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Why has Assad been able to retain power in Syria?

syria-protestWhy has Bashar al-Assad been able to hang onto power in western Syria? asks Frederic C. Hof, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

According to Ambassador Robert Ford, the top reason for the regime’s persistence has been the failure of the opposition to reassure Alawites that they would not be threatened in the wake of Assad’s departure, notes Hof, formerly the Obama administration’s special advisor for transition in Syria:

Second—and only second—has been the enormity of Iranian and Russian political and military support to the regime. Third is the evident unity and coherence of the regime, “which is lacking on the opposition side.” This is a remarkable thesis: massive military support from Tehran and Moscow is a secondary factor in the regime’s survival, and the performance of the West figures not at all; the victim is primarily responsible for his own victimization……

Leave aside the fact that opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated. These themes were articulated eloquently by Burhan Ghalioun in the very first Friends of the Syrian People conference in Tunis and fully reflected in key opposition policy documents produced in Cairo in the summer of 2012. Surely it was the adherence of the mainstream, nationalist opposition to the principles of civil society and rule of law that enabled the United States and others in December 2012 to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“The excellent performance of the opposition delegation at the recent Geneva II exercise did nothing to detract from a vision of Syria that is decent, liberal, and civilized,” Hof contends. RTWT

But it’s foreign Shia fighters who have tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, The Financial Times reports:

The mobilization of Shia fighters appears to be more successful than that of their Sunni counterparts, some argue, because it is organized and encouraged by Iran, from where recruits are trained and sent to Syria in groups, say Syrians who have joined Pro-Assad militias.

“The main big difference is the state backing. It is a far more organized process,” says Phillip Smyth, an analyst at the University of Maryland who follows Shia militias. Tehran’s systematic support makes Shia fighters a more unified force than that of the Sunni foreign fighters who tend to travel alone to Syria and join disparate groups.

The Shia fighters are associated with a shift in the balance of Syria’s three-year conflict in Mr Assad’s favor. In late 2013 his forces secured a belt of territory around Damascus and central Syria, up to the coastal stronghold of his own minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

“Assad was losing big swaths of territory then...When they came in, there was a clear shift in the balance of power on the ground,” said Janaina Herrera, analyst at the New Generation Consulting group in Beirut.

The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars’ worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country’s beleaguered rebels, Gordon Lubold writes for Foreign Policy’s The Complex (HT: FPI). But the relatively small size of the new aid package is a vivid reminder that the Obama administration is continuing to take a largely hands-off approach to a country in the fourth year of a civil war in which nearly 150,000 people have died.

Is Assad winning? Syrian opposition ‘scrambles to save credibility’ prior to peace talks

Credit: Daily Telegraph

A Syrian opposition leader today urged President Bashar al-Assad to cede power and go into exile, without immunity from prosecution. But the divided opposition is itself under international pressure to resolve internal differences and decide whether to participate in Geneva-based peace talks.

“Assad is likely to reject or ignore the 16-point peace plan proposed by Moaz Alkhatib, who resigned as head of the Western-backed opposition National Coalition in March, particularly given recent military gains by his forces against rebels,” Reuters reports:

However, Alkhatib’s proposal shows a willingness to work with people associated with Assad throughout the revolt and will be seen as stretching out a hand to members of the government…..The Sunni Muslim cleric’s plan, posted on his Facebook page, calls on Assad to step down in favor of Prime Minister Wael al-Halki or Vice-President Farouq al-Shara, a veteran politician who has kept a low profile since the revolt began in March 2011, prompting opposition claims last year that he planned to defect.

Syrian National Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the 60-member group supports “any conference that helps transition the situation into an elective government away from the dictatorship” but would not go to Geneva without indications that Assad is on his way out.

The coalition’s foreign backers complain that it has lacked leadership since the resignation of Alkhatib, a respected Damascene imam, in March, in a dispute over the role of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“The international community is walking a little faster than the opposition. It wants to see a complete list of participants from the Syrian side for Geneva and this means that the coalition has to sort its affairs,” a European diplomat told Reuters:

Burhan Ghalioun (right), a strong candidate to become the new head of the opposition, said the coalition was likely to agree to go to Geneva because it did not want Assad to gain political advantage from the meeting, although, he said, it was unlikely to produce any deal for a transition. Washington has pressured the coalition to resolve its divisions and to expand to include more liberals who can act independently of Islamists.

