Syria's opposition concerned about independent armed rebel groups

A member of the opposition's Syrian National Council told reporters in Paris that the council is concerned about the increasingly militarized rebel groups taking matters into their own hands. 

Omar Ibrahim/AP
Lebanese and Syrian protesters burn a Hezbollah and a Russian national flag hung upside down during a protest in solidarity with Syria's antigovernment protesters, in the port city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon on Friday. Russia will not support any United Nations Security Council resolution demanding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign.

A leading Syrian opposition figure says that as rebels become increasingly militarized, it is critical that disparate armed groups be integrated with the political opposition so that they are working in concert. 

Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian-French member of the Syrian National Council's 10-member executive board and the council's spokeswoman, spoke in quiet but urgent terms to a group of foreign correspondents last night, framing the opposition's options as two “sad” alternatives – “greater militarization” of local resistance or foreign intervention.

The request for international assistance may go unanswered for awhile yet. Members of the United Nations Security Council are grappling over an appropriate response to Syria's violent crisis, which began in March 2011 and has resulted in the death of at least 5,500 Syrians, according to the UN. The US, Britain, and France are pushing for more international involvement, but veto-wielding Russia, backed up by China, has blocked efforts to do more.

Russia has vowed to oppose a draft resolution drawn up by Western council members and the Arab League, calling for President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. A vote is expected to happen next week.

Ms. Kodmani said Russia “holds the keys to change, and for peaceful change” in Syria. If Moscow “says tomorrow morning that … we are no longer supporting Assad” he would be forced to step down in a matter of weeks, she said.

But that is unlikely, despite reassurances from the SNC that Russian “interests” in Syria would be fully protected if Assad were forced out.

Of the two options facing the opposition, Kodmani said she prefers outside intervention, even if it is unlikely. Most of the Syrian opposition favors this as well, she said. In the absence of intervention, they at least need "inoffensive equipment," such as radios and bulletproof vests. 

“I grew up hating NATO,” she says. “I was taught it was the devil. It was unimaginable for decades for any Syrian to even think about asking for [help] from the West.… But now people on the ground want humanitarian intervention. They want to be rescued.”

Kodmani, a former senior program officer at the Ford Foundation's Middle East and North Africa office in Cairo and now a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, painted the Syrian uprising as both bleak and promising. More people are defecting from the military to small opposition groups; the armed opposition group known as the Free Syrian Army is gaining ground in the Damascus suburbs; and much of Homs is no longer under Syrian military control, she said.  

The council estimates that 80 percent of Syrians now support the opposition, and 90 percent believe the regime’s days are numbered – but under Assad, “we might have a scenario of fighting to the end," she said.

The recent plan by the Arab League she described as an implicit statement that Assad must step down, but that the SNC “wants a more explicit statement about how the plan is implemented.

“Assad needs to move out before the transition can occur…. Yet he has no intention of having dialogue.

“The SNC doesn’t want an open dialogue, but a discussion on the modalities of [Assad’s] departure.”

What the opposition needs most is the means to organize the Free Syrian Army, and the council is working to form a commission of Syrian military experts to do that. Although Kodman says there are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Syrians fighting in the country, and 300 in Turkey, they hold no territory.

"There is no Benghazi, [as in Libya], but pockets are emerging. They need inoffensive equipment,” later clarifying that “this is equipment that is all available on the commercial market.

“The problem is that if they are isolated, the resistance will transform into militias and start down a dangerous path. The best thing is to integrate them.”

Calls for Assad to step down by the Obama and Sarkozy administrations, among others, while inspiring to the opposition months ago, now acts in an almost dispiriting way since insurgents feel that, coming in an election year in the US and France, the calls now have less power and meaning in practical terms.

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