The Obama administration has recognized the Syrian opposition, rather than the Assad regime, as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Terming the opposition coalition “inclusive” and “reflective and representative” of Syrians, this diplomatic move is a major change in US policy towards the Syrian war.
However, Obama’s recognition comes with strings. Specifically, the administration says that opposition groups “have some responsibilities to carry out” state functions. These include helping to, in the New York Times’ phrasing, “govern areas that have been wrested from Mr. Assad’s control, provide public services like law enforcement and utilities, and perhaps even channel humanitarian assistance.”
That is, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces must engage in so-called “parallel institution-building” — this week’s political violence thought of the week.
My sense is that parallel institution-building — “parallel” in the sense of replacing the embattled governing regime — is more or less a good idea. Such measures can help opposition movements build legitimacy and political power, which both tips conflicts’ balance in favor of the opposition and lays out a potentially smoother transition to post-conflict state-building functions.
But the hope that international legitimacy will encourage parallel institution building by the Syrian opposition may prove unfounded, for two reasons. First, institution building activities typically require some base of operations and territorial control. In Syria rebel-held zones are by no means contiguous, nor are they unambiguously under rebel control. Recent reports indicate that the rebels control some areas of the Syrian countryside and roadways. But the major cities — arguably the most important strategic zones in the war — remain at least highly contested, or still dominated by regime forces. It is not clear how the opposition will be able to generate alternative institutions that effectively rival or replace the government’s when they control little territory outright.
Second, there are lots of different groups who have already been building parallel institutions in Syria — and they are not all on the same side. The opposition itself has been building parallel political and economic institutions more or less from the start. The Local Coordination Councils and other political organizations remain active in promoting political capacity-building even after 18 months of fierce fighting. But this is not just a fight between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government. Local defense councils, for example, have sprung up among minority communities seeking to protect themselves against what they view as “Muslim violence coming from the countryside.” The key question is whether the opposition can actually begin governing without impinging on the other armed or unarmed groups that are trying to do the same thing. If the National Coalition cannot win support among these other groups, then the Obama administration’s strategy will do little to advance the opposition’s aims.