Syrian National Council (SNC)
On October 2, 2011, a broad-based coalition of Syrian opposition leaders announced the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC), calling for the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the formation of a civil, pluralistic, and democratic state in Syria. The Syrian National Council was the largest umbrella organization, established as a result of the national uprising. It is the political arm of the Syrian revolution, is mandated with articulating its political demands. The Syrian opposition consists of a variety of groups with differing ideologies. The newly formed council included Syria's pro-democracy Damascus Declaration, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, various Christian and Kurdish factions and the grass-roots Local Coordination Committees, which have led nationwide street protests.
In March 2011, large-scale peaceful demonstrations began to take place in Syria against the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad. The Bashar al-Assad regime responded to protests by launching a campaign of escalating and indiscriminate violence, including gross human rights violations, use of force against civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, and interference with access to medical treatment. Demonstrators initially demanded political reform, but under sustained violent attack by the Government of Syria, now demand a change in the Syrian regime.
Capping a four-day meeting in Istanbul, on September 14, 2011 a diverse array of Assad government opponents chose a 140-member Syrian National Council of whom about half were activists inside Syria and were not publicly identified. A spokesman for the group, French-based Syrian exile Basma Kadmani, said the council hoped to see the fall of the Assad government within six months and to form a transitional administration.
On November 23, 2011, the United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that “crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances of persons and other inhumane acts of a similar character have occurred in different locations in Syria since March 2011” and that “the Syrian Arab Republic bears responsibility for these crimes and violations”.
On December 6, 2011, the Syrian National Council issued a statement affirming that the Free Syrian Army “deserve[s] the backing of all supporters of human rights in Syria” and applauding the decision of FSA officers to “risk their lives and those of their families because they believe in Syria and have lost faith in the Assad doctrine”. On March 12, 2012, the Syrian National Council, through its spokesperson, called for “military intervention by Arab and Western countries to protect civilians” in Syria, and endorsed the arming of the Free Syrian Army.
On February 22, 2012, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic found in a subsequent report that “commanding officers and officials at the highest level of government bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations”. On March 15, 2012, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that “well over 8,000 people” have been killed because of the “brutal oppression” by authorities in Syria and called the status quo in Syria “indefensible”.
On February 24, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Syrian National Council (SNC) “a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change” and an “effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organizations”.
In March 2012 the Friends of Syria, which included representatives of the Syrian National Council, Secretary Clinton, and leaders from more than 60 other countries, came together in Tunis – the home of the first Arab Spring uprising – to forge a way forward on Syria, including a call for the Assad regime to end the violence; withdraw its forces from cities and towns; and ensure unhindered access for Arab League monitors. The Friends also praised the work of the Syrian National Council to form a broad and inclusive body and lay the groundwork for a political transition.
As is the case with most opposition movements, the Syrian opposition is not monolithic. Other opposition groups have emerged, and there are different views. Still, the international media has generally exaggerated the Syrian opposition’s fragmentation. Rifaat Assad’s group, for example, should not count as opposition, as Rifaat al-Assad had a violent and corrupt past in Syria, leaving him with no credibility among most Syrians. Nor should Abdel Halim Khaddam’s “National Salvation Front”, or any of the myriad of two- or three-person groups calling themselves opposition groups, as they are former Assad regime cronies who, for the most part, are used by the regime in its attempts to put on a reformist face.
Foremost among the credible opposition movements was the “National Coordinating Committees” (NCC). Although the SNC and the NCC were united in their vision for a free and democratic Syria after the collapse of the Assad regime, the two differed on methods: whereas the SNC was of the view that the international community must intervene to provide humanitarian relief, and that the international community should assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in defending peaceful civilian demonstrators against regime brutality, the NCC objected to any kind of international intervention and to the militarization of the revolution. But with the increasing violence of the regime, by mid-2012 peaceful demonstrations were scarce, and there was little doubt that the country was in a state of civil war.
The Islamist-dominated council, the largest coalition of political groupings opposed to the Syrian regime, has been deemed unable by some to provide effective support for the country’s disparate opposition: the political activists who daily risk their lives in street protest, the pockets of Free Syrian Army armed resistance to the regime, and the Kurds and other Syrian minorities who are reluctant to join the uprising. Other exile opposition groups, such as the National Coordination Board for Democratic Change, are smaller and, unlike the SNC, had not gained the endorsement of France, Britain, the United States and other countries supporting regime change in Damascus.
One of the most problematic challenges to an orderly transition was to get the opposition to form a coherent and credible leadership that commanded the loyalty of a majority of the many factions in the Syrian revolution. Progress on this effort wasfrustratingly slow. And by late-2012 there was increasingly a view in the international community that the SNC did not have a legitimate voice or was not legitimately representing the Syrian people who were in the struggle within Syria, risking their lives, making tremendous sacrifices every day and standing up to the regime.
On October 31, 2012 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Syrian National Council can no longer be seen as leading the opposition to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington is hoping new rebel leaders emerge from a meeting of Assad opponents in Doha. The United States has grown increasingly frustrated by the SNC's failure to include more opposition leaders inside Syria, its personality-driven leadership struggles, and its inability to attract a broad cross-section of Syrians, particularly minority Alawite and Kurds. This can not be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years," said Clinton. "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom."
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