x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Opposition fails its responsibility in Syria's crisis

"Opposition" groups outside Syria have again shown themselves to be more opposed to each other than to the regime.

The latest attempt to build unity among Syrian opposition groups outside the country could hardly have had a worse result. About 250 opposition leaders from numerous factions and groups assembled at a five-star Cairo hotel this week, far from Syria where bloodshed continues daily. Instead of coming together for the benefit of the Syrian people, the meeting dissolved into a fist-fight.

The brawl showed the world that these "opposition" groups seem more determined to oppose each other than to hasten the departure of President Bashar Al Assad. Their narrowly self-interested disunity betrays the Syrian people, and gives the world community an excuse for inertia. Imagine the glee with which this news must have been greeted in Mr Al Assad's Damascus stronghold.

Events in Syria's crisis are moving very fast - just look at the two million emails in the "Syria File" released yesterday, which WikiLeaks brags will embarrass almost every party involved. The opposition Syrian National Council has very clearly failed to keep pace with events.

Because Syria's uprising started largely spontaneously, from the beginning it lacked central direction. The self-appointed, Islamist-friendly SNC consists largely of bookish regime critics who've been living outside Syria, and so are little trusted by those who have stayed home.

Tuesday's walkout by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) is said to reflect a stand-off over the political programme to be imposed on post-Assad Syria. The KNC is said to favour a secular state in which power is decentralised and women's rights are assured; the SNC wants a centralised "civil state" - not secular but nominally not Islamist - and has little enthusiasm for women's rights.

In the failure to present a united front, other voices will fill the vacuum. The rising influence of Sheikh Adnan Arour, a hardline cleric with a growing television and YouTube audience, has tilted the opposition on the ground towards a more hardline Islamist position. Sheikh Arour's talk of putting regime-supporting Alawites into a "meat grinder" will hardly hasten change.

Then there's the Free Syrian Army. With no political consensus to steer the revolt, elements of the FSA are alarmingly open to infiltration by extremists - or by simple criminals.

Before this week's meeting the Arab League, Turkey and other foreign governments had all implored the Cairo delegates to work together. Countless ordinary Syrians doubtless share that wish. Everybody wants unity, it seems, except those who must supply it - and the Assad regime.