The Arab League has postponed a Syrian opposition conference planned for Cairo this week after the Syrian National Council, the leading exiled coalition, threatened to boycott the meeting. Observers say the cancellation is the latest indication of the international community’s inability to engage the divided and dysfunctional opposition.
“When it comes to influencing Syria’s bloody struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to unseat him, the exile opposition SNC seems as helpless an onlooker as world powers groping for a strategy,” reports suggest.
The international community has tried to forge the SNC into a representative umbrella coalition, equivalent to Libya’s Transitional National Council, that could convene disparate opposition networks within and outside Syria.
“But the organization has been losing momentum,” writes Roula Khalaf. “Even local groups committed to peaceful opposition to the regime are taking their distance from the SNC, and some recently joined in what they described as a provisional parliament for post-Assad Syria.”
For the time being, however, and in the absence of credible leaders emerging from within Syria, engaging the SNC is the default option for foreign governments within the Friends of Syria group, say analysts.
“Some of them do seem to realize that sooner or later the real center of gravity has to be inside Syria, but they don’t quite know how to find that,” said Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
The decision to boycott the Cairo event reflects the SNC’s frustration with the international community’s failure to provide financial or military assistance to the opposition, according to a prominent member.
“No government has institutionally helped the rebels with either weapons or humanitarian aid,” said Jamal al-Wadi. “Weapons smuggling has been done by individuals, despite promises by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others to support the Syrian people.”
Wadi, who is from the southern town of Deraa, cradle of the revolt, said Turkey in particular had failed to match its anti-Assad rhetoric with action, and hit back at those who say they cannot help the opposition while it remains fragmented.
“The international community is using the excuse of a divided opposition as a coat hanger to escape its responsibilities, when it has the moral and humanitarian obligation to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown,” Wadi said.
Opposition divisions are also due to the international community’s lack of response to the Syrian conflict, says Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the SNC.
“There were three new parties that were announced in Cairo last week, everyone with a cousin and a grandmother is setting up a new opposition party,” he said:
Further fragmentation is inevitable, he added, because the opposition inside the country cannot organize in the midst of a continuing security crackdown, or hold elections to decide who truly represents it.
The SNC is currently engaged in heated internal discussions over the leadership of SNC president Burhan Ghalioun, who is under fire for allegedly weak leadership and ‘frivolous globetrotting”:
A Skype conversation in February between the SNC’s 10-member executive committee and activists inside the besieged areas of Homs and Hama disintegrated into bickering over finances: the executive committee members were speaking from the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Also raising questions about the SNC’s priorities was the decision to dispatch representatives to Miami to sign an agreement last week with opponents of Cuba’s communist government. That deal coincided with a four-day visit to Tokyo by Mr Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic.
“They have to be in one place, working 24 hours if they want to succeed,” said Haitham Al Maleh, a veteran dissident jailed by both Mr Al Assad and his late father Hafez. “We are in a revolution. People are getting killed daily.”
Others are more scathing, and fear the group may not only have lost relevance to people inside Syria but may actually be hindering the uprising.
“Until now, they have handicapped the revolution,” said leading dissident Kamal Al Labwani. “We need one council and real leaders for our revolution.”
Calls for the reform of the SNC at a time of increased bloodshed are distracting attention from the key issues, says Rime Allaf, a Syria analyst at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House.
“I think it is a moot point that the SNC itself should restructure, especially as it is unclear how this would benefit the uprising,” she said. “The SNC tried to please so many and ended up pleasing nobody … The uprising is going on regardless of who leads it and the people are coming onto the streets regardless.”
But those protests are unlikely to succeed in generating a democratic transition without a compelling strategy and vision from a coherent opposition, analysts contend.
“Unless the opposition develops a clear transition plan and a credible political strategy for winning over key sectors in Syria, it will fail in bringing about change,” writes Carnegie analyst Sayigh. “The Friends of Syria can afford to live with the lack of a political strategy, but the opposition cannot.”
It has yet to negotiate and draft what veteran Syrian activist Michel Kilo calls “a practicable political pact . . . defining the features of the phase of the transfer of power, how long it will take, the tasks of this phase, and ways to liquidate tyranny, present a democratic alternative, and ensure the people’s rights and so on.”
More importantly, “the opposition has not yet developed a strategy to chip away at the regime’s support base,” he continues:
To foment change, the opposition needs to encourage dissent and splits within the regime’s core ranks and support base. Minorities that have rallied behind the regime out of fear of the alternative need to be reassured of their post-Assad future. And the large urban middle class that dislikes the regime but is deterred by the high costs of openly opposing it and discouraged by the opposition’s disunity and militarization needs to be convinced that the opposition offers a credible alternative. …These sectors of Syrian society are key to tipping the struggle for power in Syria.