It's going to be a decisive week for Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC), the de facto umbrella organization representing the country's political opposition, is meeting in Tunis to try and get its house in order and formulate a plan to bring down the house of Assad. At the same time, the Arab League has given President Bashar al-Assad until Wednesday to stop dithering on its six-week-old proposal to end the violence and allow monitors into the country or in a pronounced escalation perhaps kick the matter up to the United Nations.
Even Russia, which has protected Damascus from censure at the U.N. Security Council, put forward its own draft resolution last week calling on all parties to end the violence, "including disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities." Although Syrian rights groups bristled at Moscow's language, which some activists said equated the killer and the victim, Western capitals saw an opportunity to make a deal with Russia. Iraq too, which has hemmed and hawed but largely leaned toward Assad's side, sent a high-ranking delegation to Damascus on the weekend with its own peace initiative.
Still, regional and international efforts may be moot if the SNC doesn't emerge from its weekend congress the first such meeting of the 260 member body since it was officially announced in Istanbul on Oct. 2 with something more than just the general statements outlined in the brief political program released in late November. It needs a clear and detailed plan to convince the international community that it has closed ranks and can be the government-in-waiting it claims to be.
Unlike Libya's National Transitional Council, which received substantial international recognition almost from the outset, the SNC has yet to be confered such legitimacy by many foreign powers. The organization is plagued by internal bickering, criticism that it has an Islamist skew and, because of the many exiles in its ranks, is not representative of the protesters in Syria.
The three-day meeting in a five-star hotel in the resort town of Gammarth, north of the capital Tunis, has been cloaked in secrecy, with stringent security measures in place. Many SNC members were not even informed of the precise location of the conference until the very end, in a bid to stem leaks and keep the media out.
Still, according to several participants, the organization is expected to articulate what it wants from the international community, including a definition of the term, "international protection." It was also readying an offer of immunity and exile to Bashar al-Assad. According to a draft proposal, he can leave the country to a destination of his choosing with full immunity and allow the military to take over in conjunction with the SNC or else he would face the possibility of an internationally imposed humanitarian corridor which would become Syria's Benghazi. It's unclear how viable the "or else" clause is. Turkey, Syria's once-close ally, has hinted at, but shown no real appetite to put its boots on Syrian ground. NATO has ruled out the option, and the U.S. having just left Iraq and looking toward an Afghan drawdown as well doesn't want to plunge into another potential quagmire.
The real aim of the reported deal (assuming the SNC members can all agree to it), is to send Assad's minority Alawite sect the message that they should unhinge their future from their President's. "They have to let him go," said a conference participant who had seen the three-page draft document. TIME was also given a copy.
The proposal asks Syria's military establishment to refrain from attacking the so-called Free Syria Army (FSA), the band of defectors whose leader Colonel Riad al-Asa'ad is based in Turkey. The Syrian army should be "frozen" and announce its neutrality "in the internal political struggle." The document also demanded all those with blood on their hands be tried.
It's all going to be a tough sell. It's unclear if protesters inside Syria, and all those who have lost victims at the hands of the military, would accept that after nine months of brutality, the same men in uniform who have terrorized them should take the helm of the country, regardless of whether or not the SNC is also part of the new regime. Bashar al-Assad, like his father and predecessor Hafez, also appointed co-religionists from his minority Alawite sect, as well as a select group of elites from other sects, to the top positions in the government and the military's brass, ensuring a close-knit protective shield based on kinship and shared interests. A palace or military coup would bring the quickest, easiest end to the nine-month uprising, which has left at least 5,000 people dead, but the security forces, especially the military, have remained remarkably unified in their support of the regime.
Although there are reports of military defections to the FSA, the deserters have been mainly low-ranking Sunni officers and conscripts. Riad Al-Asa'ad recently met with SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun in a bid to present a united front to President Assad's opponents, but the two groups differ in their strategies to bring down the regime. Ghalioun has insisted that the uprising remain peaceful, whereas the FSA has increasingly moved from defensive to offensive attacks on the military. The FSA was not represented at the Tunisian conference. "What for?" said one conference organizer, when asked about the rebels' absence. "Riad al-As'ad is in charge of maybe five guys."
"The FSA is an empty cardboard box," said another participant. "It means nothing. And besides, if we want to try and win over the army, why would we bring the FSA here?"
Still, the FSA, unlike the SNC, has tremendous support inside Syria. There are increasing calls by protesters and defectors alike for weapons to take on Assad's ruthless forces. Unless the SNC presents a viable alternative, the Syrian uprising may slip out of the political realm and into an all-out civil conflict, with dangerous sectarian undertones. "What difference can the SNC make if it gets international recognition and loses its legitimacy among the protesters? And what difference can the FSA make, if it fails to get all the emerging paramilitary groups to accept the authority of its Military Council and its leader?" Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident who has been critical of the SNC said recently. Abdulhamid has criticized the SNC's "lack of transparency" and claimed that several independent Syrians who wanted to attend the conference in Tunisia "as monitors" were not allowed in. "So long as SNC leaders remain more preoccupied with winning international recognition than they are with internal cohesion or outreach to their own people, they are destined to become as irrelevant and cut-off from realities as Assad is today," he said.