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Syria Snap Analysis: Lessons from the Resignation of the Syrian National Council's Burhan Ghalioun

See also Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Assad Says, "No Chaos, Please"

Burhan Ghalioun, the President of the Syrian National Council, resigned today. He was re-elected on Tuesday to a three-month term by the executive board, but simultaneously accused of weak leadership by other members of the Syrian opposition.

The timing of the resignation is particularly interesting as the Local Coordinating Committees, a major organization inside Syria, released a statement this morning to state their displeasure at the work of the SNC. The LCCS even threatened to pull out of the Council if things did not improve:

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria deplores the situation of the Syrian National Council. The situation reflects the Council and the Opposition’s furthering from the spirit and demands of the Syrian Revolution. Furthermore, it reflects their distance from directions towards a civil state, democracy, transparency and the transfer of power desired in a New Syria.

In recent months, we have witnessed apparent political deficits in the Syrian National Council and a lack of consensus between the Council and the revolutionary movement. Furthermore, the council continues to marginalize a majority of the representatives of the revolutionary movement such as members of the Council’s General Assembly. This is accounted for by influential individuals on the Executive Board and the General Secretariat deciding on major factors, the most recent decision being the extension of Burhan Ghalioun’s presidency for a third consecutive term despite his political and organizational failure.

The LCCS is a networked organization that operates in every major city and many towns and villages across Syria. It has become the truth-verification engine for the opposition, posting videos and putting out death tolls and eyewitness reports. The LCCS, while not explicitly political, has a huge degree of influence inside Syria. With its validation of information and attempts to release unified statements from committees around the country, if the LCCS says that the SNC or Burhan Ghalioun do not represent the will of the Syrian people, then this has significant repercussions.

So it would appear that Ghalioun's resignation is recognition that he has lost the public support of the Syrian opposition. However, let's look more closely at the his statement:

I am announcing my resignation as head of the Council. I call on the Syrian opposition to break the cycle of conflicts and preserve unity. I declare my resignation as soon as a replacement is found through elections or consensus.

The resignation is not immediate, suggesting that perhaps Ghalioun will not stand down if the adequate "replacement" is not discovered. Indeed, The statement can also be read as Ghalioun's belief that the Syrian opposition is too splintered to produce an appropriate replacement.

The Future of the Opposition Leadership

The following statements should sound familiar, so frequently appearing in news reports and blog posts that they are the unspoken laws of the Syrian crisis:

  • The opposition is splintered.
  • The opposition has no leadership.
  • Without leadership, the opposition will struggle to unify.
  • Without leadership, and unity, the international community cannot intervene in Syria.

The problem is that none of these statements are accurate. "Splintered" suggests that there are major ideological divisions within the opposition. There aren't. Nationwide, the sentiment in the streets is clear: most people believe in the Free Syrian Army, they believe in foreign intervention, and they renounce sectarian divides.

There are, of course, elements that disagree with all of that sentiment, but the themes of the protests, the signs, the chants, and the statements from main-stream opposition mouthpieces suggest that there is not a lot of division inside Syria on these issues.

With most of the Syrian "leadership," in the SNC and other groups, living outside Syria, here is an alternative explanation for the supposed splintering inside the "leadership". It coes from expatriates who are second-guessing the irreversible pattern inside Syria, including the growth of calls for intervention and the growth of the armed insurgency against the Assad regime.

What's more, the Syrian opposition seems to be progressing without leadership. The SNC is not organizing street protests, nor do they appear to have played a role in the arming of opposition fighters, nor are they coordinating attacks against the Assad military. Yet all of these occur daily.

The Syrian resistance to the Assad government, represented by the peaceful protests and the armed insurgency, are gradually eroding the pillars of the regime. All the metaphorical and literal guns are pointed in more or less the same direction --- with or without foreign intervention, and with or without a unified political front, these elements will continue to work against the President. Even with poor leadership, as we saw in Libya, as long as the fighters are locally coordinated, they will continue to have and effect, and if they are given the appropriate equipment and logistical support, they will score victories.

The political leadership, on the other hand, even if it were fully established and recognised, as the National Transitional Council in Libya was, will fail to lead these elements from outside Syria, and if recent conflicts are any indication (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan) they will likely fail in a smooth transition if and when the regime falls.

There is another possible risk in putting too much emphasis on the visible "leadership" --- the international community could be replacing the entrenched regime with an un-elected and weak transitional one. In Afghanistan the Karzai government is racked with corruption and has had to rig an election to remain in power. In Iraq, the government is in turmoil. If Libya, the NTC has failed to unify the country. In Egypt, the military are still in power. Transitional system have not proven effective, and have often proven dangerous.

An option may be to have a weak transitional government tasked only with organizing elections, a government that is not announced months, or years, before the fall of the regime. But it needs to be recognised that Syria has failed to produce that transitional government at this moment.

The crisis marches on, regardless of how well, or poorly, things go in the expatriate community. Politically, the status quo is unlikely to change in the near-future. Do the Syrians, or the international actors, really want to latch their entire plan to end the crisis on a strong, officially-recognised leadership? If so, how will that plan adapt if the Syrian crisis deepens, or even closes in on a conclusion, before the legitimacy of that leadership is established inside the country?

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