Over the past few months, a curious campaign has developed among Syrian oppositionists focused on ousting not Bashar al-Assad but National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces President Ahmad al-Jarba. Whoever is behind this campaign is trying to create the impression that the people reject Jarba just as they reject Assad. For example, “Toppling the Coalition President” was the name chosen for the Friday protests on March 21, 2014 and their images are modeled on the coalition’s #EnoughWithAssad meme.
Is the anti-Jarba sentiment wrong?
No, depending on who it comes from. No one can blame people who are being shelled and barrel-bombed in Aleppo for being angry with the coalition and Jarba even though neither of them have an air force or a warehouse of MANPADS that could stop the regime’s airborne terrorism. But when the anti-Jarba sentiment comes from (former) Free Syrian Army chief of staff General Selim Idris, who angrily called Jarba the “new dictator” of Syria, this is unjustifed, tactless, illegitimate anger and conduct unbecoming of a professional military man turned revolutionary leader.
In both cases, anger alone, no matter how justified, is not a sufficient basis for policy. Sentiment is not a strategy. The merit of any action, call, or campaign must be assessed with the following questions in mind:
- How would it affect the well-being of the revolution and of the people?
- Would it advance or harm their interests ?
- Would it be a step forward or a step backward?
- What are the inherent trade-offs, risks, complications, and are they worth it?
Cursing the coalition and saying ‘down with Jarba’ might feel good but if he were to resign, it would cripple the coalition. The main beneficiary of the ensuing turmoil would be the regime, not whomever is scheming in backrooms to replace Jarba but is too cowardly to declare his candidacy. Intensified paralysis at the top of the coalition would halt the paltry sums coming in from Western governments for humanitarian and governance purposes and jeopardize the small but steady flow of heavy anti-tank weapons coming from Saudi Arabia that began during the closing days of the Geneva 2 talks.
In short, toppling Jarba would make a bad situation worse and the situation in Syria is already beyond dire.
The persistence and personalism of the anti-Jarba campaign is just the latest example of a problem that has plagued the revolution from day one: figures, leaders, and groups opposed to the regime have been unable to present a united front and a positive, detailed vision for the country and the revolution because of vicious, counterproductive infighting. Accusations, counter-accusations, angry denials, damaging splits, fruitless boycotts, useless withdrawals, and frustration-driven resignations have reigned supreme in opposition organizations for nearly three years, from the bottom at the grassroots level to the top of the exile bodies, on both sides of the Islamist-secular divide, among its civilian and armed elements. Chaos and disunity denied opposition forces the stability and coherence needed to respond coherently to the evolution of the regime into a leaner, meaner, mostly defection-free killing machine armed with new tactics such as starvation and ‘truces.‘
The social roots of this fitna (strife, discord) lie not in the inherent characteristics of Syrians or Arabs or their culture but in the regime itself. Fascism is not an environment conducive to developing the spirit of tolerance, compromise, cooperation, and camaraderie essential for effective democratic politics and activist base-building. Oppositionists emerged from Syria’s political environment subconsciously stamped by the regime’s political culture of suspicion, mistrust, conspiracy theories, assumptions of bad faith, perpetual victimhood, inability to tolerate differing views, insufferable egotism, and petty rivalries.
Overcoming these developmental hurdles became all but impossible when the regime declared war on the peaceful protest movement in 2011. Activists and opposition politicians had no time to learn the niceties of Roberts Rules of Order or undergo the organic process of trial and error necessary to produce a cohesive movement with a politically mature leadership because human beings were being wiped out at an ever-greater clip. Everything became an emergency, every single day an urgent matter of life and death, every moment a cry for help.
Survival trumped process.
