x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Talks for a united Syria opposition in deadlock

After electing a new executive leadership on Friday, the SNC said yesterday it needed guarantees from the international community that it would provide, or allow, the flow of arms to the rebellion.

Syrians throw their belongings while trying to cross a ditch after crossing from the northern Syrian town of Ras Al Ain to Turkey in the border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province yesterday.
Syrians throw their belongings while trying to cross a ditch after crossing from the northern Syrian town of Ras Al Ain to Turkey in the border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province yesterday.

Talks in Doha aimed at reorganising the Syrian opposition appeared deadlocked last night after the largest bloc, the Syrian National Council, delayed a decision about whether to sign a US and Qatar-backed initiative.

After electing a new executive leadership on Friday, the SNC said yesterday it needed guarantees from the international community that it would provide, or allow, the flow of arms to the rebellion.

"Weapons, weapons, weapons," said George Sabra, SNC president, as he called for arms from the international community to fight the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

"We get nothing from them except some statements, some encouragement", while Mr Al Assad's allies "give the regime everything", he said after his election.

SNC members have warned that efforts to unify the political opposition to Mr Al Assad may boil down to a single issue - weapons.

The SNC has "started an open dialogue" with other opposition factions, Mr Sabra said yesterday, but he remained bullish about his group's aims. "We have our own point of view and our own ideas that we plan to put forward," he said.

International diplomats say the SNC has failed to form a credible alternative to the regime and they need a new opposition body to funnel assistance. But no promises, particularly regarding military aid, would be tabled until the opposition was unified.

This has resulted in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. The opposition has resisted reorganising without guarantees of aid, yet no guarantees will be forthcoming until an agreement is reached.

 

The reorganisation plan, backed by the US and Qatar, has been conceived by a prominent Syrian dissident, Riad Seif. The initiative would not replace the SNC but would dilute its influence by including other opposition forces, including more Syria-based parties.

A draft circulating in the discussions described a 60-member Syrian National Initiative (SNI) council with about a third of its members filled by the SNC. That body would elect a transitional administrative body that would act as a government in waiting.

But the SNC has pitched a counterproposal to the SNI that would hold a national congress in liberated areas of Syria within two months to elect a transitional authority.

International delegations in the meetings on Friday were cool to the counterproposal because it would take too long. They want the new group created before a meeting scheduled in Morocco for late November or early December by the Friends of Syria, the group of countries supporting the opposition to Mr Al Assad.

Despite the implication that a new opposition umbrella group could garner financial support at the Morocco meeting, money is no longer the main issue. The SNC's demands for weapons are a stark reminder of how the Syrian revolution has changed in recent months.

When the SNC was first formed last year, debate was continuing about whether to continue with a non-violent revolution or to support growing military operations.

That debate has ended given the death toll is now estimated to be 35,000 people. The SNC, which has in the past faced criticism for being composed largely of exiles detached from the fighting, has realised their credibility as an opposition body hinges on their ability to supply opposition forces on the ground.

"The SNC for the last six months has been a sitting duck" because of a lack of international support and the funds and access to procure weapons, said Georges Chachan of the SNC.

"Because of this, the Syrian people have been asking, what is this council? The SNC wants to know why the international promises are different this time."

Diplomats acknowledge that a unified opposition would still face obstacles to improving the rebels' chances on the front lines.

"The idea would be to put in place an executive structure, an administrative entity," said one diplomat at the talks in Doha. "But no one thinks this is going to end the conflict tomorrow."

Meanwhile, the re-election of Barack Obama as president of the United States seems to have raised expectations that the US and other western countries would allow a new opposition coalition to obtain weapons.

Those hopes may be dashed, said Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Centre, at a presentation on the Syrian crisis last week. The White House has so far been adamant that it would not provide arms to the rebellion, and concerns about extremist elements in the opposition have limited US engagement with anti-Assad forces.

"The United States has really not had a policy on Syria," he told a small group in Doha, arguing that this incoherence had hampered regional attempts to support the opposition.

"The region is waiting for the United States. The Gulf states have been deferential to American concerns."

 

edickinson@thenational.ae