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.
“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.
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.”