Creating a united opposition front was the banner under which Syrian opposition meetings in Qatar were recently held, but after a week of intense wrangling, this goal appeared far from reach.
This outcome was hardly surprising. The Doha meetings were the last ditch in a series of regional and international efforts to unite the fragmented Syrian opposition. The real motive behind the new round of talks round was to set up an entity with broader representation of the various segments of opposition groups, particularly those inside Syria, as well as some minority groups such as Christians and Alawites.
The meetings took place as the Syrian National Council (SNC), the only opposition body in exile, was coming under increasing pressure to restructure itself and broaden its representation of the Syrian opposition
On 4 November, Syrian opposition factions met in Doha to discuss plans to form a unified front. The meeting was described as "crucial," raising expectations that the SNC was to be declared irrelevant and would be replaced by a more representative and unified body in anticipation of a settlement in the offing to end the Syrian crisis.
Another meeting was held on Friday, 9 Noember, called the "consultative meeting," which brought together members of the SNC as well as representatives from different Syrian governorates, revolutionary committees and prominent figures such as writer Sadek Jalal Al-Azm, Burhan Gholyoun and Haytham Al-Malih, and former Prime Minister Riyad Hejab. This meeting was also attended by represneatatives from US, France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf states. But the absence of leading opposition figures like Michael Kilo, Aref Daleela and Hussein Al-Awaydat was sorely felt.
In the past few months, the SNC has been heavily criticised by Syrian activists — particularly those inside Syria — for failing to live up to the aspirations of the Syrian people. It has been plagued with internal disputes, personal feuds and charges of corruption. The latest wave of criticism came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, in recent statements, said the SNC can "no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition" and that it was "too fragmented," too heavily based upon exiles and unwilling or unable to attract support from crucial minority groups inside Syria (meaning Alwaites and Christians).
According to SNC member Abdel-Rahman Al-Haj, the council was forced to restructure itself in light of the increasing number of opposition movements and factions that came into existence during the past year since the SNC was formed. The realities on the ground, said Al-Haj, forced the reshaping effort. Those realities include the birth of new movements, the need for more relief efforts and the fact that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has become the strongest and most organised military body. A review of the SNC composition was, hence, a must.
The SNC comprises 35 revolutionary groups and 24 political parties. Al-Haj dismissed that the restructuring was a result of US criticism. He pointed out that before Clinton made her statements, the SNC formed a committee in June to "institutionalise political action inside the SNC and to include more revolutionary and political forces as well as nascent civil society organisations" and to reinforce democratic values inside the SNC through electing the leadership. “What is wrong with the SNC is not that it is 300 or 600 members; it is not about numbers, rather that the SNC has become completely irrelevant in the balance of power in light of changing realities on the ground,” said one activist.
On Friday the SNC elected its general secretariat with Islamists comprising a third of the 41-member body (including five members of the Muslim Brotherhood). It also elected an executive bureau and a new head, George Sabra.
The meetings also addressed a number of initiatives and ideas to set up a united front that could act as an interim government in areas no longer under regime control. This entity would be named Hayaat Al-Mubadara Al-Watanyia (the National Initiative Body) and would comprise of SNC members (24 members) as well as members of other opposition groups (14 members).
Abdel-Basit Seda, SNC former head, disclosed that the aim of forming such an entity was to prepare the ground for an interim government that will take over when the regime falls. Seda, nonetheless, sounded frustrated with the way the international community has been handling the Syrian crisis. “We will form this entity and we, the Syrian opposition, will reach an agreement. But then what?” he told London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.
Seda pointed out that such an entity would require international political and financial guarantees.”This interim opposition government should be under international protection so it can operate, and it needs financial resources to conduct relief efforts, and lastly international recognition that this entity is the sole representative of the Syrian people.”
According to researcher and activist Hamza Al-Mustafa, the initiative is Qatari in origin and aims to forge an alternative to the SNC. The Qatari initiative has the blessing of the Arab League and aims to reach a consensus over a unified political leadership that could speak in the name of activists inside and outside Syria. But the initiative has been subject to much criticism within the SNC itself, which argued that as it stands as a Qatari project, does not provide a clear-cut roadmap for a transition, and does not go beyond the usual rhetoric of bringing down the regime.
Another initiative making the rounds during the past week was what came to be known as the "Seif-Ford Initiative," being the outcome of meetings between opposition figure Riyad Seif and US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. It aimed to put an end to the SNC in its present form and produce a new entity. The initiative has been rejected by SNC members, who described it as "imposed from above" and "foreign."
The Seif-Ford Initiative, which was said to have both American and Arab blessing, is an ambitious five-point plan to set up a unified opposition front, support peaceful demonstrations, reorganise the FSA, take over administration of so-called "liberated areas," and secure relief efforts. The formation of a new opposition body, say opposition sources, will guarantee that there will not be a political vacuum after the fall of the regime.
Several activists expressed pessimism saying that such meetings were unlikely to produce a united opposition body or even put an end to the deep divisions and mistrust that plagued the Syrian opposition in exile. "This pretty much resembles the fanfare that accompanied the birth of the SNC, but little has been achieved since," a Syrian activist told Ahram Online.
Another argued that none of the opposition factions were able to outline a plan on the way in which "liberated areas" would be administered and returned to normality, and how to secure day-to-day living issues. In many an area, locals were obliged to resort to civil arrangements to tend to their daily affairs, and it is difficult to see how the SNC in its new form can convince them to give this up.
If the past is anything to learn from, it clearly showed the dismal failure of the SNC to address many of the issues crucial to the course of the peaceful demonstrations. Activists cite a number of issues, most recent of which is the uncontrolled mushrooming of jihadi groups that have become a burden on the revolution, giving the conflict a sectarian edge and pushing the country to the abyss of civil war.