Turkey made it clear on Thursday that it officially recognized a newly formed rebel coalition as the legitimate leader of the Syrian people, an important step in the group’s effort to attract legitimacy and, it hopes, more weapons to bring about the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Turkey “once again reiterates its recognition of the Syrian national coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in a speech at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Djibouti, the tiny country on the Horn of Africa.
The announcement by Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor and a haven for thousands of Syrian refugees and rebel fighters, was the third significant recognition of the new group this week. On Monday, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait — recognized the group, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. On Tuesday, France became the first Western country to do so, and it said it was considering providing arms to the insurgent groups within Syria that have been engaged in a 20-month-long war with the government that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives.
The situation in Syria is messy. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorial regime is collapsing, but, fortified by huge military strength, it continues to cling on with relative ease. Its opponents are fighting back, but, disparate, politically incoherent and militarily weak, they are making little headway. An increasingly intractable civil war beckons.
But none of that complexity seems to matter to Western leaders and their media cheerleaders. In the absence of a popular movement in Syria, they have decided to conjure one up. They are trying to turn the internal collapse of Assad’s regime and its messy aftermath into its opposite: the insurgence of the Western-approved good guys. And here’s the tragedy: in doing so, they encourage opponents of Assad to look less to the Syrian people for support than to the ostentatious do-gooders in the EU and the UN.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at last month’s Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia. Attended by over 60 world leaders, not to mention an assortment of Western NGOs, the once-Great Powers seemed to be falling over themselves to anoint a group known as the Syrian National Council, established last September in Istanbul, as Assad’s principal successors-in-waiting. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the SNC ‘a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change’ and an ‘effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organisations’. British foreign secretary William Hague used virtually the same words, and then, a few days later, the EU fell into line, calling the SNC ‘a legitimate representative of the Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change’.
Yet political legitimacy, indeed democratic legitimacy, is not something that can be conferred upon a group of people by Western leaders as it has been done here. Legitimacy needs to be won from within, by gaining the support of the very Syrian people the group claims to represent.
The 300-strong Syrian National Council, however, seems to have very little to do with the Syrian people. If the number of conferences its leaders attend is any indication, it seems more concerned with international networking than with what is going on in Syria. And little wonder. A quick look at the make-up of its executive committee shows that its principal figures, imprisoned and exiled they may have been, are now firmly entrenched in the West. In fact, it looks less like the political vanguard of the Syrian people than the editorial board of a Middle Eastern academic journal. Its general secretary is Burhan Ghalioun, a professor of political sociology and director of the Centre of Contemporary Eastern Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Then there’s Abdulbaset Sieda, a philosophy lecturer based in Sweden; Bassma Kodmani, a professor of international relations at the Université de Paris; Haitham Al-Maleh, a judge and human-rights activist; and several more, all based in Europe. There are two people on the executive committee who are based in Syria, but they are left unnamed for security purposes.