Syrian opposition remains at odds after week-long push to expand and unify


George Sabra, left, and Salem al-Malat greet each other after a session of the Syrian National Council in Doha, Qatar, on Friday. Members of the Syrian opposition failed to strike a deal, casting doubt on the formation of a new umbrella organization. ( EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY )
November 9, 2012

Members of the Syrian opposition attempting to broaden their membership and gain greater international support failed to strike a deal here Friday, casting doubt on the chances of a new opposition group being formed.

At the heart of the political wrangling is an initiative, proposed by a respected activist, to create a new umbrella organization that would have stronger ties with opposition groups inside Syria. That plan is opposed by some of the 400 members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the exile group that has portrayed itself as the political opposition’s de facto leadership since its formation in August 2011. In recent months, the SNC has fallen out of favor with its international supporters, particularly the United States.

Representatives from countries backing the opposition have told SNC members repeatedly this week that those seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must unify and expand to gain legitimacy inside Syria and improve the distribution of funds and aid.

To some extent, members of the SNC have listened. For the past week, they have held intense meetings, many dragging on late into the night, to discuss how to restructure their organization and stay relevant.

But their critics have, so far, been less than impressed. On Friday, the group selected George Sabra, a veteran opposition activist and a Christian who is considered part of the SNC old guard, as its new leader. And on Wednesday, an election to choose a 41-member general secretariat also produced a somewhat predictable lineup.

“It was a joke,” said Mutasem Syoufi, a 31-year-old activist who has supported the initiative to form a new opposition group. “There were no women and no minorities.”

SNC members say they subsequently appointed additional members to diversify the secretariat’s makeup. But a new executive committee selected by the group Friday also included many familiar names.

That cost the SNC dearly. Shortly afterward, the Local Coordination Committees, a broad network of opposition activists inside Syria, announced that it was withdrawing its support for the group.

“Several attempts have been made by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria to push the Syrian National Council and its leadership to adopt a serious and effective general reform plan so that the SNC can assume its role as a political representative of the great people of Syria,” the network said in a statement. “It is clear to us now that the Syrian National Council is not fit to assume such [a] role.”

The U.S.-backed plan to start a new opposition group with greater representation inside Syria — which is referred to as the Syrian National Initiative — was introduced by longtime activist and SNC member Riad Seif earlier this week.

Members of the international community view the move as an opportunity to pull the fractious opposition together to create a credible interlocutor that could gain support among ordinary Syrians.

“On the international community side, we are looking for a counterpart that is set up and efficient,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “And we hope that this dynamic could lead as soon as possible to an effective administrative body which will allow us to do more, to support more and to channel more of our assistance through this Syrian mechanism.”

A look at the Syrian uprising nearly two years later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

Opposition activists involved in the planning of the initiative hope to eventually form a transitional government, a supreme military council and a judicial body. But many SNC members have bristled at the plan, suggesting that it marks an attempt by Western countries to undermine their organization.

Seif and supporters of the initiative tried to appease the SNC and offered it roughly one-third of the 60 seats planned for the new organization. The SNC says it will respond Saturday.

“We’re waiting to see if there’s white smoke or black smoke,” said Najib Ghadbian, an SNC founder who now supports the new initiative, using a folk expression to characterize the process of waiting for the SNC’s reaction. “There’s a growing sense from everybody that we need to succeed.”

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