x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Opposition in Syria must unite to cripple Assad

Syria's opposition needs support from foreign friends but needs support from the Syrian people more. But by splintering and squabbling, the opposition outside the country plays into the dictator's hands.

Yesterday, the Friends of Syria contact group meeting in Istanbul recognised the Syrian National Council as the "legitimate representative" of the opposition. The label only partially masks the fact that opposition divisions are deepening, rival factions are splintering and no single "opposition" speaks for the Syrian people.

Indeed, by propping up one group without pressuring it to include other forces, the international community may, unwittingly, be deepening Syria's crisis.

The best way to help Syrians inside the country is to remind those jockeying for power on the margins that their divisions only embolden the regime they are working to depose.

The most visible rift came last week, when Kurdish leaders walked out of a meeting meant to unify the opposition after disagreement over Kurdish rights in the post-Assad Syria. It is understandable that they be concerned about their future, considering the decades of marginalisation by the Baathist regime and the lack of support from their Arab compatriots when they rose up against the regime previously.

But the Kurds had found common ground with the SNC in the past, including a previous agreement on a vision for the country's future. Walking out following new divisions not only threatens opposition unity but strengthens the hand of Bashar Al Assad.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Riyadh before yesterday's meeting, said the world must keep up pressure on the opposition to encourage its unity. The US, she said yesterday, will provide communications equipment to help the opposition organise.

More important than gadgets, though, the opposition must earn its recognition - not from "friends" of Syria but from Syrians themselves. This can be done with an overhaul of the political infrastructure. Transparency and coordination with activists outside and inside the country are important to bolster its popularity, something the council has so far failed to deliver on.

There are two elements of the Syrian opposition: those fighting the Assad regime in Hama and Homs; and those fighting amongst themselves to replace Al Assad. The ones taking up arms are at least unified in their objective (although an SNC plan announced in Istanbul, to pay salaries for opposition fighters reportedly with money from Gulf Arab states, could help unify them under a centralised leadership).

Syria's armed resistance continues to protect civilians and ensure the mobility of protests and aid. The political opposition has an obligation to support them - before they map out their transition to power.