Crossing the Rubicon in Syria

A new opposition coalition looks likely to win Western support, but can it win the war? Christopher Dickey on the umbrella organization that may change the battle against Assad.

Karim Jaafar, AFP / Getty Images

In what may be a major breakthrough for U.S.-backed efforts to organize Syrian forces to take down the Assad regime, opposition groups gathered in Doha, Qatar, have agreed to form a new umbrella organization. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded last month that the Syrian National Council, which had tried to claim this role, be replaced by a more representative group.

But the vagueness of the declaration in Doha suggests that the SNC—largely composed of exiles—may still be trying to bluff Western supporters, including the United States. Its members, many of them tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, will still hold a 40 percent plurality of seats in a new de facto parliament calling itself, for the moment, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition. Something less than a third of the members are supposed to represent provinces, tribes, and other factions on the ground in Syria.

The key to the whole exercise is control of money and guns: in order for this new organization to have credibility, particularly with the disparate rebel fighters, it has to be the go-to source for humanitarian aid coming largely from the West and military assistance supplied primarily by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states.

Western diplomats on the fringes of the meeting here in Doha have been pushing for the formation of a technocratic administration, which the new coalition has agreed to in principle. As a first step a president, two vice presidents, and a secretary-general are to be voted on in the next 24 hours. Then a cabinet is due to be formed, with no deadline set as yet. A crucial portfolio will be that of defense minister to coordinate the supply of arms to the fighters on the ground.

But the document drafted by the coalition calls for recognition before it forms what it will call a temporary government. Having declared itself the only game in town, it wants to be treated that way before it makes any more commitments.

“It is a chicken-and-egg thing,” says one senior Western diplomat in Doha. But this is also a game of chicken. If the aim of all concerned is to bring down Bashar al-Assad, and this group does not get the necessary backing, what group will? Another diplomat chose a different cliche: “We have crossed the Rubicon,” he said. But what that means, he added, is that “now the coalition has to sit down and talk with us.” What is essential, he said, is that the group have credibility in the eyes of Syrians in Syria.

Today’s declaration was only a first step in that process.