Turkey meeting fails to reunite opposition SNC
Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Istanbul-based opposition group, the Syrian National Council, remains fractured despite intense Turkish efforts to reunite splintered factions during unity talks on Tuesday, with Kurdish delegates storming out of the meeting.
Invited by Turkey and Arab League chair Qatar to form a common front in their year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad, in which the UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed, the opposition came to the meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday riven by internal disputes.
While an accord was reached on Tuesday, the absence of influential figure Haitham al-Maleh and Kurdish delegates overshadowed the talks.
In an opening address to the meeting, Turkish foreign ministry official Halit Cevik said there was no alternative to Assad's regime going, and he extended support to the SNC as a platform for the different strands of the opposition.
Shortly afterwards, however, al-Maleh, a venerable opposition figure who was jailed by both Assad and his father, walked out after SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun made a pitch for greater unity.
"I want to see the council act democratically. Until now, they are acting like the (ruling) Baath Party," Maleh, who withdrew from the SNC last month, told Reuters.
Representatives of Syria's Kurds followed suit, saying the SNC had failed to explicitly address Kurdish hopes of having an autonomous federal region within a post-Assad Syria.
Faced with a meeting teetering on the brink of failure, the Turkish hosts, according to delegates, exerted pressure on SNC leaders to accept calls for reform and replace some personnel in key positions.
The opposition also came under pressure from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who told reporters in Washington the opposition should promise to protect the rights of all Syrians in any political transition.
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford also warned armed rebels against human rights abuses, after a Human Rights Watch report last week explicitly accused rebels of crimes against humanity.
A small group of influential leaders, including Maleh, who had withdrawn from the SNC a month ago, agreed to return on condition the council was made more democratic and expanded within three weeks. Without a deal there was a danger the SNC could splinter further.
"A last-minute deal has saved this conference," SNC member Abdelrahman al-Haj said.
"Now the international community no longer has an excuse to withhold support for the revolution, help arm the Free Syrian Army, and establish safe zones to protect the civilian Syrian population."
The deal satisfied all but the Kurds, who stayed away due to the refusal of some SNC members to accept their demand for a reference to Kurdish rights in the group's vision for a post-Assad Syria.
Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader who had split from the SNC last month, said he doubted whether the opposition would hold together, but for now their accord will help Arab and Western governments make Assad stop his brutal repression.
"I have had to make deals here today with people I am morally opposed to dealing with," Labwani told Reuters. "By agreeing here today we will help avoid civil war in Syria."
The SNC had recently come under fire from other opposition groups for fueling civil war in the country by refusing dialogue with the regime, and pushing for the militarization of the uprising and foreign intervention.
SNC president Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, said he would meet to discuss reform of the SNC with all internal factions on Wednesday.
The Istanbul-based organization is a coalition of unlikely allies, from the extremist Muslim Brotherhood to secular liberals, human rights activists, and nationalists.
Many SNC members were dismayed at the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the group's decisions and leadership, which increasingly sidelined secular, liberal, and nationalist voices within the umbrella organization.
The meeting only sought to repair SNC divisions, and did not include decisions on other key opposition groups operating inside Syria, such as the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, or other newly established political parties by local activists and protesters.
Opposition divisions come as Assad's forces consolidate their control of Syria, having retaken several key rebel strongholds in recent weeks, including Homs and Idlib.
Fighting remains constant, but both Assad and the SNC have accepted UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, which was endorsed last week by the UN Security Council.
Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani voiced support for the Annan peace and ceasefire plan, as long as it led to Assad's removal.
"This is for us a position that cannot change because thousands of Syrians have died for it," Kodmani said.
The SNC have regularly refused negotiations with the the regime, but Annan's peace plan – with backing from Russia and the United States – insists on a political solution to the crisis.