x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Assad's opponents agree on one thing: he's got to go

Some Syrian opposition leaders favour supporting the armed insurgency; others want a political solution.

BEIRUT // The one thing Syria's fractured opposition agrees on is that President Bashar Al Assad has to go.

Beyond that, things get complicated.

While the death toll rises, groups opposed to the Al Assad government remain divided.

Some favour supporting the armed insurgency and call for foreign military intervention.

Others want a political solution and remain open to talks with some elements of the regime.

But, amid reports of defections and rifts, the main opposition groups have not yet been able to formulate a cohesive strategy to oust the Al Assad government. The revolt has killed more than 9,000 people in the past year and shows no sign of abating.

Among the mix of opposition voices are veteran politicians, ethnic leaders, Islamist figures, secular dissidents, youth activists and defected soldiers who have formed armed rebel groups.

Established last October in Istanbul, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has, in some circles, become the presumptive main opposition group. Headed by Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, the SNC's supporters include the United States, Turkey and the Gulf countries.

The coalition is made up of several opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Damascus Declaration bloc. The SNC's stated aims are to topple the regime and build a "modern, democratic and civil state".

But, the 270-member council has been plagued by infighting and recent high-level defections.

This week, opposition leaders met in Istanbul in a bid to unify the splintered council.

Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge, and Kamal Al Labwani, an opposition figure who spent six years in jail before being released last year, were among those to resign from the SNC in the past few weeks. Both attended the talks, but Mr Al Labwani said this month there were elements "trying to build an autocratic rule inside the council".

The meeting largely decided to unite behind the SNC, although Mr Al Maleh and some Kurdish delegates walked out.

Some analysts say the lack of cohesion is eroding support for the groups, some of which have already been accused of limited connection to the protest movement on the ground.

Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, blames the perceived weaknesses on the fact some key opposition figures are political exiles, as well as a clash of Islamist and secular ideologies.

Some observers say the Muslim Brotherhood - a group banned in Syria - is the most organised of the factions and plays a major role in the SNC.

"There are internal dynamics in Syria that do not want to see Islamists behind the changes," Mr Moussalli said. "There is fragmentation and these groups and individuals don't see eye to eye. They have different programmes and visions."

But Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at the UK-based think tank Chatham House and an expert on Syria, said the varying opinions underscored the democratic system the opposition was fighting for.

"The fact that they still haven't all joined forces is actually testament to their independence. The opposition is not just willing to bow to outside influence," Ms Allaf said.

Still, Wissam Tarif, a Beirut-based Avaaz global campaigner working on Syria, believes there is an urgent need to unify around a plan that would help topple the regime, "but not the state".

"The problem is not common ground, the problem is that some opposition members feel they are already going to elections, some are already campaigning," he said. "But, the situation might go towards civil war and that's not why people took to the streets."

Another major political opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), remains largely against arming the uprising and foreign intervention. But Khaldoon Alaswad, a member of the group's executive body, said the NCB was not against the idea of Arab forces intervening, as long as it was "in coordination" with the Syrian opposition.

Talks between the SNC and the NCB have so far failed to unite the two sides.

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae