The fact that Syria’s opposition groups struggle to amass widespread support, culminating in a disastrous multi-day conference of infighting and disorganization this week at an Istanbul hotel, came as a surprise to no one. A glance through some of the world’s most famous revolutions reveals the importance of charismatic leaders in overthrowing regimes. A quick recall of high school history, plus a little Googling, proffers a simple list of revolutionary men who changed history, for better or worse:
American Revolution (1776) – George Washington
October Revolution in Russia (1918) – Vladimir Lenin
Rise of Nazi Germany (1933) – Adolf Hitler
Indian Independence Movement (1947) – Mahatma Gandhi
Formation of the People’s Republic of China (1949) – Mao Zedong
Iranian Revolution (1979) – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
While nobody would argue that we want a Hitler to arise from Syria, the fact that no moderate has accepted this critical role may in fact empower a Hitler or Mao-like leader. This new extremist leader could come in the form of an al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra battalion leader, whose men have already garnered civilian support for their ability to provide goods and fight bravely in the front lines.
The need for a charismatic leader in Syria, however, goes beyond historical precedents. Since the beginning of the crisis, Syrians have yearned for a leader to present a legitimate alternative to President Bashar al-Assad. Now, over two years later, many Syrians who outwardly dislike Assad still hesitate to support the revolutionaries, posing the centuries-old argument that they prefer the devil they know over a potential extremist like Khomeini.
Syrians still can’t answer a simple question: “If not Assad, then who?”
Not only has no one materialized as a ‘revolutionary leader’ in the Che Guevara mold, but the most influential opposition organizations have, until now, shown little promise.
The initial umbrella opposition group, the much-hyped Syrian National Council, has now been all but dismissed by the Syrian people as a group of expatriates heavily backed by the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. The newer and internationally supported Syrian National Coalition has shown little ability to galvanize widespread Syrian support, much less feed the starving people in rebel-held areas.
In a glaring example of their disorganization, the coalition president, Moaz Khatib, and nearly a quarter of all coalition members recently resigned after the election of another Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate – hopelessly miscast Syrian–Texan Ghassan Hitto – for prime minister of the transitional government.
Today’s Syrians watch a YouTube video of a rebel fighter ripping the heart out of a fallen regime soldier and eating it in front of the camera. Minorities hear rebel fighters waving semi-automatics and declaring death to all Alawites (members of Assad’s ethnic minority) and see al-Nusra fighters waving banners declaring Sharia law and persecution of non-Muslims. For these Syrians, Assad may well be their safest bet.
It is unlikely, at this point, that someone will miraculously come out of the woodwork. Rather, the Syrian peoples’ best hope is a rejuvenated Syrian National Coalition, with a new leader that truly symbolizes this fight for freedom.
Unlike the current body, this ideal coalition should consist of members that represent a variety of different ideologies, religions, sects and backgrounds. This body’s funding should not come predominantly from Gulf countries that heavily sway elections and decisions, but from a variety of international donors promoting Syrian independence and self-rule. The new coalition should focus not only on feeding and providing for the Syrian people, but also establishing a clear platform for their vision of a free and democratic Syria.
The most critical step a new and representative coalition must take, however, is to fairly elect a new president or prime minister that is well-respected by the Syrian people and charismatic enough to lead Syria to a new era. Ultimately, the onus will fall on the Syrian National Coalition to provide Syria with its Che Guevara.