By Richard Armstrong
Amid this week’s seemingly dramatic shift in the course of the Syrian civil war, a senior delegation from the Syrian National Council (SNC) came to U.N. headquarters in New York. The SNC is the Turkish-based umbrella organization for the various groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad. The group gave a press conference on Tuesday, a day before the startling attack on Assad’s inner circle that left three top officials dead. With the U.N. Observer Mission in Syria set to expire at the end of this week, the delegation had come to New York to push for a renewal of the mission as well as a U.N. Chapter VII resolution, which could pave the way for outside military intervention. Although the delegates accused the Observer Mission of being understaffed, they insisted it was important to have observers on the ground recording what Assad’s regime was doing, and possibly deter atrocities by their presence. Seemingly resigned to Russia’s continued support of President Bashar al-Assad, they also told reporters they wanted the international community to increase pressure on Syria even with a divided U.N. Security Council.
The press conference focused on outlining the SNC’s plan for getting a Chapter VII resolution—a resolution that defines a state as a threat to international peace, therefore justifying the implementation of sanctions and possibly even outside military intervention—passed in the United Nations Security Council. The SNC delegation also touched lightly on the activities of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The two organizations are separate: The FSA is a paramilitary organization concerned with the military fight against Assad; The SNC is a political body that concentrates its activities on the international community and increasing diplomatic pressure on Assad. Bassma Kodmani, head of foreign affairs for the Council, did give an overview of the current FSA strategy, which in recent weeks has started controlling territory for the first time since the uprising began. She said that the Syrian army is withdrawing from rural areas and into the major population centers, like Aleppo. The FSA is now taking control of these abandoned areas. Kodmani also mentioned a recent escalation in the number of defectors from the Syrian army.
However, Russia was the real elephant in the room. Moscow is a crucial supporter of the Assad regime and is dragging its feet in terms of either strengthening the Annan peace plan or abandoning their support of Damascus. After traveling to Moscow last week to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the SNC appears to have given up on changing Russian minds. Apparently there were “no positive encouraging signs” regarding support for stronger international action. While the SNC says that Russia “has an important role” to play, they are now more focused on persuading other members of the U.N. Security Council to act. But as a veto-wielding Permanent Member, Russia’s resistance could prove to be a major roadblock to SNC plans for a stronger stand from the United Nations.
The delegation was skeptical of the Kofi Annan plan, saying that it had actually “escalated killing” by giving the Assad regime a “blank check” to continue its crackdown without consequences. In addition to lacking teeth, the Annan didn’t have a clear time frame nor were there enough observers in the USMUS mission. Furthermore, the SNC criticized Annan for spending too much time talking to "Assad and his allies" and not "the Syrian people."
Although the SNC delegates said they were committed to working through the United Nations, they also hinted at alternatives. Kodmani said that if there was "no possibility of working under legitimate UN Security Council architecture, then [we] need to explore other options." In further questions about outside parties, Kodmani mentioned the Arab League—though she failed to outline any formal role the organization would play.
When questioned about plans for governing post-Assad Syria—including protection for minorities—the delegates said they were working on a detailed action plan but reiterated that their primary concern at the moment was removing the Assad family from power. The plan, known as the “Day After Project,” was being compiled by experts and policy makers and would provide a sketch of Syria after the fall of Assad. This comes in part as response to the failure of Libyan rebels to formulate a detailed plan for governance after the fall of Gaddafi. The Council also assured reporters that provisions were being made to secure the country’s chemical weapon stockpiles by a team headed by a defected former general.
After the progress the rebels have made in the last weeks, along with Wednesday’s devastating attack on Assad’s inner circle, the tide does seem to be shifting in favor of the SNC. But whether the SNC’s New York press conference was just a dog-and-pony show to curry international legitimacy or if they also have actual influence on the ground in Syria remains to be seen.
Richard Armstrong is an Editorial Assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of SVLuma]