Analysis: Syria opposition labors for united front

Doubts abound over cohesion, inclusiveness of Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army; dissident to ‘Post’: Reports of SNC’s Islamist sympathies are overblown.

Burhan Ghalioun 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER Iraq)
Burhan Ghalioun 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER Iraq)
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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After the 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 overblown.
“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 “abnormal.”
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 falls.”
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 diplomatically.
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 region.”
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