“I worry that when history books are written, people will look back and say why we couldn’t do more,” David Cameron, the British prime minister, said at a talk earlier this month in Abu Dhabi.
The UK’s recognition of Syria’s newly formed National Coalition yesterday was a good start. So far, the six Arab GCC states, Libya, Turkey and France have also recognised the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Other countries, particularly the US, need to follow suit. There are at least three reasons why the world must not only recognise the coalition, but support it diplomatically and financially - sooner rather than later.
First, the coalition is extremely fragile and there are already attempts to undermine it because it has failed to deliver on its promises of full recognition and military support for the fighters on the ground. The coalition was originally a US-sponsored idea that succeeded largely because of these promises. But an increasing number of Syrians are becoming anxious because that support has not materialised.
On Sunday, for example, a group of fighters who had falsely claimed that they represented the majority of fighting factions in Aleppo rejected the coalition and called for an Islamic caliphate instead. It is clear the group represents only the interests of certain opposition factions (and probably regional actors) who are unhappy with the roles of Qatar and Turkey in the formation in the coalition. But such statements, often driven by foreign donors, can gain momentum if the coalition does not quickly receive recognition and provide alternative funds to fighting groups.
The unification of fighters on the ground begins with the ability of the coalition to channel financial and military support - plain and simple. Requiring the factions to be unified as a prerequisite for increased support is a misguided policy. A legitimate political body with access to resources can achieve independence from individual donors - and control the behaviour of fighters.
The second reason arguing for recognition is that the coalition is the most representative political entity to emerge during the 20-month uprising, reversing the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian National Council. The coalition, unlike the SNC, is structurally open to other forces, which allows for even more inclusiveness. Also unlike the SNC, the coalition has a limited mandate and does not aim to manage the transition period on its own. Above all, it has been well-received by the majority of anti-regime Syrians.
The world has long demanded a “viable alternative” to the Assad regime. An “alternative” should be offered by Syrians, but “viability” will only be attained with the assistance of countries that support their democratic aspirations. The coalition’s leadership and structure is well-suited to deal with the challenges on the ground, particularly because it is led by a person - Moaz Al Khatib - who has dedicated his career to fighting sectarianism, extremism and vigilantism.
Mr Al Khatib might not yet be a savvy politician, but he is a well-spoken community leader who has extensive ties with like-minded clerics and other influential people. That is exactly what Syria needs to meet the challenges that face the rebellion on the ground. Mr Al Khatib has a record of unequivocally arguing against sectarianism, and religious and extremist sentiments. The first time he was banned from preaching in 2007 at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus was because he preached about secularism: he said that secularism did not contradict religiosity and that a Muslim could be secular just as an atheist could. The regime disapproved because the talk involved politics.
The formation of the coalition has been received with cynicism, rather than scepticism, by some outsiders who view the election of a former preacher as a sign of creeping Islamism. But in a democratic Syria, institutions and governance matter more than individual figures. Mr Al Khatib was not elected as an individual, but as a representative of Damascus’s local council.
Recognition of the new coalition does not mean that friendly countries should stop pressing it to be more inclusive. Pressure and mediation must continue to include other forces, particular the moderate voices, who should know that being part of the coalition strengthens their voices - and shields people such as Mr Al Khatib from pressure from extremist voices. So far, many secular-leaning figures have refused to join the opposition councils, to the country’s and their own disadvantage.
The third priority is to have an authority that begins to replace the regime in areas outside its control. As the situation stands in Syria, rebels are making impressive progress on the ground: the majority of the country is outside the regime’s control, some of the regime’s operatives and militia leaders are being either captured or killed, and its elite forces are being humiliated and forced to retreat. As the regime withdraws, it is important that institutions take its place and learn how to run the country after the regime falls.
Equally important, a fully recognised authority in parts of the country where rebels have the military ability to withstand regime attacks will send a strong message to the regime and its pawns. The regime should know that it is being replaced and needs to negotiate a way out of power - not a way back in.
By failing to fully recognise and meaningfully aid the opposition, the world is sending a clear message to Bashar Al Assad: we are not prepared to let you go. That makes the world an accomplice, at least in the eyes of the rebels.