Frederic C. Hof writes: The Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) formed in November 2012 faces no shortage of dire challenges as it tries to organize itself and give desperately needed political leadership to a heterogeneous hodgepodge of armed and unarmed opponents of the dying yet lethally venomous regime of Bashar al-Assad. How to uphold the primacy of citizenship in an increasingly sectarian struggle? How to maintain credibility with those who are fighting and dying? How to reach out to minorities and other fence sitters inside Syria? How to prepare for the practicalities of transition and governance? How to shape and influence international support for Syria’s revolution rather than being shaped and influenced by outsiders? How to eclipse internal rivalries and policy differences with selflessness and a unifying sense of mission encompassing a broadly acceptable vision of what the new Syria will be and how it will function?
In a just world, Syrians emerging from an induced political coma of some 50 years would not be faced with such daunting tasks. Starting with the 1958-1961 Egyptian-run United Arab Republic, Syrians have become accustomed to the heavy hand of intelligence services on political discourse. Over the years, frank political discussions even within families became guarded and circumscribed, a condition not significantly altered by the “Damascus Spring” experiment over a decade ago. Now it is all out there for discussion and decision. Syrians who, not long ago, could only choose among silence, torture, and departure are now being asked to practice teamwork, transparency, and compromise. There is nothing fair or just about this situation.
Yet fair or not, ready or not, Syria requires a government. For more than 40 years the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) was the transmission belt for the desires of a narrow, family-based clique. That government is now neutered—the geographical scope of its assigned writ having shrunken dramatically over the past 21 months. Yet a functioning bureaucracy will be central to any transition plan due to the need for continuity of government. Ministries, departments, and agencies—including the security services—employ people and provide services, albeit often ineffectively and corruptly. The preservation of these organs, as imperfect as they are, can facilitate the rapid dispersal of international assistance post-Assad and reassure millions of Syrians who fear the chaos of revolutionary rule. Reform will come in time. It is important to distinguish government and its associated bureaucracy from the ruling clique, which has become a militia, willing and even eager to risk destroying Syria to try to save itself.
As I have written previously the old expression, you can’t beat something with nothing, applies in spades to Syria. No one—not even Bashar al-Assad himself—doubts the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of what remains of the old system. Yet millions of Syrians grudgingly adhere to “the Doctor.” They do so partly because they fear his jailers and torturers, but largely because they know not what comes next. This is the obstacle that a provisional government formed by the SOC can address and overcome. [Continue reading…]