Osman Orsal/Reuters
Syrian refugees walk past tents at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Sunday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

Syria’s bickering opposition factions are gathering in Turkey today in an effort to forge a united front against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and gain international support ahead of a "Friends of Syria" summit next weekend.

Today's meeting comes as the top opposition body, the Syrian National Council, has been shaken by splits and internal rows that have ceded the initiative to armed groups and revolutionary councils inside Syria.

The fault lines divide opposition figures living abroad from domestic grass-roots activists, and secular liberals from religious cadres, reflecting to some extent Syria’s complicated sectarian, ethnic, and cultural mix.

“Overall, the Syrian opposition, because of the sectarian and diverse nature of the country, doesn’t tend to congeal as easily as elsewhere where identity is more solidified,” says Andrew Tabler, author of a new book on Syria under Mr. Assad's rule.

A united Syrian opposition could not expect the same level of Western commitment to its cause as that enjoyed by the well-funded and -equipped Libyan rebels because of the additional complications of intervening in Syria.

But a united opposition could have an impact at home by encouraging a broad swath of Syrian citizens who do not particularly support the Assad regime but fear the alternative could be worse. By presenting a clear political agenda – including promises of freedom and protection of minorities – a stronger, more cohesive opposition could help shift the internal balance of power away from the regime.

“The silent majority will be encouraged when they see hope for a better future and when they see concrete initiatives that will rebuild Syria and establish a democratic civil state where all people are treated with dignity and enjoy a free and prosperous life,” says Ausama Monajed, senior adviser to the secretary-general of the SNC. “A grassroots campaign needs to reach out to this group to gain their support even if they wish to remain at home.”

SNC criticized as toothless

The Syrian National Council (SNC) was founded in August 2011, bringing under its wing most established opposition groups as well as new factions that had emerged following the outbreak of unrest in Syria five months earlier.

Led mainly by veteran opposition figures who lived in exile, it lobbied the West for support and helped secure a raft of United Nations and European Union sanctions against the Assad regime. Since then its momentum has faltered amid worsening violence in Syria, internal squabbles, and international hesitancy over intervention.

That has allowed the rebel Free Syrian Army to gain traction at the expense of the political opposition. The SNC has attempted to liaise with the FSA through the formation of a military council, but the armed opposition has shown little interest in dealing with the SNC so far.

Many grass-roots opposition activists accuse the SNC of being out of touch with the realities on the ground and toothless in the face of the Assad regime’s brute force bid to crush the uprising.

“They are a waste of time. They move from one capital to another arguing with each other and have no credibility at all inside Syria,” says Ahmad, a Syrian activist living in hiding in north Lebanon. “We are the people running the revolution and we’ll not allow the SNC to push us aside and take power once Assad is gone.”

Ahmad echoes complaints from other opposition activists about the lack of transparency within the SNC, particularly over the handling of funds.

Five groups create spin-off

On Saturday, five opposition groups announced the creation of a new coalition that would act independently from the SNC: the liberal National Movement for Change, the Islamist Movement of the Fatherland, the Bloc for Liberation and Development, the Turkmen National Bloc, and the Kurdish Movement for a New Life.

“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.

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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