After a Year, Deep Divisions Hobble Syria’s Opposition (NY) TIMES) By NEIL MacFARQUHAR BEIRUT, Lebanon 02/24/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s downward spiral into more hellish conflict
in cities like Homs has provoked a new surge of outrage around the
world, with Arab and many Western countries searching for new ways to
support protesters and activist groups coming under the government’s
increasingly lethal assault.
But as diplomats from about 80 countries converge on Tunisia on
Friday in search of a strategy to provide aid to Syria’s beleaguered
citizens, they will find their efforts compromised even before they
begin by the lack of a cohesive opposition leadership.
Nearly a year after the uprising began, the opposition remains a
fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-
roots organizers and armed militants, all deeply divided along
ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines, and too disjointed to agree
on even the rudiments of a strategy to topple President Bashar al-
The need to build a united opposition will be the focus of intense
discussions at what has been billed as the inaugural meeting of the
Friends of Syria. Fostering some semblance of a unified protest
movement, possibly under the umbrella of an exile alliance called the
Syrian National Council, will be a theme hovering in the background.
The council’s internal divisions have kept Western and Arab
governments from recognizing it as a kind of government in exile, and
the Tunis summit meeting will probably not change that. Russia,
Syria’s main international patron, is avoiding the meeting entirely.
The divisions and shortcomings within the council were fully on
display last week when its 10-member executive committee met at the
Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, Qatar — its soaring lobby bedecked with
roses and other red flowers left over from Valentine’s Day.
The council has been slow on critical issues like recognizing the
transformation of the Syrian uprising from a nonviolent movement to
an armed insurrection, according to members, diplomats and other
Aside from representing only about 70 percent of a range of groups
opposing Mr. Assad, the council has yet to seriously address melding
itself with the increasingly independent internal alliances in Homs
and other cities across Syria trapped in an uneven battle for
survival, they said, warning that the council runs the risk of being
“They were in a constant, ongoing struggle, which delayed anything
productive and any real work that should be done for the revolution,”
said Rima Fleihan, an activist who crawled through barbed wire fences
to Jordan from Syria last September to escape arrest. She was
representing Syria’s Local Coordination Committees, an alliance of
grass-roots activists, on the council until she quit in frustration
“They fight more than they work,” Ms. Fleihan said. “People are
asking why they have failed to achieve any international recognition,
why no aid is reaching the people, why are we still being shelled?”
Even by comparison with Libya, where infighting among rival militias
and the inability of the Transitional National Council to exert
authority fully created turmoil after the successful uprising there,
Syria’s opposition appears scattered.
Well before NATO intervened in Libya, groups hostile to Col. Muammar
el-Qaddafi leveraged the huge chunk of eastern Libya they held around
Benghazi into the attempt to claim the whole country. A unified focus
on the rebellion submerged most overt political differences for a
The United States and other Western governments are also wary of the
uncertain role of Islamists in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood and
other organized Islamist groups were more thoroughly suppressed in
Syria than in Egypt, and their leaders are less well known. Some
diplomats fear that Syrian Islamists could ride to power amid the
turmoil, imposing an agenda that might clash with Western goals.
That may be one reason the United States is hoping the Syrian
National Council can overcome its divisions and shortcomings.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a press conference in
London, moved the United States a step closer to recognizing the
“They will have a seat at the table as a representative of the Syrian
people,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And we think it’s important to have
Syrians represented. And the consensus opinion by the Arab League and
all the others who are working and planning this conference is that
the S.N.C. is a credible representative.”
Council members describe opposition divisions as a natural result of
trying to forge a working organization that encompasses wide
diversity from a complex society that has known only oppression.
Indeed, the men at the Four Seasons in Doha ranged from the various
Islamist representatives with suits, ties and neatly trimmed beards
to the one Christian on the executive committee, a longtime
university professor in Belgium who wandered around in flip-flops.
The council members contend that progress has been made among a group
of people who were virtual strangers when they first gathered in
Istanbul in September, and that sniping about their unrepresentative
nature is mostly a disinformation campaign by Damascus.
“This is a manufactured problem,” said Burhan Ghalioun, the council
president, in a brief interview outside an executive committee
meeting last week. “Some independent people don’t want to join the
S.N.C., but there is no strong opposition power outside the national
He said lack of money was the group’s most acute problem. Although
the Qatari government picked up the bill for the Doha meeting and for
frequent travel, council members said that no significant financial
support from Arab or Western governments had materialized despite
repeated promises, so they must rely on rich Syrian exiles. They hope
Friday’s meeting in Tunis will begin to change that.
After communicating via Skype with activists in embattled cities like
Homs, Hama and Idlib, council members admitted sheepishly that those
activists just flung accusations at them, demanding to know why they
seemed to swan from one luxury hotel to the next while no medical
supplies or other aid flowed into Syria.
The bickering takes place in plain sight. “Is this any way to work?”
yelled Haithem al-Maleh, an 81-year-old lawyer and war horse of the
opposition movement, as he came barreling out of one Doha meeting,
only to be corralled back in. “They are all stupid and silly, but
what can I do?”
The 310-member council remains Balkanized among different factions;
arguments unspool endlessly over which groups deserve how many seats.
The mostly secular, liberal representatives and those from the
Islamist factions harbor mutual suspicions.
No one from Syria’s ruling Alawite community, the small religious
sect of Mr. Assad, sits on the executive committee, despite repeated
attempts to woo a few prominent dissidents. The fight over Kurdish
seats remains unsettled even though Massoud Barzani, a leading Kurd
in neighboring Iraq, tried to mediate.
The council has also not reconciled with members of another
opposition coalition, the Syrian National Coordination Committee,
some of whom remain in Syria and who have generally taken a softer
line about allowing Mr. Assad to shepherd a political transition.
“Time is running out for the Syrian opposition to establish its
credibility and viability as an effective representative of the
uprising,” said Steven Heydemann, who focuses on Middle East issues
at the United States Institute of Peace, a research group financed
partly by Congress.
Even the council’s diplomatic efforts remain troubled. The council
has yet to appoint an official envoy in Washington, and jockeying
over who should lobby the United Nations Security Council earlier
this month was so intense, diplomats and analysts said, that the
council sent an unwieldy delegation of some 14 members who continued
arguing in New York over who would meet which ambassador.
The key issue the council is grappling with right now is how to
coordinate an increasingly armed opposition. The council says it
supports the defensive use of weapons.
But exiled Syrian Army officers who formed the Free Syrian Army,
based in Turkey, have stayed aloof from the council, and even they do
not really control the many local militias that adopt the army’s name
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from London, and an employee
of The New York Times from Beirut. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times
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