March 21, 2013 (TSR-Al Akhbar) – Since the founding of the Damascus Declaration in 2005, the Syrian opposition has been marked by a divergence of political and national interests. As a result, the opposition has splintered into factions only to re-unify time and time again. Al-Akhbar considers this tumultuous history to better understand the opposition’s most recent incarnations.
There are several junctures in the history of party-based opposition in Syria. The Damascus Declaration was formed on 16 October 2005 and became the largest opposition gathering in the history of the Baath party rule, which began on 8 March 1963. It included Islamists, liberals, and Arab and Kurdish nationalists, in addition to the Marxist Party for Communist Action. The broad coalition was built on the prospects of change in Syria amidst a climate of tension between the US and Syria.
However, during the meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration in December 2007, cracks began to appear.
On one hand, there were the liberals of the People’s Party, the seven Kurdish parties signatory to the Declaration, except the Kurdish Left Party, and the majority of independents. On the other, there was the Socialist Union Party and the Party of Communist Action who rejected the wager of the liberal-Kurdish parties on the ‘external factor’ of internal change. As a direct consequence, the candidates of the two parties lost the elections for the General Secretariat of the Declaration held on that day.
The split was preceded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision in June 2006 to form the Salvation Front with former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam who had split from the regime, but without formally leaving the Damascus Declaration.
These two developments lost the Declaration its wide representative base and it became effectively confined to the liberals and Kurdish nationalists. It lost its Nasserite and Marxist components, in addition to the Islamist disengagement. Finally, the Brotherhood’s exit came in January 2009, when they announced the suspension of their opposition activities during the war on Gaza.
The Socialist Union Party, the Party of Communist Action, and the Kurdish Left Party, who had joined the Marxist Left Gathering with several other Marxist parties in April 2007, began negotiations to establish a ‘third way’ between the regime and the Damascus Declaration.
Discussions took place between January 2008 and July 2010, with the participation of several independents from the Arab and Kurdish nationalist currents, in addition to Marxists. They were joined by a second Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (al-Parti) led by Nasreddin Ibrahim, not to be confused with the other “al-Parti” linked to President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq Massoud Barzani, which remained in the Declaration.
On 30 December 2009, Kurdish parties in Syria formed a broad Kurdish gathering called the Kurdish Political Council, comprised of eight parties that had been in the orbit of Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Most remarkably, they were not joined by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a theoretical-political extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the most powerful Kurdish party in Syria since its inception on 20 July 2003.
Without looking into these stops, one cannot comprehend the process of political performance of the Syrian opposition in the period following the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.
The Opposition Goes to Paris
On 9 May 2011, a paper written in Damascus and Paris by independent Syrian dissidents was presented to the Syrian opposition formations: the Damascus Declaration, the Socialist Union Party, the Kurdish Political Council, PYD, the Marxist Left Gathering, and several individuals. The exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood was obvious.
The paper aimed to create a broad coalition of opposition forces to tackle the Syrian crisis, which had been spreading throughout the country – with the exception of the Kurdish communities – in the form of spontaneous protests. In essence, the paper wavered between reform and change, but did not call for overthrowing the regime.
Practically, the document of 9 May 2011 was the basis of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria (NCC), established on 25 June 2011. Signatories of the founding documents were the Socialist Union Party, the Marxist Left Gathering, four of the Kurdish Political Council parties, PYD, and independent individuals.
In a sense, the NCC came out of the embryo that grew between 2008 and 2010 in the ‘third way’ discussions, with the qualitative addition of the PYD. In practice, it represented the Arabist, Kurdish, and Marxist left.
In Summer 2011, the Damascus Declaration and the Muslim Brotherhood were back together to propose something that would transcend the calls for reform and change into the “overthrow of the regime.” The new variation called for a bet on the ‘external factor’ for change, like what happened in Libya.
Tripartite discussions were held at the beginning of July 2011 between the NCC, the Brotherhood, and the Damascus Declaration, to create a broad coalition. In case of an agreement between the three sides, it was planned to announce it on 14 September in Damascus under the name of the Syrian National Council.
However, the negotiations failed and the coalition was stillborn due to objections by the Declaration and the Brotherhood to the requests of the NCC’s Executive Board, presented in a meeting on 11 September, which called for the rejection of external military intervention, in addition to calling for recognizing the Kurdish national presence and finding a just solution to the Kurdish question.
Practically, these three demands, especially the first two, were the reason behind the split of the Syrian opposition between the NCC and the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed by the MB and the Damascus Declaration on 2 October 2011 in Istanbul.
Calls for external intervention hit a brick wall on 4 October 2011, with Russia and China announcing their rejection of a repetition of the Libyan scenario through their vetoes in the UN Security Council. This internationalization of the Syrian crisis prevented the US, Europe, and Turkey from intervening militarily in Syria and pitting the “violence of the opposition” against the regime’s violence in the balance of powers.
This conflict is not a struggle over Syria, but a struggle in Syria to redraw the map of international creations, through which the Kremlin hopes to break the unipolar situation. This explains the participation of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Syria, in the biggest regional crisis witnessed by international relations in the post-Cold War period.
A Bid For War Thwarted
The council of Istanbul failed to summon external intervention, then, since July 2012, it failed to “use excessive violence as a means to topple the regime,” following the blockage of the first option. The SNC failed to score any goal, prompting then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to announce the “expiry of the SNC” in October 2012.
Clinton called for the formation of a new political entity, which was duly born on 11 November under the name of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, better known as the Syrian National Coalition. The US wanted the new coalition to be its arm in the Russian-US settlement, whose features began to appear in the Geneva Declaration issued on 30 June 2012.
Since Autumn 2012, the Syrian opposition has been split between supporters of a ‘political solution’ and the supporters of a ‘military solution.’ The first includes the NCC and some Coalition figures, such as Moaz al-Khatib and Riad Seif. The second is comprised of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration, and the bulk of the “armed Syrian opposition.”
The 2011-2012 split over “external military intervention” was practically over in 2013, despite both sides remaining the same, albeit with new variations.
Kurdish parties who joined the Kurdish National Council (KNC) on 26 October 2011 decided to leave the NCC and the Syrian National Coalition, with the exception of PYD, which remains in the NCC, after both sides of the opposition rejected demands for ‘self-determination.’
Indicators show that the Syrian National Coalition is headed the same way as the SNC, following the crisis between the Brotherhood and the Damascus Declaration, on one hand, and Moaz al-Khatib, who agreed on a political settlement. The new formation does not seem suitable nor capable of serving US demands in the arena of the US-Russian settlement.
This could lead to a split in the Coalition, with the wing accepting the settlement getting closer to the NCC, and a new map of the Syrian opposition, based on two sides: those who accept a political solution against those who want a military solution. But the new international atmosphere, with John Kerry as the new US secretary of state, signals that the US-Russian consensus has matured.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.