If the new Syria that emerges after the fall of Assad is not secular, a Lebanon scenario could easily be reproduced in Syria: A bloody and drawn out civil war on a grander scale with more innocent casualties, which will threaten the peace and security of the entire Middle East and the international community as a whole.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is the primary group recognized by the international community as the conduit for the Syrian opposition, and it suffers from several shortcomings. The most alarming is that the SNC has powerful figures in it that belong to the much-disliked Muslim Brotherhood.
Had the international community done its research, they would have recognized that most of the leaders within the Council do not carry much weight on the streets of Syria.
Their spokeswoman, Basma Qodmani, actually left Syria before Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970.
Syrian opposition leaders, who actually suffered under the Assad regimes and actively resisted the regime within Syria, have deserted the SNC. Chiefly among them is Haitham Maleh, described broadly as a “venerable” opposition leader and a “veteran dissident,” who resigned from the SNC because its members acted undemocratically. Mr. Maleh told Reuters, “I want to see the council act democratically. Until now, they have acted like the (ruling) Baath Party.”
These opposition leaders, such as Haitham Maleh, Dr. Arif Dalila, Dr. Kamal Labwani, and Michel Killo, should receive Western help to create a platform from which they can reach out and get ethnic minority support to join them in a secular and democratic agenda.
Instead, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged money to the SNC, which has been said to be going only (or principally) to supporters of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to be used to buy Brotherhood influence on the streets of Syria. The vulnerability of the Syrian people is being exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood via the SNC to get their support, which will lead to the threat of no secular forces being able to compete alongside the Brotherhood in political party platforms.
The stories of brave opposition figures that have a long history of defying the regime are not told in the West and urgently need to be voiced in order to expose the depths of regime’s brutality. For example, Dr. Arif Dalila, a prominent Alawite opposition figure, was sentenced to the same alleged crimes as Haitham Maleh and Dr. Kamal Labwani. Since he is an Alawite, however, his sentence was nearly twice as long because Alawites (the ethnic background of the regime) who dare to oppose the regime are punished twice as hard. The bravery of these opposition figures is of the highest order. They opposed the regime, they were tortured and sentenced unjustly, and after, their opposition grew even stronger.
At the moment, the SNC and other opposition organizations are playing a reactive role in public relations and public affairs campaigns. In my opinion, Western governments should enlist the help of PR and PA firms to help the Syrian opposition create a coherent and targeted messaging campaign that will keep the atrocities that are happening in Syria in the media spot light. They should also assist in fundraising to build proper party structures within Syria and organize conferences that include all opposition leaders from all ethnic minorities, including those who are not represented by the SNC. This will enhance the opposition’s readiness for the post-Assad period; otherwise, the field is left to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Failing to support the broader Syrian opposition now will be a thorn in the side of Western states for years to come. If Saudi Arabia takes the lead of supplying the opposition—principally the Brotherhood—with money, equipment, and weapons, it will be a huge mistake. One only has to look at previous support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, which ultimately and unknowingly led to bolstering al-Qaeda.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar may leave the Syrian population at the mercy of the Assad regime in the hope that Iran will ditch its nuclear program. However, if Assad is kept in power, Iran will do what Iran does best: seek to further destabilize its neighbours (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Lebanon in particular) via Hezbollah and others countries through its shadowy networks across the globe. This will ultimately threaten Israel, the fragile countries of Jordan and Lebanon, and could plunge the whole region into sectarian civil war.
The last thing that the world and the Middle East needs is a failed state in the strategically important area of the Levant. If the West takes the lead in support of the Syrian cause, it could avert a major humanitarian catastrophe. The U.S. is currently leading from behind – but not in a good way-- under President Barack Obama, who uses a lot words to describe his unhappiness about the situation, but has stopped short of acting, except through sanctions.
The double standards of the West and the Obama administration are all too clear. By removing Mubarak, who refused to allow the Egyptian army to shoot peaceful protesters, and Qaddhafi of Libya, whose activities now appear minor in comparison to what is occurring in Syria; the inaction of the West in Syria is a severe example of western hypocrisy.
Syria is too important not to become free and fair. The Syrian revolution is in phase one of this process, which has already proven to be violent as tanks and troops are being used against the people. Phase two will be even more gruesome for the Syrian population because when the regime is pushed to its edge and is fighting for survival, it will start using the much-feared air force. It will likely utilize its fighter jets and helicopter gunships (of which there are a fair few) on its own population (the air force is resolutely loyal to the regime because it is where Hafez began his career) and the number of innocent civilians killed will rise exponentially.
Currently, it seems that Syria is on course to become another failed state plagued by sectarian violence due to inaction and lack of leadership from the West. There is very little time to change the direction of this trajectory, but there is still a window of opportunity.
Hicham Felter (BA, MA) is a public relations advisor based in London.