition should not rule out a negotiated political settlement that can avoid the prospect of an elongated civil war which will only add to the devastation and loss of life, but it must earn a seat at the negotiating table first.

The ‘political opposition’ has repeatedly failed the Syrian uprising and did not rise to the level of representing the aspirations and sacrifices of the Syrian people.

This is not about personalities or frictions as many argue, it is because this process of political formation is happening in a sterile external environment that is disconnected from the realities of Syria.

The only way forward is grounding this process within its natural environment and among the people that are its real constituency.

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