More Divisions Among the Syrian Opposition

5 MINS READFeb 27, 2012 | 23:19 GMT
Murhaf Jouejati (L) and Afra Jalabi, both of the Syrian National Council, speak to journalists following a press conference.
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Murhaf Jouejati (L) and Afra Jalabi, both of the Syrian National Council, speak to journalists following a press conference at which they presented a paper outlining a framework for a peaceful transition once the Assad regime falls in Syria on August 28, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

The formation of the new Syrian Patriotic Group, announced Feb. 26, represents the continuing discontent and fractionalization among the Syrian opposition. This will make it increasingly difficult for the opposition to receive the international support necessary to overthrow the al Assad regime.

A new Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Patriotic Group, announced its formation Feb. 26. This new group is made up of many former members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), some reportedly from an Islamist background and others from a secularist background. 

Its formation represents the ongoing disagreement and fracturing within the Syrian opposition as numerous factions jockey to become the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The international community has made it clear that the opposition must fully unite before it can receive the support it needs to overthrow the al Assad regime. However, as the recent creation of the SPG shows, the Syrian opposition will likely face continued fracturing, making it increasingly difficult to receive crucial international support.

The most recent attempts to generate support for the Syrian opposition in the international community took place during the Friends of Syria conference, which began Feb. 24 in Tunis. Representatives of more than 70 nations attended the conference to find ways to stop the violence and coordinate humanitarian efforts. The SNC also attended and called upon the Friends of Syria to deliver humanitarian aid and recognize the SNC as the sole representative of the Syrian people and the political arm of the loosely organized Free Syrian Army militia.

Despite disagreements, including Saudi Arabia's withdrawal from the conference because it believed efforts to aid the opposition did not go far enough, the conference resulted in a declaration to end the violence and impose tougher sanctions, as well as the recognition of the SNC as a legitimate representative of the opposition. However, the SNC was not named the sole representative of the Syrian opposition, showing the SNC's lack of credibility from activists, both inside and outside Syria, as well as from Western countries that claim the SNC does not wholly encapsulate the Syrian opposition.

It is clear that even the SNC itself is not united, with members of the group expressing varying opinions for options such as foreign military intervention and arming the opposition. Additionally, SNC members have questioned the legitimacy of SNC President Burhan Ghalioun. Reports emerged in early January that Ghalioun signed a joint roadmap for the opposition with the leader of the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee — a group that, unlike the SNC, rejects any foreign intervention. Following these reports, SNC members and other opposition activists harshly criticized Ghalioun, resulting in his denial of any agreement. Although Ghalioun was re-elected as SNC president Feb. 16, his position is only secure until April 15, according to the SNC's internal rules. Meanwhile, the SNC leadership continues to face skepticism from other key opposition players, especially members of the National Coordination Committee, who believe the SNC is not connected to protesters inside Syria or who think the SNC does not fully represent the opposition minorities such as Christians, Alawites and Druze.

Even the SNC itself is not united, with members of the group expressing varying opinions for options such as foreign military intervention and arming the opposition.

In addition to the SNC leadership's instability, various factions within the SNC have been struggling for power. Stratfor has received indications that opposition members are privately complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest faction in the SNC, exerts too much influence over the SNC's public relations. This tension could have contributed to the formation of the Syrian Patriotic Group, which, according to a Reuters report, is composed of "post-Islamists," who are viewed as more liberal than Muslim Brotherhood members. The Syrian Patriotic Group claims to have 20 previous members of the SNC, and of those 20, some are considered secular while others are categorized as Islamist.

The leader of the Syrian Patriotic Group is a long-time opposition activist and former member of the SNC's executive committee, Haithem al-Maleh. Upon the creation of the SNC, al-Maleh criticized the group, accusing the SNC of sidelining prominent activists and claiming that the SNC never consulted him. However, by January he was not only a member of the SNC, but also a member of its executive committee. Tension between al-Maleh and the SNC was again publicized Feb. 24 when, according to The New York Times, al-Maleh stormed out of a recent SNC meeting in Doha, Qatar, yelling, "They are all stupid and silly, but what can I do?"

It is unclear whether the Syrian Patriotic Group will gain credibility among the opposition and increase its membership, but it is a possibility. A few of the individuals who are reportedly members of the new group include Fawaz al-Tello, who has reported links to the Free Syrian Army, and Kamal al-Labwani and Walid al-Bunni, well-established opposition activists inside Syria capable of rallying the support of other activists.

It is important to remember that no opposition group is impervious to fractures, as we have seen divisions even in the Free Syrian Army with the creation of a "higher military council." Fracturing groups are not the only problem. Brand new opposition groups are also forming, including the National Change Movement, which claims to be a non-Islamist alternative to the SNC, reflecting the view of some that Islamists control the SNC.

The contest to become the sole representative of the Syrian opposition will continue, as will the likely splintering and formation of new opposition groups. Depending on each opposition faction's desired outcome in the Syrian crisis, each faction has different countries in mind for foreign aid and support. The question remains whether the opposition groups can meet those specific benefactor countries' respective requirements to receive aid. As this takes place, the Syrian regime and its allies will benefit from exploiting the many fractures within the opposition movement.

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