Can Syria's opposition groups figure out how to pull together?

At a gathering in Qatar, Syria's opposition groups have been trying to overcome disarray in their ranks – and lay the foundation for eventual post-dictator leadership.

Osama Faisal/AP
The logo of the meeting of the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council is printed on a placard at the site of the meeting in Doha, Qatar, Sunday.

By almost every measure, Syria's "Arab Spring" uprising has been unlike those before it in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The Syria rebellion has dragged on the longest, at 20 months and counting. The lopsided, David-and-Goliath military fight has also been the most lethal, with a death toll that activists put at more than 36,000 so far.

Compounding problems has been the state of Syria's opposition groups. Largely based outside the country, they have proved to be among the most fractured and least effective of any of their regional counterparts.

Overcoming that disarray is the aim of a US-backed confab in Qatar this week of Syrian opposition groups, which are attempting to create relevance for themselves – and lay the foundation for eventual post-dictator leadership – as hourly news brings fresh reports of battlefield deaths.

At the meeting, the leading but much-criticized Syrian National Council (SNC), which originally enjoyed but then lost US support, voted to broaden its appeal by including more than 200 additional members of other anti-regime groups. But it is also wrangling with other opposition elements for the largest stake in a new US-backed initiative for a 50-member leadership body to establish new military and political councils.

That plan, put forward by prominent dissident Riad Seif, would largely emasculate the SNC by giving it just 15 of the seats and providing more voice for regime opponents inside Syria itself, a crucial element missing from past attempts at forging a legitimate opposition.

Whether either effort can bring more unity to Syria's opposition groups is unclear.

"It is truly a challenge," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian analyst at the National Defense University in Washington, who says he resigned from the SNC in recent days because its expansion plans could exacerbate Syria's problems.

"In order to have revolutionary-scale change, you need an opposition movement that is strongly disciplined, that is organized hierarchically," argues Mr. Jouejati. "But the nature of this is that the SNC – or any opposition coalition – is going to [have] different people, different views, and different ideologies.

"What the revolution needs, of course, is to include those military forces on the ground that are doing the revolution, [but] at the top there needs to be a centralization, so when the top takes decisions, the entire body acts accordingly," he adds.

Hard to develop chain of command

Such a command chain has been impossible to establish, despite a year of effort. Even defecting Syrian Army commanders based in Turkey, for example, have been unable to boast of having the real loyalty of those on the ground who fight in the name of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other anti-regime militias.

The UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned of the risks of continued carnage, and said the focus is now on getting a binding decision by the UN Security Council to start a political process.

“I don’t want to go too far in pessimism, but the situation in Syria is very dangerous,” Mr. Brahimi told Al Hayat newspaper. “I believe that if the crisis is not solved in a right way, there will be the danger of Somalization. It will mean the fall of the state, rise of warlords and militias.”

Rebel forces have made gains, and even established a de facto buffer zone across northern Syria adjacent to the Turkey border. But they complain that lack of outside help – in the form of military equipment such as surface-to-air missiles and heavy weapons – has led to stalemate. Damascus enjoys close support from Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, and has claimed to be under attack from "foreign-backed terrorists."

Supporters such as the US, Qatar, and especially Turkey have clandestinely provided light weapons, ammunition, and even antitank weapons to challenge Mr. Assad's armored units. But inside Syria, fighters frequently blame the US and other Western donors for their reluctance to give them decisive help – including creation of a no-fly zone – that they argue would shorten the war and lower the death toll. (The Monitor reported earlier on how attacks are tearing at the fabric of daily life.)

Some argue that the US may be expecting too much, too quickly, from a country where political expression has been heavily repressed.

"My expectation, after [decades] of dictatorship, is for Syrian society to emerge a little bit blinded by the light, very diverse, with lots of different ideas, and I consider this to be healthy," says Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. "I don't think it would be viable for the opposition to emerge fully united with a strong leader. The problem does not lie with the opposition; the problem lies with the United States expecting this."

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Washington wants "an opposition that represents more of the groups, more of the geographic representation, more of those who have been involved on the ground with local coordinating councils, with revolution councils."

But critics of Washington's efforts say the Obama administration was not ready for the Arab Spring and fears the chaos that may erupt in any post-Assad Syria more than it does continued stalemate. 

"Deep inside, I think it's like the US wishes Assad to stay," says Shehadi. "The challenge is not with the opposition unifying. The challenge is that they're knocking at a door that won't open, which is American support."

Activists express frustration over what would be needed to gain such the support of the US or Western nations, which some accuse of blaming everything on the opposition to avoid action.

"How much conviction is necessary before something is done? Yesterday there were 240 people killed – so what is the magic number that is going to convince [them] that, 'Hey guys, we need to save a few lives here,'" asks Jouejati.

"In Libya it was far less, and you had NATO and the United States and the whole world trying to save the Libyans from that grotesque dictator, while here it's a far worse situation and [they are] doing next to nothing."

Turning to an 'icon' of the revolution

The Qatar conference is a recognition that the opposition "can do a lot better" and has been "dysfunctional," adds Jouejati. It is still not clear what will be agreed between opposition groups, or how effective it can be, though Jouejati says Mr. Seif – the key player in the US-backed initiative – is an "icon" of the revolution.

"We have to recognize that Syria has been an authoritarian state for almost 50 years, and that organizing one group is not going to be an easy task," says Jouejati. "But this opposition, which is fairly young, needs outside assistance – there's no doubt about it."

"It's the battle of hearts and minds in reverse," notes Shehadi.

"The term started in Vietnam, and later in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States wanted to prove to the [locals] that its intervention was for their own good, and that democracy and freedom is something good for them," says Shehadi. "Now it's the other way around, it's the Syrians trying to prove to the United States that they want intervention, that they want freedom, and that they deserve it."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter @peterson__scott

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