Rifts split Syria's opposition04/07/2012 - 08:04:22
Syrian opposition groups struggled to form a united leadership at a meeting which exposed vast disagreements that have prevented them from effectively leading the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The conference in Cairo ended last night with an agreement on two documents, both vague. One provides a general outline to guide the opposition through a transitional period, while the other lays out the fundamental principles envisaged for a post-Assad Syria.
The delegates agreed in general terms on support for the Free Syrian Army, the dissolution of the ruling Baath Party and the exclusion of Assad or other senior regime figures from a place in the transition.
But they failed to reach an agreement on forming a unified body to represent the opposition.
Arguments were rife among the 250 participants over key questions, including whether to ask for foreign military intervention to halt the violence and what role religion would play in a post-Assad Syria.
Opposition group members interviewed at the Cairo conference brought into sharp relief their vast disagreements on issues not addressed in the draft charter, suggesting it papered over the divisions that have prevented them from presenting a united front to the international community.
“It’s very dangerous at this point,” said Abdel-Aziz al-Khayyar, who spent 14 years in Syrian prisons and is now part of the Syrian National Co-ordination Body. “If we fail to unify as the opposition it is the greatest gift to the regime.”
Since the March 2011 start of the uprising that activists say has killed about 14,000 people, Syrian exiles have organised scores of organisations to collect aid, distribute information and lobby the international community.
But all along, infighting has hampered their ability to court international support. And most groups are led by exiles who have lived outside Syria for years or decades, giving them little credibility with activists inside the country.
Indeed, many inside Syria resent the exile leadership, saying they have taken the glory without sacrificing to face the regime.
Syria’s uprising began last March with protests calling for political reforms that Assad’s security forces violently quashed.
The dissent grew and many in the opposition have since taken up arms against the regime, transforming the uprising into an armed insurgency. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed.
The vast differences among opposition groups were clearly on display at the Cairo conference, hosted by the Arab League, where participants argued late into the evening over the wording of a document meant to define their movement.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington applauded the conference for bringing together a broad range of opposition elements and she said there was “significant progress” on “a political vision statement and a transition plan”.
But the meeting failed to resolve many large issues facing the opposition after 15 months of deadly violence.
The two largest opposition groups at the meeting distrust each other. Members of the Syrian National Council accused the Syrian National Co-ordination Body, known as the NCB, of being too close to the regime. For its part, the NCB accuses the SNC of being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and Western powers.
Last night it appeared that efforts to bring all groups under a unified leadership might collapse – not least of which because Kurdish activists walked out over how the draft charter spoke of their minority.
At one point, one attendee broke down in tears outside the meeting room.
“Thousands of martyrs and they can’t unite?” said Thaer Al-Hajy, part of a group called the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union. “We are sitting here in hotels and they are down there dying.”
One independent activist said all agreed that Assad must go, but that there are many different views of what follows.
“These are sensitive issues that go back to people’s ideologies,” said Ziad Hassan, 28. “It could take two years, not two days, to get over our differences.”
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed in Syria. A peace plan put forward by United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has collapsed, with the almost 300 UN observers sent to monitor a ceasefire stuck in their hotels because of continued violence.
On Saturday, world powers endorsed a new plan that calls for the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers. But at the insistence of Syrian ally Russia, the plan does not bar Assad from taking part – making it a non-starter for the opposition.
In a rare interview with Turkey’s Cumhuriyet daily newspaper, Assad spoke about the Annan plan for the first time, saying he was “pleased” that the decision about Syria’s future was left to its people.
“The Syrian people will decide on everything,” he said.
Assad also said he regretted that Syrian forces had shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22. Syria says the jet was flying low inside Syrian airspace but Turkey says it was shot down in international airspace after briefly straying over Syria.
“I say 100%, I wish we did not shoot it down,” Assad said. But he stopped short of apologising, saying Syria fired in self-defence.
more stories like this:
- once per day, no spam.