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.
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Let’s start with seriousness. Senior members of the SNC with whom I have interacted closely in Washington and European capitals since the start of the uprising insist that there are no divisions per se between the SNC and other opposition groups including Mr. al-Maleh’s. They call them normal “differences” that should be expected between people of different political backgrounds. Forgive me, but that is rubbish. There are real divisions in the ranks that have obstructed effective collective action and strategic planning, and such divisions have not gone unnoticed by US, European, and Arab officials.Skip to next paragraph
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So what has caused these divisions? Many have made the case that several members of the Syrian opposition, and specifically the SNC, are politically inexperienced because of the decades-old oppression by the Syrian regime. So they will make mistakes in their dealings with each other. They have yet to develop a culture of negotiation and compromise. They are new to the game of politics, and thus you can’t really fault them.
Sorry, I am not convinced.
Another possible reason is that separate groups of the Syrian opposition have different foreign support networks that are in contention or competition over Syria’s future. Some groups are backed by the Gulf state Qatar, others by Saudi Arabia, while Turkey primarily supports the FSA. Because of these regional powers’ rival agendas, Syrian opposition groups end up pulling in different directions and fighting each other.
That sounds like a more satisfactory explanation than inexperience. However, these different opposition groups made conscious decisions to seek external assistance or sponsorship at the expense of unity. So they deserve some blame.
Perhaps the ideological or political differences within the Syrian opposition – Islamist vs. secularist, rightist vs. leftist, technocrat vs. politician – are too great and cause these schisms. Yet membership in all opposition groups tends to be mixed, and within each group secularists and Islamists, liberals and conservatives, get along just fine. The SNC is only one example. So it’s not that either.
What causes the disunity then? It has to do with mindset and approach. Because the SNC is the largest political opposition group and has the biggest potential, its failings should be put in the spotlight. In short, the SNC sidelines opposition figures who do not share its views and tactics.
For all their espoused liberalism, SNC liberals (including Islamists, of course) are proving to be quite illiberal, unwilling or unable to tolerate opinions that are not fully in line with theirs. Worse, they often call those who do not agree with them and those who defected from their ranks “traitors” to the cause.
This is tragic. People such as Michel Kilo, known as the grandfather of the Syrian opposition; Haytham al-Mannaa, the highly-respected and internationally recognized human rights activist and president of the National Coordination Body of Democratic Change; Kamal Labwani, a colleague of al-Maleh in the CSRT, and many others are hardly pro-regime propagandists. For decades, they have been harassed and imprisoned by the regime for their pro-democracy activism.
The roots of political intolerance are complex. As political scientist Carson Holloway nicely put it, they are “simply a reflection of the ordinary weakness of human nature, which in all men yearns to silence those whose opinions differ too widely from their own.”