x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syria's main opposition group shuns women leadership

The Syrian National Council (SNC) is set to redress the imbalance by appointing four female candidates by decree but the episode in Doha underscored the divisions within the group.

Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians crossing the border fences in the town of Ceylanpinar in Sanliurfa province on a day that Syrian opposition groups struggled to reach an agreement in Doha.
Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians crossing the border fences in the town of Ceylanpinar in Sanliurfa province on a day that Syrian opposition groups struggled to reach an agreement in Doha.

DOHA // Syria's main opposition group elected no women to its leadership yesterday in another sign that it is failing to represent a broad spectrum of society.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) is set to redress the imbalance by appointing four female candidates by decree but the episode in Doha underscored the divisions within the group.

The discord extended further still as the SNC's seemed uncertain about supporting a US and Qatar-backed initiative to forge a unified alliance against Mr Al Assadand his regime. The new opposition coalition, called the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) is attempting to unify political and military opposition.

Emblematic of the disharmony, talks here were juggled between two separate hotels yesterday. While the SNC stayed in the Ritz Carlton, those set to discuss the US-backed initiative moved to the Sheraton, about a 20-minute drive away.

As the wrangling continued, Mr Al Assad told the Russia's Arabic-language channel Rsiya Al-Yaum: "I am Syrian and I must live and die in Syria," rejecting comments from Britain's prime minister David Cameron yesterday that a safe exit for the Syrian leader "could be arranged".

International diplomats made a final push to unite fractured forces within the opposition after a week of difficult talks.

Foreign delegations attending the meeting in the Sheraton Hotel, including heads of the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as foreign ministers from Turkey and Qatar, sent a "strong call for unity" using "stark language", said one diplomat.

Meetings were planned into the night to work toward an agreement on a single, unified coalition.

By late afternoon, however, it was far from clear that various opposition forces could overcome their disagreements.

"Infighting among Syrians and power positioning is too strong to be subject to the whims of international powers," warned Michael Stephens of Doha's Royal United Services Institute.

The US and Qatari governments have been working to convince a coalition of opposition forces to come under the umbrella of the SNI.

The force behind the new grouping is Riad Seif, a longtime dissident who is broadly respected by opposition forces.

The grouping would include several high-level defectors from Syria, including former prime minister Riad Hijab, who was present for the talks yesterday.

But many in the existing SNC, which has been criticised as being made up of exiles who have little connection to the fighting in Syria, have resisted the international initiative.

SNC leaders said they are concerned that the new plan would have no better luck garnering international backing, including funding and material support to fighters on the ground.

The SNC's new leadership drew criticism for its failure for not only to include women, but other minority groups.

"We have a right to come and participate," said Hanan Alballthe, one of the four women who will be added.

About 400 SNC members voted from 29 lists of groups opposed Mr Al Assad ranging from liberals to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ethnic minorities and tribes. Islamists, including at least five Muslim Brotherhood members, account for about a third of the new secretariat, with the Kurdish and Assyrian minorities also represented.

Mr Seif faced a grilling late yesterday, when he pitched his plan to the SNC.

"Riad Seif, when asked, said clearly that he didn't receive any guarantees from the international community about support," said Georges Chachan, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation within the SNC. "It's not a genuine proposal."

One western diplomat in Doha, who declined to be identified, said that no such pledges had been made to the new initiative for the moment.

Broadly sceptical of the new US-backed plan, the SNC approved a resolution yesterday that members said was an alternative way forward to the SNI.

The SNC now plans to hold a congress in the liberated areas of Syria to form a transitional governmental body, countering criticisms that they have been detached from the uprising in Syria.

"We will hold a general assembly, within Syria if possible, that would include representatives, including from the SNC, the Free Syria Army, the Local Coordination Councils, and independent activist groups." said Radwan Ziadeh, an SNC member.

In addition to logistical concerns, opinion within the SNC on the new proposal seemed to break down amid squabbles over leadership and concerns over who would and would not be included in the SNI.

Yesterday morning, Mr Seif was awake early, making rounds in the hotel lobby trying to convince SNC members to join the SNI.

"Let's see what happens," he said. He promised to stay in Doha until an agreement would be reached.

Diplomats attending the meetings in Doha now say that they are hopeful but concerned about the ability to reach agreement, raising questions about what would happen if the SNC failed to join the new grouping. Parallel opposition groups could further stymie international efforts to unify support to the opposition.

Yesterday, Britain's The Telegraph reported on Wednesday that several Syria-based opposition groups that had been included in the US-initiative have since withdrawn their support for the coalition.

 

edickinson@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse