As the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) named its new president as Saudi Arabia-based businessman Hadi al-Bahra on Tuesday night, the group stood at a crossroads. Over the last six months, under the stewardship of Ahmad Jarba, the group saw its Geneva peace talks falter and its influence on the ground diminish significantly with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the strengthening of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and other rebel groups who have money, manpower – and the ability to sway Syrians disillusioned by the SNC’s perceived failures.
But President Barack Obama’s request that Congress earmark $500 million to train moderate forces led some to wonder whether the fractured, squabbling SNC could, under new leadership, once again be a viable means of fighting not just extremists but also Bashar al-Assad.
We asked Theodore Karasik, research director at the thinktank Inegma, and Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based political analyst and director of the advisory firm GlobeSight, to weigh in on the group’s current power, its future potential on the ground and the challenges facing al-Bahra as he takes the reins.
Syria Deeply: How significant is their change in leadership?
Theodore Karasik: The change in leadership is important because it provides the SNC with a new leader who has already been involved in the Geneva II process but will get away from Jarba’s approach, providing more of a businessman’s approach to trying to bring all parties under the SNC umbrella together. Al-Bahra is a successful businessman whose roots are tied to Saudi Arabia – and the prominent merchant families and some royals within the kingdom.
Taufiq Rahim: It is mostly insignificant. Both Jarba and and al-Bahra are close to the West and close to Saudi Arabia. Al-Bahra himself was involved in the lead-up to the Geneva talks and so is not a “new face” by any means. Ultimately the SNC for better or worse is a flawed institution that has relatively weak ties with most of the armed opposition, which at the end of the day is the opposition that has any power.
Syria Deeply: What will be al-Bahra’s biggest challenge?
Karasik: The biggest challenge facing the SNC and al-Bahra will be getting diplomacy back on track. Because of the inability to coalesce around one voice within the SNC, as well as the strategic distraction of [turmoil] in Iraq and Palestine, it’s going to be a challenge to move forward. His success will be measured by whether or not a new round of meaningful peace talks occur.
Syria Deeply: What is the future potential of the moderate Syrian opposition? What can they accomplish?
*Karasik: For the immediate future it’s about bringing the SNC together more tightly so that another round of talks can be held. The British government has already supported [the idea of another round of talks] by the SNC, and other countries will likely follow suit. However, because of other events occurring in the region that seem to be more pertinent – like what’s going on with ISIS in Iraq, and now between Israel and Palestine – the momentum for diplomacy may be slow.
Rahim: The SNC will be able to accomplish very little and in the face of the regime’s current (and likely intensifying) assault on Aleppo, the coalition is really nowhere to be found. Its best hope is to put together a new strategy that accepts their reality as an advocacy group that can focus on what an alternative can look like to the regime rather than pretending to have a military plan to displace it.
Syria Deeply: What is the SNC’s power at present?
Karasik: At this time it does not seem to be present on the ground as much as it used to be. Syrian forces, as well as other Islamist groups including the Jabhat al-Nusra umbrella, have been successful in beating back the SNC-linked groups. Obama’s idea of giving $500 million in aid to train and equip those rebels [which would not come through for many months] probably will not help the group so much because of the more immediate threat posed by ISIS.
Rahim: Today the Syrian National Coalition is at its core an externally based group of Syrians that primarily interfaces with the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council as one of many voices related to the Syrian crisis. At most they represent a symbolic alternative voice – not government – to the Assad regime. They have since Geneva, unfortunately, gone from weakness to weakness rather than from strength to strength, and at this moment, the SNC is teetering on the brink of irrelevance as the changes on the ground are disconnected from their direction.