Syria's opposition groups convene in Qatar – can they build a unified front?

The opposition's Syrian National Council began a conference in Qatar yesterday to overhaul its structure. Many, including the US, have lost confidence in the fragmented group.

Al-Mutsem Be-Allah/Shaam News Network/REUTERS
Damaged buildings are seen after a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired missiles at al-Mazareeb near Deraa Nov, 3, 2012.

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Sharp divides among Syrian rebel leaders are already apparent after the first day of an opposition conference in Qatar, casting doubt on US hopes that the meeting will result in a unified opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition's primary political group that many, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have called dysfunctional and unrepresentative of rebels on the ground in Syria, began a four-day conference in Qatar on Sunday aimed at overhauling its structure and representation, reports BBC News.  The group is under intense international pressure to reform itself, writes the BBC's Jim Muir.

The Syrian opposition is well aware that it is widely regarded as fragmented and ineffective, and that this is becoming more and more an issue as events on the ground gather pace.

The coming days will see the most concerted effort so far to pull the bulk of the opposition together and to create effective and credible structures that the outside world can work with in trying to bring about a transition in Syria.

Secretary Clinton said last week that "the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition. But that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard."

The Associated Press adds that at the top of the agenda is a US-supported proposal by prominent dissident Riad Seif to set up a new leadership council with some 50 seats, 15 of which would go to current SNC leaders with the remainder being held by Syrian local leaders and rebel commanders who currently have no political say in the SNC but are actively involved in opposition on the ground. SNC chief Abdelbaset Sieda told AP that he believes the SNC should hold 40 percent of the council seats.

Joshua Landis writes on his blog Syria Comment that the political situation is "nearly identical" to that of 1950s Syria, when the US and Britain tried to rally a Syrian opposition against Syria's Baathists, allied with the Soviet Union and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but with no success.

[President] Eisenhower and [British Prime Minister] Anthony Eden did everything they could in 1956 to force Syria’s urban elites to cooperate in a pro-Western coup, but to no avail. The two largest parties in parliament – the People’s Party of Aleppo and the National Party of Damascus [–] refused to cooperate among themselves in order to avoid revolution.  Pro-Western Syrian politicians insulted and fought amongst themselves with such ferocity, that Western diplomats pulled their hair with despair as they sought to keep Syria from going “commie.”

When the coup failed, many of Syria’s leading pro-Western notables were accused of treason and fled the country. In 1957, the US sought to carry out another putsch, this time on its own. The “American coup”, as it was named, was no more successful. Some of the CIA operatives in charge of handling the Syrians are still alive. Additional Syrian politicians sympathetic to the West were forced to flee the country. Destabilized by Washington’s failed coup making, Syria announced the creation of the United Arab Republic [a political union of Syria and Egypt] only months later. Nasser become president and carried out wide-ranging land reform in order to destroyed the economic underpinnings of the urban notables that had allied with the West.

Mr. Landis adds that today "the line up of states helping the US in its 'struggle for Syria' has hardly changed. Other aspects that have not changed are the infighting among Syria’s elites and the general resentment and distrust that Syrians share toward the US. It is hard to be optimistic."

Meanwhile, United Nations envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi called on Sunday for the UN Security Council to formally back the "Geneva Declaration," a transitional-government plan developed by then UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, reports Al Arabiya. The proposal calls for rebels and the Assad regime to form a transitional government, and leaves unmentioned the role of Mr. Assad in the proposed government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was meeting with Mr. Brahimi on Sunday in Cairo, also backed the proposal, and criticized the West for not considering talks with Assad.

“Unfortunately, some countries which participated in Geneva don’t speak with the government but only with the opposition and encourage them to fight till victory and this has very negative implications,” Mr. Lavrov said. Russia has consistently backed the Assad regime, and has vetoed several Security Council resolutions on the conflict.

But former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected in August, told The Daily Telegraph that Assad has no interest in talks and feels that he can win the Syrian conflict through force.

"We told Bashar he needed to find a political solution to the crisis," he said. "We said, 'These are our people that we are killing.'

"We suggested that we work with Friends of Syria group, but he categorically refused to stop the operations or to negotiate." ...

"Bashar used to be scared of the international community – he was really worried that they would impose a no-fly zone over Syria," he said. "But then he tested the waters, and pushed and pushed and nothing happened. Now he can run air strikes and drop cluster bombs on his own population."

Mr. Hijab said that after the defense minister and the president's brother-in-law were killed in a July bombing, Assad hardened against the opposition.

"My brief was to lead a national reconciliation government," Mr Hijab said. "But in our first meeting Bashar made it clear that this was a cover. He called us his 'War Cabinet'."

"The new minister of defence sent out a communiqué telling all heads in the military that they should do 'whatever is necessary' to win," he said. "He gave them a carte blanche for the use of force."

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