So instead of building a credible alternative to the regime, oppositionists were forced to spend their time dodging scud missiles, barrel bombs, artillery shells, and sarin while Assad bought time to gain advantage by playing games with the Arab League, Kofi Annan, the U.N., Lakhdar Brahimi, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Facile critics bemoan the fact that the Syrian opposition has ‘no Mandela,’ as if the Mandela of 1994 and the African National Congress (ANC) he led materialized out of thin air one fine day and not out of 40 years of continuous mass struggles (the ANC was formed in 1912). Time is a luxury the Syrian revolution never had because it was not up against a de Klerk but a Franco or a Hitler.
All of this contributed to the creation of a frenzied, fatigued, and headless opposition that could speak with one voice and act as one man only in rare circumstances and even then only with great difficulty.
This disunity finally began to change in the latter half of 2013. Propelled by defeats first at Qusayr and then Safira, rebel and exile opposition forces and their foreign sponsors all began to take serious (but stumbling) steps to unite. Zahran Alloush united dozens of independent brigades into the Army of Islam. The Army of Islam joined forces with salafist and Islamist brigades to form the Islamic Front; the Islamic Front formed in part because their attempt to unite more closely with coalition-affiliated military bodies was frustrated after talks with Idris went nowhere. Jamal Marouf welded independent brigades of varying ideologies and leanings together to form the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front.
On the political side, newly elected coalition President Jarba began turning around the shipwrecked coalition that his resigned predecessor Moaz al-Khatib left him. Jarba established a proper set of offices, created transparency and accountability regarding finances, hired professional media and political consultants, recruited skeptical activists to join the body as staff members, developed a division of labor (creating a media unit, among others), and moved coalition headquarters to Istanbul from Cairo (where it was closer to Israel than Syria).
After U.S. President Barack Obama cut and ran from his own “red line” to cut a deal with Russia, the coalition and Jarba came under intense pressure from world governments to attend the Geneva 2 talks. This pressure from above was matched by pressure in the opposite direction, not to attend the talks, emanating from civilians and brigades at the grassroots and from within the coalition itself.
This conundrum was the most severe, difficult, and complicated test Jarba faced as a leader and he passed with it flying colors, securing shipments of heavy weapons for rebel forces, winning over his coalition opponents, and smoothing over rocky rifts among the rebels that opened up over Geneva 2.
Opposition forces have traditionally opposed any negotiations with the regime unless either 1) Assad was removed beforehand or 2) the terms of his ouster were the subject of the talks. When Jarba’s predecessor Khatib broke with this sterile dogmatism and expressed a willingness to negotiate for the freedom of thousands of prisoners rotting in regime torture chambers, the visceral dissension it triggered in opposition circles paved the way for his downfall and resignation.
By comparison, Jarba spoke and acted much more carefully and thoughtfully. Instead of rejecting talks sought by foreign governments outright while fruitlessly begging them for weapons as the Syrian National Council (SNC), Jarba played the West’s game in the interests of the revolution. He outlined a series of conditions and steps — the cessation of barrel bombing, the withdrawal of invading Shia militias — that ‘had’ to take place before there could be any serious consideration of participating in the Geneva 2 talks. This was a bargaining position, a negotiating tactic to gain diplomatic leverage, a means of exacting a price from the West and the ‘Friends of Syria’ — a quid pro quo. In exchange for playing their game, Jarba won increased political and military support for the revolution. Both were delivered at Geneva 2. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s opening speech was not only was it a blistering indictment of the regime’s conduct, it placed all responsibility for terrorism in the country on the regime, reaffirmed that the entire purpose of the conference was to broker a path to a post-Assad Syria, and left zero room for the regime delegation to avoid making substantive concessions. When the regime delegation dogmatically refused to even broach the topic of a transition, shipments of heavy anti-tank weapons began arriving in Syria. Jarba’s gambit paid off.
No Geneva 2, no Jarba, and no coalition would have meant no ATGMs, no TOWs, and no CIA training for fighters on the front lines.
On Geneva 2, Jarba was right against the grassroots, the Islamists, and the exiles.
