x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fractured SNC suffers losses in battle and credibilty

Members of the opposition are growing more and more critical of the coalition, which has been unable to produce a coherent, united front more than two years into an uprising-turned-civil war. Phil Sands reports

Syrian army soldiers carry chickens in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in central Homs province on Friday. AFP
Syrian army soldiers carry chickens in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in central Homs province on Friday. AFP

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // Barely concealed divisions are threatening the opposition Syrian National Coalition after rebel forces lost a key town and an influential group pulled out of the alliance.

The rebel retreat from Qusayr on Wednesday, after more than two weeks of heavy fighting against regime troops and Hizbollah militants, left many opposition activists furious with the performance the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

"There is a lot of anger and sadness after Qusayr, and a lot of people are saying the SNC should resign en masse," said a well-connected activist in Damascus.

He contrasted the increasingly confident and focused President Bashar Al Assad with a fractured and ineffectual opposition, which has been unable to produce a coherent, united front more than two years into an uprising-turned-civil war.

"In Damascus regime supporters are delighted, they are giving out Hizbollah flags, while the SNC couldn't even give a good speech, it just seemed to admit defeat," the activist said.

"The armed groups are pretty close to breaking all remaining connections to SNC; it won't take much more to convince them to do that."

Defeat for the rebels in the strategically and symbolically important border town was expected - they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. If anything, their ability to hold on for 18 days against elite regime troops and Hizbollah has boosted their reputation.

Opposition activists are comparing that defiance with the risible performance of the SNC. One described the SNC as an "embarrassment" in the wake of Qusayr.

"They live in a different world to the rest of us, they have shown themselves to be an irrelevant. No one will listen to them anymore," she said.

While rebels were embroiled in heavy combat with regime loyalists, the SNC was embroiled in heavy infighting at a summit in Istanbul.

After more than a week of deadlocked talks and arm-twisting from its international backers, the SNC finally agreed to a significant expansion of its membership late last month, to include grassroots activists groups working inside Syria, representatives of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and liberal political dissidents.

But in a blow to the expansion plans, the Syrian Revolution General Commission announced its withdrawal from the SNC.

Talks to convince the group to rescind its decision have so far failed.

Its pullout also hurt efforts to reduce the dominance of Islamist groups - the commission is one of the first established and most influential organisations of liberal activists, heavily involved in the early peaceful protest phase of the uprising.

The commission said on June 1 it was withdrawing its support because of a litany of shortcomings in the officially recognised opposition alliance.

It said the SNC had failed to keep up with rapidly changing circumstances on the ground, had not properly safeguarded the interests of the revolt and had allowed itself to be swayed by foreign interests rather than what was best for the Syrian people.

And although the SNC membership was increased from 63 to 114, the commission said exiled opposition figures remained over-represented.

Grassroots activists had demanded a third of seats in the revitalised coalition. The final deal gave them just 15 per cent.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission also said SNC members had made personal financial gains while failing to channel money effectively to those most in need inside Syria.

"Coalition members are more interested in appearing in the media than helping the revolution," the commission's statement read.

"A lot of money has been wasted because they used it for their own personal interests while the Syrian people inside the country lack everything."

Another gripe was the choice of new members under the expansion, with the commission referring to people who were "mouthpieces" for the regime or not really involved in the uprising.

The inclusion of Jamal Suliman, a popular actor, and Samira Masalmeh, a former editor of the regime's Tishreen newspaper, sparked disenchantment, according to one opposition activist.

The refusal to include Yaroub al Shara, a former government telecommunications official and a cousin of Syrian vice president Farouq Al Shara, also upset some grassroots opposition activists. Although a regime figure, Yaroub Al Shara is respected in some opposition quarters and seen as a capable organiser.

"There is a sense that the wrong people, who are too close to the regime or who have no skills in politics or organising have been given places in the SNC, while those actually doing the hard work of the revolution or who have useful skill remain excluded," the activist said.

Under the Istanbul expansion agreement 15 seats were allocated to representatives of the FSA.

An SNC committee is to vet nominees and screen out any who may have fought with Islamic radicals, including Jabhat Al Nusra, a powerful insurgent group allied to Al Qaeda.

While the rejigged SNC is supposed to be more representative - and it does include a larger number of liberal intellectuals and members of Syria's minority communities - it has struggled to address the increasingly dominant role of Salafists and other Sunni hardliners fighting with the rebels.

These factions have been among the most effective units in the struggle against Mr Al Assad, but still have no representation on the SNC and remain outside its control.

An opposition figure familiar with the negotiations in Istanbul last week said Moaz al Khatib, the SNC's former president, once again proposed formal communications with Islamist brigades - including Al Nusra - in an effort to unite the opposition and create a more effective political and military front.

"Before the expansion of the SNC, Moaz proposed to open lines of communication with radical groups and to personally lead that process but it was dismissed immediately," the opposition figure said.

Mr Al Khatib has warned against trying to ignore or isolate Syrian Islamic radicals, saying their role must be acknowledged and that dialogue was the only way to properly solve the problems they may present.

He has argued that failure to talk will only encourage further radicalism and cement a publicly stated but little understood alliance between Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda.

During a meeting of the SNC and its international backers in Istanbul in April, Mr Al Khatib made a similar argument, drafting plans to begin talks with radical Islamists. It was also rejected.