Haitham al-Maleh, an elder statesman of the coalition said the opposition was playing into Assad’s hands by being weak. “Expansion of the coalition will mean nothing if (the coalition) continues to be ineffective. What has the coalition done, can we work? Do we have a program?” he said.

“Moreover, it is unclear who would represent the rebel opposition in negotiations,” according to The Economist:

Members of the current coalition worry that if they sit down with the regime they will lose what credibility they have on the ground—virtually none with the fighters and precious little with civilian campaigners. …An equally big obstacle is the regime’s reluctance to take a conference seriously. Mr Assad has named five people to attend it, including his prime minister. But they lack clout. The people who really run the show for Mr Assad are a cabal of close family members and the heads of the security forces, who increasingly rely on their allies: Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement, Hizbullah. Compromise, says an Arab diplomat, is “anathema” to Mr Assad.

“Washington is using the conference to buy time, but buy time for what?” says Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The country is melting down.”

His point is echoed by analyst Roula Khalaf who suggests that the peace talks are more useful to the US than to Syria’s opposition.

Wednesday’s joint declaration by the pro-opposition Friends of Syria group stated that any transitional executive authority “should assume all the powers of the presidency in addition to control over the armed forces and the security and intelligence apparatuses”. It also insisted that “Assad, his regime, and his close associates with blood on their hands cannot play any role in the future of Syria”.

“In another attempt to reassure a skeptical opposition, the statement said that until the Geneva meeting produced a transitional government, the countries present would increase their support for the opposition,” Khalaf writes for the FT:

According to a US official, this was added because “we don’t know if the Geneva process is going to be successful or not”. The official also said that given the reluctance of the Assad government to come to the negotiating table, the goal remained “to change that balance on the ground – not as an end in and of itself but rather to facilitate arriving at a negotiated political solution”. Thus, Gulf states will continue to arm the rebels and, according to one opposition figure, the UK has also promised weapons if the opposition takes part in Geneva 2.

“The greatest fear of an already weak and fragmented political opposition is that going to Geneva without any guarantees would erode the very little credibility it has with rebels fighting the Assad regime,” Khalaf suggests. “Diplomacy on Syria is often disconnected from the reality on the ground. Yet, for diplomacy to work, there must be the impression that it has a chance of being implemented, ending the regime’s brutality and silencing the guns.”

Wishful thinking

“The regime is still in place, strong and not going anywhere,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Predictions of Assad’s demise reflected an “unwillingness to assess the regime’s strength, wishful thinking, a desire for a swift end, and a failure to recognize this is a civil war.”

“The regime had been waiting and planning for this day for 40 years, they have been expecting Sunnis to rise up against them,” said the former Damascus-based journalist. “The fighting is transitioning from a government against an insurgency to a civil war in which the government is just one actor,” he said. “The most likely outcome is a partition of Syria.”

The high-profile role of jihadist groups in the rebel ranks has played into the regime’s narrative, say analysts.

“The government is couching this as a straight fight between itself, a moderate secular bastion, and Nusra and al-Qaeda,” said David Hartwell, senior Middle East Analyst for Jane’s.

“There are plenty of Syrians who are willing to take that message. Many Syrians have taken a hard look at Assad and at the opposition and they don’t draw much hope from the opposition.”

Analysts including Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service,  which previously predicted victory for the opposition now believe the regime is regaining ground.

“Assad’s forces have proven resilient,” said Joshua Landis, who runs the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma. “The countries and militias that back Assad up have shown greater commitment to him than the many Western and Sunni nations of the Middle East have shown toward any of the militias that are fighting him.”

The conflict is likely to be protracted and any feasible transition a distant prospect at best, some analysts suggest.

“If we’re expecting a quick resolution, it would take a palace coup or an assassination or a bomb,” said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

‘Dynamic, progressive Islamist’ to head Syria’s new opposition coalition

Opposition’s new leaders (l-to-r): Suhair al-Attasi, Moaz al-Khatib and Riad Seif.

Syria’s fractious opposition has elected a moderate imam to lead a new broad-based coalition in a move designed to form the nucleus of a transitional government following the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was established after four days of heated deliberations in Qatar. Its president will be Moaz al-Khatib (left, center), a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who is reportedly independent of any Islamist group, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“Alkhatib is a dynamic, progressive Islamist, popular in Damascus and the rest of Syria,” said Mazen Adi, a prominent Syrian human rights defender. “He is not a trigger-happy jihadist, and he can play a role in containing the extremist groups.”