Unfortunately, the growth of a politically mature leadership is not without growing pains and resistance from those who stubbornly cling to their failed ways. The SNC (along with a bloc led by Mustafa al-Sabbagh) threatened to withdraw from the coalition if it attended Geneva, followed through on this threat, and then rejoined once it became clear that the talks were a win for the coalition. Jarba remained steadfast and ignored the irresponsible threats and antics of the 44 boycotters; at the same time, he did not seek revenge by barring or impeding their re-entry into the coalition.
A good leader knows when to go against the majority of his comrades and how to do go about doing so without playing into the enemy’s hands or acting objectively as a saboteur. Good leadership is a difficult and usually thankless job; thankfully, Jarba took the job and made the most of it with great skill by being patient, steady, inclusive, flexible, and collaborative. Team Jarba should be judged not by the awful hand they were dealt but how they played their cards; judge them based not on what is ideal but on performance in an inherited set of conditions and a given set of circumstances.
It is hard to see how team Jarba could have done better given the context they were operating in. Had the Geneva 2 boycottists triumphed, it would have been an unmitigated disaster:
- The coalition would have been at odds with every government on the planet since the U.N. Security Council resolution sanctifying the U.S.-Russia chemical weapons deal explicitly mandated a second round of Geneva talks.
- The regime would have been able to pretend that it was willing to make concessions, if only there was someone on the other side of the table to negotiate with.
- No heavy weapons would have been shipped to rebel forces.
- Jarba’s last-minute boycott of Geneva 2 in response to U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s treacherous invitation to Iran (which never accepted the Geneva Communique) would not have even been possible if the coalition had not agreed to attend; this was another risky but successful gambit by Jarba.
- Geneva 2 might have proceeded without an opposition delegation entirely; just imagine Iran, Russia, the regime, and the misnamed “Friends of Syria” whose to aid the Syrian people has amounted to so little, all sitting around the table plotting the revolution’s fate.
Of course, team Jarba’s strong performance was not without mistakes.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did a photo op with injured Syrians being treated in Israeli hosptials, coalition media spokeman Khalid Saleh issued a statement denouncing Israel and accusing it of “siding with Assad.” Blogger Aboud Dandachi wrote a scathing but comradely critique of the statement, pointing out that treating injured Syrians was the right thing to do regardless of whether Israel’s intent was malicious and that the proper response was gratitude, not condemnation. Dandachi went on to explain how this example of petty posturing that raised the question of how the coalition could ever reconcile Syria’s warring communities if it couldn’t respond properly to a historic enemy doing something right (for a change), even if it was for the wrong reason. Not long after his criticism appeared, the offending statement was unceremoniously removed from the coalition website. Clearly someone read the criticism, agreed that Dandachi had a point, and responded in a mature manner instead of ignoring what was said, treating it as treason, or becoming defensive over the indefensible.
A coalition that actively listens to its constituents and corrects mistakes is a step forward from one that refuses to listen or admit making mistakes.
The coalition’s inherent difficulties — amply documented in Yezid Sayigh’s overly bleak and analytically erroneous report — will not be fixed by yet another round of reshuffling positions, reformed structures, or new org charts since its problems are cultural rather than structural. It has taken almost four years of excruciating struggle and three iterations — the National Salvation Conference, the SNC, and now the coalition — to get an opposition body coherent and functional enough and with a leadership savvy enough to win meager but growing political, diplomatic, financial, and military support from the West and regional states for the revolution. The opposition’s culture is still dysfunctional but the dominant trend of serious collaboration, compromise, and professionalism is finally winning out over the uncompromisingly amatuerish trend of moralistic whining, quitting, and resigning.
The anti-Jarba campaign threatens to upend and unravel all that.
Those behind the campaign should cease and desist until they nominate and campaign openly for a specific replacement who has substantive policy differences with Jarba and a positive direction for the coalition to go in. The example of Tamarod in Egypt should serve as a warning about the deadly consequences of scapegoating and toppling one man in a negative mudslinging campaign instead of rallying support for an alternative candidate with better policies to replace him. Attack ads and sniping will only damage the coalition and the revolution along with it.