x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syria opposition needs to accept change at Doha

The opposition forces need to put aside their differences if Syria is to have a chance at a workable post-Assad future.

The Syria National Council was formed in the summer of last year as an umbrella group for the opposition to unite and steer the country towards democracy. More than 14 months later, and the council is facing change itself.

Various opposition forces are meeting this week in Doha to negotiate a US-backed plan to replace the SNC. If the talks are successful, the council will become part of a larger, more inclusive entity.

Such a plan is more urgent than ever, although it also risks creating more divisions. It is important that the Doha negotiations are handled carefully.

The disunity of the political opposition has been reflected in the disunity of rebel groups on the ground inside Syria. The distribution of arms according to narrow loyalties has created rifts among fighting groups and even threatened to pit them one against the other.

The SNC has proved, time and again, that it cannot reform on its own. In Cairo in July, a committee was established to help opposition groups to unify under one body - the SNC rejected its authority, fearing it would lose its own supremacy within the opposition. Since attempts to persuade the SNC to restructure itself have failed, it is essential that foreign countries - which provide aid and have some influence over opposition groups - mediate a solution.

To their own discredit, SNC members are campaigning against the Doha initiative. Several have described the plan as a "plot" to force negotiations with the Assad regime. Others discount the initiative because it has the backing of the US administration, which has a dubious record so far in the Syria uprising. The plan has also been criticised because it is supported by Riad Seif, a former political prisoner who is not widely known to be influential in opposition circles.

But at heart, the SNC opposes the plan simply because it will be replaced. Instead of using its influence built over the past 19 months to benefit the Syrian opposition on the ground, it is operating on a narrow agenda of political survival.

Countries that support the plan also need to avoid previous mistakes; an earlier plan for international recognition of the opposition was downgraded to mere symbolic support. Every such setback pushes Syria further into the abyss. If the Doha talks end inconclusively, we can only expect more divisions, and more chaos.

There are high expectations for these talks over the next few days. Despite attempts to undermine the plan, it needs to receive diplomatic and political support. The so-called "Friends of Syria" that support the plan must help the emerging body to achieve results and build legitimacy. For Syria's opposition to assume a credible leadership role, that process must begin now.