x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Syria crisis talks in bid for unified opposition

Arab League to discuss recognition as efforts to topple Damascus regime are hampered by lack of unity and absence of a recognisable leader for resistance movement.

WASHINGTON // The Syrian National Council met in Doha yesterday to discuss a desperately needed unified strategy as the Gulf states and the Arab League prepared to consider formal recognition of the main opposition to the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

The absence of a united opposition or a unifying figure of resistance is viewed as the biggest issue facing the efforts to topple the Syrian president. The GCC and the league will hold separate meetings on Sunday to consider their position on the Syrian opposition.

The league has suspended its widely criticised peace monitoring mission and the UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday suggested a new, stronger, UN-involved observer mission, with the possibility of a special UN envoy.

The UN says more than 7,000 civilians, army defectors and security forces people have been killed in the year-long uprising. The government says fewer than 4,000 have died, including more than 2,000 of its forces.

A government tank and artillery bombardment of the city of Homs, a centre of dissidence, has killed hundreds since the weekend, activists say.

It is impossible to verify anything happening in the country.

Television footage from Homs shows food, including baby milk powder, being smuggled in through government blockades.

Russia and China on Saturday used their Security Council veto powers to block a resolution calling for Mr Al Assad to hand over power and step aside.

The US administration has instead been talking about creating a "Friends of Syria" group, a coalition of countries that support the Arab League proposal which underpinned the UN resolution and would begin by working to provide humanitarian assistance.

Such a group would probably operate out of Turkey.

But with the regime showing no signs of wilting under economic sanctions and Libyan-style foreign military intervention ruled out, the only path for the international community is through an effective Syrian opposition, analysts say.

There is no such opposition yet. The many disparate individuals and groups that make up the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella organisation led by Burhan Ghalioun, a political scientist in Paris, have failed to coalesce into a coherent organisation, said Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan policy group funded by the US Congress.

"As we look at the narrowing of political options, the importance of the SNC as a framework for engagement with the international community grows," Mr Heydemann said.

But the council needs to "step up" a level, and it has not yet, he said.

Randa Slim, an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, suggested the SNC was not up to the task.

Made up mostly of exiles, the council lacks the legitimacy on the ground, she said, that is enjoyed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), soldiers who have defected.

The Free Syrian Army is based in eastern Turkey, with the approval of Turkish authorities, and tries to coordinate efforts to resist the Syrian government crackdown. The rebel army says it has up to 40,000 fighters, but the numbers are impossible to verify and many analysts doubt them.

Accurate assessments of its fighting capability are equally hard to come by. But Mr Heydemann argued that the fact the Syrian army had resorted to shelling Homs rather then sending in ground troops indicated the FSA was having some success.

Ms Slim suggested Saturday's UN vote had essentially restricted options.

Armed resistance to government forces is increasingly being seen by Syrians as the only option, she said, further strengthening the leadership role of the FSA.

"Absent the will for military intervention, the next best option is to arm the opposition. That means arming the FSA," she said. She suggested the best option for that was to do so through Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with other regional and international in supporting roles.

Officially, this option is not on the table in Washington. On Wednesday, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said while "we never rule anything out in such situations", the US is pursuing a "political path" and was not considering arming or training opposition soldiers.

The US administration's "Friends of Syria" group would include Turkey, Great Britain and several unspecified European and Arab countries, and one of its first tasks would be to try to organise humanitarian aid in Syria, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday.

The creation of such a group would be a promising development, said Mr Heydemann. It could create a multilateral framework for engaging with the opposition and helping to build its capacity.

Ms Slim suggested it was a prerequisite for any further steps to arming the opposition.

Such a group would still need a functioning Syrian interlocutor. Ms Nuland said the US would "work with neighbouring states to identify coordinators on the ground", suggesting the administration does not yet have faith the SNC can fulfil that function.

And the SNC is struggling to play that role, conceded Amr Al Azm, a member of the SNC and an associate professor of history at Tawnee University in Ohio.

Mr Azm said the SNC had yet to form an effective link between the international community and the Syrian opposition inside Syria.

He said SNC members had forged and maintained close contacts at the highest levels in the US administration.

But the SNC is struggling to balance the clamour among Syrians for an empowered FSA to counter the regime's military crackdown and the US and international reluctance to go down that path.

"The SNC is between a rock and a hard place. The US and the international community are not quite yet comfortable with the armed insurgency, he said.

Nevertheless, the NSC remained the best hope for a coordinated civilian leadership that western powers would prefer to see take charge over any military wing, Mr Azm said.

Until the SNC can accomplish some of the more basic things, however, it will struggle to convince international powers it is a viable force.

It took the Libyan Transitional Council just two weeks after the February 16 uprising in Libya to secure the services of The Harbour Group, a Washington-based public relations company, working free.

And after four months, the Libyan opposition had hired Patton Boggs, one of Washington's biggest lobbying firms, to promote its interests among US politicians.

Nearly five months after its creation, the SNC, by contrast, has yet to even name a representative in the US.

There is no legal requirement to do so, but that lack of organisation is a "significant deficiency", said Mr Heydemann.

okarmi@thenational.ae