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Bickering within Syrian opposition prompts axing of talks

posted Sep 11, 2012, 5:09 PM by Syrian Transition   [ updated Sep 11, 2012, 5:09 PM ]
12 Sept 2012 (Irish Times) A repeatedly postponed Syrian political opposition conference scheduled for today in Damascus has been cancelled. The gathering, which was to be attended by 21 domestic and external opposition groups, was meant to promote unity but its organisers have been defeated by chronic disunity and rivalry.

From the outset, the idea of holding a conference in Damascus was condemned by the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council, founded and fostered by Turkey and backed by the West. The council, which regards itself as the sole legitimate representative of the opposition, rejects any contact or dialogue with the government, and campaigns for external military intervention. The council declared its intention to boycott the event and invited other opposition groups to merge with it.

Nevertheless, independent external and internal groups – which still reject external intervention – decided to go ahead. The National Co-ordination Board, the largest of the domestic factions, not only announced the convening of the conference but also proclaimed a new initiative to halt violence.

However, the government, which had to give a green light to the gathering in Damascus, insisted on the participation of deputy premier for economic affairs Qadri Jamil and reconciliation minister Ali Haidar.

Jamil, who heads a breakaway faction of the Syrian Communist Party, and Haidar, leader of the Syrian Social National Party, con- sider themselves and their parties to be part of the domestic opposition but are seen as “domesticated opposition” rather than as independents.

The National Co-ordination Board called for postponement until the issue can be resolved, Damascus said.

Already accused of treachery by the Syrian National Council for earlier expressing willingness to talk to the government, the board does not want to risk its standing with the public as the conflict escalates. The council itself is fractured and losing credibility. Founding member Bassma Kodmani recently resigned while Burhan Ghalioun, the council’s former head, continues to wield control, sidelining his successor, Abdel Basset Sieda.

To make matters worse, the gap is widening between the political opposition and armed factions fighting in Syria’s cities and countryside, while rifts and rivalries among these factions themselves are proliferating.

There is tension between the Turkey-based head of the Free Syrian Army, Col Riad al-Assad, and the expatriate National Council which tried to marginalise him by appointing Brig Gen Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Free Syrian Army’s military council. Gen Sheikh admits that the group, founded 14 months ago, is not yet institutionalised although under pressure from France, Turkey and the Gulf countries to establish command-and-control for rebel factions.

Last week, in an effort to unite armed groups, it was announced that the Free Syrian Army would be reformed. It would be renamed the Syrian National Army and placed under the command of Gen Mohamed Hussein al-Haj Ali. He said unification could prevent civil war or conflict between ethnic and sectarian communities. Col Assad promptly dismissed this effort, reportedly undertaken by Turkey.

Although groups on the ground claim to be associated with the Free Syrian Army, most operate independently, particularly those composed of army defectors. Attempts to unite local brigades under the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and Homs have failed.

Fighters belong to a host of disparate “brigades” comprising local youths, some fired by the desire for a new Syria, others armed and paid to fight the regime. There are rivalries among urban and rural brigades and between defectors, who seek to topple the regime, and Sunni Salafi fundamentalists. Some Salafis seek to transform Syria into an “Islamic state” which would, ultimately, be the basis of a new “caliphate”. Among the fundamentalists are foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda affiliates determined to eradicate western interests and influence in the Muslim world.

These rivalries are exacerbated by external backers who fund and arm favoured factions while others do not have enough weapons for their fighters.

Thousands of jihadis are now fighting against the government, some brandishing the banner of the Free Syrian Army, others under the white-on-black flag of al-Qaeda. Their activities – including bombings of civilians and beheadings of captured soldiers – have alienated the public and rebels who do not approve of their methods or share their agenda.