Who Are Syria’s Future Leaders?

A dual international strategy for Syria is materializing: military operations against ISIL and diplomatic efforts for a transition in Damascus. However, the general public knows a lot more about the former than the latter. The media focus much more attention on military operations and who the ISIL enemy is than on the anti-Asad Syrian opposition. Courageous and skilled journalists and their production teams have devoted gallons of ink and kilometers of film footage to give us all the dramatic history of ISIL, who are the local Kurdish fighters battling them, what the Islamic State wants and why, what is al-Qa’ida’s relationship with ISIL. And yet, whatever the outcome of military operations against ISIL, the issue of what follows politically in Damascus is far more important to the future stability of Syria and by extension of the Middle East writ large. Where are the media when we need them to introduce the world to the key players in Syria’s political transition – the anti-Asad political forces?

We have seen this movie before: in Afghanistan 2001, we destroyed the Taliban state, and then figured out who would lead Afghanistan from Kabul. That process didn’t turn out so well. Iraq 2003, we destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime, and then figured out whom we wanted as the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad. That didn’t turn out so well. Libya 2011, we destroyed the Qaddhafi regime, and then figured out that the struggle for Libyan leadership was complicated. That didn’t turn out so well. In all of these cases, the US and its allies failed to heed the dynamics of internal political and social forces as they competed for power in the vacuum that we so elegantly left behind after the dust of combat settled. The international media might have played a better role in those processes at the time.

So, who are the leaders of these myriad Syrian opposition combattants? In theory, when ISIL is severely degraded or destroyed, they, along with Bashar al-Asad, will be the ones left standing. Are the military opposition leaders distinct from political opposition leaders? What do either of these leader groups believe in? What are they fighting to establish in Syria? Assuming they vehemently oppose Bashar al-Asad, how do they conceive of a future Syrian state? Are any of these leaders credible in the eyes of ordinary Syrians?

Now is the time for opposition groups to inform the world about what they stand for. Many of these individuals and groups will be meeting shortly in Saudi Arabia. The world knows precious little about them. Why is that? Why is it so complicated or less important to interview the leadership of the “Free Syrian Army” or the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces” or others competing for the future of Syria? The media has been doing this for ISIL, why not for the anti-Asad forces?

The media can and must play a more significant role in enhancing the transparency of the process soon to unfold in Syria. The media ignored the political and social dynamics of the previous catastrophes in the Middle East, until it was too late. We must not make that mistake again.

Media: get to work. Now.

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