On Tuesday, Arab leaders gathered in Qatar for a two-day Arab Summit to showcase their solidarity on critical regional issues (read Syria). The congregation began with a largely symbolic gesture as representatives of Syria’s opposition were granted Assad’s former seat in the Arab League (Syria was suspended from the annual meeting in 2011) — one presumably destined to assuage international concerns about the fragmented opposition by highlighting the group’s presumed unity after last week’s appointment of Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister.
Would that it were so. The March 18 election of Hitto, a dual U.S. and Syrian citizen, has done anything but unify the opposition forces. It was followed, after all, by the resignation of Moaz Al Khatib, widely viewed as a force for moderation and easily one of the rebellion’s most popular figures, as head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) on Sunday. Al-Khatib pinned his resignation to frustrations about inadequate foreign backing. But given the refusal of the opposition Free Syrian Army to recognize Hitto’s election and the fact that that top opposition figures are reportedly mulling granting al-Khatib’s desire to prioritize negotiations over a military solution (a policy Hitto has roundly rejected) in return for withdrawal of his resignation, the real cause of his departure or quasi-departure is clear.
Despite all the diplomatic pomp and circumstance surrounding the invitation of the Syrian opposition, the Doha summit is unlikely to reassure skittish observers about the opposition’s stability or longevity — reassurances necessary if rebels hope to garner the military aid that has eluded them thus far. And with signs that the conflict is worsening, specifically allegations of chemical weapon use, the opposition cannot survive as even a sem-cohesive entity in a continued climate of international hesitation. Indeed, the larger world is as conflicted over Syria as the opposition principals. While France and the U.K. have called for a E.U. arms embargo on Syria to be overturned, it’s been met with a lukewarm response; though the U.S. has pledged to increase its nonlethal support, it has backed away from any concrete military aid.
And Tuesday’s summit resolution notwithstanding (it affirmed the right of Arab League member states to provide military support to Syria’s rebels), the Arab world remains divided, with sectarian lines playing a role: though Sunni-led kingdoms like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supportive of the predominantly Sunni rebels, other Arab states, namely Lebanon, Algeria, and Shiite-led Iraq remain more cautious, driven in large part by fears of a regional spillover that has already taken the form of a mass refugee exodus and hints of related sectarian strife (of which we have already seen evidence in Lebanon). For its part, Qatar has been criticized by opposition moderates (like al-Khatib, for one) for its checkbook diplomacy — i.e., interfering with coalition politics in the hopes of facilitating the rise of an Islamist-controlled government, yet hesitating to get its hands dirty with a military intervention.
Given all this disunity, the likely near-term winner to emerge from the summit will be Bashar al-Assad, whom it was a central purpose of this year’s meeting to isolate and insult. And his victory will rest on the most perverse of reasons. Since an initial outpouring of defectors, his regime has maintained a public unity that has evaded the opposition and the international community — one of the tactical advantages enjoyed by brutal autocrats.