The opposition leadership is now more representative of the opposition movement inside Syria, observers suggest.

“Appointing a preacher represents a qualitative change that will most likely resonate among many people because it provides religious legitimation,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “This also shifts the balance in power in the opposition. The reality is that, while there are many secular voices, the opposition on the ground has become more and more religious.”

The new body was fiercely resisted by the Syrian National Council, but its former leader welcomed the initiative, based on a proposal from veteran dissident Riad Seif. Seif and female activist Suhair al-Attasi, organizer of a celebrated dissident forum, were elected vice presidents of the new group.

“Unlike the SNC, which has been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the likes of Mr al-Khateeb, Mr Seif, Ms Atassi and Mr Sabra are a reminder of the multifaceted nature of the opposition to the Syrian regime,” says The Economist.

“We signed a 12-point agreement to establish a coalition,” said Seif:

In a copy of the document obtained by AFP, the parties “agree to work for the fall of the regime and of all its symbols and pillars,” and rule out any dialogue with Assad’s government. They agreed to unify the fighting forces under a supreme military council and to set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas. A provisional government would be formed after the coalition gains international recognition, and a transitional government after the regime has fallen.

Former Syrian premier Riad Hijab who defected in August hailed the agreement as “an advanced step towards toppling the regime.”

The deal came after the SNC, previously seen as the main opposition group, heeded Arab and Western pressure to embrace groups that had been unwilling to join its ranks.

Khatib, the imam of the central Umayyad mosque in Damascus before he was arrested for supporting the uprising, is seen as an independent as he is not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist party.  His deputies also hail from mixed backgrounds, with Seif reportedly backed by Washington and Atassi belonging to a Homs family active in the secular opposition. A third vice president post will remain vacant for a Kurd.

“I think the difference will start to show right away on the ground as the people will feel that there is a political power that represents them, and one body that unites its opposition,” said Burhan Ghalioun, a former head of the old Syrian National Council. “We expect international recognition in regional and international forums.”

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council today recognized the new group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people

“A big reason foreign supporters want a more streamlined opposition, better connected to rebels in Syria, is that they fear the emergence of separate warlords and jihadi fiefs if the opposition staggers on with only limited coordination,” The New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar reports.

But “it remains to be seen whether the Coalition can succeed where the exiled SNC failed in overcoming mutual suspicion and in-fighting that weakened the opposition,” Reuters reports.

Rima Fleihan, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition, told the BBC that the opposition was “one party now”, adding: “This will give us hope, give the Syrian people hope and this will be an answer for the international community that all the time asks us to be one party.”

The opposition’s backers in the West and the Arab world hope the new umbrella group will provide a conduit that will allow funds – and possibly military aid – to be funneled to the rebels fighting on the ground rather than exiled groups.

“Opposition activists claim the Doha agreement will pave the way for a flood of heavier weapons and international protection of safe havens, writes Roula Khalaf. “But they could well be disappointed.”

“Expectations are sky high so we need to manage them down,” says a western diplomatic source.

Western governments are discussing mostly non-lethal assistance which they expect will become more effective if channelled centrally through the national coalition. It remains to be seen, moreover, if Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two main weapons suppliers, will now unify their efforts instead of favouring different rebel groups.

“The Syrian opposition elements are under pressure from the Western powers to give them the cover they need to ensure Assad falls,” said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy studies at City University, London. “[The West and much of the Arab world]  are not prepared to live with long-term containment of the Syrian conflict — It’s got to be regime change and in order to increase the chances (of that), they need to get arms to Assad’s opponents and (therefore) they need the opposition to change.”

The new body will better represent grassroots activists within Syria and provide an organizational nexus to link the civilian opposition with rebel fighters.

“The most important components are those coming from inside Syria, and they’re fully on board,” said Yaser Tabbara, a founding member of the Syrian National Council who helped shape the initiative to form the new coalition.

Provisions also have been made to include minorities in the new organization.

The new coalition will function as a sort of parliament rather than a government, according to participants in the discussions, and will be responsible for the creation of a legal committee, a military council and a temporary government.

The formation of the military council, which will include representatives from the Free Syrian Army as well as local militias and defectors, may be the most important step for the new coalition.

The distribution of military aid to armed groups in Syria has been chaotic and led to infighting among various factions. Now, the countries giving military aid, which include Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have decided to channel the weapons through a central body that could establish some control over the process.

