Syria Opposition Factions Balk at U.S.-Backed Unity Plan, But Keep Talking

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Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

Syrian regime opponent Riad Seif (R) shakes hands with Syrian National Council chief Abdel Basset Sayda during the meeting of the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council in Doha Nov. 6, 2012

The clamor by Britain, France, Turkey and Arab powers for the U.S. to help provide more direct and even military support to Syria‘s rebellion only becomes a dilemma for the Obama Administration if the fractious Syrian opposition is united under a single leadership acceptable to the West. Without a credible address through which greater support could be channeled, it remains a non-starter—and some 20 months into a civil war that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, Syria’s opposition remains politically fragmented, while the armed insurgency is waged by scores of disparate and localized fighting groups.

Thus the effort, still underway Friday in Qatar’s capital, Doha, to forge a new leadership body uniting the forces most active on the ground in the political and military struggle behind a moderate political consensus. Predictably, perhaps, that goal is proving elusive after a week’s worth of talks.

A plan backed by the U.S. would see the exile-based Syrian National Council—which Western powers had once hoped to recognize as a government-in-exile in order to provide stepped-up assistance, but has proven entirely ineffective and unable to provide leadership on the ground—folded into and superseded by a larger Syrian National Initiative. In this broader decision-making body, the SNC would be given less than half of the seats, the rest going to representatives of activists on the ground, other dissident groups, and minority communities. Once it proved itself, the body would win recognition as a government-in-exile, through which foreign powers would provide aid. Funneling weapons for the rebels through such an authority would give it more effective control of the plethora of armed groups currently fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a number of which are hostile to U.S. interests in the region. Syrian opposition supporters also hope a representative leadership would get a more positive response to calls for foreign military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and similar initiatives to protect rebel gains as NATO had achieved in Libya.

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Western backers also see the plan as a hedge against more extreme Islamist influences growing in the armed struggle, and as a way of ensuring that the opposition makes a credible effort to reverse what has effectively become a sectarian civil war by including sufficient representation from Syria’s Christians, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawite sect.

Those Western powers, however, have a dismal record when it comes to picking winners in Arab politics, and the plan has ignited considerable push-back among various Syrian opposition factions, first and foremost the existing umbrella group whose status would be diminished. Indeed, the SNC rebuked the plan this week by failing to re-elect to its executive committee Riad Seif, the Western-approved putative leader of the new leadership structure. In internal SNC elections, the grip of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood on the SNC was reportedly strengthened. Some SNC activists accused Seif of advancing a U.S. agenda to marginalize the Islamists, claiming he had told them his initiative would proceed with or without them

Yet, there were also reports that the Brotherhood supports the new initiative, and the movement’s key regional supporters, Qatar and Turkey, appear to be on board. The hitch, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that SNC leaders are demanding guarantees that the new body would receive greater international support, including formal recognition as a government-in-exile at December’s “Friends of Syria Meeting” in Morocco. The newspaper reports that Western officials want to see the new body formed and operating effectively on the ground before extending such recognition.

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There appears to be an undertow of optimism in some of the discussion that forging a united leadership would somehow persuade the Obama Administration, now securely re-elected, to escalate its involvement in Syria beyond the limited non-lethal aid it has provided opposition groups until now—despite U.S. officials repeatedly impressing on Syrian opposition figures that Washington has no plans to supply them with weapons or to use U.S. military assets to create a no-fly zone. Opposition activists report this was again made clear to them this week by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who was in Doha for the opposition meeting. Ford urged them to pursue “a political solution and not a military solution.”

The protracted rebellion has not only seen a growing influence of Islamist militants in the ranks of those fighting on the front-lines, but also a growing alienation of many anti-Assad civilians from the armed men fighting in their name—the ill-conceived rebel assault on Aleppo bears this out, where even the anti-Assad local population is angry at the rebels for bringing a war they can’t win to the heart of Syria’s second city, courting massive destruction for little benefit. The anti-Assad elites in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria on which the U.S. would like to see an opposition based don’t see themselves reflected in an armed rebellion dominated by poorer and more provincial men from the countryside and smaller towns—and it is to the armed rebels that the center of gravity passed as a protest movement morphed into, or was supplanted by an armed insurgency. And even if opposition unity could be attained in Doha, it’s far from clear that the resultant authority would be accepted by those bearing arms on the ground.

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France and Britain have opened up communications with Syria rebel military leaders, and are pressing for an easing of the E.U. arms embargo on Syria to allow military aid to the rebels, hoping to draw the U.S. along. But Ford’s warnings are based on a clear sense that the militarized nature of the rebellion appears unlikely to produce a positive outcome.

Still, to the extent that they believe the new unity plan is the key to stronger direct Western support for the rebellion, and even as a precursor to intervention (as long as key rebel backers and enablers such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia demand that they stay at the table), those gathered in Doha may find it hard to walk away from negotiations. But even if a deal is reached, giving it any traction the front-lines of the civil war would be a far more daunting challenge.

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