With sad, drooping eyes framing a concerned and gloomy expression, the ambassador of Syria to the United Nations is often summoned to the headquarters of the international organization in midtown Manhattan, where he arrives in a small, understated van–a low-end vehicle in a leaden shade of silver.
Having to defend daily a regime responsible for the death of tens of thousands provides many obvious reasons why he should look anxious. However, the recent appointment by the Syrian opposition of a prime minister is not just another small addition to his pile of anxieties; it brings him one step closer to being replaced as the Syrian representative to the UN.
Control of the UN seat is certainly in the sights of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the most widely recognized Syrian opposition group. The appointment of Ghassan Hitto as prime minister in waiting took place this month in time for them to occupy for the first time the Syrian chair at the League of Arab States summit March 26, in Doha (Syria’s membership had been suspended since November 2011). Hitto was not even required to form of a full-fledged government prior to attending the meeting in Doha, which is a reflection of the amount of interest there is in pushing this initiative forward, and an indicator of the influence that Qatar, a major backer of the coalition, has assumed during these last two years over the League of Arab States.
The meeting was also a platform to lobby for UN acceptance of the coalition as representative of Syria. In theory, UN recognition should follow an objective procedure, the reality is that the process is open to the relative influence of states. It is not just the result of a government meeting a set of criteria, but also about the preferences of individual member states and their capacity to mobilize others.1
In this environment, a number of factors indicate that the group could make a convincing argument for also taking over the Syrian delegation at the UN. The wide support of the Syrian opposition among member states is probably its greatest asset. Diplomatic sources and media reports claim that it would easily gain a majority of votes in the General Assembly—one source quoted by Al-Hayat cited 137 countries. This estimate is probably based on the level of support for UN General Assembly resolution 66/253, passed on February 2012, which condemned the human rights violations in Syria and endorsed the Arab League plan for the crisis, including a political transition negotiated between Syrian government and “the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.” And if further proof of support is needed, the SNC received the backing of more than a hundred governments at the Friends of the Syrian People conference held in Marrakesh last December. Thus, despite the fact that Russia and China are expected to use their influence against such a move in the Security Council and the Credentials Committee, where both are present and powerful, the coalition could obtain a majority of votes in the General Assembly with relative ease, and therefore gain real room for maneuvering.
Another crucial factor in gaining recognition as representative of a state is effective control of territory. Though the majority of Syrian territory still appears to be in regime hands, these borders are being contested militarily every day by the rebels, with some sources already claiming that at least fifty percent is under their control.
However, even without territorial control, the opposition coalition can hope for recognition. The case of China’s seat at the UN is a classic example that parallels the situation in a number of ways. From 1949-1971, the UN recognized a government that only controlled Taiwan and not the far more extensive mainland. This case is also relevant to the situation of the opposition coalition because it was at the General Assembly in 1971 where member states voted to pass a resolution to expel the representatives of Nationalist China, declaring the People’s Republic of China the only lawful representative of China in the UN.
This relatively favorable analysis is in sharp contrast, however, with the severe challenges the organization faces internally and among the forces opposing the Syrian regime in general.
Despite the broad international support, the coalition actually lacks substantial backing among opposition members within Syria itself. Since the beginning of the uprising, regime opponents have been struggling to form a united front, and many in the diaspora pretend to represent the rebels inside and have privileged access to the international community, while in fact they are disconnected from the forces active on the ground leading the actual struggle against Assad’s regime.
In fact, one of the main characteristics of the Syrian opposition in general is its fragmentation. Take, for example, the Syrian Free Army, which, as bluntly stated by Aron Lund, simply doesn’t exist. The name is at best a misleading title used by journalists to oversimplify or, at worst, a politically-interested label intended to give a (false) sense of unity. Indeed, one of the reasons behind the formation of a provisional government and the appointment of Hitto in particular was in order to bridge this gap. A provisional government might be able to mobilize international support in such a way that it ends up imposing itself as the only feasible choice for those inside Syria. Hitto was elected as prime minister due to his prominent role prior to his appointment in the distribution of humanitarian aid in Syria.
One of the major reasons why the coalition has failed to win the support of Syrians is the conflicting interests and agendas with which it is riddled. The election of Hitto was a perfect example of this, causing a wave of resignations in protest for the absence of a consensus in the selection process within the SNC—Hitto won only a few more votes than the second-place candidate in an organization whose members are themselves not chosen by anything resembling a democratic process. Underlying these protests is one of the most divisive issues in the organization: the bitterness over the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance within the coalition, itself a reflection of their preponderance inside Syria.
To be fair, there are credible figures in the SNC representing a broad spectrum of the Syrian opposition; the human rights activist Suheir Atassi, who serves as vice-president of the organization, chief among them. But in the eyes of many—inside Syria in particular—it fundamentally lacks legitimacy and credibility, and the more support it receives from foreign governments, the greater the suspicions that it is serving interests other than those of Syria. Gaining control of the UN seat is a double-edged sword; it could further entrench this impression and at the same time strengthen the image of the regime as the underdog, but it could also be the diplomatic blow forcing the regime to start making the concessions that many are hoping for.
Jose Vericat is an Advisor at the International Peace Institute.
1See for example Griffin, Matthew 2000, Accrediting Democracies: Does The Credentials Committee Of The United Nations Promote Democracy Through Its Accreditation Process, and Should It? New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, vol. 32, No. 3 (Spring). Or: Ratliff, Suellen 1999 “UN Representation Disputes: A Case Study of Cambodia and a New Accreditation Proposal for the Twenty-First Century” California Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 5 (Oct).
About the photo: Syria’s placard at the United Nations. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine