x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Dissident in bid to unify Syria opposition

Riad Seif, a former parliamentarian who has spent the past decade in and out of jail for opposing the Syrian president, hopes to persuade the Syrian National Council to join his US-backed initiative to rebuild his country's opposition.

DOHA // A soft-spoken Syrian dissident arrived in Doha yesterday, hoping to persuade 420 members of the Syrian National Council to join his US-backed initiative to rebuild his country's opposition.

Riad Seif, a former parliamentarian who has prostate cancer, has spent the past decade in and out of jail for his opposition to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

But since escaping Syria in June, he has started a new battle to unify the opposition into one that can win international recognition and channel support to the revolutionary forces.

Mr Seif said he was "very optimistic" that such unification could come as early as Thursday.

"The world is watching and now things must be changed. To say 'friends' is not enough. To act as a friend is what we need," he said.

Yesterday, activists said Syrian rebels had captured an oilfield in the country's east.

"The international society feels a little ashamed to how they have behaved with the Syrians," Mr Seif said at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where the Qatari government is hosting the meetings.

"The Syrians are a victim of one of the worst regimes of the century. We need to be protected from the air forces of Assad and the tanks and all these heavy weapons."

Mr Seif said he would not lead a government in exile, but believed he could help unify forces.

"I am 66 years old. I am ill. I love Syria and I will do whatever I can but I am not the one to be prime minister," he said at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the Qatari government is hosting the meetings.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights' chief, Rami Abdul Rahman, said rebels overran the Al Ward oilfield in the province of Deir El Zour near the border with Iraq after three days of fighting with government troops protecting it. At least 220 people were killed yesterday in fighting across Syria, including 149 civilians, the organisations said.

The meetings in Doha come after what diplomats say are months of international frustration with the SNC. The body has failed to win widespread recognition and has had difficulty garnering financial support.

"The SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said last week in announcing American support for the plan.

Some perceive SNC members as being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood and with minimal links to those within Syria. Other say the SNC is made up of personalities rather than representatives with links to the ongoing conflict on the ground.

Mr Seif's proposal, called the Syrian National Initiative (SNI), would create a 50-member council, where the existing SNC would hold 15 seats. Also included on the council would be three seats for Kurdish parties, as well as increased representation from the Local Coordination Committees, the grassroots organisations behind the uprising.

Crucially, the new council would also aim to bring the military operations under its umbrella as well.

Yet while the current SNC would remain the largest part of the opposition, some in the group have resisted the new structure. Between meetings, over coffee and tea, SNC members expressed a variety of reactions, ranging from support to outright condemnation.

"Generally the direction among the SNC is to refuse the initiative," argued Abdulrahman Al Haj, a secular opposition leader and university professor, who was suspicious of the US commitment to the plan. "There is no trust between us and the western countries, after 35,000 people have died. They say they want to help but we want to see something with our eyes."

Others said that moves to broaden the opposition coalition were welcome. "We expect the new body to be more inclusive and more effective from the ground, so it will have a lot of credibility," said Molham Al Drobi, who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

"I think there's still something foggy [about the] situation," said Mr Seif when asked if he thought the SNC would sign onto the new initiative. "Things must be clear and when things are clear I think every Syrian will agree that really we need an alternative to the regime."

The SNC will consider Mr Seif's proposal during two days of meetings this week. They will also attempt to reorganise themselves internally, electing new leadership, broadening their membership, and making plans to relocate into liberated areas along the Turkish border.

Tomorrow, a broader group of opposition figures, including dozens from inside Syria, will join the meetings. This larger group would then form Mr Seif's proposed 50-member council.

Mr Seif said that 12 nations had already signed onto his initiative, though he did not specify. He said he expected 100 countries would recognise a unified Syrian opposition if the meetings here in Doha succeed.

The Israeli forces chief, Benny Gantz, said yesterday the Syria conflict could become Israeli business, as fighting between regime forces and rebels raged near Israeli positions on the strategic Golan Heights. "This is a Syrian affair that could turn into our affair," the army's website quoted him as saying during a visit to troops on the frontier.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse