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Opinion

Hillary Clinton must insist on a united Syrian opposition

When Hillary Clinton meets with Syrian opposition figures in Turkey this weekend, she must impress on them the need to unite their ranks and tolerate different views. Disunity in the opposition is perhaps the biggest reason why Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

By Bilal Y. Saab / August 10, 2012

A demonstrator waves a Syrian opposition flag during a protest against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Istanbul Aug 4. Op-ed contributor Bilal Y. Saab writes: The cause of disunity in the Syrian opposition 'has to do with mindset and approach.' The biggest opposition group, Syrian National Council (SNC), 'sidelines opposition figures who do not share its views and tactics.' This is tragic, he writes.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Washington

This weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travels unexpectedly to Turkey to discuss the crisis in Syria and to meet with Syrian opposition figures. She must impress on them the urgent need to unite their fractious ranks.

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Of all the explanations for why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not yet been toppled, perhaps the most important is the Syrian opposition. Its continued inability to unite has contributed greatly to the drawn-out uprising, which has lasted longer than any other in the Middle East.

Of course this is not to belittle the huge odds that are stacked against the opposition. Its military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is, after all, fighting Mr. Assad’s killing machine and his divide-and-rule strategy with minimal international support.

This reality notwithstanding, it should not obscure the fact that the Syrian political opposition’s performance so far has been dreadful and its behavior more often than not has been counterproductive. The political opposition, specifically the Syrian National Council (SNC), is not a hopeless case but it can and should do much better. The Syrian people deserve nothing less.

You do not have to be an expert on Syria or even be familiar with the state of the Syrian opposition to know of its deep troubles. Consider this latest story:

In their attempts to plan for the day after Assad, three separate Syrian opposition groups recently floated different proposals for a transitional government. Seasoned activist and long-time opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh, who is the chairman of the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees (CSRT) and formerly a member of the SNC (he quit due to his disapproval of the SNC’s tactics), is trying to form a transitional government in Cairo made up of technocrats. His effort, however, has been heavily criticized by the SNC, whose members, ironically, also happen to be in the process of holding talks to form a different transitional government.

The Free Syrian Army has expressed its vehement rejection of both initiatives and called instead for the establishment of a higher defense council that would include military and civilian figures. The free army’s leader Col. Riad al-Asaad reserved some harsh words for the SNC, saying it was made up of opportunists who want to “ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs.”

While news of the Syrian opposition’s divisions is nothing new, it is about time we gain a better understanding of how serious an issue this is, what its causes are, and how it can be managed or resolved.

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