Is Ahmad al-Jarba, Syria's New Rebel Leader, Up to the Challenge?


On July 6 the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces elected a new leader: Ahmad Asi al-Jarba. Al-Jarba heads up a disorganized and fragmented alliance of factions, making a cohesive approach in the fight against Bashar Al-Assad extremely difficult. This is a major obstacle to the coalition’s efforts to enlist outside military support. The task facing al-Jarba is to unify the rebel groups and assert control over the revolution. How can this be done?

The coalition is internationally recognized as the representative of the Syrian rebel forces, but its makeshift parliament includes delegates from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syrian National Council, local councils, and many other political groups including the Islamic Brotherhood. Foreign governments are supposed to work through the coalition to supply military and humanitarian aid, the ultimate objective being to replace the Assad regime with a government with a broad base of popular support. 

The problem is that the coalition does not look like a government-in-waiting. It is not in charge of the FSA (which acts independently and is mostly composed of defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces defectors), and it has little control over the local councils (which are responsible for the civil institutions within the cities and regions they administer). The coalition’s ineffectiveness makes it uncertain that arms supplied to the rebels will not end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra — a major stumbling block for the U.S. — and there are no assurances that well-armed extremists will not perpetuate the conflict in a post-Assad Syria.

To remedy this, al-Jarba and the coalition need to start thinking and acting like a government-in-waiting. First and foremost, the coalition must establish overall command of the revolution’s military operations and assert its authority in the territories under rebel control. It is unlikely that the FSA will allow this to occur unless it sees an immediate benefit in the shape of the supply of weapons from foreign powers, particularly the U.S. To make this possible the coalition will have to give the FSA’s leader, Riad al-Assad, a significant role in the command structure.

Next, the coalition should distance itself from al-Nusra’s activities and ensure against the possibility that weapons supplied to the rebels do not end up in the hands of extremists. In the light of al-Nusra’s recent killing of an FSA commander, this is imperative and entirely workable.

Finally, the coalition will have to make greater efforts to support and work with the local councils. Currently, they have only one seat each of the coalition’s 114 available seats. This should be rectified. The councils are the vital link to the people in their local communities, and the coalition needs to be seen as representing all the people. The councils collect money via taxing and donations, they run the court system with judges who volunteer their time, and they organize other components of civil society like health care and a police force. The coalition has to lobby foreign governments and NGOs to supply the resources and training required for the local councils to further develop the institutions of a viable civil society in the cities and the regions.

In short, the coalition must act like a central, albeit federal, government-in-waiting.  Without this, the revolution will falter, isolated from outside assistance and incapable of unseating the Assad regime. Hopefully al-Jarba is up to the challenge.