SNC military push polarizes Syria opposition

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Burhan Ghalioun leader of the Syrian National Council opposition speaks to the press in Ankara 13 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Adem Altan)

Published Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Syrian National Council's (SNC) call on Monday for military intervention by Arab and Western governments has widened divisions in an already fragmented Syrian opposition.

George Sabra, a spokesman for the SNC, told a news conference in Istanbul that the Turkish-based opposition group had decided to arm rebels inside Syria and added that some foreign governments were helping to send weapons, without specifying which countries.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly declared their intent to arm rebels in Syria, although other key Arab states such as Egypt and Morocco have warned against the move.

The EU and US also continue to play down the prospect of military intervention, although the US has stepped up "non-lethal" assistance to rebels in the country.

"We demand military intervention by Arab and Western countries to protect civilians," Sabra said, speaking one day before SNC representatives were due to meet UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in Ankara.

"We demand establishment of secured humanitarian corridors and zones to protect the civilians. We demand implementation of a no-fly zone over entire Syria to prevent Assad from continuing massacres."

The SNC move was criticized by other opposition groups, with the Egypt-based Syrian Media Services staging a sit-in in front of the SNC's Cairo offices on Monday, accusing its leadership of corruption and not listening to calls for reform.

The internal opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), was also scathing of the SNC's military agenda, urging the umbrella organization to return to its original stated aims of a peaceful revolution.

"Let's keep trying working together peacefully for the future of Syria because arms will do nothing but cause more killings in the country and will not change the political results," AbdelAziz Al-Khayyer, senior NCB figure, told Al-Akhbar on Tuesday.

"Mostly the regime will benefit from it [military intervention] not the people.”

Arming rebels feasible?

It is uncertain how the SNC intends to funnel weapons and supplies to insurgents, with local armed rebels increasingly divided and as the Syrian army presses against remaining pockets of rebellion.

Sabra said the SNC had established a coordinating bureau to channel arms to the Free Syrian Army, with the help of foreign governments, but he declined to say where the bureau was located or which governments were involved.

"The Syrian National Council has taken concrete and practical decisions to arm Free Syrian Army that is established to protect the civilians. And we invite all colonels and other military officials in the Syrian army to take sides with the people of Syria," Sabra said.

But doubts remain over the SNC's coordination with the Free Syrian Army, after the two groups recently sparred over the military role of the SNC.

The leader of the Free Syrian Army Colonel Riyadh Asaad accused the SNC of trying to take control of the opposition in an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic television two weeks ago.

“The SNC needs to review its positions and stop acting like it's the only player in Syria,” he said.

“We don't want the SNC to intervene in our military work,” Asaad said. “The Free Syrian Army are the people on the ground, not the SNC.”

The SNC hit back at the colonel, with spokesperson Ausama Monajed then telling Al-Akhbar that most armed fighters do not fall under the command of Colonel Asaad.

“Colonel Assad does not control the Free Syrian Army or the armed resistance inside, maximum five percent,” Monajed said, adding that "others (armed factions) are working independently, that's why we created the military bureau."

The NCB's Al-Khayyer agreed that most of the armed rebels in Syria are not part of any organized military unit.

"The major ratio of the armed people are really civilians who are being armed to defend themselves. They do not obey the orders of any military leadership, they react when they face aggression from the regime's forces," he said.

"They keep their arms in their houses. Those who obey orders [from rebel leaders] are limited numbers and nobody knows for sure how much they are really active in the field," he added.

Kofi Annan, who held talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus over the weekend, said he expected a response from Damascus on Tuesday on proposals he made during his visit to Syria at the weekend, and again demanded a halt to violence.

"I am expecting to hear from Syrian authorities today since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider," Annan told reporters in Ankara after a meeting with the Syrian opposition on Tuesday.

"Once I receive their answer we will know how to react."

The former UN chief arrived in Turkey on Monday, meeting Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss the crisis, having first gone to Doha from Syria, as Qatar chairs the Arab League.

"Let me say that the killings and the violence must cease," Annan told reporters after meeting six representatives from the SNC headed by their leader Burhan Ghalioun.

"The Syrian people have gone a lot and they deserve better," Annan said.

"I have made it clear at the beginning of my mission that my main preoccupation is welfare of Syrian people and the Syrian nation. We should put the interest of people at the center of everything we do."

He added: "With goodwill and determination I'm hopeful we will make progress."

The envoy said he had a "useful meeting" with SNC members who "promised their full cooperation which will be necessary if we are going to succeed."

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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