“The whole point of establishing this political umbrella .?.?. is to act as that civic point of authority for the military people,” Tabbara said.

According to The New York Times: The hope among Western countries is that the new coalition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, can give local opposition councils the legitimacy to bring fighters under their authority. That would give an important counter-voice to the well-armed jihadist commanders who in many places have set the pace of the fighting and created worries that Islamists will gain a permanent hold.

An important change in the new agreement is that revolutionary councils from 14 Syrian provinces now each have a representative, though not all live in Syria. The hope is that will bind the coalition to those inside the country.

Perhaps the most important body the new group is expected to form is a Revolutionary Military Council to oversee the splintered fighting organizations and to funnel both lethal and nonlethal military aid to the rebels.

“We have crossed the Rubicon,” said Jon Wilks, the British envoy to the Syrian opposition.

Independent analysts believe the new body will make the opposition more representative and effective, after the SNC came under criticism for being sectarian, dysfunctional and covertly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This is a significant step forward, because they finally seem to be forging a more broadly-based platform that includes the SNC but without the SNC taking the lion’s share,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Brookings Center think tank.

“Overall, the coalition broadens the opposition’s base, with officials saying it represents about 90 percent of opposition groups, up from an estimated 70 percent behind the old council,” the Times reports:

It is to include an assembly of up to 60 members, with major opposition figures filling at least nine seats. Up to five are reserved for Alawites, a crucial constituency because they are from the same Shiite Muslim minority as President Assad and the core of the military. The Muslim Brotherhood officially has only one seat.

Those who helped negotiate the agreement said that they were keenly aware of the failings of the Syrian National Council, and that the reality of Syria would make this experience different.

“There is a realization that the situation inside Syria is reaching a point of no return,” said Yaser Tabbara, a Chicago lawyer who helped negotiate the coalition agreement. “This whole situation of controlled chaos cannot be sustained.”

The new coalition was formed in the face of fierce opposition from the SNC, the Istanbul based group, which has been subject to withering criticism from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the international community “increasingly exasperated with the council’s dysfunction and irrelevance because its members are all exiles with little feel for the combat raging in their home country.”

According to reports:

The SNC has been reluctant to see its power diluted, however, and the principles agreed under intense international pressure on Sunday still leave the opposition some steps away from the transitional government that western and regional powers would like to see. According to SNC members, exact details of the now 60-member coalition’s composition are yet to be determined, although one said the SNC would have a third of seats.
The body will also create a military committee to supervise and unify actions on the ground. It is not clear whether the coalition will succeed in establishing authority over the disparate rebel groups, or indeed if it will even hold, given the centrifugal nature of Syrian opposition politics.

But Molham al-Droubi, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the SNC, described it as “a good step forward”.

The SNC attempted to head off a restructuring of the opposition through a series of cosmetic changes that failed to convince most observers and the international community.

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.”

Sabra was dismissive of efforts to unify the opposition and called on foreign states to provide arms without linking aid to a change of leadership.

The Syrian opposition has many foreign friends, he told The Associated Press, “but unfortunately we get nothing from them, except some statements, some encouragement.” The regime “has few friends, but these friends give the regime everything,” he added.

The choice “could help counter Western concerns about the influence of Islamists in the group,” AP suggested, although Mohammed Farouk Taifour, a leading Brotherhood official, was chosen as Sabra’s deputy.

“The council’s vote for a new president and new executive committee caused its own problems, with at least one organization and various independent members quitting over the outcome,” The NY Times reports. “Those leaving the council said that the election process had been meant to introduce reforms that added diversity to the group, but that instead it had reinforced the control of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.”

“I don’t think his election will do anything to persuade the detractors of the SNC that it has become more attractive and democratic,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center. Sabra is an SNC insider, and “his election is part of continuity, not change,” he added.

“The main criticism of the S.N.C. has been that it is riven by internal bickering and has failed to attract a wide variety of groups,” The New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar reports: It lacks a significant presence of Alawites, the minority sect of Mr. Assad that controls Syria, as well as other minorities, tribal and religious elders and business leaders…..The council has put up various smoke screens in trying to avoid the formation of the new umbrella group. It has proposed that a grand conference of opposition activists should be held inside opposition-held territory in Syria to create an interim government, for example, even though current security fears make that unlikely. Only then, council members said, should the S.N.C. be dissolved.

