Syria opposition struggling to unite

Filed on March 16, 2012
Syria opposition struggling to unite

BEIRUT — One year since the start of the revolt in Syria, the opposition is still struggling to come up with a united front and a strategy capable of convincing wary Western nations, analysts say.

“The opposition has to develop an insurgency and a leadership,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“If they cooperate together, the regime is toast but if they don’t the regime has a fighting chance.”

Unlike in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, where it took only weeks or months to overthrow repressive regimes, the revolt in Syria has dragged on, partly because the opposition is fractious and deeply divided, offering no credible alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.

“The revolution in Syria has failed to get a Tahrir Square moment,” Landis said, referring to the epicentre of protests in the Egyptian capital that led to the downfall of president Hosni Mubarak.

“In order to get together an effective opposition that can coordinate attacks from different parts of the country, they are going to have to develop a national leadership which they do not have today.

“If they don’t get it together, they are no better than the Assads.”

Syria’s opposition consists of a wide variety of political groups, exiled dissidents, grassroots activists and armed militants.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), a coalition of groups established in August, has emerged as one of the main voices of the opposition, but it is often criticised by activists inside Syria who say the mostly exiled leadership has little connection to protesters on the ground.

The SNC was dealt a blow this week when three prominent members resigned in frustration.

“There is a small group that wants to monopolise the SNC and all the decision-making,” Kamal al-Labwani, one of those who quit, told AFP. “They are doing nothing for the opposition.

“Some are in it for personal gain and the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to monopolise aid and weapons to gain popular influence on the ground.”

Labwani said he planned to call for a conference in Istanbul that would gather all opposition groups in order to pressure the international community to offer them assistance.

“We need a council that plays an effective role in overseeing the armed uprising, represents the revolution, helps with the downfall of the regime and spreads democracy,” he said. “We don’t want another dictatorship.”

The opposition’s lack of unity and transparency have stood in the way of Western and Arab governments giving them military backing, although Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Qatar have increasingly spoken in favour of such a step.

Landis said that until the opposition overcomes its divisions and shortcomings, Washington and its allies will steer clear of being drawn into a potential quagmire.

But Alia Mansour, a member of the SNC, said Western demands for the opposition to unite were simply “a pretext for the international community to do nothing” to resolve the Syrian crisis.

“Massacres are taking place on a daily basis and despite our differences, the focus should be on what is essential — the collapse of the regime,” she told AFP.

She acknowledged that while the SNC had failed to agree on a platform for change, its members were drawn from a society that had only known repression and as such were still learning the ropes.

“We have few means, we are dispersed in various countries and it is normal for things not to be perfect,” she said.

“Our aim is to form an opposition, not a new Baath Party,” she added, referring to Assad’s ruling party.

Salman Sheikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center, said the diplomatic stalemate over Syria would likely continue unless Washington decided to take a leading role to resolve the crisis.

“The international community has not coordinated as well as it did in Libya,” he said. “In the case of Libya we were able to see the US somewhat lead.

“In Syria’s case, the US still remains in the background,” he added. “This will need to change, particularly in terms of giving support to the Syrian opposition on the ground.”

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