Fragmented for months, Syria’s opposition is showing signs it may be edging
closer to forging a more united front in its eight-month uprising against the
government of President Bashar Assad.
A pact was announced late last week
between the Syrian National Council (SNC), the country’s most prominent exiled
opposition group, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella group claiming
leadership of the growing ranks of Syrian army deserters.
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meeting, the leaders of the two groups – both based in Turkey – announced they
had reached an understanding that would see the defectors scale back their
sabotage operations and coordinate their actions.
Still, questions remain
over the internal cohesion of each organization as well as its inclusiveness –
whether it represents the broad mosaic of Syrian society or narrower sectarian
interests. The Sunni-majority SNC touts its inclusiveness, noting that its
membership includes Christians and Kurds. But in an email to The Jerusalem Post,
a spokesman for the Washington- based Kurdistan National Assembly dismissed
those Kurds in the SNC as “opportunistic.”
“Yes, there are a few
opportunistic individual Kurdish expats being used as stooges, but the Kurdish
street does not support them – period,” he said, adding that the majority of
Syrian Kurds view his own organization and the Syriabased Kurdish National
Council as their legitimate representatives.
Critics have also described
the SNC as Islamist-heavy, but one US-based Syrian dissident who supports the
council said both charges – sectarianism and religious fundamentalism – are
“There are a lot of rumors, and many of these stem from the
regime. The SNC leader is Burhan Ghalioun – he’s a leftist and he’s pretty
powerful,” the dissident told the Post on condition of anonymity. “I think the
SNC will give more room for minorities and secular people. We’re working now to
strengthen the secular bloc inside the SNC.”
On Friday Ghalioun told the
Wall Street Journal a post-Assad Syria would cut or curtail the close ties the
country has nurtured for decades with Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
“Our future is truly tied to the Arab world and the Gulf in particular,” he
said, dismissing Damascus’s bonds with the Islamic Republic as
The dissident said Ghalioun’s sentiments resonate widely in
Syria. “Those remarks by the head of the SNC reflect the voices of people on the
Syrian street. We’ve heard a lot of voices on the street chanting against
Hezbollah, against its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, and against Iran,” he said.
“They’ve said clearly that they don’t view Hezbollah or Iran – at least the
current Iranian regime – as our allies. Our allies are the Iranian reformers,
the ones calling for the toppling of the regime.”
It’s not just the SNC
whose character remains elusive.
Questions abound too over the Free
Syrian Army. The group announced its presence to the world with a YouTube clip
in July. Since then its men have carried out attacks on government forces and
institutions in all corners of Syria, including a daring mid-November strike on
an air force intelligence base on the outskirts of Damascus that killed at least
six soldiers and wounded 20.
The FSA now claims to number 20,000 men.
It’s a far cry from the over 200,000 in Syria’s regular army, but if the figure
is accurate, the FSA could prove powerful enough to undermine Assad’s rule for
many months to come.
FSA leaders acknowledge that many of the defectors
in its ranks are Sunni conscripts.
But an SNC spokeswoman at last week’s
meeting said she had been assured the FSA is “a national army, not a sectarian
army” that would “protect the country from chaos once the regime
The FSA’s main base is in Hatay, a finger of a province jutting
from southern Turkey into Syria’s northwest shoulder.
Most of Hatay’s
inhabitants are Arabic speakers – about half of them from Assad’s Alawite sect –
and Syria has long claimed the coastal area as its own.
That both the
Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army are based in Turkey is itself
significant. In recent years Turkey adroitly cultivated ties with Syrian
opposition groups even while it courted its southern neighbor
The tone began to change this summer, as the tide of
international opinion took a decisive turn against Syria and it became clear
that maintaining neighborly relations was a liability. In June Turkish premier
Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at his former ally, slamming the “savagery” of
the ongoing counterinsurgency.
Amid the tumult, the Assad regime
continues to respond with a clumsy mix of indignation and an insistence on
business as usual. On Sunday its English-language SANA news agency ran stories
on farming subsidies and a large Christmas tree lit up to honor unspecified
“martyrs” in the coastal city of Tartus.
Over the weekend the agency ran
a news analysis decrying Arab League sanctions against Damascus. “The Turkish
political analyst Barakat Tar regretted that the Arab League, which has never
made a decision condemning the Zionist occupation of Palestine, agreed today to
punish a founding member through a set of sanctions, which Turkey based on [sic]
and exploited to exert more pressures on Syria,” wrote the article’s two
writers, identified only by their last names, Raslan and Ibrahim. “Tar said the
people of the region should be united in the face of the Israeli-American scheme
to occupy Syria, Lebanon and Iran,” they wrote.
“Former Egyptian MP Jamal
Asa’ad said what is taking place in Syria constitutes a part of the
Zionist-American project which aims at fragmenting the region,” the article
said. It quoted Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Kareem, as concluding
that Syria is being punished “because it is the supporter of all liberation
movements in Iraq and Lebanon against the Israeli and US ambitions in the