Monday, July 9, 2012

Syria's divided opposition: A convenient truth?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

For the Syrian opposition, Friday’s Friends of Syria meeting in Paris rounded off what was certainly an eventful week, if not necessarily a productive one. The conference, which brought together representatives of over 100 countries (with the notable exceptions of key Syrian allies Russia and China), came six days after a meeting of world powers in Geneva, the end product of which was rejected by both the Syrian government and the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) bloc; and just two days after an Arab League-sponsored meeting in Cairo, boycotted by the militant Free Syria Army (FSA) opposition group, among other factions, in which disagreements were spirited enough to result in fist fights.

The repeated failure of such meetings to satisfy the various established groups seeking to change the Syrian regime suggests an exacerbation of what has come to be a defining characteristic of the opposition: their deep disunity. According to Maher al-Esber, a Syrian activist with close ties to the opposition, these fractures persist primarily because of the differing interests of the opposition’s political and financial sponsors. “The major problem is that there’s no support for the SNC as a whole,” he told NOW Lebanon. “That is, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, or other movements that exist both within and without the SNC, support their groups only. Money goes not to the institution itself but to individuals within it, who have their own political ambitions for the future Syria.”

Esber also cites the special case of the Kurds, who differ fundamentally with their Arab co-oppositionists on the question of national identity. “Some groups within the Kurds are trying to guarantee some independence in the future Syria, which conflicts with the idea of a united Syria.” Indeed, following the exit of a Kurdish group in Cairo on Tuesday, National Kurdish Council spokesman Abdul Aziz Othman said, “The Kurds withdrew because the conference rejected an item that says the Kurdish people must be recognized […] This is unfair, and we will no longer accept to be marginalized.”

This stance appears to have bred resentment among non-Kurdish oppositionists, including Esber, who claims that the Kurds “have not really fully contributed to the revolutionary movements inside Syria.”

The Kurdish dispute aside, Henry Jackson Society Syria specialist Michael Weiss sees the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood as a chief source of discontent. “From the very beginning, the US outsourced the formation of the Syrian political opposition to Turkey, and what they wound up with was an umbrella organization controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. This was sort of an inevitable outcome if the Turks were to be so heavily involved. So, yes, the SNC needs to be expanded and diluted at the executive levels, but the Brotherhood’s influence also needs to be reduced. They are not representative of the will of the Syrian people.”

Esber believes the international community should take measures to pressure the opposition to unite. However, SNC spokesperson Alia Mansour laments what she sees as the excessive attention paid to the opposition’s divisions. “Not everything is about how divided we are. The international community is to blame as well. We did not hear the world constantly asking the opposition in Libya or Egypt or Tunisia to unite itself. All this focus on us is just aiding the regime. Whatever our differences, we all have the same basic goal, which is to get rid of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.”

Weiss agrees, arguing that the vast majority of new splinter groups lack credibility on the ground. “The SNC is still the only game in town, because it’s been quasi-recognized by international parties. The only other vehicles that need to be brought on board are the tribal groups and the Kurds. Once these three are combined, the rest of the minorities will follow.”

Ultimately, both Mansour and Weiss believe the international community is using the opposition’s divisions as a convenient excuse to avoid making more robust commitments. “The world is always talking and never giving us anything practical,” says Mansour. “Today, in the three hours they’ve been talking [in Paris], more than 20 people have been killed. These are all just ways of wasting time before the American elections.”

For Weiss, “If the West is serious and sincere when it says the opposition must unite and negotiate a political solution, we should all commit suicide, because we’re being governed by lunatics. There is no political solution for Syria, and [US President] Barack Obama knows it. They’re just kicking the can down the street until after the November election. The only political solution they care about is the one in Washington.”

Nadine Elali contributed reporting.

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