The Syrian Gulf War

By Michael Weiss

The Syrian National Coalition's assumption of the regime's seat at the Arab League yesterday accomplished little practically but symbolically it represents a bodkin in Bashar al-Assad's side. He has now been officially informed that the Sunni Arab world is united against him and is preparing for a future Syria without him. By definition this isolates him further and makes him reliant solely on Iran as a regional patron, financier, arms dealer, and military subcontractor. (It won't have escaped Hezbollah's attention that the current presidency of the Arab League Council belongs to Lebanon, whose government has just collapsed because of the Syrian crisis.)

The decision also quietly undermined one of the recently floated goals of Assad's next strategy for trying to crush the rebellion, a strategy that is wedded to the regime's slow-motion metamorphosis from a conventional military force to a network of sectarian militias. That is, to revivify the ‘resistance ideology - historically a joint Sunni-Shiite project waged at the international level against Israel and the United States - into a rallying cry for Syrian nationalism. This is what the Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun's seemingly bizarre call for Assadist holy war a few weeks ago amounted to. The Arab League's emplacement of the Coalition was a deft counterstroke.

Yet the background to this apparent display of unity was fraught. Coalition chairman Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib had resigned just 48 hours prior to the Arab League summit because, as Fawaz Tello points out, he could not stomach being a figurehead for a Muslim Brotherhood power grab. (Tello is the man who convinced Khatib to go into politics in the first place.)

When the Coalition was formed last November, I wrote that it was more or less a reboot of the discredited Syrian National Council (SNC), which had been both blindsided and reassured by its Qatari sponsors at the Doha conference that gave rise to the Coalition. Because SNC had utterly lost the confidence of the State Department, which wanted the opposition to become more inclusive of women and minorities, Qatar was forced go along with the Riad Seif's U.S.-underwritten Syrian National Initiative, which aimed to create a new oppositional body that could be recognized by the West. Yet Qatar made the Brotherhood a promise that the latter would still occupy a role in the emergent organization that was somewhere between primus inter pares and kingmaker. So far, that promise has been fulfilled.

The Coalition's new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, may or may not be "more Texan than Muslim Brotherhood," as Robert Ford cutely phrased it, but the dozen or so independents who quit the organization over his ‘election' (just 48 members out of 63 voted; 35 in favor) is worrying in itself.

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The regime at this point hardly needs to depict its enemies as Islamists when a third of its enemies does that time and again by voting with their feet. In announcing the "freezing" of her membership, Vice President Suheir Atassi attributed her decision to "the failure of organizational work and the lack of professionalism." That, and no doubt the Brotherhood's recent foretaste of how it intends to treat women in post-revolutionary Egypt, was enough to give a longstanding Syrian feminist reservations about being window-dressing for ideologues. Atassi rejoined the Coalition, likely for reasons similar to those of Khatib himself. At the Arab League, these two disgruntled Coalition executives made a good show of solidarity, but there is no reason to suspect that beneath the surface, the same problems remain.

Indeed, whatever happened prior to the summit to coax Khatib into effectively un-resigning, the figure he cut yesterday was impressive and statesmanlike. It also revealed the true intent behind his much-scrutinized offer to negotiate with the regime - his first declaration of independence from the Coalition. As liberal dissident Ammar Abdulhamid noted at the time, this was never designed to replace the military dimension of the revolution but only complement it with a knight's move of forcing Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers to reject their own oft-cited desire for dialogue. "Do you really want to talk?" was a question to which Khatib already knew the answer. His call yesterday for NATO to use its Patriot missile batteries to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Syria - not merely protect Turkey from aerial encroachments - also demonstrates that he is still prepared to embarrass United States for failing to intervene militarily in Syria. Too many ‘red lines', he had said a week ago in announcing his resignation, have already been crossed.

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Michael Weiss is special project manager at the Institute of Modern Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss. Reprinted with permission.

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