Yesterday's announcement from Qatar that the disparate Syrian opposition has united to a degree previously unseen is replete with possibilities. But it's easy to get carried away with the deal at such an early stage, and I think it is too early to describe it, as one diplomat did, as having crossed the Rubicon. Some early observations follow.
Firstly, who came up with the name? The National Coalition Of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has to go. The abbreviation 'NCSROF' isn't media friendly. Expect this to change.
The West thinks the NCSROF will provide a single point through which it can channel funds and possibly weapons, while Russia and China hope it is a single body with which Assad can achieve a 'negotiated solution'. Unless Russia and China back the NCSROF (which appears unlikely), the opposition will still have to fight for every square inch of Syria.
NCSROF's leadership looks very politically correct and has credibility, with the three top positions held by long term opposition figures rather than Johnny-come-latelies: Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni cleric, heads the body, while Riad Seif, a dissident well known in the US and the Muslim world, is one of the vice-presidents. The other vice-president is a woman, Suheir al-Atassi (pictured), providing a veneer of inclusiveness. It gives the US comfort to have someone they trust in the leadership, and having a cleric as president provides an alternate religious voice to the Islamists and unreconstructed Muslim Brotherhood activists among the opposition.
The main questions are about the degree to which Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib will be able to exert political control over the previously fractious groupings, the willingness of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to play second fiddle and whether the fighters on the ground in Syria will listen to what the leadership wants. As the SNC found out to its cost, saying you're in charge and being in charge are two very different things.
Little has been said about how the NCSROF will unite the militia elements fighting in Syria, probably because there isn't a plan. Talking about a unified command, when logistics support is haphazard and there is little effective coordination among the groups, may be premature. There may be a need to be aggressive about dividing the armed opposition into those groups willing to join a united opposition military and those that aren't, and then letting the latter wither on the vine.
While Sheikh al-Khatib has made the right noises about leading an inclusive opposition, people inside Syria (particularly the minorities) will look closely at the makeup of the 60-person NCSROF council. If it is to reflect Syrian society, at least 15 members should come from religious minorities and half should be women. My understanding is that none of the 22 seats allocated to the old Syrian National Council is taken by a woman, so unless 30 of the remaining 38 go to women then vice-president Suhair al-Attasi might be the lone woman in the Syrian opposition.
The West needs this to work. It has expended considerable effort forcing the groups to the table, holding out the possibility of international recognition (and in the case of the UK and France, arms) if the Syrian opposition can get it right.
If the group reverts to its former specialties of infighting, grandstanding and media spinning, the West will quickly lose interest. Western powers will need to wait and see if the NCSROF can exert control over its disparate elements, but the longer they wait without providing recognition, funding or weapons, the harder it will be for the new leadership to keep everyone inside the tent.
Support the NCSROF too soon and you end up owning something you don't necessarily understand or trust, potentially becoming complicit in the war crimes the opposition is accused of. Support it too late and you risk the opposition fracturing and reverting to its previous anarchic state.
Finally, did anybody else notice the irony of deals for political unity and tolerance in an Arab political group being hammered out in a decidedly undemocratic Gulf Arab state?
Photo of Suhair al-Attasi by Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters.