Reports that rebel fighters inside Syria are losing the moral high ground will also add urgency to the unity discussions at the opposition meeting in Doha, Qatar.
The Syrian National Council had previously dismissed the U.S.-backed Seif-Ford” initiative as “stupid” and unjustifiable interference in opposition affairs. The group resented U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s assertion that the group could 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 SNC has “fought back like a fish on a hook, maneuvering to avoid what members feared would be marginalization,” writes the NYT’s Neil MacFarquhar:
Members gathered in Doha this week to introduce changes — including doubling the group’s membership to more than 400, with about 33 percent of members from inside Syria, up from 15 percent. But some attempts to prove its diversity backfired; for example, not a single woman won in the elections for a 40-member secretariat.
But a source inside the Doha meetings told Reuters that SNC members had changed their view following pressure from their host, Qatar, and the U.S.
“We will not leave today without an agreement,” the source told Reuters. “The body will be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Once they get international recognition, there will be a fund for military support.”
The new body would mirror the Transitional National Council that united the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year and then took power after he was ousted, the source suggested.
“They will create a ‘temporary government’, which could take control of embassies around the world and take Syria’s seat at the U.N., because the regime would have lost its legitimacy,” the source said.
A diplomat familiar with the talks said that throughout the week the SNC had shifted towards taking international pressure more seriously, especially after Obama’s victory.
“The Americans felt a swagger after the results of the election and Obama’s win. No one can dismiss them anymore, because they are staying,” he told Reuters, adding that a State Department official attended Thursday’s meetings. “But reaching a real deal over the initiative will also depend on who joins this assembly from the SNC, which will have no real influence after that,” the diplomat said.
Other observers are more cautious, suggesting that the discussions have been plagued by what Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh calls “huge differences between the members of the Syrian National Council and other opposition figures”.
“The international community and the core group of the ‘Friends of Syria’ that includes the US, France, Britain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, are pushing for a new initiative to be adopted by the delegates,” he said. “That initiative calls for a coherent representative structure that would also represent those fighting inside Syria. Western diplomats are telling Al Jazeera that this is not going to happen any time soon.”
Riad Seif (above), the veteran dissident who initiated the plan to unite the opposition and form a transitional government, said he was “optimistic” an agreement could be reached.
The opposition is moving towards “a political leadership that would satisfy the Syrians and be recognised by the international community,” he said.
The SNC, other reports suggest, is “vying to keep its leading role,” despite pressure to unify, and it has called for a decision on unification to be postponed.
Meeting in Doha, the SNC sought to have the decision made on Saturday after it chooses a new chief, having already elected a 41-member secretariat, a third of them Islamists, and as it faces charges of not being representative enough.
“We requested a postponement of 24 hours – we are in the electoral process,” Ahmad Ramadan, a member the new team, told AFP.
But the SNC’s tactics prompted the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grass roots activists, to withdraw from the group, citing its failure to adopt “serious and effective” reforms to make it more inclusive.
“It is clear to us now that the Syrian National Council is not fit to assume such a role, especially after the disappointing results of its restructuring attempts,” said the LCC. “The Local Coordination Committees hereby declares its withdrawal from the Syrian National Council.”
The SNC also came under fire from opposition activist Haytham Maleh.
“The SNC’s request for a deal is a bad thing because it wants to control everything, and the only thing that’s important to them is to lead, when Syrian blood being spilt should be our first consideration,” he said.
If the [Seif-Ford] plan works, supporters say, it will help push back against the chaos in which jihadi organizations thrive and persuade foreign governments — particularly a second Obama administration — to get invested more directly in the opposition’s success.
“We have to find a way out of the cul-de-sac that we are in,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former confidant of Bashar al-Assad’s turned opposition activist. “We need to find a solution so that the Syrian opposition can deal with the international community through one executive body, rather than everyone with his own opinion, his own agenda and his own allies.”
While opposition factions maneuver for advantage, “rebel fighters — who have long staked claim to the moral high ground for battling dictatorship — are losing crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels,” The New York Times reports:
The shift in mood presents more than just a public relations problem for the loosely knit militants of the Free Syrian Army, who rely on their supporters to survive the government’s superior firepower. A dampening of that support undermines the rebels’ ability to fight and win what has become a devastating war of attrition, ….
The rebel shortcomings have been compounded by changes in the opposition, from a force of civilians and defected soldiers who took up arms after the government used lethal force on peaceful protesters to one that is increasingly seeded with extremist jihadis. That radicalization has divided the fighters’ supporters and made Western nations more reluctant to give rebels the arms that might help break the intensifying deadlock.
“They were supposed to be the people on whom we depend to build a civil society,” lamented a civilian activist in Saraqib, a northern town where rebels were videotaped executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers.
Many observers have warned that Western democracies’ failure to arm pro-democracy factions of the opposition is enhancing the influence of violent takfiri groups and other radical Islamist elements.
“The arms flowing to the [Free Syrian Army], at least from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are going to Islamist members of the opposition, many of whom are strongly opposed to the US and could push a future Syrian government in dangerous directions,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department policy planning director and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
“The most significant shift,” the NYT’s Anne Barnard reports, “ is among the rebels’ supporters, who chant slogans not only condemning the government but also criticizing the rebels.”
“The people want the reform of the Free Syrian Army,” crowds have called out. “We love you. Correct your path.”
Small acts of petty humiliation and atrocities like executions have led many more Syrians to believe that some rebels are as depraved as the government they fight. The activist from Saraqib said he saw rebels force government soldiers from a milk factory, then destroy it, even though residents needed the milk and had good relations with the owner.
“They shelled the factory and stole everything,” the activist said. “Those are repulsive acts.”
Even some of the uprising’s staunchest supporters are beginning to fear that Syria’s sufferings — lost lives, fraying social fabric, destroyed heritage — are for naught.