Syrian Opposition Council Backed by U.S. Hindered by Divisions

Western plans to pressure Syria’s regime to negotiate with the opposition are complicated by the differing short-term strategies and long-term political goals of the groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad.

While the U.S. has lined up behind the main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, analysts such as Joshua Landis say the group faces high hurdles.

“There are divisions between old and young, urban rich and rural poor, secularists and Islamists, the opposition inside and outside the country,” Landis, director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said in an interview. “It’s not promising.”

The Syrian National Council’s prospects are drawing attention as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from the U.K., France and Germany meet today at the United Nations Security Council. They are lending their clout to an Arab League proposal calling for Assad to hand power to a successor who would form a unity government with opposition groups within two months.

SNC President Burhan Ghalioun said yesterday that his group should play a leading role in a political transition.

“The SNC reflects the entire spectrum of the street and of the opposition,” Ghalioun told reporters through a translator at the UN.

Those challenging the regime are divided in many ways, including along secular and religious lines, according to Andrew Spath, a Middle East scholar writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a policy group in Philadelphia.

Seeking a Formula

Internal disagreements persist even within constituent groups such Islamists, Spath wrote this month on the institute’s website. “Only recently have leading Muslim scholars from various Islamic trends come together in search of a formula to unite in support of the revolution.”

The SNC has to draw disparate groups together even as it is “still trying to overcome all the challenges of what really began as an amateur opposition” in October, said Steven Heydemann, a special adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace, a non-partisan policy group funded by Congress.

The leaders are “academics, professionals, people who were not hardcore, street-fighting opposition types,” Heydemann said in a telephone interview.

In addition, SNC leaders are hampered by weak ties to Syria itself, Landis said.

Syrian Exiles

Ghalioun and the other SNC officials who met with Clinton in Geneva in December “have been out of the country for 20, 30 years,” he said. Ghalioun is a political science professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

“There are myriad divisions that are very difficult for Syrians to overcome, but democracy and toppling the regime are two things that everyone can get behind,” Landis said.“It’s very difficult to get them to agree on anything else.”

The makeup of the SNC has added to the complexity of attempts to forge ties with groups on the ground, including the Syrian Free Army, the armed anti-regime group.

Heydemann said the SNC is concerned that the Syrian Free Army could become an independent military body. As they try to establish civilian controls, Ghalioun and his colleagues are finding that the armed group has only tenuous control over the fighters acting in its name, Heydemann said.

Obstacles to Alliances

The Arab League would like the SNC to ally itself with an internal opposition group, the National Coordinating Committee, to produce a platform for talks with the regime on a unity government. An attempt at an agreement failed due to opposition from the rank-and-file of both groups.

Among their differences, the National Coordinating Committee vehemently rejects foreign involvement, while the SNC has sought it out. The coordinating committee favors negotiating with the regime without preconditions, while the SNC wants to see the end to violence and the release of political prisoners first. The SNC’s Ghalioun yesterday ruled out negotiations until Assad steps down.

Such divisions are not “uncommon in these situations where the people on the ground often resent the outside opposition who are running around to world capitals, while those on the inside are bearing the brunt of the pain,” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in an interview. “That divide needs to be overcome.”

Clinton emphasized the need for unified resistance when she met in December with SNC members in Geneva. She didn’t offer the SNC formal recognition at that meeting.

‘For All Syrians’

The Obama administration has been wary of offering the SNC much direct support to avoid fueling conspiracy theories portraying the opposition as a tool of the West, according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.

The SNC has sought to include members from Syria’s minority groups, a step the Obama administration sees as crucial to peeling support away from the Assad regime. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland praised the SNC yesterday for its efforts to create a “a Syria for all Syrians.”

Members of the SNC who aren’t part of the Sunni Muslim majority are “not dominant figures among their community” inside Syria, weakening their influence, according to Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a Washington policy group. Hokayem spoke at a briefing shortly after returning from meetings with Syrian loyalists and opponents in Lebanon.

Historical Norms

That will not help strengthen opposition unity, Hokayem said. He said the opposition may become even more frayed over time as more people defect from the Assad regime, bringing their own agendas.

The very idea of unifying the opposition may run against cultural and historical norms, Landis said.

“The rebels are upholding the principle of national identity, as opposed to sect and family,” Landis said. “They’re for democracy, against sectarianism.”

The catch is that Syria doesn’t have a history of national unity and it may not be possible to establish something that never existed, he said.

Clinton and the other foreign ministers who are going to the UN to support the Arab League “assume democracy is the natural and healthy way” of governing in Syria,’’ Landis said. “This, of course, is what sets you up for a fall.”

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