A lot of attention is being paid to a joint statement made yesterday by thirteen Syrian rebel groups, who formally rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition, the (mostly self-proclaimed, although the US and Arab League, among others, recognize them as legitimate) “government-in-exile” awaiting Assad’s overthrow from their headquarters in Istanbul (there’s been talk of moving back into Syria, but for some strange reason they don’t seem all that interested in going back there just now). The groups, who jointly called for an Islamic state in Syria rather than one governed by the more secular SNC, all fall on the “religious” end of the “religious-secular” spectrum in the rebel coalition (which isn’t really coalescing so much right now), and several (most prominently Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the two largest jihadi rebel groups) had already rejected the SNC’s control. However, there are a couple of groups among the 13, particularly Liwa al-Tawhid, which has led the rebellion in the crucial city of Aleppo, that had previously accepted the SNC’s authority or were at least biting their tongues about it. NRO.com declared that the groups had “abandoned” the SNC, CBS informed us that the factions “reject [the SNC’s] authority,” and there was this:
Syrian rebel alliance formally reject West-backed political opposition leaders, call for sharia. Nobody left for US to back.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) September 25, 2013
How did this joint statement come about, and is it really all that earth-shattering? Let’s talk.
The rejection of the SNC can’t be understood without first understanding exactly what the SNC is and why it has virtually no possibility of being accepted as a legitimate authority in Syria moving forward. Expatriate revolutionaries are a curious bunch. Exiles are unambiguous. Prominent revolutionaries who were forcibly sent abroad by the repressive state (or, better yet, by repressive outside conquerors) are heroes and potential leaders; here you might think of Napoleon, Lenin, Arafat, Khomeini, the Dalai Lama, and some of the governments in exile that set up in Western European capitals when Lenin and Stalin were consolidating power in the former Russian Empire and Eastern Europe. Expats are different; they’re the folks who left of their own accord because they had reason to fear the situation at home and they had the means to survive comfortably living abroad. Here you might consider, for example, Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.
One of these types of groups has inherent legitimacy, the other one is probably going to be looked at with suspicion by the people they left behind, who either didn’t see the danger coming or (more likely) couldn’t afford to pick up and go live very nicely someplace else. When a Ruhollah Khomeini makes his triumphant return home, people flood the airport to greet his arrival and practically carry him on their own backs into power; when an Ahmed Chalabi returns home, most people say “who the hell is this guy?” and the ones who already know who he is instinctively start clutching their wallets. If you’re thinking that the distinction between “exile” and “expat” has as much to do with subjective things like charisma and public sentiment as it does with the actual, objective circumstances of this or that person’s departure from the homeland, you’re right, but that’s irrelevant. People decide for themselves who the exiles are and who the expats are, and they tend to prefer exiles.
You could also draw analogies between the SNC and the Egyptians who protested in DC a few weeks back over their belief that the Obama Administration has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood somehow (the only “side” that the Obama Administration has consistently been behind in Egypt has been “please let this thing sort itself out soon and without too many bodies”). They’re from the country they’re agitating about but they’re not really of it anymore. Egyptian expats living around DC can demand that the US government throw its full support behind the military coup that seized power in Egypt and that continues to respond violently to dissent because they don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood in power in their homeland, whatever the cost. This is a perfectly valid position, but at the same time it’s not as though their voting rights have been circumvented, and it’s not as though they’re in any danger when El-Sisi decides to go break some more pro-Morsi skulls because he ran out of shisha again or whatever. They have the luxury of seeing things in black and white: Muslim Brotherhood BAD, so Anything Else GOOD. The situation is considerably more nuanced for Egyptians who still live in Egypt, most of whom also oppose the Brotherhood but also have to live with the realities of martial law and an uncertain future for democratic governance.
It seems like the Syrians still in Syria have decided that the Syrian National Coalition is made up of expats, not exiles. Its first “Prime Minister” was a man named Ghassan Hitto, whose last job before becoming PM of a government that doesn’t really exist was as an executive at an American telecom firm. He hasn’t lived in Syria since 1980, when he was 17. The rest of its leadership, including the current PM (Ahmad Saleh Touma) and its first two “Presidents” (first Moaz al-Khatib and now Ahmad Jarba) have stronger revolutionary credentials and all three were politically active opposition figures before the war started, but the fact is that all of them chose to go be a government-in-exile in Istanbul while others stayed behind to do the fighting and/or dying, and they’ve failed both individually and collectively to establish themselves as fighting exiles. Those folks who stayed in Syria have some issues with the ones who left: as far as anybody in Syria can tell, all the SNC does is hold lavish meetings at fancy hotels around the world to raise money that never seems to find its way back to the Syrian rebels. None of these guys was forced from power by Assad or had emerged as the leading voice of opposition to Assad before the violence broke out, so they lack broad credibility.
Now that Russia and the US have reached their chemical weapons deal (at least theoretically), the SNC looks both irrelevant and out of touch, for having demanded a US military response to Ghouta that the opposition still in Syria opposed. The SNC has no problem demanding Assad’s ouster come hell or high water, and pushing for American military strikes to speed up the process, because, hey, those missiles have no chance of landing in downtown Istanbul, where most of the folks on the SNC live. You want to help me achieve my political goals by bombing those other people, way over there? Hey, by all means, bombs away. It’s not surprising that the people who are actually fighting and suffering, or just plain suffering, because of this war tend not to be impressed with the pronouncements of a bunch of well-to-do Syrian expats living la belle vie in Istanbul, even if those expats have decided to declare themselves Syria’s official government-in-exile.
So, does this joint statement change the situation in Syria? Your answer may be yes, if you believed that the SNC had been, until now, the legitimate alternative to Assad. But should anybody have actually believed that to begin with? The most active fighters on the rebel side have long been the ones fighting under Islamist banners (Jabhat al-Nusrah, ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid), and most of them were never supporters of the SNC to begin with. Sure, the Arab League recognized the SNC, and meanwhile its two richest members (the Saudis and Qataris) only stopped arming Jabhat al-Nusrah, which has never been aligned with the SNC, after the US prodded them to stop. I’m not sure if Obama’s foreign policy team ever believed that the SNC was legitimate or if their recognition of the SNC was intended to act as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (I suspect, or hope, it’s the latter). There’s nothing as yet that indicates that these 13 groups (of which ISIS is notably absent) are joining forces (which could really reshape things) apart from this general statement of a shared goal. The idea that Washington was going to be able to funnel weapons and support to just the right rebel groups so as to strengthen moderates without aiding the extremists was always a fantasy, and I suspect that the Obama folks knew it and that’s why they’d been dragging their feet on sending military aid prior to Ghouta. In other words, if there’s “nobody left for the US to back now,” then there wasn’t anybody for the US to back all along, because we wouldn’t have been interested in backing any of these 13 jihadi groups. All this declaration does is pull back the curtain on the SNC a little more, but frankly that curtain was kind of in tatters already.
Meanwhile Assad is still in power, and his chances of survival only get better the most fractured the opposition gets. And those Syrians who are still in Syria, what do they want? I haven’t seen anything that looks like even a well-intentioned attempt to find out. Most of them, let’s remember, aren’t fighting this war at all, they’re just being killed and brutalized by it. If they could have a secular, democratic replacement for Assad tomorrow I’d imagine that most Syrians would take that deal, but mostly I suspect they just want the fighting to stop.