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Syria's opposition faces 'divided we fall' moment

Syria's opposition meets today after being shaken by resignations and splits. A united front could sway skeptical Syrians who don't particularly support Assad but fear the alternative could be worse.

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“We see the SNC as a temporary structure which will disappear with time, while our own coalition is a more long-term entity that will be there after liberation,” said Imamduddin al-Rashid, leader of the Movement for the Fatherland.

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  • Syria

    Graphic Syria
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

The establishment of a rival opposition group was just the latest blow to the SNC’s standing. Two weeks ago, three prominent figures in the SNC resigned, including Haitham al-Maleh, a member of the executive board and a veteran opposition campaigner who spent many years in prison in Syria, and Kamel Labwani, a lawyer who was released from a Syrian jail in December after seven years behind bars.

Mr. Labwani, a secular liberal, accused “well-organized” Islamists “financed primarily from abroad” of hijacking the SNC.

“They paralyzed the liberal face of the Syrian National Council, taking them out of the equation,” Labwani wrote in an opinion published by the online Fikra Forum. “Thus the revolution has been stolen and is no longer a catalyst towards a state of democracy and modernity. Instead, the future state of Syria will head toward a renewed form of despotism with a religious embodiment rather than secularism. This could lead to chaos and civil war ....”

Armed groups increasingly Islamist

The evolution of the Syrian uprising from peaceful protests into an armed insurgency has been matched by a corresponding rise in Islamist sentiment, manifested by the names chosen by some armed groups and in statements laden with Islamist rhetoric.

Among the latest additions to the Free Syrian Army is the “Allah u-Akhbar” or “God is Greater” Brigade, which proclaimed a "jihad" against the Assad regime. Clashes have taken on a sectarian dimension with the mainly Sunni opposition fighting the minority Alawites, an obscure off-shoot of Shiite Islam that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.

Al Qaeda has voiced support for the Syrian rebels and a previously unknown group called Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for twin suicide car bombings in Damascus on March 17, which killed 27 people.

The gradual shift toward Islamist militancy in Syria has dismayed secular opposition figures and alarmed the West, leaving mainstream Syrian Islamists within the opposition scrambling to reassure skeptics.

“The regime is trying to show that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to control Syria alone,” Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, the head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the SNC, said on Sunday. “We want a democratic Syria and we do not want to control the country alone.”

Seeking support from 'Friends of Syria'

Syria’s feuding opposition factions now have an opportunity to resolve their differences in Istanbul and forge a united front ahead of a crucial “Friends of Syria” meeting scheduled for April 2 in the same city.

The United States and Turkey have agreed that they will use the Friends of Syria meeting to win backing from the participants for the provision of non-lethal aid, such as medical assistance and communications equipment, to the opposition in Syria. The April 2 gathering also will renew support for the six-point peace plan being pushed by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy to Syria. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned yesterday that Annan’s proposal represented the last chance for Syria to avoid plunging into civil war.

However, the political opposition groups risk being marginalized at the Friends of Syria meeting if they cannot reach agreement in the next few days, which, given their differences, looks unlikely.

“It’s an opportunity for the SNC to step up and assert itself,” says Tabler, the Syria expert. “So far, I don’t see that. I see the SNC breaking up into different parts.”

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