x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Assad gains ground as Syrian opposition wars with itself

Over the past two weeks, the Syrian opposition suffered two major fall-outs. These rifts and rivalries threaten to alienate fence-sitters.

Over the past month, as the question of arming Syria's opposition gained momentum, the Syrian National Council has been dealt two major blows. In late February, Haitham Al Maleh, a prominent opposition figure, unilaterally announced the formation of a group that was supposed to arm and fund the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of military defectors.

Then last week, a prominent retired brigadier general, Akil Hashem, stormed out of a Paris conference on armed resistance. Later, Gen Hashem criticised Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian National Council, for refusing to demand foreign military intervention.

The real reason for that falling out, however, is probably over who will lead the newly formed Military Bureau, which is also responsible for arming defectors.

These rivalries come to light as the Baathist regime's forces are "cleansing" Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs, conducting house-by-house sweeps to tighten the regime's control before the opposition fully militarises. The sweeps are also taking place in Hama and Rastan.

Opposition figures outside the country are trying to take charge of defector groups, raising serious questions about their intentions. Millions of dollars have been pledged to the Free Syrian Army, with recent media reports and activists saying that funds collected for humanitarian aid or weapons have been stolen by members of the opposition-in-exile.

Lt Baseem Khaled, one of the earliest army defectors and a leader of the Free Officers Movement (which is only technically connected to the Free Syrian Army), told me in a telephone interview from Turkey that only "crumbs" of funds donated to his group had been received. "Impostors" posing as opposition leaders, Lt Khaled said, had diverted the money intended for fighters.

There is also the issue of opposition groups arming their own loyalists, a worrying trend for Syria's future. In an interview with Time magazine last month, an anonymous military leader, referred to only as "Doctor", was quoted as telling other defectors: "The opposition that has money is the Muslim Brotherhood, [the radical Sunni cleric Sheikh Adnan] Arour, and the Free Syrian Army command. Forget about them, they won't help you."

Those rifts are only the latest in the saga of the opposition's fragmentation, which threatens to alienate other Syrians. The Syrian National Council took seven months to come together after two attempts failed, largely because of disagreements over representation and the involvement of Islamists. In October, when a more representative council was formed, it was hoped that this disunity would be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, President Bashar Al Assad has been winning battles on the ground and in the propaganda war. At the beginning of the protests, now one year old, fear was a major factor that kept the majority of Syrians silent. As the fear barrier was broken, more Syrians came into the streets.

But the opposition's poor performance and lack of vision only reinforces the fears of the undecided. Even some regime opponents have said the protests should stop to reach a political compromise with Mr Al Assad because they fear chaos. The regime's campaign against civilians in Homs and elsewhere, however, is yielding results, which is making protesters on the ground more determined.

There is a perception among protesters that opposition leaders are more interested in narrow personal gains. The Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, and the National Coordinating Body, inside Syria, are both considered incompetent and untrustworthy. Protesters stand behind one or the other because there are no other options. The Free Syrian Army is arguably the only popular force within the opposition, which inclines political leaders to support militarisation, which in turn pushes more undecided Syrians towards siding with the regime.

In Tunisia and Egypt, there was no decisive political leadership in the traditional sense. Protesters did not face the same dilemma of incompetence that opposition Syrians do. In Libya, an opposition was recognised 12 days after Qaddafi declared war against his people. In Yemen, where there was a similar break between the youth movement and the political opposition, Gulf states brokered a deal.

It is worth noting that the international Friends of Syria's "recognition" of the Syrian National Council (recognising it as a representative of the Syrian people but, crucially, not as the sole representative) came when the council was at its least popular. Why was it recognised when it was being criticised, and not when protesters risked their lives to raise banners saying "the Syrian National Council represents me" on the streets?

The international community's rhetoric has played into the regime's hands. Almost every week since the protests began, a Nato or western official has made a statement ruling out military intervention. What is the point of saying anything? They only reassure the regime that it can kill with impunity.

An indifferent world and profoundly incompetent opposition make it too easy for dictators. The activists who began the protests - to rescue their country from the bloody rule and repression of the Assads - cannot stand by themselves. The political opposition must come together for a political settlement to save Syria from chaos, civil strife and economic disaster.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: hhassan140