As the Muslim Brotherhood asserts its influence in the Syrian National Council, critics of the opposition umbrella group say it is so out of touch that it may be hindering the uprising. Zoi Constantine and Hugh Naylor report
BEIRUT // Since its inception nine months ago, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has been beset by internal divisions, lack of transparency and doubts about the quality of its leaders. Today, as the main umbrella group opposed to Bashar Al Assad meets in Rome, more controversy looms.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the SNC's most powerful group, holding the largest number of seats on the council and controlling its relief committee, which distributes money and aid to those fighting to unseat the minority Alawite-dominated government in Damascus.
That, in turn, is certain to arouse fears in some neighbouring countries that the electoral success of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia could be matched by the triumph in Syria of yet another branch of the Brotherhood.
Whether Islamists and non-Islamists can govern a post-Assad Syria together is not the immediate problem facing the opponents of Mr Al Assad gathered in the Italian capital for a three-day meeting. Far more pressing is the problem of how to close ranks now in their fight to end the Al Assad dynasty.
"We have to change the way decisions are made between people, between the establishments of the SNC, between the components of the SNC," George Sabra, a Christian Syrian, said in Rome, where the group will hold elections tomorrow to decide whether to replace its leader, Burhan Ghalioun.
Critics say the gulf between the opposition abroad and those fighting the regime inside Syria is too wide. They say the SNC's top leaders should spend less time on far-flung diplomacy and more time channelling support to embattled communities back home.
A Skype conversation in February between the SNC's 10-member executive committee and activists inside the besieged areas of Homs and Hama disintegrated into bickering over finances: the executive committee members were speaking from the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Also raising questions about the SNC's priorities was the decision to dispatch representatives to Miami to sign an agreement last week with opponents of Cuba's communist government. That deal coincided with a four-day visit to Tokyo by Mr Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic.
Such globetrotting strikes Haitham Al Maleh as frivolous. "They have to be in one place, working 24 hours if they want to succeed," said Mr Maleh, a veteran opposition figure who was jailed by both Mr Al Assad and his late father Hafez. He resigned from the group this year in frustration.
"We are in a revolution. People are getting killed daily."
Others are more scathing, and fear the group may not only have lost relevance to people inside Syria but may actually be hindering the uprising.
"Until now, they have handicapped the revolution," said Kamal Al Labwani, a prominent dissident who distanced himself from his activities in the group until "they make reforms".
"We need one council and real leaders for our revolution."
Nevertheless, some SNC members insist change is coming. Wael Merza, a senior council member, said restructuring efforts would "enable the SNC to regain the trust of the international community and the people, which at the moment is weak".
Once those changes are made, he asserted, then the group could "lead the process of unifying" opposition groups and "move forward to serve the revolution," because "that's what the SNC was founded for".
Tomorrow's leadership vote could set the stage for an overhaul. Disillusionment with Mr Ghalioun has grown steadily since the SNC was founded in October.
"We are in heated discussions over the presidency. We are against an extension or a renewal of Burhan Ghalioun's term," said Samir Nashar, an executive committee member and a leader in the Damascus Declaration, one of several factions within the SNC.
But despite its recognition by 80 countries in April as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the SNC has managed only tepid support from such countries as the United States, which appears wary of the growing influence on the group of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, about whose members they know little.
A law passed by the Syrian government in 1980 made membership in the group punishable by death, and many of its followers were driven abroad or killed two years later when government forces laid siege to the city of Hama, a Brotherhood stronghold. That assault killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
But its exiled leaders now hold the largest number of seats on the SNC, control relief operations and with the help of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to channel money and weapons to regime opponents inside Syria, the Washington Post has reported.
Brotherhood leaders, aware of the suspicions that accompany a group that has for so long operated in the shadows, have been at pains not to alienate Syria's liberals and minorities, who make up a third of Syria's population and consist of Christians, Shiites, Kurds and Alawites. In March, they signed on to a declaration to work towards a post-Assad Syria that is a "civil, democratic, pluralistic, independent and free state".
Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House, said the very idea of reform within the SNC when the killings continue in Syria, is deflecting focus from the main issue of ending the violence and bringing down the regime.
"I think it is a moot point that the SNC itself should restructure, especially as it is unclear how this would benefit the uprising," she said. "The SNC tried to please so many and ended up pleasing nobody ... The uprising is going on regardless of who leads it and the people are coming onto the streets regardless."
* With additional reporting by Reuters