In promoting the idea, Radwan Zeyada, another council member, said there was no guarantee that a larger group would not be plagued by the same problems that had dogged the S.N.C. Many activists backing unity are disaffected council members.

“If they met inside Syria, they will feel the heat, the urgency to do something quick for the Syrian people,” Mr. Zeyada said. “They won’t be sitting around in a five-star hotel.”

But other activists believe that the new opposition coalition will be more inclusive and representative of the diverse opposition, in marked contrast to the SNC which was reportedly dominated by the Brotherhood.

“The council has been one color, which defies logic,” said Rima Fleihan, a member in exile of the Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad group that has sought to document casualties. “The institution has failed to deliver what it promised in terms of fixing its internal problems.”

While the opposition’s overhaul is to be welcomed, say analysts, it is only the first step towards effecting a post-Assad transition.

“To be sure, Syria’s opposition will have to prove that the new national coalition can be an inclusive and effective platform. But that will not be enough,” writes the FT’s Khalaf. “To impose itself on the ground, the national coalition will also have to demonstrate to Syrians that it can hasten the demise of the regime.”

As Assad vows he’ll ‘live and die’ in Syria, SNC ‘kills’ Seif-Ford initiative?

President Bashar al-Assad today insisted he would “live and die” in Syria and threatened that any foreign intervention would have catastrophic repercussions for region and beyond.

His comments, a clear riposte to this week’s proposal by British Premier David Cameron that Assad could be allowed a safe exit and exile, coincided with a Doha meeting of Syria’s opposition at which the Syrian National Council reportedly vetoed a Western-backed initiative to restructure and re-launch the movement.

“I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country,” he told Russia Today TV. “I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”

The SNC claims to have killed a U.S.-backed proposal from veteran Syrian dissident Riad Seif for a more representative, inclusive and broadly-based opposition movement. Its move has raised concerns that the opposition to Assad’s regime is falling apart.

“It’s being asked to reduce itself in size, which means not take a leading role as the political opposition inside Syria,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “And it’s being asked to do that with no real guarantees that more support will be forthcoming.”

Key opposition factions with strong followings inside the country pulled out of the plan, which was due to be presented at a conference in Doha, Qatar, today. Three of the dissident bodies seen as integral to the U.S.-backed initiative said yesterday that they had refused to attend, diplomats and opposition figures told The Daily Telegraph.

“There are too many people against this initiative for it to work now,” said a Western diplomatic source.

The SNC leadership came under fire in Doha from female activists after elections failed to promote a single woman to its 41-member decision-making executive.

“Women were active in the uprising from the start,” AP reports:

Last year, human rights lawyer Razan Zaytouni (left), who went into hiding shortly after the revolt began, was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award for risking her life by breaking through the government’s media blackout to report on the brutal crackdown in Syria. The award, named after the slain Russian journalist, is given annually to a woman human rights defender standing up for victims in a conflict zone.

SNC members “harangued” Seif at the Doha meeting, “with some accusing him of pushing a U.S. agenda to sideline the Islamist-dominated SNC,” Reuters reports:

“Seif was not at all convincing yesterday. He told the council he was going ahead with the initiative with or without them,” an SNC source said.

Opposition sources said many thought Seif’s offer of 24 out of 60 seats would leave the SNC underrepresented in a proposed rebel assembly, which would later choose an interim government and coordinate with armed rebels to usher in a post-Assad era. But the sources also said the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential group within the SNC, had signaled its support.

“There are tensions and fears inside the SNC that they will cease to be relevant if they agree to the initiative. They want guarantees,” one SNC source said

Countries including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have helped to arm rebels, as well as the United States and other Western powers, have lost patience with the fractious SNC and told it to make room for what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called those “in the front lines fighting and dying”.

The SNC’s four-day conference is an effort to overhaul its structure and rebut charges that it is unrepresentative of the broader opposition. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the group can no longer be considered to be the opposition’s “visible leader” and that the administration had “recommended names and organizations which we believe should be included in any leadership structure.”

The “Seif-Ford” initiative, after Robert Ford, the US special envoy, has led to accusations of foreign interference in the opposition’s internal affairs.

“Some are calling this the Robert Ford plan or an American plan,” said the SNC’s Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “This is just promises from the Americans that no one is believing. They don’t need Seif to come with a plan. This is unrealistic.”

In a meeting held late last night, SNC members reportedly interrogated Mr Seif on the initiative, and the list of names proposed to lead it. “We asked him why some of the names were on the list and he said he didn’t know. The West pushed this on him. How can you endorse a plan when you can’t defend it?” said an SNC member who had been at the meetings.

“Everyone feels that this initiative is imposed. They’ve weaved the cloth, but now there is no one to wear it,” said Ahmed Zaidan, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Council, a body that coordinates with armed groups inside Syria.

The opposition meeting will go ahead, but any leadership body is likely to have a majority from the SNC, which has little influence on the ground. “It may secure more funding but [the conflict] is about winning the support of the street to regain control. And the street does not support them,” said a diplomatic source.

Seif believes his Syrian National Initiative would help incorporate locally-based groups and rebel fighters into a more inclusive structure.

His proposal is the first concerted attempt to merge opposition forces to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed over 32,000 people, devastated swathes of Syria, and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration. The Initiative would also create a Supreme Military Council, a Judicial Committee and a transitional government-in-waiting of technocrats – along the lines of Libya’s Transitional National Council, which managed to galvanize international support for its successful battle to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

The SNC’s veto is unlikely to smooth relations between internally-based and exiled groups, say observers.

“It’s difficult to see how rebels doing the fighting would be happy taking orders from Syrians sitting in five-star hotels,said an analyst in Doha.

SNC figures in Doha played down the role of hardline Islamists, or Salafis, including former al Qaeda fighters in Iraq and other jihadis from abroad for whom Syria is the latest cause celebre. They are accused of beheading soldiers and others seen as pro-Assad and committing other abuses.

“The issue is not the Salafis, the problem is Bashar al- Assad. If we have the capacity to support the (rebel) Free Syrian Army, the extremist element will diminish,” said former SNC president Burhan Ghalioun. “We need arms and until now we haven’t had what we need. We need new arms, anti-aircraft arms. From the international community, we’ve seen many promises. But we wait and see.”

But other Syrian activists are expressing concern at the growing influence of extremist groups, the increasingly sectarian thrust of the conflict and an uptick in anti-Americanism.  

“Presently, each community in Syria, including the Alawite community, is having a minor civil war of its own pitting pro- and anti-Assad groups against each other, write Ammar Abdulhamid and Khawla Yusuf, citing infighting amongst Palestinians, Kurds and even the Alawites. 

“Border crossings with Turkey are controlled by Islamist groups, even though some tend to succeed in covering up their identity giving an impression of moderation, and even secularity,” they note. “Aid going to the rebels across the Turkish border, therefore, is being filtered through Jihadi elements. It’s no wonder that most of it end up with more extremist groups.”

Anti-Americanism is rife in all quarters. But while some rebels are pinning their hopes on a new more robust American policy of support following the upcoming elections, a policy that does not go beyond supplying rebels with arms, and that is not based on a serious understanding of the continually changing dynamics on the ground is bound to bring much disenchantment, feeding rather than alleviating anti-American tendencies.

The SNC’s move may jeopardize any new U.S. initiative to provide arms to the Syrian opposition, a move the Obama administration has hitherto resisted.

“I believe President Obama in his second term will be more assertive, perhaps from the first day after the election, not waiting for inauguration, to increase the lethality and the amount of weaponry going to the opposition in Syria,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But SNC head Abdelbaset Sieda said that his group does not believe international assistance linked to restructuring the opposition will be forthcoming.

“We faced this situation before, when we formed the SNC (last year),” he told The Associated Press. “There were promises like that, but the international community in fact did not give us the support needed for the SNC to do its job.”

New opposition leader calls for defections, as Syria’s ‘unraveling’ speeds up

The new head of Syria’s main opposition group has urged government officials to defect from a regime that is “on its last legs,” echoing similar demands by the rebel Free Syrian Army, which also called for a campaign of mass “civil disobedience” and a general strike to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.

“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda (above, right) said in an interview after being appointed leader of the Syrian National Council.

He also sought to reassure minority groups by offering guarantees for their rights and safety in a future, democratic Syria.

“We will expand and extend the base of the council,” he told reporters, “so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade.”

The rate of military defections has reached its highest level, says Ausama Monajed, a leading official of the SNC. Hundreds of troops switched to the opposition in Idlib and Homs, while a strategic air defense battalion, armed with anti-air and anti-tanks missiles, has also joined rebel ranks.

