Syrian Group Fights Effort to Unify Foes of Government

Neil MacFarquhar – New Times Nov 10, 2012

The Syrian National Council, the largest antigovernment coalition, resisted an initiative on Saturday that would place all opponents of the government under one umbrella — a streamlining sought by foreign backers who fear that the bickering exile movements are being eclipsed by events on the battlegrounds in Syria.

“Nobody should be subsumed under anybody,” said George Sabra, the newly elected president of the council, opening his inaugural news conference here in a combative mood before heading into negotiations over the unification proposal.

“The S.N.C. is older than this initiative or any other initiative, and it has a deep political and regional structure,” said Mr. Sabra, 65, a Christian and a veteran leftist dissident.

But a group of more than 50 activists of various stripes — backed by the United States, Qatar and other foreign supporters of the uprising — have proposed creating a larger body that would include the council. It would effectively end the S.N.C.’s failed efforts of more than a year to be recognized as the government in exile for all Syrians.

Called the Syrian National Initiative, the new group is aimed at incorporating virtually all opposition parties, internal councils and notable figures. Perhaps its two most important are creating both a unified military command and a group of technocrats who could guide aid and other support from outside Syria to those actually fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign governments have sought this unification so that they too can better coordinate their aid efforts, rather than having every country picking its own favorites inside Syria, and allowing the overall effort to remain confused and diffuse.

Some diplomats and other analysts suggested that the reorganization effort had been too hastily prepared, leaving the outcome dependent on endless bartering among the Syrians.

Ultimately, all the talks could well come down to haggling over the number of seats the council would receive on the new body. It would most likely get about 20 out of 60, but its members have suggested that they would not settle for less than 40 percent.

The S.N.C. negotiators’ opening gambit was to offer a series of counterproposals that would basically keep the council as a first among equals while also moving toward greater unity.

The council envisions a kind of “coordinating committee” underneath it that other groups would join to supervise the military, as well as a special fund that all foreign donors would finance to help distribute aid inside Syria.

“Let us not create a new body that will take time to be established — ours is already there,” said Louay Safi, a member of the S.N.C.’s 41-member General Secretariat, an elected body that advises the executive committee.

The main criticism of the S.N.C. has been that it is riven by internal bickering and has failed to attract a wide variety of groups. It lacks a significant presence of Alawites, the minority sect of Mr. Assad that controls Syria, as well as other minorities, tribal and religious elders and business leaders.

Mr. Safi rejected that criticism, saying people like businessmen should join some of the political groups within the council, not be incorporated as separate blocs.

The council has put up various smoke screens in trying to avoid the formation of the new umbrella group. It has proposed that a grand conference of opposition activists should be held inside opposition-held territory in Syria to create an interim government, for example, even though current security fears make that unlikely. Only then, council members said, should the S.N.C. be dissolved.

In promoting the idea, Radwan Zeyada, another council member, said there was no guarantee that a larger group would not be plagued by the same problems that had dogged the S.N.C. Many activists backing unity are disaffected council members.

“If they met inside Syria, they will feel the heat, the urgency to do something quick for the Syrian people,” Mr. Zeyada said. “They won’t be sitting around in a five-star hotel.”

S.N.C. leaders said that foreign powers should focus more on the daily death toll in Syria rather than meddle with the politics of the opposition. But a big reason foreign supporters want a more streamlined opposition, better connected to rebels in Syria, is that they fear the emergence of separate warlords and jihadi fiefs if the opposition staggers on with only limited coordination.

On Saturday, double suicide bombings aimed at government outposts in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a killed at least 20 soldiers, according to an activist group. After the explosions rocked the city, new clashes broke out between government and rebel forces, said the group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the fighting from Britain with the help of contacts in Syria.

The official news agency, SANA, which for months has avoided reporting specific death tolls for soldiers, said the blasts caused numerous casualties.

In recent weeks, a number of suicide attacks have hit military targets or neighborhoods where soldiers live. The uprising started in Dara’a in March 2011 after several children were arrested and tortured for writing antigovernment graffiti on walls in the town.

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Doha, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon