x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syrian rebels sign unity deal

Syrian opposition forces agree to unite dissidents, exiles, military councils and local activists in one coalition in opposition to the president, Bashar Al Assad.

Syrian opposition forces agreed yesterday to unite dissidents, exiles, military councils and local activists in one coalition.

The deal aims to fix fractures in the opposition to the president, Bashar Al Assad, that Arab and western diplomats say are hampering international efforts to support the revolution.

The agreement won the backing of the largest opposition bloc in exile, the Syrian National Council, which has faced criticism for its perceived ineffectiveness and domination by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We initialled an agreement … to form a national coalition of opposition forces," said Sadr Iddine Al Bayanouni, a former leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The deal calls for the formation of an assembly of 55 to 60 members called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. It will seek international diplomatic recognition and work to form a government in exile with administrative and military capacity on the ground in Syria.

The unity agreement came after negotiations in Doha, which involved more than 500 people and lasted a week. More than 400 SNC members, as well as a large number of activists from within Syria and diplomats, shuttled into two of Qatar's largest five-star hotels.

The final deal appears to have been a hybrid of the two proposals that were floated in the talks.

One dissident, Riad Seif, who escaped from Syria in June, had proposed a US-backed plan to form a unified body of 50 members, about 15 of which would have been filled by SNC members.

The SNC had countered with a proposal to organise a national congress within liberated areas of Syria that would have elected a transitional government. That congress will now be held after the regime falls, according to the draft document.

The agreement goes some way toward envisioning a post-Assad Syria. It calls for the disassembling of the pillars of the Assad regime associated with its crimes, and also says a national judicial commission will be a part of the new opposition body.

At the outset of talks, proposals for such a unified committee had faced resistance, particularly from the SNC, but there was a slow shift in opinion, marked by what participants in the talks said was artful, and at times forceful, mediation by the host country Qatar.

"The agreement to form a new body has come off the back of intense pressure from the US and Qatar," said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, led several of the discussions and made strong calls for unity among opposition ranks, participants said. Brinkmanship also seemed to have been an element of the agreement; other opposition groups in Doha apparently threatened to go ahead with a new unity council without the SNC if the bloc did not sign on during yesterday's meeting.

"The SNC understood that if they didn't reach an agreement, they would be forced into irrelevance," said Mr Stephens.

While the new committee aims to forge together the political and military opposition to Mr Al Assad, analysts say it may be difficult to gain full control over the disparate array of militias and brigades operating in Syria. "What's going on in Doha isn't going to speed the departure of Assad," argued Michael Doran, a Syria scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, last week.

The draft agreement said the body was committed not to engaging in dialogue with any part of the regime, which could pose an obstacle in international efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis.

Although no one in Doha seemed to support talking to Mr Al Assad, there are a growing number of international forces who argue that the midlevel bureaucrats and functionaries in Syria must be left in place to prevent a state collapse.


* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse