x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Assad's opponents still struggling to form a united front

A bewildering range of loosely affiliated protest organisers and Islamic groups is involved in the six-month-old uprising and although all profess to share the goal of bringing democracy to Syria they have been unable to convincingly join forces.

DAMASCUS // To the frustration of many Syrians and the international community, opponents of the president, Bashar Al Assad, have struggled to form a united front as they seek to topple his powerful, autocratic regime.

On Saturday, a coalition of seasoned political activists joined forces with street protesters to form a National Coordination Committee with an elected 80-member leadership council.

Two days previously, a different set of well-known activists had unveiled the formation of a national council involving exiled and internal opposition figures at a meeting in Istanbul.

The same week, a third group of dissidents set-up a separate initiative designed to bring about a shift to democracy.

In addition, there is a bewildering, largely opaque range of loosely affiliated protest organisers and Islamic groups involved in the six-month-old uprising.

Although all profess to share the goal of bringing democracy to Syria - and most have said they wish to do so using peaceful methods rather than through force of arms - they have been unable to convincingly join forces.

Problems holding meetings have been a major hurdle to better organisation, with activists inside Syria typically forced to gather secretly in order to avoid arrest, while many dissidents have fled abroad for safety, further complicating coordination and dialogue among opposition factions.

The presence of feared security forces has also led many demonstrators to specifically avoid excessive organisation, saying that a more spontaneous, loosely tied tougher protest movement has a better chance to survival in the face of a deadly crackdown.

Opposition groups have also been building on weak foundations. With any kind of independent organisations banned in Syria decades, the culture of political activism has been eviscerated, remaining the preserve of hard-core dissidents who have been in and out of jail for years but unable to attract a large following.

There has also been widespread mistrust and personality-based infighting within these narrow opposition circles, with veteran dissidents often believing that, under the pressure of frequent interrogations, their colleagues are informing on them to branches of the security services.

That, in turn, has made many street demonstrators wary of the old guard opposition, who they fear are too accustomed to the unofficial dealings with security services that have been a survival technique for those involved in dissent.

On top of that, dissidents inside Syria view many of those living outside of the country with suspicion, fearing they are more in tune with the agendas of foreign powers than they are with the Syrian people.

And, while there may by ostensible unity of purpose in wanting to topple the regime, Syria's opposition reflects a variety of backgrounds and ideologies, from secularism to austere interpretations of Islam, making them unlikely allies.