x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Fears over US-led bid to unite Syria opposition

Discord overshadows talks on replacing the Syrian National Council.

DOHA // Hundreds of Syrian opposition figures are descending on Doha this week in an attempt to forge a more unified opposition to the regime of Bashar Al Assad. But it has been discord more than unity that has characterised the lead-up to the meetings.

Last week, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that the United States would spearhead a push to form a new Syrian opposition group, replacing the Syrian National Council (SNC). The Syrian National Initiative would be made up of 50 seats, including 15 for the SNC.

Leading the initiative would be Riad Seif, a prominent anti-regime figure who left Syria in June.

But the SNC has denounced the US initiative as "an attempt to undermine the Syria revolution by sowing the seeds of division".

The group may also reorganise itself in Doha and will consider moving its headquarters into Syria, Britain's The Guardian reported.

The meetings in Doha will come after months of frustration with the SNC, which diplomats say had failed to unify the opposition and present a credible alternative to Mr Al Assad.

In announcing the new US initiative, Mrs Clinton said: "This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances ... not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years."

But the American push has been met by Syrians with a mix of surprise, welcome, and scorn. And those varied reactions to the proposal have cast a shadow over discussions meant to bring consensus.

While many have welcomed the input of the SNC, they have expressed concern about the shape and viability of a US-backed alternative.

"The worst possible thing that the United States could do for the Syrian revolution was to take upon itself to announce this new group," argued the Syrian writer, Rime Allaf, who is also a fellow at the Chatham House, a London-based think tank. She fears that the statement undermined the new group's legitimacy as being Syrian-born before it is even fully constructed.

"Even if turns out that this new group is the best hope for the Syrian opposition, it's not something the US should announce before we know the outcome of the meetings. It's like the US is deliberately trying to put obstacles in front of the opposition."

Others fear that the new initiative could simply be the latest attempt in a string of international initiatives that have failed because their outside backers were fragmented.

An earlier conference in Cairo, for example, agreed to form a coordination committee between opposition groups, but the efforts broke down as France and Qatar continued to support the SNC alone, said Samir Aita, a Paris-based opposition figure who is editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique's Arabic edition.

"The opposition will not be united - neither in Doha nor in Istanbul," he said, arguing that Qatar's past support for the SNC implied a partisan bias.

The latest American proposal has the apparent backing of Qatar and Britain.

Overshadowing any discussions this week will be an additional concern over whether a political opposition outside the country could command authority and legitimacy on the ground, where combat is escalating.

In a statement yesterday, participants at the meeting sought to quell concerns the overhaul is aimed at building an opposition that would be willing to negotiate with Mr Al Assad, the Syrian president.

"Mr Al Assad and his entourage leaving power is a non-negotiable precondition for any dialogue aimed at finding a non-military solution, if that is still possible," the statement said.


* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse