Syrian Opposition Still Weak and Divided

(L to R) Syrian opposition figures Tony Doura, Ali Haidar, Qadri Jamil and Adel Neishe hold a press conference in Damascus on 15 October 2011. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Salameh Kaileh

Published Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Syrian opposition is now split into two main factions, each vying for legitimacy within the country. But does either side really represent the Syrian people and the goals of the uprising?

The Syrian opposition is now divided into two main factions: the ‘reformist’ National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, operating within Syria and abroad; and the ‘radical’ Syrian National Council (SNC), based outside of Syria with some presence within the country. Each has its own conflicted strategy.

At the outset of the Syrian uprising, some of the opposition parties played a role in the popular movement, especially the Arab Socialist Union Party in Deraa, Douma, and the suburbs of Damascus, though its actions remained dependent on the activities of party members within these regions. Then, the Damascus Declaration group of opposition intellectuals released a statement calling on the Arab League to intervene as had happened in Liyba.

Statements followed from other preexisting groups, like the National Democratic Rally. Abroad, opposition activists organized a series of conferences to form a transitional council similar to that of Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood added their own declaration, announcing they were joining the uprising. Many Syrians responded with slogans of “No Salafism, No Brotherhood,” especially among rebels in the group’s traditional strongholds of Homs, Hama, Banyas, Talkalakh, Al-Tall, and Hawran.

As the protests spread to many parts of the country, the Syrian opposition abroad pushed for the formation of a national council, holding a number of conventions in Istanbul, Antalya, and Brussels. Within Syria, Burhan Ghalioun encouraged dialogue in order to unite elements of the internal opposition, such as the National Democratic Rally and the Damascus Declaration. But these efforts led to the formation of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change from which Ghalioun withdrew soon after.

The last attempt to form an alliance in Doha was thwarted by the Damascus Declaration and the Muslim Brotherhood. They announced plans to form a national council based in Istanbul in Ghalioun’s absence. Meanwhile, a group of youth in Ankara announced that they were forming a national council, and asked Ghalioun to lead (to which he agreed). Soon after, the now official SNC was formed in Istanbul and began to treat Ghalioun as its president.

The SNC invited all those who agreed with its position to join it so that it might be recognized as representative of the uprising and the Syrian people. The opposition found itself split between the Coordination Committee and the National Council, but the intense media attention given to the SNC succeeded in portraying it as the uprising’s legitimate representative. It was not long until the SNC gained the upper hand and won the support of most opposition groups and activists.

Two key issues sum up the core conflict between the two coalitions. First, they differ in their positions toward the regime, that is, whether the opposition should hold dialogue with it or topple it altogether. The second difference is their stances on foreign military intervention, where it appears that the SNC favors such a course, and the Coordination Committee rejects it completely.

It seems that the Coordination Committee considers the solution to be in convincing the government of the necessity of change and dialogue with the opposition in order to bring about “a safe and peaceful transition from a state of despotism to democracy.” They think the current crisis can be resolved through dialogue, and, therefore, it is the government’s job to provide a climate that allows for that by calling off the military and security forces, permitting peaceful demonstrations, and releasing detainees.

The program of the Coordination Committee seems modest to many involved in the uprising, falling short of the kind of change they are demanding. And even though the Coordination Committee may have been formed well before the SNC, their low ceiling of demands do not have wide appeal among the protesters in the streets. On the contrary, it appears that that the Coordination Committee’s outlook is out of touch with the prevailing sentiment of the uprising, which seems intent on toppling the regime. It is useless to continue debating whether the regime can be overthrown or not. Even if it seems impossible to bring the regime down, the parties cannot stand on the sidelines. They must join the uprising.

The Coordination Committee’s equivocation on the way forward has meant that it has failed to gain the confidence of the activists. The protesters had experienced rapid success during the initial phases of the uprising but failed to form committees to speak for them as a result of severe repression by the state. Thus, the opposition outside of Syria, which has a much greater margin of freedom, has succeeded in forming an alliance that appears to be the “sole and legitimate” representative of the uprising.

The formation of the National Council has coincided with a growing conviction among the opposition that the time has come for some form of international pressure. Leading factions in the SNC, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Americanized liberal groups, are openly calling for either foreign protection or military intervention. Although Ghalioun has tried to dodge the issue, statements by the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, and the SNC’s foreign relations representative, Radwan Ziadeh, along with many others, have indicated that they lean toward increasing international pressure on the regime, even entailing military intervention.

Although the SNC has been quickly acknowledged by the opposition as a legitimate representative of the uprising, the coming period will determine how long this will remain true. The Syrian people are looking for new strategies that will breath new life into the uprising. Can the SNC provide a way forward without talking about foreign intervention? Can it assume the role of a central leadership that the uprising so desperately needs? Will it be able to convince those who have remained on the sidelines to join the movement? The rebels await answers.

At any rate, while it’s true that the political opposition in Syria is divided into two factions, both seem to operate on a similar underlying principle. Neither side is convinced that the Syrian people alone and through their own efforts can bring about revolutionary change and topple the regime.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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