Sayda replaced Burhan Ghalioun (above, left) , who resigned last month amidst growing internal acrimony over the Muslim Brotherhood’s disproportionate influence and the SNC’s distance from the Syria-based Local Co-ordination Committees, which lead the anti-government protests on the ground.

A secular Kurd who has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, Sayda “emerged as the consensus choice precisely because he represents no one, either inside Syria or out,” analysts suggest:

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals in the council concluded that he did not pose a threat or provide an advantage to any bloc within the council, they said, but for the same reasons he will have little real authority, and the bickering will continue.

“Younger activists are understandably frustrated by the SNC’s impotence,” one observer notes:

They speak of their anger against those older activists they believe are trying to dominate the SNC to ensure they get good positions in post-Assad Syria, and neglecting the needs of the fighters on the ground. …..They are the ones pushing for a wholesale restructuring of the council, to make it more democratic. But one of the SNC’s founding members, Basma Kodmani, explained that this is the inevitable nature of a broad-based movement.

We have idealists and political opportunists under the same roof, and we have to learn to get along, she said – this is politics, something Syria has not had for more than 40 years.

The appointment of Sieda is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria’s 1 million Kurds, Reuters reports.

“Opposition figures are also portraying his election as a sign that Syria’s various minorities, who worry about their safety in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population, would be safe,” reports suggest.

SNC officials say the election confirms that the Syrian opposition is “committed to upholding democratic principles and the idea of a ‘leaderless revolution’,” the New York Times reports:

“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person — because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee. Until such time as there are free elections in Syria, she said, the choice of the president of the council should be made by consensus.

“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” Ms. Kodmani said. “Personalization leads to polarization.”

“Syrians have abandoned the regime in spirit, even if they have yet to defect in body,” according to Joshua Landis.

The recent massacres in Houla and al-Qubair indicate that the regime can no longer rely on the regular army to suppress protests and is now relying on the sectarian Alawite shabiha militia. The Sunni merchant class, a bastion of the regime, is also beginning to turn against Assad, says Landis.

“The revolution is popping up everywhere now. The heart of Damascus is now involved,” he notes. “When the merchants of Hamadiya – the main souq – go on strike, you know you have lost the conscience and heart of Damascus. The Sunni bourgeoisie has now turned on the regime.”

The revolution is coming to Damascus, writes Julien Barnes-Dacey, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, formerly based in Syria from 2007 to 2010:

Recently, security forces opened fire in the center of the capital to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators just a few hundred meters from parliament. The mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike in response to the Houla killings marked an important escalation of local defiance. Many Damascus suburbs fall under effective rebel control at night. Anti-regime protests are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus.

According to analyst Muhammad Ali, Syria’s business class is approaching a tipping point:   Merchants have finally decided to enter the crisis due to economic distress and slumping profits, the extortion by which the regime pays its Shabiha thugs, and civilian casualties in neighborhoods of Damascus. The massacre at Houla and further slaughters only strengthen the resolve of the merchants, mostly Sunni, against the largely Alawite regime.

The opposition’s gains over recent days reflect growing international efforts to provide assistance to rebel forces, say analysts.

The arming of the opposition has gained momentum, Roula Khalaf writes in the Financial Times:

Gulf-backed moves to arm Syria’s opposition are gaining momentum amid growing flows of funds and weapons and a better organization of deliveries to fighters on the ground. Syrian activists say more significant funds are now coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to a regular flow of donations from Syrian expatriates and some wealthy individuals in Syria. The new arms include anti-tank missiles and account for the apparent sharp rise in attacks. At least 20 tanks or armored personnel carriers have been burned in the past week.

“The rebels now control a widening swath of territory in north and central Syria,” says McClatchy’s David Enders:

They use it as a base for storing and manufacturing weapons and for launching attacks against government soldiers in previously peaceful parts of the country.     In May, at least 404 government soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat with the rebels, according to burial notices published by the Syrian government news agency, SANA. In June, SANA reported the burial of 150 soldiers in just the first seven days of the month. In March, SANA reported only 176 deaths; in April, 363.

Rebel units show none of the desperation for weapons and ammunition that plagued them as recently as February. One unit on Friday proudly displayed six new Belgian FAL assault rifles along with ammunition – gifts, the rebels said, from Saudi Arabia.

“The opposition is a long way from producing the sort of coordination and command that can march on the Presidential Palace,” says Landis, editor of the Syria Comment blog, “but today, one can imagine the day when it will summon the strength to do it.”