The recognition by France and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of a Syrian national coalition as a transitional government is tantamount to a formal, irrevocable declaration by the West that it is not interested in pursuing a ceasefire and negotiated end to a raging civil war that has lasted 20 months already and claimed the lives of an estimated 38,000 people. The new grouping, formally called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was founded in Doha on November 11 and comprises several dissident groups, some of which are based outside Syria. The United States has not formally recognised the coalition, but President Barack Obama has called it “a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people.” The apparent intention is that western powers in particular could channel aid to a single body rather than to favoured factions; French President François Hollande has said military aid could follow. Damascus currently has tight restrictions on foreign aid agencies, and the European Union has banned arms sales to Syria. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has criticised the Coalition, stating that its first decision was to “reject dialogue and to continue the war.”

The background to the Coalition’s formation, however, reveals other kinds of agenda. The high-profile Syrian National Council (SNC), which has unsuccessfully attempted to coordinate rebel efforts, has recently elected George Sabra as chair, with Mohamad Faruq Tayfur as his deputy. Mr. Sabra, who has often been imprisoned by the Syrian regime, used to be in the now-defunct Syrian Communist Party; the successor body, the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, has abandoned Marxism-Leninism for a social-democratic ideology. Mr. Tayfur, for his part, belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington openly wants to reduce the influence of the SNC, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says is unrepresentative and “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.” The SNC, nevertheless, will hold 22 places in the Coalition and is not about to vanish. Thirdly, international concerns about the absence of Shia representation in the SNC may be understandable, but the GCC itself could be very nervous about any Shia presence in the Coalition and may try to prevent such broadbasing. In addition, even if the Coalition gets enough aid to overthrow Mr. Assad, there is no guarantee that it will be any freer of factional rivalries than existing rebel groups. In sum, the Coalition may well do no more than expose yet again the international community’s helplessness over Syria, while ordinary Syrians continue to die.