Jostling for Influence: Syria's Opposition in Exile Plagued by Infighting

By Viktoria Kleber in Istanbul

The Syrian National Council claims to represent the uprising in Syria. But while rebels in the country continue to die at the hands of Bashar Assad's troops, the different factions in the opposition in exile compete for positions and influence.

Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in northern Syria's Idlib region. Zoom
AFP

Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in northern Syria's Idlib region.

Chandeliers cast a shimmering, golden light over red leather sofas and the flag of the Syrian opposition hung in the lobby, when the Syrian National Council (SNC) met early last week at the Green Park Hotel on Istanbul's waterfront. Members of the Syrian opposition in exile, wearing suits and ties, hurried into the hotel past a tired-looking young man -- a man no one had invited and no one was eager to ask in.

As the conference participants handed over their smartphones at security and chatted about the endless rounds of conferences ("First America, now Istanbul, next week Hamburg, then Sydney, so many appointments, you know?") the uninvited guest asked in a quiet voice to be allowed in.

He had escaped from Maraayan, his village in northern Syria, the man said. He had slipped over the Turkish border illegally, hiding himself in the trash to avoid the regime's soldiers. He explained he had come to Istanbul to buy medications and cameras, but then heard about the conference. He asked if he might be allowed to speak to the delegates. After half an hour of negotiations, an older man finally showed him into the conference room and granted him permission to participate.

Failure to Unify

That small scene from the fringes of the conference serves to illustrate just how far removed the SNC is from the people it claims to represent: the rebels in Syria, who have been demonstrating against the dictatorship, at first peacefully but now increasingly with weapons. As the rebellion has developed within Syria, the Syrian opposition abroad has failed to establish unified representation or agree on mutual demands, splitting instead into further divisions.

Because they wanted more support for the armed resistance in Syria, prominent veteran dissident Haitham al-Maleh, who is in his early 80s, and other important activists recently broke away from the SNC, the largest opposition group. The meeting in Istanbul was called to bring the divided groups back together.

In that sense the conference was successful, at least in that those gathered agreed to back Maleh's call for support for the Free Syrian Army, which is made up in large part of soldiers who have deserted from the Syrian Army. Yet Maleh himself made a demonstrative exit from the reconciliatory meeting after he, as the eldest delegate, was not given the traditional right to speak following the official opening of the conference.

"None of them have any respect," Maleh declared on his way to the door. He was soon followed by eight Kurdish delegates, for whom the equal rights that the SNC wants to grant to all the country's ethnic groups failed to go far enough. On top of that, they were demanding that the new constitution should state that Kurdish holidays will be holidays for all Syrians.

Few Concrete Solutions

The various factions eye one another jealously, and complain about the Muslim Brotherhood's influence and the lack of transparency within the SNC. Burhan Ghalioun, chair of the SNC and a sociology professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, has announced that the future will see a "democratic Syria" -- yet he doesn't seem inclined to embrace democracy yet when it comes to his own position. Appointed for three months in October 2011, Ghalioun is now declining to step down, despite growing criticism.

The Istanbul conference resulted in a declaration that Syria will be "civic, democratic and totally free," once dictator Bashar Assad is toppled. The meeting also determined that a transitional government should oversee elections and that reconciliation, not revenge, should be sought. A cease-fire plan proposed by the United Nations' envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, met with skepticism, with few holding out hope that the plan would be successful.

But when it comes to concrete questions, the SNC's members have little more than words to offer. What should be done with the tens of thousands of torturers, snipers and fighters from Assad's elite units, people who have every reason to fear revenge from their victims? "All of them will go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague," one member said. "Send them into the private sector," suggested another. "We'll find solutions once we reach that point," a third believed.

The members of the opposition in exile and the few older-generation dissidents from Damascus weren't the ones to start this rebellion. They underestimated it for a long time and to this day, they don't understand how great the need for retribution has become.

Furious with the SNC

The backbone of the rebellion is the "local coordination committees," of which over 300 have sprung up over the course of the last year in nearly all of Syria's cities. These committees have created a hidden structure throughout the country, distributing food and developing plans of action that also cover matters such as who is responsible for protecting museums from looters after the regime collapses. The committees' members operate underground.

Abd al-Rahim, 29, the uninvited Syrian in front of the hotel, is one of them. His uncle, cousin and two of his closest friends were killed by Assad's troops, he says. He filmed their deaths, but no one wants to see the images.

"The National Council legitimizes the killing when it acts as our mouthpiece, but doesn't take action," he says quietly. In his village, he adds, people are furious with the SNC. "But what can we do?" he asks. "What do we have left but hope?"

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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From DER SPIEGEL

UN Cease-Fire Plan
At a "Friends of the Syrian People" meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, foreign ministers from over 70 Western and Arab countries agreed to recognize the Syrian National Council as the "legitimate representative" of Syrians. The SNC also announced that rebels fighting Assad's regime would receive salaries, paid from a fund financed by wealthy Gulf states.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized Sunday's meeting, saying it sent the wrong signals. "They want to solve the Syrian problem with the opposition only, but it's impossible to settle the situation like that," he said. "There must be a dialogue of all the parties involved." Lavrov said the opposition would never defeat the Syrian Army, even if it was "armed to the teeth."

Meanwhile, clashes were reported on Wednesday in several parts of Syria, including the rebel stronghold of Homs. The news appeared to contradict the Syrian government's claim to have started to withdraw soldiers from some cities to comply with UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, which requires the regime to observe a cease-fire by the deadline of April 10. President Assad has agreed to the deadline, and a Syrian government official told the Associated Press on Tuesday evening that soldiers had already started withdrawing from some cities to return to their bases.

The US permanent representative to the UN, Susan Rice, expressed concern Tuesday that Assad's regime would fail to implement the cease-fire, saying that the US was "concerned and quite skeptical that the government of Syria will suddenly adhere to its commitments." The regime's actions since it agreed to accept the cease-fire deadline were "not encouraging," she said.

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