Syria: Preparing for Self-Government

Joseph Sadek is today’s guest author. He received his B.A. in International Relations from The Ohio State University and currently works for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC.  Joe hopes to receive his M.A. in Foreign Policy Studies with a concentration in Middle Eastern affairs in the coming years. You can find more of his commentary at beitsadek.blogspot.com.

Last Tuesday, President Obama recognized the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the first time. A handful of European partners, the Arab League, and the GCC have already recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The following Wednesday, the Coalition and “Friends of Syria,” including the United States, met in Morocco to support the most urgent needs of the rebels. There has been much anticipation for the fourth summit beginning with the development of a new Syrian government.

Certain expectations have been set for the Coalition to speak to the needs of the Syrian people and their demands, including Assad’s departure. The body’s predecessor—the Syrian National Council (SNC)—failed to unite the opposition-held towns and military forces within Syria. Yet, it’s still unclear whether the new 60-seat Coalition, 22 of which belong to the SNC, will be able to do more than politic. Contrary to the cynicism and doubt that lingers, the National Coalition can be a positive force for Syria to achieve two very crucial ends.

Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib

Undoubtedly the primary goal of the Coalition is to secure food, medical supplies, and arms from the “Friends of Syria.” In the eyes of the United States and Europe, arming the rebels is worrisome, especially if forces are linked to al-Qaeda (e.g. al-Nusra Front). Here, the importance of the National Coalition and its inclusivity­—currently encompassing 90 percent of the rebel forces—is underscored. Although hesitant, the Friends of Syria must recognize that empowering the Coalition gives them legitimacy. It’s worth noting that the coalition’s leader, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, is a devout Sunni and former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He maintains a broad contingency of Christians and Druze. Further investment in the National Coalition will only strengthen these pluralistic forces.

The second and long-term task of the National Coalition is building their governmental framework as it was outlined by the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) on November 1. The SNI continues to build its legislative body, military council, judicial council, and transitional government, which are essential to a post-Assad order. So far, what has been neglected is developing a constitutional framework—an important foundation for any government.

Although seemingly daunting, the National Coalition must begin developing a constitutional blueprint for self-government. The primary task of Sheikh al-Khatib and George Sabra, head of the SNC, will remain to support the ground war against Assad. But the three Vice Presidents of the Coalition and leaders such as Riad Seif, architect of the SNI, can begin developing this framework and its most important document. These individuals along with representatives from Syria’s 14 provinces that make up the Coalition are broadly supported domestically and internationally. Preparing a constitutional blueprint will still require drafting the actual document once Assad presumably relinquishes his authority in Syria; yet, this preliminary step can hasten the process and give robustness to a potentially contentious post-Assad transition.

Currently, Egypt is witnessing its difficult transition to democratic pluralism because deep-rooted institutions of Egyptian government and civil society made reform difficult. Egyptians did not harvest all the fruits of their revolutionary labor because the Muslim Brotherhood, judiciary, and military councils assumed power ahead of a pluralist constituency, and today Egyptians are struggling with their democracy, which may be compromised.

Syrians, on all accounts, will face even more adversity and diverging interests once they begin to rebuild their government. Specifically, they’ll have to navigate multi-ethnic and multi-religious politics as well as soothe popular mistrust of Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs. The protection of minority rights will safeguard the fragile transition of power. If the Coalition can draft a new constitutional framework effectively, and they have the political capital to do it now, they’ll set a precedent of pluralism as the foundation of their new government—a principle that will protect their diverse social fabric.

Today the Syrian people are fighting the battle of their generation. As they become more entrenched in this bloody struggle it is increasingly important to ensure their revolutionary goals are achieved, including democracy, civil and human rights, and economic prosperity. The National Coalition has a huge role to play in the revolution and it must boldly look to the future to cultivate pluralism and to move Syria towards self-government.

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